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Brad E. Schlossman / Forum Communications Co., Published March 12 2010

WCHA men's hockey playoffs: Gophers need a series victory in the worst way

GRAND FORKS – For the University of Minnesota, this weekend is quite simple.

Win two games or the season’s over earlier than any other in the last 26 years.

Win or miss the Western Collegiate Hockey Association men’s hockey Final Five for the first time in 12 years and the first time ever since the tournament has been moved to St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center.

Win or find a spot on the couch for the second straight year to watch a Gopher-hosted NCAA regional.

Minnesota (17-17-2 overall,

12-14-2 WCHA) enters the weekend at No. 23 in the Pairwise Rankings, a good distance from earning an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament. The Gophers will likely have to win the Final Five in order to make the NCAA tournament – or at the very least, make it to the championship game.

That means there is a lot more at stake this weekend than bragging rights against rival UND. It’s a do-or-die, best-of-3 series at Ralph Engelstad Arena (7:37 tonight, 7:07 p.m. Saturday, 7:07 p.m. Sunday, if necessary).

“They’re a good hockey team and they’re going to be putting all their cards on the table,” UND forward Mario Lamoureux said. “We need to match their desperation and try to exceed it. We have to try to play our best game of the year and make sure we’re ready to go.”

It won’t be easy for the Sioux.

Only once in the last 32 years have the Gophers been knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. That happened in 1998, when Minnesota-Duluth beat an under-.500 Minnesota team. It took overtime of the third game to do it.

Only once in WCHA history have the Gophers been swept in the first round of the playoffs. That happened in 1973 – a team whose coach was Herb Brooks and leading scorer was Dean Blais.

St. Cloud State had the same opportunity last year to end Minnesota’s season in the first round. The Gophers swept that series, never trailing for a minute.

“That’s why playoff games are so much more intense than regular-season games,” UND forward Brett Hextall said. “We know that. We’ve been in playoff mode for a few weeks. The intensity, speed and emotions pick up. It’s the funnest time of year. We’re looking forward to it.”

UND is ranked No. 5 in the Pairwise and appears to be in line for an eighth straight NCAA tournament bid no matter what happens this weekend.

Jim Dahl of SiouxSports.com, one of the country’s top Pairwise experts, wrote Thursday that there’s a 99 percent chance that if the Sioux were swept this weekend, they would still be 11th or higher in the Pairwise.

The top 11 spots are guaranteed spots in the NCAA tournament and as many as 15 could get in if there are no upset winners in the conference tournaments.

Brad Schlossman is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.