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Chris Peters | NCAA.com | March 9, 2018

Conference playoff matchups bring the heat in March

Does it get better than this? Nope. With every conference fully into their tournaments now, we get a month of highly-competitive, dramatic hockey games with conference supremacy, national tournament autobids, and seasons on the line for each team. The urgency created by that dynamic makes for quality entertainment and passionately played hockey.

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The WCHA and Big Ten are into their semifinals already, while everyone else has their quarterfinals this weekend. It’s always tough picking matchups as the ones to watch for each conference this time of year because if it were possible, I’d want to watch all of them. Every single game matters.

So here’s a look at some of the series and games that stand out to me.

All times ET, all games on Sunday are if necessary

Air Force at Army West Point
Friday-Sunday: 7:05 p.m. ET

In Atlantic Hockey, everyone knows that the way into the national tournament is to win the conference. Mercyhurst finished the year on top and has the best Pairwise among teams in conference. They’re in the driver’s seat. However, the most compelling matchup of the weekend probably comes at West Point. The service academy games are always intriguing and these two teams had a tight series earlier in the year in Colorado Springs. They finished side-by-side in the conference standings, tying with Holy Cross for third with 30 points. Coming into the game, Air Force has a bit more of an impressive record, based on their 5-2-1 non-conference mark, which included a big 6-3 win over local rival Colorado College. We’ll see if home ice makes some difference for Army, which is only 5-6-4 at home so far this season.

Princeton at Union
Friday-Sunday: 7 p.m. ET

The ECAC might be another one of the leagues where things get topsy turvy in the tournament. Cornell is the favorite and what a season the Big Red have had, but there are some intriguing teams that could potentially make a run and sneak into the tournament via autobid. This series between Princeton and Union will feature two of the highest scoring teams in the conference, which is why it’s my pick as the big one to watch.

Union finished second in the conference this year by going on a late-season tear, winning 10 of their last 12 games. That earned them a weekend off. Princeton, meanwhile, is coming in hot, too. They outscored Brown 15-3 in their ECAC first-round matchup and have won nine of their last 12 games. Juniors Max Veronneau and Ryan Kuffner have been tearing teams apart offensively. Veronneau has 50 points in 31 games, while Kuffner has 28 goals and 48 points in 31. Slowing those two down is not easy, but that’s what Union will have to do to get out of the series. If either of these teams want to play in the national tournament, winning the conference is essentially the only way.

Bowling Green at Northern Michigan
Friday-Sunday: 7:07 p.m. ET

One of the most compelling matchups across the country, Bowling Green and Northern Michigan have put themselves in the mix for a national tournament berth. The easiest way for either to get in at this point is to win the WCHA tournament, but there’s still hope for an at-large bid. Whoever wins this series is going to be better positioned for that. Bowling Green is currently 16th in the Pairwise, while Northern Michigan is tied with Boston College for 17th.

These two squads played twice in a weekend series in mid-January in Marquette. The Wildcats swept the Falcons to start a run that saw them win 12 of their last 15 games. Northern is actually 15-3-0 at home this season, so they are well positioned to strengthen their tournament resume and get themselves a step closer to a national tournament bid in head coach Grant Potulny’s first year at the helm. Don’t count out the Falcons, though. They won 10 of their last 12 after that humbling sweep at Northern two months ago.

Nebraska Omaha at North Dakota
Friday: 7:07 p.m., Saturday: 7:37 p.m., Sunday: 7:07 p.m. ET

Another series between two teams on the tournament bubble, both teams are in the danger zone for getting knocked out by auto-bids. Omaha is currently 14th in the Pairwise, while North Dakota is 15th. Both could help themselves a great deal by sweeping this series, which neither did over the course of their four meetings this season. The Fighting Hawks and Mavericks split each of their two series this season. North Dakota shut out Omaha twice, while holding an aggregate 13-10 advantage in goals over the four meetings. UND has been slightly better at home this year than they have been on the road, going 8-5-6 at the Ralph. Meanwhile, Omaha has been a rough 5-11-0 on the road.

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UConn at Boston University
Friday: 7:30 p.m., Saturday: 7 p.m., Sunday: 5 p.m. ET

There are quite a few interesting series in Hockey East this weekend. With only two teams in national tournament position right now, it feels like it could be a wide-open race for the Hockey East playoff title. One of the more intriguing matchups is between two teams that got pretty hot towards the end of the season. UConn won seven of their last eight with wins over Providence, Boston College and a 5-4 overtime victory over postseason foe BU. The Huskies are still slightly below .500 at 15-17-2, but that run opened some eyes.

Over on the other side, BU had been battling inconsistency all year essentially. Since Jan. 12, however, the Terriers went 9-2-3 to close out the season. Both of these teams basically need to win the conference tournament to get into the national tourney. The way these two have played down the stretch at least puts each in the discussion to contend for the Hockey East crown.

Colorado College at Denver
Friday-Saturday: 9:07 p.m., Sunday: 8:07 p.m. ET 

Denver’s national tournament fate is essentially sealed. They’ve pretty much locked up an at-large bid, but if you think that takes any fire out of this matchup, guess again. It’s a bit of a treat to get the Gold Pan rivalry in the postseason and this will be the second straight year the local rivals will meet in the NCHC tournament. DU made quick work of CC last year in a quarterfinal sweep. This year, however, these two teams have played each other really tough.

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Denver won the Gold Pan this year thanks largely to their 5-1 win on Feb. 16, which prevented CC from winning the series outright, which is necessary to take home the Pan. In the official national records, they tied the first two games, but each team won a game in the NCHC’s 3-on-3 extra overtime. Meanwhile, CC took the last game of the series 1-0. The defending national champs are going to have their hands full in this one.

Penn State at Notre Dame
Saturday, 5:30 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

The first year of the Big Ten’s new playoff format puts the semis on campus sites for single-elimination games. After sweeping Minnesota out of the playoffs, Penn State has to go into Notre Dame’s house where the Irish went 8-3-0 in their first season of Big Ten play. After dominating the first half of the season, Notre Dame limped into the playoffs with a 1-4-0 record in their last five games. They haven’t played since Feb. 24, which saw them lose to Michigan State 4-3. Does the rest help the Irish against a surging Nittany Lions squad?

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Penn State is riding high after winning four straight over the Gophers, all in State College. They’ve won five straight after going winless in their previous eight. So it looks like the Nittany Lions are getting hot at the right time. Their last few weeks of hockey also put them back into the national tournament picture and all but secured their spot. That said, they’ve got a Big Ten postseason title to defend and you’d have to expect their motivation level to be high as they head into South Bend.

Michigan at Ohio State
Saturday: 7:30 p.m. (Big Ten Network)

I fully expect this to be a really fun semifinal game between two natural rivals, especially since both teams probably feel like they have something to prove. Ohio State has had a simply tremendous season with a 23-8-5 record. They swept the season series against the Wolverines, winning all four games by a combined score of 17-6. Michigan, meanwhile, has been playing their best hockey since that road sweep in Columbus. Michigan is 8-1-1 in their last 10 games, including last week’s sweep of Wisconsin in a wild quarterfinal series.

Both teams are essentially locked into national tournament spots already, so this one is all about the rivalry and the opportunity to play for a Big Ten title. It should be a fantastic game.