The Northern Michigan University hockey team played its way back into the NCAA tournament field this weekend with a convincing sweep of Lake Superior State.
However, the Wildcats' work is far from done.
Like last week, the Wildcats (16-12-6) find themselves in a must-win series, this time with the Bowling Green State Falcons (10-21-5). It's the second-must win series against BGSU in the last than 30 days.
A sweep of the Falcons, who finished last in the CCHA and sit 45 out of 58 teams in the ratings percentage index, can't make the Wildcats' season. All it will do is maintain the status quo, which is a tie for 11th in the PairWise with Michigan State and Denver.
A single loss could throw the Wildcats back outside the Top 16 of the PairWise and losing the series for a second year in a row to last-place BGSU in Marquette would be the dagger in the Wildcats' season.
To secure a spot in the NCAA tournament, Northern will need to beat the Falcons and win a CCHA second-round best-of-three series at Western Michigan, which is ranked No. 17 in the PairWise.
A pair of victories over the Broncos would not only make NMU a lock, but it would end the Broncos chances of getting an at-large bid.
If Northern were to lose the series, but push it to three games, I'm not convinced NMU would be in the field since the Broncos would jump ahead. The Wildcats would need some help to stay on the bubble.
First, the 'Cats would need Denver and North Dakota to falter in the WCHA playoffs.
In the CCHA playoffs, NMU would need Miami to take out Michigan State in the second round, and for Ohio State and Notre Dame to be done after the second-round as well.
What I'm saying in the CCHA is, 'The Joe' is everyone's ticket to the big ice dance. Get there and you'll get another weekend, whether you win the Mason Cup or not.
Now here's a look at this week's field, starting with the top 16 in the USCHO.com PairWise rankings, with ties broken via the RPI.
PairWise Top 16 - 1. Minnesota-Duluth; 2. Boston College; 3. Michigan; 4. Ferris State; 5. Boston University; 6. UMass-Lowell; 7. Minnesota; 8. Miami; 9. Union; 10. Maine; 11. Michigan State; 12. Northern Michigan; 13. Denver; 14. North Dakota; 15. Merrimack; 16. Cornell.
Every conference leader or regular season champion is represented except Atlantic Hockey, so its champ, Air Force, will bump out Cornell.
Watch out for the Big Red in the ECAC tournament, however, because if they win it instead of Union, that at-large threshold in the tournament could move from 15 to 14. Conference champions from outside the top 15 could prove costly for the bubble teams.
I'll still be using Union as the ECAC's automatic bid, and with that in mind, here is the initial bracket, which is loaded with Western schools - five from the CCHA and four from the WCHA.
Remember, the top four seeds are placed closest to home. Minnesota also gets to play in St. Paul because it is hosting the West Regional. Everyone else is placed via bracket integrity.
West Regional (St. Paul, Minn.) - 1. Minnesota-Duluth vs. 16. Air Force; 7. Minnesota vs. 10. Maine.
East Regional (Bridgeport, Conn.) - 4. Ferris State vs. 13. Denver; 5. Boston University vs. 12. Northern Michigan.
Northeast Regional (Worcester, Mass.) - 2. Boston College vs. 15. Merrimack; 8. Miami vs. 9 Union.
Midwest Regional (Green Bay) - 3. Michigan vs. 14. North Dakota; 6. UMass-Lowell vs. 11. Michigan State.
The only major concern is an intraconference matchup between Boston College and Merrimack of Hockey East. I'll make an easy swap of Air Force and Merrimack.
Easy week, right?
Not so fast.
There are some major attendance issues, starting with Bridgeport. Despite Boston University being there, three Western teams in the regional is less than ideal. I think we can do better there, in St. Paul and Green Bay.
I'm going to jumble around the No. 3 seeds (9-12) and move Maine to Bridgeport, Michigan State to St. Paul, and NMU to Green Bay.
This move will maximize attendance at all three sites, plus the Wildcats and Black Bears get much shorter trips.
So here's my final bracket heading into the Atlantic Hockey, CCHA and ECAC playoffs.
West Regional (St. Paul, Minn.) - 1. Minnesota-Duluth vs. 15. Merrimack; 7. Minnesota vs. 11. Michigan State.
East Regional (Bridgeport, Conn.) - 4. Ferris State vs. 13. Denver; 5. Boston University vs. 10. Maine.
Northeast Regional (Worcester, Mass.) - 2. Boston College vs. 16. Air Force; 8. Miami vs. 9 Union.
Midwest Regional (Green Bay) - 3. Michigan vs. 14. North Dakota; 6. UMass-Lowell vs. 12. Northern Michigan.
Mining Journal Sports Editor Matt Wellens will have another bracketology analysis on Thursday of next week and keep it up right until the field is announced on Sunday, March 18. Matt can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.