Friday morning reading

FARGO — I certainly never thought I’d see the day where UND was playing hockey in Fargo in a venue that seats about a fifth of the demand of tickets, but that’s what will occur tonight in Scheels Arena.

Believe it or not, it’s NCAA tournament time. And in less than 48 hours from now, UND’s season will be over or else it will be booking a flight to Boston.

This team has cruised through the season without any points of real hardship. It never had to dig down deep and try to right the ship (unless you count the first game of the season).

The most consistent team that I’ve ever covered had very, very few ebbs and flows this season. It just cruised through, dropping on occasional game, but nothing ever to get concerned about.

Until now.

This team has finally hit a bump in the road for the first time since October 10. That night, UND lost to Bemidji State 5-1. The bad feelings lasted less than 24 hours as UND won the next night and proceeded to go on an eight-game unbeaten streak.

UND has hit its patch of adversity, going 0-2 last weekend at the Frozen Faceoff and losing three of its last five games.

How was this week of practice?

How do the players and coaches believe the team has responded to those defeats? Read that story here [plus photos of practice and video].

The only other time UND lost back-to-back games at the conference tournament before heading into the NCAAs under coach Dave Hakstol was 2009. That team ended up losing in the first round of the NCAAs to New Hampshire.

I actually thought that team came out of their funk and played fairly well in that game against UNH — and was a tenth of a second away from winning — but they still lost.

That’s the stat working against UND tonight.

The last five years that the old WCHA had a third-place game, the loser of that contest went on to lose in the first round of the NCAAs. And four of the five were higher seeds in the NCAAs.

It’s tough to win in the NCAAs when you don’t have momentum. But it’s not impossible. Two years ago, Yale got shutout in back-to-back games at the ECAC conference tournament, then ran off four in a row in the NCAAs.

UND will be playing an NCAA-experienced Quinnipiac team tonight that sure looks like it will have Sam Anas in the lineup.

UND will have Gage Aumsus in the lineup, which is different than last year. Ausmus had to watch the NCAA tournament a year ago and made a vow that it would never happen again.

If you need to know some facts about the teams in this West Regional, here are my capsules.

Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold says their new arena in 2007 vaulted the team’s recruiting, and they’ll bring several high-profile players to Scheels Arena tonight, including former DU and BC recruits.

For Thursday’s paper, I wrote a column about Michigan Tech and MSU-Mankato, two teams who were afterthoughts in the old WCHA and could become fixtures on the scene after realignment. A lot of Husky and Mav fans were upset about the creation of the NCHC when it happened, but that should probably end this weekend.

The Herald also put together an eight-page special section with some photos of the arena, a quick preview on each team in the West Regional and some ways to follow the game if you’re not going. If you want to check that out, pick up a copy on a newsstand somewhere.

Okay, okay, so I have to make my picks. It’s Year 2 of Schlossman vs. the Quarter. I came out victorious in Year 1 thanks to my pick of Union to win it all last year. We’ll give it another go this season.

MIDWEST REGIONAL

MSU-Mankato vs. RIT
Me: Mankato.
Quarter: RIT.
Comment: One of two games I feel comfortable about picking in the first round. If this was Robert Morris or Mercyhurst, I think an upset would be more of a possibility. But it’s not.

Omaha vs. Harvard
Me: Harvard.
Quarter: Harvard.
Comment: I really want to pick Omaha here, but I can’t until they win a playoff game. Just as I can’t pick UND over BC until they win one, I can’t do it for Omaha. 2-13 in the last 15 playoff games is too much to ignore.

Regional title game
Me: Mankato over Harvard
Quarter: RIT over Harvard
Comment: This Mavs teams is deep, veteran and explosive.

EAST REGIONAL

Miami vs. Providence
Me: Providence
Quarter: Providence
Comment: If Miami had its full complement of players, I’d pick them to make the national championship game. But losing Blake Coleman and possibly Riley Barber is too much to ignore, especially against a Friars team that hasn’t allowed more than two goals in a game since January.

Denver vs. Boston College
Me: Boston College
Quarter: Boston College
Comment: Real tough game to pick. I thought Denver looked significantly better this weekend than it did a month ago. But Boston College’s defensive corps is hard to ignore.

Regional title game
Me: Providence over Boston College
Quarter: Providence over Boston College
Comment: Jon Gillies playing at home. I’m saying Providence is this year’s No. 4 seed to reach the Frozen Four.

NORTHEAST REGIONAL

Boston University vs. Yale
Me: Boston University
Quarter: Yale
Comment: OK, the quarter hasn’t picked a higher seed yet (heads for high seed, tails for lower seed). But this is the second first-round game I feel comfortable in picking. BU is too explosive.

Minnesota Duluth vs. Minnesota
Me: Duluth
Quarter: Duluth
Comment: Today, we’ll find out more about Minnesota. Did it turn the corner in the second half? Or did it rack up wins because it was playing against Big Ten teams? The Bulldogs are 3-1 against the Gophers this season. Two great offensive teams should put on a good show.

