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Hockey: Battle for first-round byes, home ice heats up

Dan Murphy | Thursday, February 26, 2009

Coming into the final weekend of conference play, No. 2 Notre Dame has the top seed in the CCHA playoffs locked up, but the rest of the conference still has some sorting out to do.

The Irish current conference record is 19-4-3, but the team has won all three of those ties in shootouts giving them a total of 44 points thus far. That gives Notre Dame a first-round bye and home ice advantage in the second round.

The CCHA playoffs basically divide the 12 teams into three tiers. The top four teams receive byes, the middle four have home ice in the first round and the bottom four have to fight against all odds to make it to Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena for the semifinals and championship in late March.

The interesting battles to watch this weekend will be with teams on the verge of moving up or down a level in that three-tier system.

No. 15 Ohio State currently sits in fifth place, but the Buckeyes control their own destiny as far earning a free pass to the second round. With 31 points, Ohio State is currently three behind fourth-place Alaska. The Nanooks finished their conference schedule last week, so the Buckeyes can jump them with a sweep.

That should be easier said than done, though, as they take on No. 7 Miami, who currently sits in second place behind the Irish. The Buckeyes won a huge game last weekend over No. 3 Michigan to keep their hopes for a bye alive.

Miami, however, won’t be rolling over as they have plenty to play for as well. With the Wolverines nipping at their heels, Miami will need at least one win to hang on to the No. 2 spot in the postseason. If Ohio State sweeps Miami and Michigan sweeps Ferris State, the Wolverines will take that spot and be able to avoid Notre Dame until the finals.

Expect Ferris State to put up a fight as well. They currently sit in the middle of the pack with Northern Michigan and Nebraska-Omaha. All three of those teams are within one point in the standings.

Nebraska-Omaha struggled mightily down the home stretch, picking up only one point in their last nine games. That effort gives Ferris State the opportunity to jump them with a win or a tie against Michigan. Northern Michigan is also in control of its own destiny at this point. They need to keep pace with whatever the Bulldogs do in order to maintain their own point lead and ensure a matchup against one of this season’s bottom-dwellers, most likely Michigan State.

Sitting at the nine and 10 spots, respectively, Western Michigan and Lake Superior State aren’t quite out of the mix yet either. Both teams play winnable series this weekend and are only three or four points away from taking over a home ice spot. They will need some help from the team’s above them in order to make any serious moves.

However that middle section shakes out, the 7-vs.-10 and 8-vs.-9 matchups in the first round will be very evenly played. It would make sense for most of those teams to try to maneuver themselves into a game with Nebraska-Omaha, but right now there are too many question marks to figure out where any of them might end up.