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Chris Peters | | March 3, 2017

What to watch for as conference tournaments begin

  Denver faces Omaha on Friday and Saturday, looking for wins to secure the NCHC's regular-season title.

It’s tournament time in four of the six conferences with opening-round series beginning this weekend. Meanwhile, it will still feel like playoff hockey in the NCHC and Big Ten as they wind down their regular seasons, as those titles have not yet been decided yet.

Many of the conference leaders will be enjoying a comfortable weekend off, having earned their first-round byes to open conference tournament play. For the rest of the conference playoff teams, many are putting their season on the line this weekend.

RANKINGS: | USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine | RPI

The best-of-three format most conferences employ gives the teams just enough of a margin for error to shake off a bad game, but the pressure of a potential season-ending lost is very much on for most of these squads.

All the while, several teams have Pairwise implications to worry about, including those that have yet to complete their regular seasons. Over in the NCHC, the conference regular-season champion could be decided as early as Friday, depending on what Denver does. In the Big Ten, two weekends remain for each team to try to move up the standings ahead of their conference tournament, which gets completed over one weekend.

An auto-bid to the NCAA tournament is really what is at stake for these teams. A conference tournament championship gets you in, and as we’ve seen over the years, craziness can happen. It all starts this weekend, so let’s have a look at some of the more intriguing series to track.

Series to Watch

Minnesota Duluth at Western Michigan, 7:05 p.m. ET Friday and Saturday
Denver at Omaha, 8:37 p.m. ET Friday (CBSSN); 8:07 p.m. ET Saturday

The only two teams who can win the NCHC’s Penrose Cup as regular-season champion are Denver and Minnesota Duluth. Either would be a first-time regular-season champ in the NCHC, which is now in its fourth season. The Pioneers need just three points to secure the title. A win Friday does it for them.

UMD is going to need some help from Omaha if it has any hope of grabbing the Penrose as they trail DU by four points heading into the final weekend. That said, the Bulldogs are going to have their hands full already with their weekend date with Western Michigan. There is no scenario in which the third-place Broncos could leapfrog UMD for second place, but they should still be motivated.

While Minnesota Duluth, Denver and Western Michigan are all pretty firmly in the NCAA tournament, Omaha is just on the outside right now. Ranked 17th in the Pairwise currently, the Mavericks have a chance to boost their tournament hopes, albeit slightly. The fortunately-timed schedule certainly turned up the drama at this stage of the season.

Wisconsin at Penn State, 7 p.m. Friday; 8 p.m. Saturday (ASN)

As of right now, Wisconsin and Penn State look like national tournament teams. They certainly have their status in the Pairwise, with the Badgers ranked 13th heading into the season and the Nittany Lions sitting in ninth. They’re also the two teams with the best chance to catch Minnesota in the Big Ten standings. It would still take a lot for that to happen.

Additionally, Saturday night will also be special for the Penn State seniors as they play their last home game. This has arguably been the most important season in Penn State’s young life as a college program as the team is on the verge of its first NCAA tournament berth. Pegula Ice Arena has quickly become one of the nation’s best hockey venues and this important group of program builders should get the sendoff they deserve.

Playoff Series to Watch

Niagara at RIT (Atlantic Hockey): RIT finished in the middle of the pack this year in the Atlantic, but the Tigers have won each of the last two conference tournaments. This seems to be their time of year. Having closed out the regular season with a 7-1 win on the road may help them shake off what has been an otherwise forgettable second half. Can they find that postseason magic again? Considering Niagara has lost 20 of their last 21 games, the Tigers may not need much magic in the first round at least.

UConn at Northeastern (Hockey East): Northeastern is in a position where they absolutely have to win their tournament to have a shot at the national tournament. This, despite the fact that they have three players over 50 points. That includes Zach Aston-Reese, who is tied for the national lead with 59 points and leads the country with 29 goals. Having swept UConn just two weeks ago, Northeastern should have some confidence, but they’ll also need to show a little desperation, too.

While Northeastern will be looking to advance, this is also a chance for Aston-Reese to pad his Hobey Baker resume. The senior from Staten Island, N.Y. has shown remarkable growth over his four-year career in the NCAA ranks. He has 13 points in his last seven games.

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