Regional title game
Me: BU over Duluth
Quarter: Duluth over Yale
Comment: I wouldn’t be surprised if BU, Duluth or Minnesota come out of this region, but I’ll give the Terriers the edge as they’ve been the most consistent of the three this season.

WEST REGIONAL

UND vs. Quinnipiac
Me: UND
Quarter: UND
Comment: I went back-and-forth on this one a few times. There’s the stat that says teams that lose third-place games lose in the first round. But UND also is playing in its home state, and as Hakstol said, this team doesn’t get too high when good things happen and doesn’t get too low when bad things happen.

Michigan Tech vs. St. Cloud State
Me: The Huskies. Okay, SCSU.
Quarter: SCSU.
Comment: You could see that this nucleus of players was going to be good for Tech a few years ago as the WCHA came to an end. I like that team quite a bit. But SCSU is hot right now and is getting Kossila and Prochno back.

Regional title game
Me: SCSU over UND
Quarter: SCSU over UND
Comment: UND looked extremely impressive in sweeping SCSU in The Ralph a month ago. Since then, I’ve had some questions creep in, and that was highlighted last weekend. I wouldn’t be shocked to see UND win the regional, nor would I be shocked to see them lose to Quinnipiac. So, I’m going to compromise and say they win one and lose to a team that’s had their number the last couple years.

Semifinals
Me: Providence over Mankato; BU over SCSU
Quarter: Providence over RIT; SCSU over Duluth

Finals
Me: BU over Providence
Quarter: SCSU over Providence
Comment: It’s not just Jack Eichel. BU has a lot of firepower, a solid D-corps and a goalie that can dominate a game (UND knows that well). And it’s a hometown Frozen Four.

Friday morning reading

MINNEAPOLIS — It’s the crazy time of year in college hockey with seasons on the line, championships up for grabs, early signings and awards being handed out all at once.

For UND, there’s no man busier than goalie Zane McIntyre.

It’s not just because he’s bidding to become the first North Dakota netminder in nearly 50 years to play in every game of the season. In the last 48 hours, he has been named a finalist for the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goalie, a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the country’s best overall player and he has won the NCHC goalie of the year award.

Yes, it has become clear to everyone in Grand Forks this season that McIntyre is elite at stopping the puck.

But there’s a story behind the scenes that many probably don’t know: Zane was raised in a Thief River Falls trailer by a single mother who worked as many as three jobs to support the family.

His mother and grandmother have been deeply influential in his life and hopefully this story better explains why he decided to change his last name.

After today’s NCHC awards banquet, I also caught up with injured UND forward Mark MacMillan, who was named the league’s top defensive forward. Seems very appropriate for a guy whose career ended because he was making a great defensive play.

MacMillan tells us all about what happened on the play and what exactly happened to him in this piece here.

Speaking of the awards ceremony, here’s a quick rundown of the award winners with a lot of photos and some video of the event.

Today’s game is an afternoon semifinal at the conference tournament against St. Cloud State. I actually remember the last afternoon semifinal in the conference tournament against St. Cloud State.

It was 2007, and an 18-year-old kid named Jonathan Toews [who is still held in high regard at North Dakota, says ESPN] sniped a goal top shelf from in tight.

Today, the Huskies won’t be trying to stop a player like Toews. No, it will be trying to slow down UND’s forth line, which has outproduced every other line by far in the last three weeks. Read about that here.

Another player that the Huskies will try to slow down is Nick Mattson, the team’s leading scorer since December. Interestingly enough, Mattson says that “mindful meditation” played a big role in turning his season around. Read more about that here.

On the St. Cloud State side of things, Roseau’s Nick Oliver (who committed almost a decade ago) has been part of lifting the Huskies to new heights. He’s determined to get a win this weekend and keep the season going.

UND won’t be the only team missing a key player. The Huskies will be without defenseman Andrew Prochno, and could be without center Kalle Kossila. Mick Hatten of the St. Cloud Times details that in this story.

Kossila has dominated UND centers on draws this season, so both teams could be without their top faceoff men today. Prochno has been steady since his freshman season.

There was a lot made out of UND and St. Cloud State getting the early start time. Commish Josh Fenton explains it here.

UND and St. Cloud State have met four times this season, but a few things could be different without key players today.

Keys for UND:

1. Stay out of the penalty box. SCSU has the NCHC’s top power play and one of the top power-play units in the nation. They move the puck extremely well with the extra man and have hurt UND in those circumstances.

2. Win faceoffs. This goes hand-in-hand with special teams. They’ve been absolutely dominated by the Huskies at times in draws this season.

3. Get top players going. Michael Parks and Drake Caggiula have 3 points in the last 6 games. If they are on a line with Nick Schmaltz, they have to produce.

Keys for SCSU:

1. Goaltending. Yes, that’s always a key, but Charlie Lindgren needs to be better than he was in Grand Forks.

2. Match up better with the fourth line. The Huskies have been dominated by UND’s fourth line in 3 of the 4 matchups. They can’t let the Johnny Simonson unit do that today.

3. Play with the lead. UND has been miserable to play against this season once it gets leads. The Huskies can change the game if they get some early goals.

