The NCHC playoffs kick off tonight. After a very competitive conference season, this weekend's playoffs should be just as intense. In fact, there's an argument to be made that two of the road teams this weekend might actually be the favorites to advance to the Frozen Faceoff next weekend at the Target Center.
Here is a quick look at the four playoff match-ups this weekend in the NCHC
#8 Colorado College at #1 North Dakota
This is a repeat match-up from last year's playoffs when Colorado College stretched North Dakota to three games with a surprise win on Saturday that momentarily sent the league's accountants into a panic. It's unlikely we see the same result this year, however. For all the talk of how tough the NCHC was, North Dakota breezed through the second half of their schedule with relative ease. The Tigers have played better in the second half of the season, but only won two league games in 24 tries this season. They're not winning two this weekend. One of the games this weekend might be very tightly contested, but North Dakota should advance.
#7 Western Michigan at #2 Miami
The final standings worked out well for the league in this one. Travel is much easier for the two old CCHA rivals. It also means only one of these teams can make it to the Target Center, which helps the league because neither brought any fans to the Target Center last season.
Miami swept Western Michigan in Oxford in the first half of the season, with Western Michigan tying them in Kalamazoo and then losing a game played on a lake at Soldier Field. Western Michigan was a much tougher in the second half of the season though. I expect two very close games with Miami holding the edge in play, but staying close enough that Western Michigan could potentially steal a couple of games.
#6 St. Cloud State at #3 Nebraska-Omaha
If any series is ripe for an upset, it is this one. The two teams split the season series between each other with Omaha winning two games at home in the first half of the season and St. Cloud State sweeping a series in St. Cloud in February. Being on home ice should be an advantage for the Mavericks, but even in their previous meeting in Omaha, St. Cloud State outplayed Omaha for large stretches and the Mavericks were a bit lucky to come away with two wins. And after a strong start to the season, the Mavericks have basically been a .500 team in the second half of the year, with a reputation for the wheels coming off late in the season.
St. Cloud State, meanwhile, needs to win this weekend series and then at least one of two games next weekend at the Target Center to make the NCAA tournament. This is about as good an opportunity to do so that they could hope for.
#5 Minnesota Duluth at #4 Denver
Minnesota Duluth is technically the underdog in this series as the road team. But the Bulldogs sit at third overall in the Pairwise Rankings(thanks to only a 24-game conference schedule, and the PWR's new emphasis on quality road wins).
The two teams split both meetings this season and this series looks like another toss-up. This series has three games written all over it. I'd give the slight edge to Denver, who I think has played a bit better as of late. The one X-factor to watch is the health of Denver's star defenseman Joey LaLeggia who "tweaked something in his lower body" last Friday night according to coach Jim Montgomery and sat out Saturday's game as a precaution. The Pioneers will need his strong play on both ends this weekend.