Conference races heat up


A look at the weekend's biggest series, courtesy of our friends at InsideCollegeHockey.com:

Miami at Notre Dame (Fri.-Sat.): It may be a bit of a stretch to say this series in South Bend and the RedHawks' set with Michigan in Oxford next weekend renders the rest of the CCHA regular season moot. For all intents and purposes, however, the results of these two series will likely thrust one of the three into the role of prohibitive favorite for the league title.

Miami coach Enrico Blasi sent a message to his team following its 7-4 loss at Michigan State last Friday by benching four regulars; the RedHawks bounced back by shutting out the Spartans. Will that sense of urgency carry over to this weekend? On the flip side, this'll be the first high-stakes series of the season for the freshman-heavy Fighting Irish. Miami's big-game experience might play a major role in the outcome.

Boston University at Maine (Fri.-Sat.): No disrespect to sixth-place Northeastern, but the race for a home berth in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs will probably come down to five teams -- BU and Maine, plus Boston College, New Hampshire, and Merrimack. Though their records are similar, the Terriers and Black Bears have taken markedly different paths to get to this point. BU started strong and, outside of a couple wins against UNH, has been in a steady decline for two-plus months. If you throw out a six-game unbeaten streak from mid-October to mid-November, Maine's been on the win-one, lose-one plan for a couple months. See if the Black Bears are able to get out to a fast start -- BU has allowed 27 first-period goals this season, more than every Hockey East team except for UMass Lowell.

Brown/Yale at Rensselaer/Union (Fri.-Sat.): Union and RPI host the marquee matchups in ECAC Hockey this weekend, as top-ranked and first-place Yale can take a big stride toward clinching the league's regular-season title with a pair of wins on the road. It won't be easy, as Union owns a 10-1-1 record on home ice this year and probably has a sour taste in its mouth after a 5-0 loss to the Bulldogs in early December. The following night, Yale visits Troy for RPI's annual Big Red Freakout!, it's the annual event that RPI has rarely lost in the last 20 years or so, and the Engineers carry a three-game overall winning streak into this weekend's series. Don't sleep on Brown. The Bears recently handed Yale its first loss in ECAC Hockey. Brown also owns victories over Princeton and Boston University, and ties against New Hampshire and BU.

Niagara vs. Robert Morris (Friday at Niagara, Saturday at RMU): Another series with major implications on the race for a conference title, this set features two teams trending in opposite directions. The Colonials are 2-4-1 since the holiday break and, although the first-place team in Atlantic Hockey (RIT) and the No. 3 team in this week's INCH Power Rankings (North Dakota) accounted for three of those defeats, last weekend's loss and tie to an Army team that had snapped a seven-game winless streak the previous week was disheartening. Then there's Niagara, which has won four in a row and 14 of 18 since an Oct. 30 loss to Robert Morris. The Purps have scored four or more goals in all but four of their last 18 games, led by 21-goal scorers Bryan Haczyk and Paul Zanette.

Also: Michigan and Michigan State renew their rivalry Saturday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. The Wolverines have won nine of 10 with the Spartans serving up the lone loss in East Lansing earlier this month. … North Dakota, which trails first-place Denver by one point in the WCHA standings, can regain sole possession of the top spot at Colorado College this weekend. The Pioneers and Minnesota Duluth, which is tied for second with the Fighting Sioux, are idle. … Seems like we write notes weekly about series featuring CCHA teams trying to break away from the middle of the pack in the league standings. This, however, is the one week where we can write about directional Michigan schools attempting to get a leg up In the CCHA race. Northern Michigan and Western Michigan, who are in a three-way tie for fourth place along with Ohio State, meet in Kalamazoo this weekend.

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