That’s about it for now. Check back on the Herald site often for more videos, photos and updates this weekend.

Also, check out College Hockey News’ wonderful Pairwise predictor to try to figure out where everyone will end up this weekend.

And check out Jim Dahl’s Twitter account for the best Pairwise info anywhere.

Catch you all soon.

Friday morning reading

It’s hard to believe, but this is the last weekend of hockey in Ralph Engelstad Arena this season.

The playoffs get underway tonight and UND is attempting to win a first-round playoff series for the 13th consecutive year.

Because of the competitiveness of the NCHC, I think this year’s playoffs are going to be particularly interesting for fans to follow (that might be the case for the foreseeable future with this league).

For today’s paper, I wrote a column about the small difference between teams in college hockey this season and how difficult it has been to fill out the weekly national poll ballot. Read that here.

Also in that story: The first-round travel problems that have come with the realignment in the West in college hockey. Three of four teams in the WCHA had to take a bus to the first-round series, traveling anywhere between 8 and 13 hours. The NCHC had it much easier this season.

Still, I think home-ice advantage is important, especially for UND.

UND leads the nation with 14 home wins. Colorado College only has 1 road win this season and it came at UConn.

The Tigers have 3 road wins in their last 37 road games (spanning the last two seasons), but one of them came in Ralph Engelstad Arena in the playoffs a year ago.

That’s probably part of the reason why Colorado College has confidence heading into this playoff series.

This will be the third time that UND and Colorado College have played this season. They played once at the very start of the season, once in the middle of the season and now once at the end. The Tigers made significant progress between the first two meetings, now UND gets to see the finished product of this year’s Tiger team.

As for the other series, Denver has been significantly better at home (13-5) than on the road (6-7-1) this season. Miami and Omaha have been better at home, too.

UND, on a remarkable streak of hosting in the first round, has a knack of starting series well. Sioux Sports compiled a breakdown of the current run of first-round hosting series and trips to the Twin cities. UND has won eight straight Game 1s in the first round.

For today’s paper, I decided to interview all three goalies and get the scouting report on UND’s players. Who has the hardest shot? Who has the trickiest release to pick up? Find out here.

We posted this week’s Ice Time page in .pdf form on the Herald site. Check it out here.

The Colorado Springs Gazette answered five questions about the playoffs, including two about UND. Read that here.

On to this picks….

Duluth at Denver: The Pioneers have been very good in Magness this season, but I like this Bulldog team a lot. I think Denver has some questions it needs to answer in net. If one of the goaltenders, playing in the college postseason for the first time, can step up, I think Denver advances. But as it is, I think the Bulldogs put too much pressure on the Pioneers’ goalies. Duluth in three.

St. Cloud State at Omaha: Omaha has lost five straight playoff series and is 2-11 in its last 13 playoff games. Adding to that, Omaha has won just 2 of 9 games since the injury to Dominic Zombo and St. Cloud State is playing for its season (Omaha is not), and I think the Huskies take this on the road. St. Cloud State in three.

Western Michigan at Miami: The RedHawks looked really good last weekend in Oxford. Western will try to play a real physical game, but the RedHawks are handling that game much better than a year ago. Miami in two.

Colorado College at UND: This is definitely an improved Tiger team that is playing much better defensively and in goal than earlier this season. But again, the Tigers have 1 road win all season. Now, they have to win two on the same weekend in Ralph Engelstad Arena against a team that leads the nation in home wins. It’s hard to see it happening. UND in two.

**********

Other notable reads:

Hopefully, I’ll have more today, but word is that Grand Forks Red River grad and defenseman Jon Lizotte (Minot – NAHL) has committed to St. Cloud State. He’ll join his former Red River teammate Jacob Benson there.

TSN: Brock Boeser rocketing up Craig Button’s draft rankings

Bucky’s Fifth Quarter: Mike Eaves writes apology letter to fans

Star Tribune: Connor Reilly out for the year

Star Tribune: More teams exploring adding college hockey?

Duluth News Tribune: Bulldogs have better record on road than home

Hockey on Campus: I chat with Bernie Corbett on his XM show

That’s it for now, I’ll be back this afternoon if there are any big updates to give.

Saturday morning reading

The last time that Grand Forks and Ralph Engelstad Arena hosted the WCHA Final Faceoff, UND wasn’t a member of the league yet.

Today, it returns.

This time, UND gets to play in it.

The field is probably exactly what the fans in the area wanted to see. It starts with three-time defending Final Faceoff champ Minnesota taking on Jim Scanlan and the Bemidji State Beavers at 2:07 p.m..

Then, it’s Wisconsin against UND at 5:07 p.m.

Today’s game appears to be a must-win for UND, which currently sits at No. 8 in the Pairwise. With the CHA champion taking up one of the eight spots in the national tournament with an autobid, the lowest an at-large team can be in the Pairwise and still make the tournament is No. 7.

This is somewhat similar to the situation UND was in two years ago. It knew it needed to beat Wisconsin in the semifinals to have a shot at the NCAA tournament, and UND did win that game.

This is the third year in a row that UND has matched up with the Badgers in the WCHA semifinals. UND won the last two.

