Good afternoon from Xcel Energy Center, where the NCHC Frozen Faceoff begins at 4 p.m. with fourth-seeded North Dakota facing No. 1 St. Cloud State in the first semifinal, followed by No. 3 seed Minnesota Duluth playing No. 2 Denver at 7:30 p.m. The games will be televised on the CBS Sports Network.

Today’s games will carry NCAA tournament implications for all four teams, but especially North Dakota. The Fighting Hawks entered Friday at No. 14 in the PairWise Ratings, the formula that mimics what the NCAA uses to select its 16-team tournament field. At No. 14, North Dakota is just inside the cut line for an at-large bid, because the Nos. 15 and 16 spots already will go to the Atlantic Hockey tournament champion and the WCHA tournament champion, either Northern Michigan or Michigan Tech.

North Dakota would improve its NCAA tournament chances greatly with a victory today, and two wins would give it the NCHC’s automatic bid. If the Fighting Hawks lose to St. Cloud State, their NCAA fate becomes dicey, because if teams outside the PairWise top 14 win either the Hockey East (No. 15 Boston College, No. 18 Boston University) or ECAC (No. 22 Princeton, No. 26 Harvard) tournaments, then the cut line moves up, knocking out the No. 14 team. So, North Dakota would hope that one of the higher-ranked teams in those conferences – No. 7 Northeastern and No. 9 Providence, who meet in the Hockey East semifinals, and No. 3 Cornell and No. 11 Clarkson, who are in opposite semifinals – win their tournaments. Because Boston College and Boston University meet in a Hockey East semifinal on Friday, we won’t know until Saturday night if either the Eagles or Terriers snatches the league’s automatic bid.

The NCHC Frozen Faceoff has a third-place game on Saturday afternoon, so a semifinal loser could help its PairWise numbers with a win. In North Dakota’s case, a third-place finish wouldn’t guarantee an NCAA berth, though there are scenarios that would put UND in the field if it finishes third.

In the PairWise, North Dakota entered Friday just behind No. 13 Minnesota, which lost in the Big Ten quarterfinals two weeks ago and awaits its NCAA fate. The NCAA field will be revealed during the selection show at 11 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU, but when the computer spits out the final PairWise figures after the last conference championship game on Saturday night, the 16 teams that will make the tournament will be apparent.

For North Dakota’s sake, here are the outside results that would help the Fighting Hawks earn an NCAA bid:

ECAC tournament: Clarkson beats Harvard, and Cornell beats Princeton in the semifinals.

Hockey East tournament: The winner of the Providence-Clarkson semifinal beats the winner of the Boston College-Boston University semifinal.

Those results also would help Minnesota’s cause. Of course, the Gophers also hope that St. Cloud State beats North Dakota, removing any chance the Fighting Hawks get an automatic NCAA bid.

For St. Cloud State, a victory would improve its chances of landing the No. 1 overall seed. Denver is at No. 5 in the PairWise, and the defending national champion has a remote chance to move into the No. 4 spot and grab a No. 1 seed. Minnesota Duluth, at No. 8, is nearly a lock to make the NCAA field, but there are scenarios that the Bulldogs miss the tourney if the lose twice this weekend.

For some more pregame reading, here is my look at the NCHC's move to St. Paul for the Frozen Faceoff, which brings back memories of the highly successful WCHA Final Five:

http://www.startribune.com/college-hockey-madness-returns-to-downtown-st-paul-this-weekend/476978243/

And here is a capsule look at the two semifinals:

http://www.startribune.com/nchc-frozen-faceoff-preview-a-loaded-field-comes-to-st-paul/476977693/

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