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The four hockey teams playing in the NCAA Division I Midwest Regional semifinals at Huntington Center today took four different roads to Toledo.
The first semifinal, which starts at 1:30 p.m., features St. Cloud State and Notre Dame in a battle of league champions. The second game pits Minnesota State, a team making just its second NCAA tournament appearance, against Miami, which is playing in its eighth consecutive regional, in a 5 p.m. start.
St. Cloud State, ranked ninth in the USCHO.com national poll, won the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s regular-season title. The Huskies, who enter the regional with a 23-15-1 record, hope the first league title in school history will be a catalyst for bigger things.
“We feel that [the Western Collegiate Hockey Association] is one of the best leagues in college hockey, so to finish at the top of that is something pretty special,” St. Cloud senior forward Drew LeBlanc said. “The feather in the cap was that it was our first [league title] in school history.
“It’s something to be proud of and hang our hat on for now, but we are a selfish group. We’re not really satisfied with that right now. We feel that this program has a couple more steps to go in order to become one of the elite programs in the country.”
Their opponent, Notre Dame (25-12-3), is ranked fourth nationally and is coming off a victory in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association tournament. The Fighting Irish enter the regional on a roll, having won seven in a row and while posting a 9-1-3 mark in their last 13 games.
It’s a far cry from the team’s January struggles, when a midweek loss at Bowling Green was part of a five-game losing streak.
“I think the biggest thing [in turning around that losing streak] was our ability to stick together in the locker room,” said Notre Dame’s Anders Lee, a junior center. “It’s a real close-knit group — we were able to work together, talk to each other, and just kind of battle through the adversity.
“At no point this year did we turn on each other or lose belief in each other, so I think that and our hard work brought us out of that slump a little bit and we continued to play better and better hockey.”
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In the second game, Minnesota State (24-12-3), ranked 11th nationally, had to overcome a 1-5 start in WCHA play. The Mavericks won seven in a row and finished 16-11-1 in the league.
“As a team it took us a while to figure it out,” senior defenseman Tyler Elbrecht of Minnesota State said. “But we think the Denver series — [where] we played two hard games at home and we ended up getting swept — was the key. That night we came together as a family.
“We talked about it since day one. We realize that we do have a good team, a solid team, and that is the weekend we can agree that everybody started to buy in and turn our season around.”
Their opponent is Miami (24-11-5), which won the CCHA’s final regular-season title with a 17-7-4-4 mark but struggled in the league playoffs. The RedHawks lost the opener to Michigan State, the CCHA’s last-place team, before beating the Spartans twice to win the series.
The RedHawks lost 6-2 against Michigan in the CCHA semifinals at Joe Louis Arena last Saturday.
“The game happened and we put it behind us,” said Miami senior defenseman Steven Spinell. “And we’re focusing on what we have ahead of us now, and that’s Minnesota State.
“It wasn’t really the game we wanted, but it happened and we move forward.”
Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson called the Huntington Center regional the toughest of the four. Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings agreed.
“It’s not a cakewalk,” Hastings said. “When you go ahead and look at the bodies of work for all four programs, there’s some special peaks and there are some valleys. … I do think this is a quality field. They’re battle-tested, they’re programs that I think are playing the right way in terms of moving on, and you’re going to have to play a pretty good product out there to move on just to Sunday, let alone trying to get to the final four in Pittsburgh.”
Today’s winners will meet in Sunday’s regional final starting at 4 p.m., with the winner advancing to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh’s Consol Center April 11-13.
Contact John Wagner at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6481 or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.