For today’s paper, I wrote about senior defenseman Johanna Fallman. She doesn’t spend a lot of time in the limelight, doesn’t score a lot of goals, but has been a pretty consistent presence on the blue line for UND this season.

Fallman also is one of the smartest players on the team, posting a 4.0, while studying in her second language. She had a rough start at UND, breaking her ankle and being declared ineligible for a year by the NCAA. Fallman thought about leaving and going home, but stuck it out and says it has been the best decision of her life.

Winnipeg Free Press writer Tim Campbell, who covers the Jets for the paper, was in town last weekend doing pieces on Tucker Poolman and Meghan Dufault. He watched Dufault make the play to set up Amy Menke for the triple OT game-winner a week ago. Read his piece on Dufault here.

I also wrote a story on Scanlan, the former East Grand Forks coach and administrator who has led the Beavers to their first 20-win season in school history. He had a funny story about how BSU scored the game-tying goal in a decisive Game 3 against Minnesota Duluth last weekend. Read that here.

If you get a hard copy of the paper, you’ll see matchup boxes of all four teams, a note on their top player and a short piece on what to expect from each team in the tournament.

All four teams are coming in hot.

UND is 15-2-1 since early December.

Minnesota is 31-2-4 on the season.

Wisconsin is 20-4-4 since getting swept by Minnesota in October.

Bemidji State is 6-3 since getting swept by UND last month.

So, it should be a great event. Since I’m in Oxford, Ohio, we’ll have Darian Brevik covering the tournament for us. Check out all the coverage on the Herald site. That’s it for now.

Friday morning reading

OXFORD, Ohio — UND took the ice at Steve Cady Arena on Thursday afternoon for its weekly practice.

There was one notable absence.

Mark MacMillan was the only player on the team not to make the trip to Oxford this weekend after the senior had surgery Wednesday.

“It’s weird not seeing him skate on the green line with Parksy,” senior Brendan O’Donnell said.

With Andrew Panzarella practicing as a defenseman and Johnny Simonson likely out with an illness (even though he’s on the trip), it will likely be Trevor Olson or Coltyn Sanderson to get the call tonight. Neither have played since Christmas.

The depth is about to be tested, but it has worked out well recently for UND.

Last weekend, St. Cloud State held UND’s top four scorers — Drake Caggiula, Michael Parks, MacMillan and Jordan Schmaltz — all without a point. And the Huskies still got swept.

This weekend may be UND’s biggest road challenge of the season. Miami officials are expecting sold out crowds both nights. They will be fired up, knowing that the RedHawks have a chance to go from worst to first and win the Penrose Cup at home.

UND already has clinched a share of the title, but the players don’t want to be sharing it. They’ve lost league championships on the last day of the regular season each of the last two years and are determined to keep this one for themselves.

What’s the key? Getting pucks behind Miami’s D and making it hard for them to break out of the zone. If Miami plays in the offensive zone a lot, the RedHawks are going to score. They are too skilled up front. But if you force them to play a lot in the D-zone, they can make mistakes.

As you’ll read in Friday’s paper, the player to watch for North Dakota may not be Austin Czarnik (who, by the way, has the oddest scoring line I’ve ever seen by a forward: 2 goals, 30 assists) or Riley Barber. It’s been Sean Kuraly who has killed UND the last two years.

This week’s “Get to Know” feature is with defenseman Paul LaDue, who remembers his first varsity goal with Grand Forks Central. It’s a funny story. Read that here.

Also, if you didn’t see it on Thursday, I wrote a piece on how Mario Lamoureux shaped this year’s senior class and why its expectations won’t change without MacMillan. Read that one here.

There’s also an interesting story in the St. Cloud Times today with some quotes from Jonny Brodzinski, whose slap shot hurt the leg of MacMillan. Brodzinski, who first expressed his disappointment that MacMillan was injured, also said: “I figured if I hit them once, they might get out of the way, but they kept getting in front of them. They’re a gutty team.” Read more of his quotes here.

The NCHC league office broke down the possible finishes for the teams after this weekend. Miami could possibly win the league championship or be on the road in the first round. Crazy stuff.

Possible place finishes for each team entering this weekend

· North Dakota – 1,2 (needs just 1 point at Miami to clinch 1 seed/outright title, already has share of regular season title)

· Miami – 1,2,3,4,5 (needs 2 points to secure home for sure, needs sweep of UND to share regular season title and get 1 seed)

· Omaha – 2,3,4,5 (needs 4 points to secure home ice for sure)

· Denver – 2,3,4,5 (needs 5 points to secure home ice for sure)

· Minnesota Duluth – 2,3,4,5,6 (needs just 1 point to secure 5 seed, needs at least one team ahead of them to lose/tie to have a chance to get home ice)

· St. Cloud State – 5,6 (SCSU has to sweep DU and UMD has to get swept by WMU for SCSU to move up to 5 seed)

· Western Michigan – locked in to 7

· Colorado College – locked in to 8

On to my predictions for the weekend…..

