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With six teams in NCAA tournament, WCHA is going out in style

There's no chance of an all-Western Collegiate Hockey Association Frozen Four, as there was in a glorious showing in 2005, but the 12-team league is going out in style.

Six WCHA schools are entered in the 16-team NCAA Division I men's tournament that starts today. That's twice as many as any of the other four leagues: Hockey East and the Eastern College Athletic Conference each have three qualifiers, and the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and Atlantic Hockey each have two. It matches the WCHA's high-water mark of 2008.

The WCHA teams have been parceled by twos into three regionals. A fourth regional, the East, is WCHA-less.

A possible Minnesota versus North Dakota meeting in the West Regional final Saturday afternoon in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the most intriguing and most anticipated of the WCHA matchups. Both need to win first-round games today. Fans figured those teams to meet in the WCHA Final Five semifinals a week ago in St. Paul, yet Colorado College eliminated North Dakota in the first round. The Tigers then eliminated Minnesota in the semifinals before losing to Wisconsin 3-2 in the title game.

A three-day turnout of 87,295 marked the third-largest attendance figure in Final Five history.

In the West Regional semifinals, top-seed Minnesota (26-8-5) plays Yale (18-12-3), and No. 2 seed North Dakota (21-12-7) meets Niagara University (23-9-5).

"I feel very good about where we're at. We had a very good week of practice. I think the guys are excited, and I think they're energized," Minnesota coach Don Lucia told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

"After we lost Friday (to Colorado College), we took Saturday and Sunday off, knowing we were probably going to be in the Grand Rapids regional. We charged up the batteries a little bit and had a good week."

Yale is in the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years (having missed last season) and was eliminated one game short of the Frozen Four by eventual champion Boston College in 2010 and eventual champion Minnesota Duluth in 2011.

"It's the last opportunity to win a national championship, but we learned a few things from the first two years," Yale captain Andrew Miller told the New Haven (Conn.) Register. "Hopefully, we can use those this coming weekend."

Next season the WCHA will reappear as a 10-team league with only four holdovers. The rest are leaving for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (including Minnesota Duluth) and the Big Ten Conference.

UMD gave the WCHA its only Division I title of the past six years, but the league has won six of the past 11 and 37 championships in 62 years of existence. Not a bad resume.

It's most notable Frozen Four moment since the NCAA tournament grew to 16 teams in 2003 was in 2005 at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio. The semifinals matched North Dakota and Minnesota, and Colorado College and Denver. The title game had Denver defeating North Dakota 4-1. WCHA teams were seeded No. 1 in three of the four regions; this year, only Minnesota is a top seed.

North Dakota is in the NCAA tournament for an 11th straight year, the longest streak in Division I (Michigan's all-time mark of 22 straight appearances ended this year).

"We put a real focus, this team, building toward the national tournament," North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol told the Grand Forks Herald. "We haven't allowed ourselves, at any point, to look at any other goal. I think we've yet to play our best hockey. The challenge for us is to make sure our best game is in front of us Friday night."

Niagara is the first Atlantic Hockey team to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

"To be playing a program like North Dakota, that has so much history, is going to be a huge challenge that I know our players and our entire university community will embrace," Niagara coach Dave Burkholder told the Niagara (N.Y.) Gazette.

Denver (20-13-5) and Wisconsin (22-12-7) traveled together on a charter flight to the Northeast Regional in Manchester, N.H., which opens today. St. Cloud State (23-15-1) and Minnesota State-Mankato (24-13-3) did likewise in going to the Midwest Regional in Toledo, Ohio, which begins Saturday.

St. Cloud State (23-15-1) is paired against Notre Dame (25-12-3), which won the final CCHA playoff title. The league is dissolving after this season.

"We stuck together as a team," Notre Dame junior forward Anders Lee of Edina, Minn., told the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune. "We faced a six-game losing streak in the middle of the season, but we were so close in the locker room that that wasn't going to get to our heads. For us to go out there and win the last CCHA tournament is very special for us, and something we'll never forget."

The final PairWise Rankings, which mimic the NCAA tournament selection process, had Minnesota No. 2 overall, North Dakota No. 8, Denver tied at No. 9, Minnesota State-Mankato tied at No. 11, St. Cloud State No. 13 and Wisconsin tied at No. 14.

During the 2012-13 regular season, the WCHA didn't have a particularly stellar nonconference mark at 48-34-5: 9-0-1 vs. Atlantic Hockey, 13-17-1 vs. the CCHA, 7-8-1 vs. the ECAC, 9-8-1 vs. Hockey East and 10-1-1 vs. independents.

The 2013 Frozen Four is April 11 and 13 at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.

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