Three of the four Minnesota schools playing in college hockey's big weekend of conference championships will be playing with their seasons at stake. The Gophers are the top seed in the Big Ten tournament — their first game is Friday night at Xcel Energy Center against the Ohio State-Michigan State winner — and almost certainly need to win the title to get into the NCAA tournament. St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth qualified for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, and the Huskies are the only Minnesota team in comfortable NCAA position. And Minnesota State Mankato is playing for its third consecutive WCHA Final Five title but also needs a conference crown to get an NCAA tournament bid.
Big Ten tournament
Thursday-Saturday, Xcel Energy Center
The Gophers won the Big Ten regular-season championship and have a first-round bye as the No. 1 seed. The consensus, though, is that No. 2 seed Michigan is the favorite to win the tournament. The Wolverines finished one point behind the Gophers in the Big Ten standings and are tied for No. 6 in the PairWise Rankings, a formula that mimics how the NCAA selects the 10 at-large teams for its 16-team tournament field. The Gophers are tied for 17th in the PairWise.
In or out: Michigan is the only Big Ten member in position to earn an at-large NCAA berth. The Gophers are on the bubble, and if they don't win the Big Ten tournament and its automatic NCAA bid, they would need many other results to fall in their favor to receive an at-large invite.
Who's hot: Ohio State is on a seven-game unbeaten streak and has the momentum to make a run in the postseason. Getting hot this late often is the secret to success, and the Buckeyes have been playing just about as well as anyone in college hockey over the past month. Should Ohio State beat Michigan State on Thursday, remember this: The Buckeyes are 0-4 against the Gophers, but each game was decided by one goal and three of them went overtime.
Player to watch: Michigan forward Kyle Connor was named the Big Ten Player and Freshman of the Year. He was the scoring champion with 43 points (22 goals, 21 assists) in Big Ten play, averaging 2.15 points per game.
NCHC Frozen Faceoff
Friday-Saturday, Target Center
Minnesota Duluth is making its first appearance in the Frozen Faceoff. The No. 4-seeded Bulldogs were ranked No. 2 in the U.S. College Hockey Online preseason poll, but fell below .500 before turning things around in the past month. They are 9-3 in the past 12 games with a pair of victories over No. 2 seed St. Cloud State.
In or out: North Dakota, the nation's top-ranked team, St. Cloud State and Denver are positioned to earn at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. Minnesota Duluth, No. 13 in the PairWise, still has some work to do. But if the Bulldogs win one game this weekend — either against North Dakota in the semifinals Friday or in Saturday's third-place game — they should secure a spot.
Who's hot: Denver has won 11 in a row, North Dakota has won its past eight and UMD its past six. St. Cloud State isn't quite as hot, winning its past four games, but this tournament is stacked with teams riding a lot of momentum.
Player(s) to watch: North Dakota senior forward Drake Caggiula, Denver sophomore forward Danton Heinen and St. Cloud State senior defenseman Ethan Prow are all finalists for NCHC Player of the Year. Prow also is one of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the nation's top player.
WCHA Final Five
Friday-Saturday, Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Back-to-back defending champion MSU Mankato is making its fourth consecutive trip to the Final Five after holding off Lake Superior State in three games during the WCHA quarterfinals.
In or out: No. 1 seed Michigan Tech is on the bubble at No. 15 in the PairWise, but positioned well to edge into the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid if it doesn't win the WCHA. The rest of the field will have to win the tournament for an automatic bid.
Who's hot: Michigan Tech has only lost one game since the start of the calendar year and won its past seven games. MSU Mankato is 7-3-2 in its past 12 games, but was 0-1-1 in two games against Michigan Tech this season.
Player to watch: Michigan Tech senior Alex Petan led the conference in scoring with 29 points (16 goals, 13 assists) and was named the WCHA Player of the Year. He also is a Hobey Baker finalist.