Minnesota Duluth at Western Michigan: The Broncos took five of six points from Duluth in AmsOil earlier this season, but which Broncos team is going to show up tonight? Will it be the one that pushed UND to the limit on back-to-back nights two weeks ago? Or will it be the one that got blown out 5-0 by CC last Saturday? Duluth 3-2, 4-1.

Denver at St. Cloud State: The Pioneers have been really good at home (13-5) and really average on the road (5-6-2). They should be able to grab one game in the National Hockey Center, but probably not two. Denver 3-2, St. Cloud State 4-2.

Colorado College at Omaha: The Tigers have won 1 of 16 road games this season and 3 of the last 34 dating back to last season. They are playing an Omaha team that will be desperate to snap a skid in which it has one win in the last seven games. Omaha 4-1, 5-2.

UND at Miami: UND gets its first test without MacMillan. I don’t think it will be smooth sailing, but I say that UND does enough to win the Penrose outright. Miami 3-2, UND 2-1.

Friday morning reading

It’s already the last home regular-season series of the season. Each week, we’ll see how many goals this team can achieve. All are still in front of them.

The first step is trying to secure home ice for the 13th year in a row. I wrote a little about that in today’s UND notebook.

If they do that, they will have their attention on achieving something new each weekend for as long as the season lasts: the Penrose Cup, trying to reach the conference tournament for a 13th straight season, trying to win the postseason championship for the fourth time in six years, trying to reach the Frozen Four for the seventh time in 11 years and, ultimately, trying to win No. 8.

This weekend’s series will provide a unique challenge.

If there’s one team that’s had UND’s number during the last few years, it’s St. Cloud State. If there’s one team that hasn’t struggled at The Ralph, it’s the Huskies.

UND is 0-3-1 in its last four home games against the Huskies and 1-4-1 in the last six. The last time UND has beaten St. Cloud State in The Ralph was Oct. 29, 2011.

It’s tough to point your finger at one reason for UND’s recent struggles against them. The games have been all different varieties. But in two of the Huskies’ last four games in REA, they really held down UND’s shot totals and offensive scoring chances.

UND will try to keep the offense rolling in a weekend that’s bound to be an emotional one.

It’s Senior Weekend. The seniors will be highlighted after Saturday night’s game.

I wrote about one of them for Thursday’s paper. As one player told me, “You’ve never met someone like him, and you’re never going to meet someone like him again.” It’s Connor Gaarder. Read that story here.

My Q&A this week is with another member of the senior class, captain Stephane Pattyn. He talks about his career, including his memory of the comeback win over Minnesota in the Final Five.

The St. Cloud Times has a preview of the series here, highlighting the Huskies late-season charge that could get them home ice.

I think the big key to watch in this series is special teams. St. Cloud State has the No. 3-ranked power play in the nation. It looked good in St. Cloud earlier this season. If UND gives the Huskies too many opportunities, it could spell doom.

The other big key is Jonny Brodzinski. He has had some big games against UND. In the first series between the teams this season, Brodzinski was allowed to shoot the puck 16 times. He scored twice and the Huskies won. The second night, he had one shot attempt through two periods and UND built a lead. He has one of the best shots in the league and UND needs to be aware of him.

On to the picks…

Miami at Denver: The Pioneers are without Zac Larraza tonight and the RedHawks are heating up. Even though Denver has been significantly better at home, I’m going to say that Miami goes out there and gets back into the NCHC race with a sweep. Miami 4-3, 4-2.

Omaha at Duluth: Omaha is 1-4 in the last five games and is trying to avoid a late-season tailspin, which has been common in recent years (though not so much last season). The Bulldogs are at home and fighting for home ice. Duluth 5-4, Omaha 3-2.

Western Michigan at Colorado College: I really liked the way the Broncos played last weekend, but will they be able to use their usual physicality as effectively on the big ice sheet? I’m not sure. I think the Tigers grab a tie out of this series. Western Michigan 3-0, 2-2 tie.

St. Cloud State at UND: The Huskies have had success recently against UND, but this UND squad has been very difficult to beat. St. Cloud State may be able to do it once, but not twice. St. Cloud State 3-1, UND 4-2.

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Things have been going well on both the men’s and the women’s side lately. The two teams have combined for an 18-2-2 record since mid-January.

The playoffs start at 2 p.m. today for the women in The Ralph. They are hosting Ohio State in a best-of-three series.

The spotlight is on goalie Shelby Amsley-Benzie, who comes in with a shutout streak of 267:49 and four consecutive shutouts. She blanked the Buckeyes in back-to-back games during the last series between the teams.

Amsley-Benzie was recognized on a national level Thursday, becoming UND’s third-ever player to be a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award.

Does she have a shot to win? Well, it hasn’t been easy for goalies, but she does have the numbers to back it up. She also has that 4.0 in chemical engineering. And, as coach Brian Idalski said, has anyone in the country sort of put a team on their back like Amsley-Benzie?

UND needs to win this playoff series to keep its season alive. And if it does win, UND will host the Final Faceoff next weekend in The Ralph (UND may need to win that, too, to get in the NCAAs).

That’s about it for now, I’ll leave you with a good episode of Through These Doors that focuses on the senior class.

