When the National Collegiate Hockey Conference regular season ended, it looked as if the first-year league's Frozen Faceoff would be a hot ticket.
St. Cloud State won the league title, followed by North Dakota, Omaha and Minnesota Duluth — the four schools closest to Minneapolis, and four teams with fans who would travel well.
But only North Dakota survived the first round of the playoffs to advance to a semifinal at Target Center on Friday against last-place Miami (Ohio), which shocked St. Cloud State with a two-game sweep last weekend.
Denver and Western Michigan meet in Friday's afternoon semifinal.
North Dakota has made 11 consecutive NCAA tournaments but is on the bubble. The other three teams must win the Frozen Faceoff to earn the conference's automatic berth.
NCHC Frozen Faceoff
At Target Center
Denver vs. Western Michigan, 4:08 p.m.
Miami (Ohio) vs. North Dakota, 7:38 p.m.
Third place, 3:38 p.m.
Championship, 7:38 p.m.
TV: Semifinals and final on CBS Sports Network
Tickets: Single-session tickets are $75 or $40 and are available at Target Center.
The Pioneers, under first year coach Jim Montgomery, upended Omaha last weekend after finishing sixth during the regular season. Denver has only two seniors who play regularly and its leading scorer is freshman Trevor Moore (13 goals-16 assists-29 points). Goalie Sam Brittain (2.06 goals-against average, .934 saves percentage) and defenseman Joey LaLeggia (11-12-23) were first-team All-NCHC.
Western Michigan (19-14-5)
The Broncos are coached by Andy Murray, who guided the Los Angeles Kings for seven seasons and the St. Louis Blues for five. They were fifth during the regular season before beating UMD in the playoffs. Leading scorers are senior forwards Chase Balisy (13-24-37) and Shane Berschbach (15-22-37). Western Michigan was rebuilding after losing nine seniors and defenseman Danny DeKeyser, now with the Red Wings.
Miami (Ohio) (14-19-3)
After being picked to win the league title, the RedHawks were last in NCHC, but they swept NCAA-bound St. Cloud State last weekend. Miami has the league's top two scorers in Austin Czarnik (12-33-45) and Riley Barber (19-24-43). Goalie Ryan McKay (2.75, .911) has respectable stats for a team that gave up the most goals in the league. Czarnik was all-league first-team. Miami has been in the NCAAs the past eight years.
North Dakota (22-12-3)
Nickname-less North Dakota needed three games last weekend to beat Colorado College and advance to Minneapolis. Diminutive winger Rocco Grimaldi (13-22-35) is the team's leading scorer. Defenseman Dillon Simpson was first-team All-NCHC; he's one of only four seniors on the roster. Sophomore Zane Gothberg (2.08, .922) gets the start in goal. Coach Dave Hakstol is 257-131-40 in 10 seasons.