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Minnesota Visits St. Cloud in a Critical WCHA Series

Preview: The intrastate rivals face off in their last ever conference series with much at stake.

University of Minnesota athletics

Minnesota comes into this weekend as the country's top ranked team in the national polls, but this weekend, they'll face off against the St. Cloud team that sits atop the WCHA standings. The Huskies lead the WCHA with 29 points, three points clear of second place Nebraska-Omaha. Minnesota sits tied for third with 24 points, but have two games in hand against the rest of the WCHA.Simply put, four points for Minnesota puts the Gophers in the driver's seat for MacNaughton Cup, while four points for St. Cloud all but eliminates Minnesota and makes St. Cloud the heavy favorite for the title.

The Huskies, who are looking for their first ever WCHA regular season title, come into the series playing their best hockey of the season. They're coming off a stretch of games that includes a home sweep of Denver, three points on the road at North Dakota, and a dominating sweep of Bemidji State in Bemidji. Leading the way offensively is playmaker Drew Leblanc, who has racked up 30 assists this year. The Huskies also have pretty incredible balance, with four different players that have scored at least 12 goals(Nic Dowd, Kalle Kossila, Jonny Brodzinski, and Ben Hanowski). The other key for the Huskies' offense, which is second best in the WCHA at 3.40 goals per game, has been their play of their freshmen. St. Cloud has 3 of the top 10, and 5 of the top 20 scoring freshmen in the WCHA this year.

St. Cloud has always been known for their electric offense under head coach Bob Motzko, but what has made them so successful this year is that they've also had the WCHA's best defense, allowing just two goals per game in league play. Starting goalie Ryan Faragher is third in the WCHA in save percentage, and when he's playing well, the Huskies are a very difficult team to beat.

Meanwhile, Minnesota should be fresh coming off a bye week. The Gophers have five straight WCHA series left, and need to begin gaining ground immediately if they are going to win the MacNaughton Cup they were unanimously expected to win in the preseason. All eyes this weekend will be on junior defenseman Nate Schmidt, the nation's leading scoring defenseman, who will be playing in his hometown of St. Cloud. Schmidt has also been a key piece of a stingy Minnesota defense that has really cut down the number of scoring chances they allow in the second half of the season.

The special teams battle figures to be key this weekend. St. Cloud and Minnesota are 1-2 respectively in penalty kill percentage in the WCHA, while Minnesota has the WCHA's best power play, followed by St. Cloud in second. Neither team is penalized very often. St. Cloud has the fewest penalty kill opportunities in the league with 52, followed by Minnesota at 57. The next lowest is Colorado College, who has been shorthanded 73 times this year.

Friday's game faces off at 7:37pm, and Saturday's game starts at 7:07pm. Both games can be seen regionally on Fox Sports North Plus, or nationally on Fox College Sports Atlantic.