Friday morning reading

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — That’s really nice that it has warmed up to 13 degrees in Grand Forks. Because it’s currently -14 here in the Zoo.

Sorry Bronco fans, we brought the weather with us.

UND flew to Kalamazoo on Thursday morning and held a practice at Lawson Ice Arena during the afternoon. Sources say that Dave Hakstol actually scored a shootout goal this week on Zane McIntyre.

And former Kalamazoo Wing Brad Berry won the shootout in the town he spent six years as a player and where he started his coaching career. Seems fitting.

It’s not the same arena where the K-Wings play, though. That venue is currently being occupied by the U.S. Curling Nationals. They are down to the semifinals now. Former UND student Joe Polo is among the semifinalists.

It’s a busy week in town and it has been a busy week for the NCHC. The league office made a pair of suspensions this week — one on UND’s last opponent and one on UND’s next opponent.

NCHC commish Josh Fenton took some time out to answer some questions facing the league, including Arizona State, the officiating program, full cost of attendance stipends and first-round travel. Read his answers here.

NCHC assistant commissioner Joe Novak is expected to be on hand for this weekend’s UND-WMU series in Lawson Ice Arena.

WMU officials say that Friday’s game is a near sellout and that they are selling just standing-room only tickets for Saturday’s game. Western Michigan coach Andy Murray hopes a revved up crowd is an advantage for the Broncos.

Although Western is out of the race for the Penrose Cup, the team is keeping its hopes high as it heads down the stretch.

What are the keys to this series?

1. Goaltending. That’s always the case, but I think it’s an extra interesting matchup this weekend. Zane McIntyre stole two games here last season. If you recall, Western outshot UND fairly handily both nights, but Zane was the difference both times.

I thought that Western had the best 1-2 punch in goal in the NCHC coming into the season, but both guys have been up-and-down. Lukas Hafner’s stumble in the outdoor game re-opened the door for Frank Slubowski, who made his first start in three months last week. Whoever plays this weekend, the Broncos need a good performance.

2. Handling physicality. The Broncos were the most physical team in the NCHC last season and I thought it caught some teams off guard. I don’t think UND has any problem with playing that style of game, which is good, because it will need to this weekend. Western won’t be quite as physical Friday night without suspended 6-foot-5, 250-pound Mike McKee, but I’d expect to see Josh Pitt back in the lineup with McKee out.

3. Staying out of the box. Western’s power play has been potent this year, ranking fifth in the nation and first in the NCHC. Nolan LaPorte, the team’s top power-play point producer, did not play last weekend but practiced this week. Junior defenseman Kenney Morrison is believed to be one of the most coveted NHL free agents on the market. He’s an offensive specialist.

4. Find a difference-maker. There wasn’t much time and space last time these teams played in Lawson. Rocco Grimaldi created a lot of it, though. He was the best player on the ice and was a huge difference-maker in that series. He’s gone. UND needs to find another one, whether it’s one of the Schmaltz’s, Paul LaDue, Drake Caggiula or Michael Parks.

On to the picks….

Minnesota Duluth at Miami: Should be a great matchup between arguably the two best groups of forwards in the league. Duluth has won four of the last five. Miami is on a five-game unbeaten streak. Miami 4-2, Duluth 5-4.

Omaha at St. Cloud State: Omaha wants to avoid another late-season meltdown, and at this point, it doesn’t appear to be coming. The Mavs appear solid in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011. But I keep waiting for St. Cloud State to make its push. Maybe it starts this weekend. St. Cloud State 4-3, 3-3 tie.

Denver vs. Colorado College: The Tigers have been outscored 11-1 by their rivals this season. There’s not much left to play for but the Gold Pan. Unfortunately for the Tigers, it won’t be staying in the Springs this year. Denver 4-0, 2-1.

UND at Western Michigan: UND’s last three road trips have ended in splits. But I sense that this is a team that wants to make its late-season push. I think both games will be tight, low-scoring affairs. UND 3-2, 2-2 tie.

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Back in Grand Forks, the UND women’s team finishes its regular season against last-place Minnesota State-Mankato.

All it’s going to take is a single point for UND to clinch home ice for a fifth consecutive season. One victory will be enough to secure third place as well. Two wins would secure a 20-win season.

UND has started to monitor the Pairwise Rankings ever-so-slightly and this team could shockingly make a run all the way to the NCAA tournament.

How did this team go from 4-7-1 to this point? Here are the top five reasons.

We may not know UND’s first-round opponent until Sunday, as four of the eight WCHA teams conclude play on Sunday afternoon. One key series to watch is Ohio State and Minnesota Duluth.

Friday morning reading

The weekend got off to a big start for UND, which landed a commitment from highly coveted prospect, Brock Boeser. That means UND has commitments from the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 5 goals per game scorers in the USHL.

Stephane Pattyn joked on Twitter: “Just when us seniors were thinking we’d be missed.”

No, fans definitely have their minds on this season first and foremost and that’s evidenced by this weekend’s ticket sales. If you don’t have one, get ready to pay through the nose for one.

