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Crazy finish to WCHA season



For totally selfish reasons, the Colorado College and University of Denver hockey programs will be cheering like crazy Friday night for different teams playing in Madison, Wis.

Those opposite emotions perfectly explain why this final weekend of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's regular season will be far crazier, and more dramatic, than any other closing weekend in memory.

The purpose here today, at least for those who care about college hockey (and if you don't, there's always the adjoining Sports Shot), is to make sense of all the potential outcomes.

There's the race for the WCHA's regular-season title, which comes down to either North Dakota or Denver. They'll finish as the league's top two, regardless. North Dakota (16-6-4, 36 points) has the lead now over DU (16-8-3, 35 points), plus the advantage of playing twice this week while the Pioneers have just their Saturday game, hosting CC at Magness Arena.

Beneath them, the possibilities quickly become more complicated, with no fewer than six teams in the mix, and huge playoff ramifications for every one of them. CC (12-9-6, 30 points) and Wisconsin (13-10-3, 29 points) can finish anywhere from third through seventh. St. Cloud State, Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth (all now tied for fifth with 27 points) actually could end up anywhere from third through eighth. Yet another team, Minnesota State-Mankato, has a slim mathematical chance of jumping from eighth to tie for fifth.

That matters to everyone, because the top five WCHA finishers earn home-ice advantage for the first playoff round, with best-of-three series (No. 10 at No. 1; 9 at 2; 8 at 3; 7 at 4; 6 at 5) next week determining the field for the WCHA Final Five tournament March 19-21 in St. Paul, Minn.

So what's the big deal about this Friday night in Madison, with North Dakota facing Wisconsin? Denver wants the Badgers to win, while CC is pulling just as hard for the Nodaks.

Because DU trails North Dakota by one point, the Fighting Sioux can wrap up the regular-season title Friday night. But if Wisconsin wins, that means Denver still is alive going into Saturday night.

CC, meanwhile, is trying desperately to finish as high as third, with that one-point edge at the moment over Wisconsin. But the Tigers, playing only once this weekend while everyone underneath them has two games, could slide all the way out of that coveted top five with a loss to DU. Then again, even if the Tigers lose at Denver, they still could wind up third if their chasers don't come through.

That's one reason why CC wants North Dakota to take care of Wisconsin, and to sweep the Badgers if possible. Here's another: If the Nodaks clinch the regular-season title Friday, that means Denver will be stuck in second with nothing to play for Saturday (other than simply hating CC, of course), while the Tigers will have plenty of motivation.

Hopefully all of that isn't too confusing. But it's also worth explaining why third place means so much. At the Final Five tournament, the five first-round winners are seeded based on their regular-season finish. Then the fourth and fifth seeds have a play-in game on that Thursday (March 19), with the winner advancing to play the No. 1 seed in one semifinal, with Nos. 2 and 3 facing each other in the other semifinal.

So the fourth or fifth seeds must win on three straight nights to capture the Final Five title and automatic NCAA berth, while the top three seeds only have to win twice. That's not as big a deal for teams like North Dakota and Denver, who will make the NCAA bracket regardless. But for teams like Colorado College, now on the bubble, winning the Final Five (or at least making the title game) might be the only chance to make the national tournament.

Here's the WCHA schedule for Friday and Saturday: North Dakota at Wisconsin, Minnesota at Michigan Tech, Minnesota State at St. Cloud State, Alaska-Anchorage at Minnesota-Duluth. And for Saturday only: Colorado College at Denver, 7:07 p.m., FOX Sports Rocky Mountain.

It'll be worth watching Saturday night, if only to see how this whole mess plays out.

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