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March 4, 2013

Frederick: The time is now for the Mavs in the WCHA

— It all comes down to the final weekend in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

With two games to play, five teams still have a shot at winning at least a share of the MacNaughton Cup as league champion.

That group includes Minnesota State.

There are also five teams that could end up slipping to seventh place and going on the road for the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

That group also includes Minnesota State.

Just six points separate the league's top seven teams. Currently, the Mavericks are in a tie with Wisconsin for fourth place and have the tiebreaker over the Badgers.

But it appears little will be resolved until late Sunday afternoon when all six of the league's season finales are finished.

Minnesota State will host North Dakota in what should be a pair of entertaining games in front of a couple of big crowds at the Verizon Wireless Center.

North Dakota already has clinched one of the six home-ice spots that the Mavericks covet.

Certainly the Mavericks could look back at those two overtime losses at home to Wisconsin, that tie at Alaska Anchorage or the failure to collect more than a couple of points early in the season and know that they'd have an upper-division finish -- not to mention a pretty secure spot in the Pairwise Rankings -- wrapped up right now.

But what team doesn't have a regret or two on its schedule? Especially in this league.

St. Cloud State could have clinched its share of the MacNaughton Cup at home on Saturday night but ended up losing badly to Michigan Tech. Colorado College would have been an eighth team in the mix for home ice had it beaten MSU on Saturday.

"The WCHA is so tight," coach Mike Hastings said after the Mavericks' series split against the Tigers. "There are a lot of good hockey teams. It doesn't matter if you're playing the first-place team or the 12th, every night is going to be a battle. There's such a fine line between winning and losing. It's about somebody making a play on the offensive side or defensively."

That Minnesota State is in the thick of the hunt for an upper-division finish under the first-year coach should be a thrill to fans acclimated to having home ice already melted away by the beginning of March.

This is a team, after all, that finished 11th in the WCHA the last two years, was picked to finish 10th this season by the league's coaches and the media that cover it and hasn't hosted a home playoff series since 2008.

Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com, and follow him on Twitter @puckato.

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