With Minnesota no longer in UND’s league and no longer making annual trips to The Ralph, the University of Denver has become the hot ticket of the year, according to REA’s GM. Read about that here.

It’s probably no huge surprise considering the constant success of both programs, which has led to the inevitable matchups in big games — Final Five title games, regional championships and national championships.

These teams have a lot of similarities, too.

Both teams have active, dynamic defensive corps. Joey LaLeggia, Nolan Zajac and Will Butcher are three very offensive players for the Pioneers. UND will counter with Paul LaDue, Jordan Schmaltz and others. One of those others is sophomore Keaton Thompson, this week’s featured Q&A. Find out who he would like to spend a day in the shoes of (you’ll never guess… or maybe you will).

In goal, both teams have been strong.

It’s been Zane McIntyre for UND. He’s one of two former Section 8A goalies on campus who are having career years. The other is UND women’s goalie Shelby Amsley-Benzie of Warroad. Read that feature here.

In Denver, freshman Tanner Jaillet has been the man in nets, which is a change from UND’s trip to the Mile High City in December. Jaillet started just 2 of the first 10 games of the season for Denver, but now has started 5 of the last 6.

Since Jan. 10, Jaillet has a .949 save percentage and a 1.45 goals-against average. But don’t be shocked if you see Evan Cowley at some point this weekend, either. He beat UND earlier this season and has stopped 35 of his last 37 shots.

One Pioneer looking forward to this series is Zajac, whose brothers Travis and Darcy played for UND. He talked about the trip to the Denver Post.

With four weeks left to go in the regular season, every team is playing from here on out and every team is playing NCHC games. So let’s get to the picks.

St. Cloud State at Minnesota Duluth: St. Cloud State has an uphill battle to try to get back in the NCAA-tournament picture, but this is a team that’s very capable of winning the NCHC tournament and getting the auto bid. The Huskies rolled Colorado College twice last weekend and definitely can take a game in AmsOil this weekend. St. Cloud State 4-2, Duluth 5-3.

Western Michigan at Omaha: The Mavs probably didn’t want last week off. This was a team that’s been playing very good hockey, going 8-3-1 in the last 12. Western Michigan has been hot as of late, too, though. So I’m going to say the fans in Omaha get treated to a pair of shootouts this weekend. 2-2, 3-3 ties.

Miami at Colorado College: Miami’s pushing for the Penrose Cup and needs these wins. Putting some of those skilled players on the big ice surface in World Arena can’t bode well for the undermanned Tigers. Miami 5-1, 4-2.

Denver at North Dakota: Denver has been significantly better at home than on the road this season. With a sold out crowd coming both nights, the Pioneers can’t let UND get the ball rolling. Both teams have strong goaltending and that should keep both games close. 2-2 tie, 3-2 UND.

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The women’s hockey team is off to St. Cloud this weekend to take on the Huskies. UND has won 18 straight against St. Cloud State.

Right now, coach Brian Idalski isn’t keeping close tabs on the Pairwise Rankings, but UND is shooting up there. It will need two wins this weekend against the Huskies to stay in the mix, though.

Read the preview here.

That’s it for now – will be back later on for the live chat.

Friday morning reading

The UND men have the weekend off. It’s their final weekend off of the season.

But there still is a big series brewing in Grand Forks.

The UND women are hosting Minnesota at 7:07 tonight in Ralph Engelstad Arena and tickets are being sold for just $1. The cheap tickets are part of the effort to break the single-game attendance record of 5,835, set a year ago.

I wrote a preview on the series here.

It took UND a little while to get going this season, but thanks to a stingy defense and goaltender Shelby Amsley-Benzie, it has firm control of its own destiny in the chase for home ice in the first round of the playoffs.

If UND sweeps the WCHA’s worst two teams — St. Cloud State and MSU-Mankato — to close the season, it will have home ice, regardless of what happens this weekend.

Even so, you can bet that UND would like to grab a win against its rival and put some doubt in Minnesota’s mind in case the two meet up in the WCHA tournament (which also will be played at The Ralph).

Amsley-Benzie, who will set nearly every single-season goaltending record in program history this season, has been especially good as of late. Since Thanksgiving, she is 8-1-1 with a .966 save percentage and a 0.89 goals-against average.

She has a personal eight-game unbeaten streak (7-0-1) heading into this series against Minnesota and Amsley-Benzie leads the nation with a .949 save percentage.

Obviously, this will be UND’s toughest test to date.

Minnesota is on a 19-game unbeaten streak, and while it doesn’t have Amanda Kessel throwing up 100 points, the Gophers are extremely deep. Seven players are in double digits in goals.

And with three Olympic-caliber defensemen (Rachel Ramsey, Lee Stecklein, Milicia McMillen), they can generate offense from the back end as well as make it difficult to get good shots on Amanda Leveille (.943, 1.22).

So, can UND win a game this weekend?

It won’t be easy, but yes, when you have a hot goaltender with the potential to steal a game, there is that chance. Minnesota obviously has more skill, so UND will not want to get in a run-and-gun game with the Gophers. UND will have to do a good job of converting scoring chances and any potential power plays.

