The ultimate prize has yet to be decided, by any stretch. That doesn't happen until April 7, when two teams will collide in Tampa for the right to spend the year known as the national champions.
However, the drive to Tampa is underway in college hockey, as the five Division I leagues hold their postseason tournaments. On the line? Automatic bids to the NCAAs for tournament champions, but there are also 11 at large bids up for grabs, with very few of those 11 being spoken for at this point.
UMD seems to be a virtual lock to make the tournament (various Pairwise information I've searched out shows UMD could fall to 12th in the Pairwise by getting swept this weekend, but even that seems unlikely), but the Bulldogs can remove all doubt this weekend by beating Minnesota State in a two-game WCHA playoff series.
Things went UMD's way in the postseason last year, but not before Bemidji State generally outplayed UMD in a 3-2 win at the WCHA Final Five. That touched off a run of four straight wins that saw UMD claim a national championship.
While the MacNaughton Cup eluded these Bulldogs, UMD is optimistic about its playoff chances, as well it should be.
"We bring a lot of experience into these playoffs," senior defenseman Brady Lamb. "Mostly, just taking care of your body and making sure you stay hydrated. It's a long five week battle, but we think we're up for it."
Minnesota State is an opponent UMD has seen success against this year. UMD has three wins and a tie in four games against the Mavericks, but it's the last of that four-game season series that eats at UMD a bit.
"We gave up a big point Saturday out there, and that hasn't left our memory," Lamb said. "It still burns a little bit."
Playoffs are all about bearing down. You have to be stronger on the puck, make consistently smarter decisions, and avoid the little mistakes that can add up to pucks in the back of your net. UMD knows this from last year, but the Bulldogs have struggled at times to avoid those little mistakes this season. You can't sleep-walk for ten minutes in a playoff game, as UMD did on Saturday in St. Cloud, and expect to have the chance to win or force overtime. You don't give up the kind of puck possession UMD did in a loss to North Dakota Feb. 10 and live another day, and you certainly can't blow leads, something UMD has done multiple times to cost itself points.
Minnesota State has some guys who can play, including freshmen like Zach Palmquist (defense), Matt Leitner, and Jean-Paul Lafontaine (forwards). The future is bright in Mankato thanks to these three, but the present isn't so bad, because the Mavericks know they can play with UMD. They need to look no further than the last time they played the Bulldogs to know that. MSU completely erased the memory of that two-game sweep UMD handed it in Duluth by playing both games tight in Mankato, staying in Saturday's game long enough to rally late to tie, and then control a good bit of overtime.
UMD has to be better this weekend. On paper, the Bulldogs have the better hockey team. But they don't have to look outside of Duluth to see what having the best team on paper gets you. After all, look what happened to Duluth East when its opponent -- an inferior team on paper -- came out and outskated, outhustled, and outexecuted the Greyhounds for the better part of the last two periods. That's how upsets happen.
The old adage is "Will beats skill." We're not talking about people named Will. The power of will beats the power of skill in hockey, especially when the skill doesn't have enough will. Mix a skilled team with the will of a champion, and you have a team that is likely unbeatable.
That's the recipe. Can UMD concoct the potion again?