The NCHC will host their first ever conference tournament this weekend at the Target Center in Minneapolis. There's no doubt it should be an entertaining tournament with some very good teams involved, but it would be a lie to say that this is what anyone envisioned the first NCHC tournament looking like.
From a financial standpoint, the league took a huge blow last weekend when St. Cloud State, Nebraska-Omaha, and Minnesota-Duluth all missed out on making the tournament. North Dakota survived the first round of the playoffs, and they will surely bring many fans for their game, but attendance could be extremely ugly for the first semifinal between Denver and Western Michigan, and should North Dakota lose their semifinal on Friday, the first ever NCHC playoff title could be played in an arena that is more than half-empty.
But more important than the league's finances, the conference's outlook for the NCAA tournament is far more dismal than anyone could have projected. St. Cloud, who is not playing this weekend, is the only team that has guaranteed an NCAA berth(I'm rounding up from 99.99% on their tourney odds). North Dakota comes into the weekend as the only NCHC team on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. The other three teams will need to win the conference tournament in order to play in the NCAAs.
North Dakota's path to the NCAA tournament is about as clear as it gets. If North Dakota wins both games this weekend, they are in the tournament for obvious reasons. If North Dakota loses both games this weekend--reminder that the NCHC is the only conference that still plays a third-place game--then they are definitely out of the NCAA tournament. If they win one game, and lose the other, in either combination, then they'll spend an anxious Saturday evening hoping for other results to fall their way. Right now, North Dakota makes the NCAA tournament in about 41% of all scenarios. That number raises to around 50-ish% if you don't envision Penn State or Michigan State making a run through the Big Ten tournament. If North Dakota loses a game this weekend, their fate basically comes down to the flip of a coin.
The other three teams, disappointing as their regular seasons might have been, also find themselves just two wins away from a bid to the NCAA tournament, and some measure of redemption.
Miami slogged to an embarrassing last place finish in league play, but looked much better towards the end of the season when Blake Coleman returned to the line-up from injury, and after a pair of wins at St. Cloud last weekend, could finally be playing to their potential at just the right moment.
Denver comes into the tournament with a very conspicuous 18 wins on the season. Two more wins and they reach the 20-win plateau, a number former coach George Gwozdecky reached in 12 consecutive seasons before he was fired by the university last summer.
Western Michigan was one of the last schools invited into the NCHC, and only after doing a fair amount of begging. Winning the league's first ever playoff title would make a strong statement that they belong. It would also be a nice send-off for seniors Chase Balisy and Shane Berschbach, who played a key role in helping turn around Western Michigan's program. The Broncos bottomed out at eight wins in the season prior to their arrival. Since then, the Broncos have had 19 wins in each of the past years, with Balisy and Berschbach finishing in the top four in team scoring all four years.
It may be a bit of a surprise to see these four teams here, and to see these four teams be in such poor position for the NCAA tournament, but it would certainly be no surprise to see any of the four hoisting the playoff trophy at the end of the weekend, and there should be three fantastic battles for that right.