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College men's hockey: Bulldogs on verge of NCAA bid

UMD hockey coaches Scott Sandelin and Brett Larson watch their team go through drills Thursday, March 23, 2017, during practice for the NCAA West Regional hockey tournament at Scheels Arena in Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

Minnesota Duluth heads into this weekend's NCHC Frozen Faceoff in a great position to do something no other UMD team has ever done: qualify for four straight NCAA tournaments.

But a trip to the 2018 Big Ice Dance is still by no means a lock yet.

The third-seeded Bulldogs take on second-seeded Denver in the late semifinal of the Frozen Faceoff at 7:38 p.m. Friday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The first semifinal features top-seeded St. Cloud State and fourth-seeded North Dakota.

Friday's winners play for the NCAA Division I tournament automatic bid at 7:38 p.m. Saturday while the losers play for third place at 3:38 p.m.

Various simulations show UMD can secure a spot in the national tourney with a semifinal win or with a win or tie in the third-place game.

"It's a little bit different situation than we were in last year," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said during Tuesday's Frozen Faceoff conference call. "Last year we knew we were going to be playing the following weekend. This year it is not 100 percent sure. We've got to play with that one-game mentality because you need to be in that anyway this time of the year. We have to go down there and try to win some hockey games so we can keep our season going."

This year's four NCAA regionals will be held March 23-25 in Sioux Falls, S.D., Allentown, Pa., Worcester, Mass., and Bridgeport, Conn.

The NCAA uses a mathematical formula called the Pairwise rankings to select at-large teams and seed the 16-team field. UMD sits eighth in the Pairwise, but that could change between now and Selection Sunday depending on results around the country.

Jim Dahl's recently simulated all 49,152 possibilities that still remain for the Pairwise based on possible results from the 15 Division I men's games left. The Bulldogs will finish seventh or eighth in the Pairwise if they win the NCHC tournament or between seventh and ninth should they win just one game. Lose twice at Xcel, however, and the Bulldogs could tumble all the way to 14th.

As of now, teams seeking an at-large bid need to finish No. 14 or higher in the Pairwise to make this year's NCAA tournament because the No. 15 and No. 16 seeds will go to the Atlantic Hockey and WCHA postseason champions.

But with possible upsets lurking in the Eastern College Athletic Conference and Hockey East tournaments, a team may need to finish 12th or higher to gain an at-large bid.

Third-seeded Harvard and fourth-seeded Princeton, who both sit outside the top 20 of the Pairwise, are attempting to steal spots in the NCAA tournament this weekend by winning the ECAC. Harvard plays second-seeded Clarkson and Princeton plays top-seeded Cornell on Friday.

Over in Hockey East, perennial powers Boston College and Boston University both sit on the outside looking in, even though BC won the Hockey East regular-season title. The Eagles and fourth-seeded Terriers play Friday in the league semifinals with the winner taking on either Providence or Northeastern in Saturday's final.

So if Harvard or Princeton win the ECAC postseason title and Boston College or Boston University win the Hockey East title and the Bulldogs lose twice this weekend, then UMD is likely out of the NCAA tournament.

Gophers, Hawks on bubble

Upsets in the ECAC and Hockey East would not only be a worst-case scenario for a two-loss Bulldogs team, but for two of their biggest rivals.

Minnesota and North Dakota are very much on the bubble. The Gophers, who were ousted two weeks ago in the Big Ten quarterfinals, sit 13th in the Pairwise while the Fighting Hawks are 14th.

The Hawks likely need the Frozen Faceoff title to keep their season alive as Dahl's simulation gives them a 25 percent chance to get in with one win and a 14 percent chance to get in with no wins this weekend.

The Gophers, despite being idle for a second consecutive week, could finish anywhere between 10th and 14th in the Pairwise. They stand a 76 percent chance of getting into the NCAA tournament, according to Dahl.

Do you own Pairwise forecast:

A number of websites have their own tools to help you predict the NCAA tournament field and see how various results could affect the Pairwise. Check out's Pairwise Predictor or's You Are the Committee tool.

Other Pairwise resources: Pairwise Probability Matrix Bracketology Blog

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

(218) 723-5317