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On the men’s side, it’s a very quiet weekend in the NCHC.

Northern Michigan heads to Minnesota Duluth for the league’s final nonconference action of the regular season, while Denver plays Colorado College in a single game tonight (CBS Sports) and Miami plays Western Michigan in a single game at Soldier Field on Saturday afternoon.

My quick picks…

Northern Michigan at Minnesota Duluth: The Wildcats are without goalie Mathias Dahlstrom, who is their clear-cut starter. That doesn’t bode well against a Bulldog team that’s very dynamic up front. Bulldogs 4-1, 5-3.

Denver at Colorado College: The Pioneers can put themselves in the driver’s seat for the Gold Pan with a win tonight. Denver routed the Tigers 8-1 in the first meeting. While CC is bound to be better, I can’t see them winning this one. Denver 2-0.

Western Michigan vs. Miami: The Broncos had Miami’s number last season, going 4-0 against the RedHawks. The tables have started to turn as Miami is 2-0-1 against Western Michigan this season. I think an outdoor game on potentially bad ice tips the scales in favor of the Broncos, who don’t rely on their slick playmaking as much as the RedHawks. Western Michigan 3-2.

Friday morning reading

It’s No. 1 vs. No. 5 in the polls.

It’s No. 2 vs. No. 4 in the Pairwise.

It’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the NCHC standings.

Whatever way you slice it, a lot of eyes will be on this weekend’s two-game series in the CenturyLink Center in Omaha. It’s not a surprise that some are calling this the biggest home series ever for Omaha hockey.

It’s also not a surprise that Omaha fans are doing everything they can to try to give themselves a home-ice advantage — something that hasn’t always been the case for games between these teams in Omaha.

The first time these teams played this season, UND earned a win and a tie (UND lost the shootout, which is the difference in the NCHC standings right now).

One thing I noticed from that series — and also from the Duluth series — is that the three NCHC teams that are coached by former Sioux players/coaches all play with a bit of an edge. You can tell that Dean Blais and Scott Sandelin brought that same brand of hockey to their new schools.

Blais, speaking to ESPN Radio on Thursday afternoon, had an interesting assessment of UND. He said: “North Dakota is a team that can beat you any way they have to, whether it’s being chippy, being physical or moving the puck.”

Blais went on to say that the Mavs can’t control what UND is going to do, but his team needs to be tenacious. He also insinuated that he doesn’t want to get in a run-and-gun game with UND, saying that Omaha could be “in trouble” if they get into “exchanging opportunities” with UND.

One reason UND will want to take advantage in tonight’s series opener: Omaha will be without solid defenseman Brian O’Rourke, who has to serve one more game of a suspension for an illegal check against Colorado College.

Meanwhile, there’s a possibility that UND could get Troy Stecher back tonight, which would be a huge boost.

For Thursday’s paper, I wrote about UND’s altered travel plans to Omaha this season. If you haven’t heard about what happened on the last two trips home, read this piece.

This week’s “Get to Know” segment is with forward Colten St. Clair, who returned to the lineup last Saturday and registered an assist. Find out what Arizona high school record his father held by reading this piece.

The Omaha World Herald had a second preview on the series here as well.

On to the picks…

St. Cloud State at Colorado College: Although the Tigers have just one win in 13 conference games, anyone who saw them last weekend knows that they are on the right track. The Huskies, meanwhile, continue to struggle to make up ground. St. Cloud State 4-1, Colorado College 3-2.

Minnesota Duluth at Denver: The Bulldogs looked great Jan. 9, handling UND 4-1 in Ralph Engelstad Arena. But they haven’t been the same team since. They are 1-3-1 since, and the lone win came against Minnesota on a third-period goal. The Dogs had only two shots that period. Denver continues to build a strong season. This one has split written all over it. Duluth 3-1, Denver 3-2.

Miami at Western Michigan (Saturday only): Miami is only 5-5 in the last 10 games and Lawson isn’t an easy road trip. Western Michigan 4-3.

UND at Nebraska Omaha: Okay, okay, people are bored with my split predictions. So, I’ll go out on a limb with this one. I think if UND gets Troy Stecher back, it could be a game-changer, especially against Omaha’s prolific offensive attack. I’ll say UND grabs another series win in two down-to-the-wire games. UND 3-2, 3-2.

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The UND women’s hockey team has started to find its way. It is 7-1 in the last eight games and is coming off of arguably its best performances of the year in sweeping Bemidji State at home.

Now, it’s off to Duluth for another key series in the battle for home ice in the playoffs.

For UND, this series is business as usual. For Duluth, it’s been anything but that.

I’ve talked to many people in Duluth and there is, not surprisingly, a major divide between the athletic department and the women’s hockey team. National attention has been focused on the fact that the school fired a five-time national champion coach due to finances.

That’s hardly the whole story as Miller has run afoul of NCAA regulations before, has alienated nearly the entire department and has won just 1 of the last 29 games against UND, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

This story details some of the problems associated with Miller and the program.

The women’s games will be on the radio in Grand Forks on 1440 AM as Darrin Looker made the trip to Duluth.