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Shane Frederick | Mankato Free Press | February 13, 2018

End of WCHA slate is real home stretch for Minn. State

College Hockey | Top Five Plays

If you like college hockey, the next two weekends in Mankato should be a lot fun.

Actually, the next three weeks.

Maybe the next four, or even five.

Fifth-ranked Minnesota State, fresh off a Western Collegiate Hockey Association sweep at Alabama Huntsville, is back home riding a seven-game winning streak and will close out the regular season against two feisty league rivals, Ferris State and Bemidji State.

There's a lot at stake, too, as the Mavericks are trying to win the MacNaughton Cup as the WCHA's regular-season champion for the third time in four years, as well as secure home ice throughout the league playoffs.

They can't win the title this weekend, as they are one point behind first-place Northern Michigan. However, with the Wildcats idle, the Mavericks can move into first place and have a chance to clinch the cup against the Beavers, their in-state rival and the conference's defending champion, the following week.

If Northern Michigan and third-place Bowling Green win out their remaining regular-season games, Minnesota State would need to secure 8 of 12 points available in its final four games.

Besides winning their last seven games, the Mavericks have won 10 of their last 11 games and, since that Thanksgiving loss at Minnesota Duluth, 14 of 16.

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But don't think that means they'll cruise through Ferris State and Bemidji State. The WCHA's playoff format means there are races throughout the standings, whether they're for a championship, for home ice in the playoffs or simply for the opportunity to play in March.

The Bulldogs, who quickly became one of the Mavericks' antagonists when the new WCHA first formed -- remember Fight Night in Mankato in 2014? -- will be playing for their playoff lives, as they sit with a slim, one-point lead for the conference's eighth, and final, postseason spot.

And the Beavers, depending on this weekend's outcomes, could be playing for an upper-division finish and home ice in the first round of the tournament. Plus, Bemidji State played spoiler in the Verizon Center before, winning there in 2016 to prevent MSU from claiming the MacNaughton Cup outright and knocking the Mavericks down to the No. 2 seed.

The WCHA still played its "Final Five" that season, but now keeps everything at home sites.

That format seemed to work more than well last year, as there was an entertaining, three-game semifinal series at Houghton between Minnesota State and Michigan Tech. The Huskies came away as the winner and then knocked off Bowling Green the following week in a double-overtime Broadmoor Trophy championship game.

Minnesota State would love to have those games on home ice.

Once the playoffs begin, don't expect the Mavericks to get much love around the WCHA, outside of its own fan base.

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Ranked fifth in the Pairwise, which determines the 16-team national-tournament field, Minnesota State should be safe for a spot in the NCAA tournament. So the rest of the league will be rooting for someone else so it can get more than one team in the tourney. At No. 16 and 18, respectively, Northern Michigan and Bowling Green currently are bubble teams at best.

So this should be an entertaining month-plus of college hockey. And, if all goes right for the Mavericks, you'll be able to enjoy it right here in Mankato.

This article is written by Shane Frederick from The Free Press, Mankato, Minn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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