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HAT TRICK | Jockeying for conference position

With the regular season winding down, the next few weeks are all about positioning for conference tournaments. Winning those is the only way for a team to be completely sure they make the NCAA Tournament.

To do that, a team might need favorable matchups, which is where Friday night’s Hockey East doubleheader on ASN comes in. First, Boston University looks to try and steal the Hockey East regular-season title, but to do that they’ll need a win against Notre Dame, the Irish likewise hoping to stay ahead of UMass Lowell and maybe pass the Terriers as well.

After that, struggling Boston College heads to Lowell to take on the River Hawks in the final game of both teams’ regular seasons. It will be a doubleheader with big ramifications (especially if Lowell wins the first game of their series on Thursday) as well as NCAA Tournament implications.

With that in mind, here’s a quick recap of last week’s action.

1. King Crimson

Last Monday night’s Beanpot Final was just Harvard’s third in 24 years since they won the tournament (and national championship) in 1993. They made the most of it, winning their first title since the Clinton administration and asserting themselves as, at the moment, the best college hockey team in the East.

Ryan Donato, son of head coach Ted, was the star of the game, turning in a highlight-reel goal that really put the game away for Harvard. He carved his way through the Boston University defense and fired the puck in for the Crimson’s fifth goal of the night. That goal gave them the padding they needed to hold off a late BU surge and bring Cambridge its first Beanpot this century.

With one weekend to go in the regular season, Harvard is one point behind Union College for first place in the ECAC. Given their newfound tournament success, they should be considered at least co-favorites in the coming conference tournament. Moreover, as the third ranked team in the latest USCHO poll and the highest ranked team on the eastern seaboard, Harvard at this point should be among the favorites to compete for a national title.

Harvard finishes up their regular season with home games against Clarkson and St. Lawrence this weekend.

2. Minnesota takes Big Ten control

Between the phenomenal start to the season that Penn State had, and Wisconsin’s return to the national picture, the Big Ten has been a close race all year. It looks like Minnesota might be about to take control.

A weekend trip to Penn State put the nation on notice that Minnesota is coming. On Friday night, they took a convincing 6-3 win in Happy Valley, led by a Rem Pitlick hat trick. The Nittany Lions tied the Golden Gophers near the midway point of the third period, but three late Minnesota goals put the game away.

Saturday night was not so easy. Penn State entered the third period with a 2-0 lead, and once Minnesota had erased that lead PSU’s Denis Smirnov drew and scored on a penalty shot to take the lead back with less than 90 seconds remaining. The Gophers tied the game with four seconds left on the clock care of a Justin Kloos goal. In the fourth minute of overtime, Pitlick put one past Penn State netminder Peyton Jones, giving Penn State possibly its most heartbreaking loss since Pegula Ice Arena opened.

The sweep puts Minnesota three points up on Wisconsin with Ohio State and Penn State safely out of range. While the Big Ten regular season extends longer than others, a sweep of Wisconsin at home this weekend would all but seal the conference title for Minnesota.

3. Row the … ice cutter?

Last week, Western Michigan finally settled with former football coach P.J. Fleck in a way that allows Fleck to keep using his signature phrase “Row The Boat” even as the coach heads to Minnesota.

Nobody told the hockey team, because on the ice Western Michigan is demonstrating the same never-say-die attitude that launched their football program to heights previously unimagined. They came into this weekend as the eighth team in the country per USCHO’s latest poll. That position is likely to improve this week, as WMU swept defending national champion North Dakota over the weekend and put the Fighting Hawks firmly on college hockey’s bubble.

After a shorthanded goal at the end of the first period gave North Dakota a lead on Friday night, Western Michigan woke up. The Broncos tallied four goals from four different players, and nine players tallied points in the contest. It was a Sheldon Dries goal with just under seven minutes remaining in the third period that put Western Michigan ahead for good.

On Saturday night, North Dakota came out furious. They peppered WMU goaltender Ben Blacker all night long, taking 46 shots in all against Western Michigan’s paltry 19.

Oh, that’s right: North Dakota also never led on Saturday night. Two first period goals by Matheson Iacopelli set the tone for Western Michigan early, and after Taylor Fleming made it 3-0 early in the second they began to let their defense do the talking. The 2-3 win for Western Michigan propelled the Broncos to a huge sweep of a conference juggernaut.

This coming weekend, the Broncos travel to Colorado College for their last regular season road games. North Dakota hosts Omaha this weekend as well, having little margin for error moving forward.

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