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St. Cloud State looking to solidify NCAA berth

by James Murphy
St. Cloud State will host Minnesota State in the quarterfinals of the WCHA tournament this weekend, attempting to win its conference and solidify a berth in the 2010 NCAA tournament.

The Huskies (20-11-5 overall; 15-9-4 WCHA) head into this weekend ranked No. 7 in the Top 10 poll, but rankings and making the tournament aren't all that matters to coach Bob Motzko and this team. St. Cloud has never won a national championship and never played in the Frozen Four. After a solid and consistent season, the Huskies are hoping to catch fire and play at Detroit's Ford Field April 8 to end the drought of 24 seasons without a Frozen Four appearance and then April 10 to compete for their first NCAA title.

"Obviously in college sports you really have different groups at the most every four years and usually less than that, but this is a group of juniors and seniors in two NCAA tournaments," said Motzko, who is in his fifth season at St. Cloud State. "We're fighting to lock in a spot now and focused on that. But yes, of course, it's in the back of our mind. St. Cloud State has had a lot of opportunities and we haven't won that big game yet. We know that and we accept that challenge to hopefully be that team. But we have a few wins ahead of us to even get that chance so we take it a step at a time."

Heading into this season, Motzko wasn't sure he would be talking Frozen Four or ranked as high as the Huskies are. They did have senior forward Ryan Lasch (18 goals, 22 assists) and junior forward Garrett Roe (16 goals, 23 assists) returning up front, but after that, there was no telling where the scoring depth would come from. On defense the Huskies were solid with senior captain Garrett Raboin (5 goals, 14 assists), leading the way. In goal, there was a question mark with junior Dan Dunn (12-3-2, 2.57 GAA, .914 save percentage) and freshman Mike Lee (8-8-3, 2.81 GAA and .914 save percentage).

"I think our expectations were a little cloudy to start the year because we thought we had a lot of talent, or enough talent is a better way to put it," Motzko said. "We weren't a young team and we weren't an old team. We were a team that was right in transition and we were going to find out what type of team we had. We had a couple question marks in goaltending with a freshman and junior and weren't sure how things would come together."

Lee and Dunn got the job done and the team jelled. By the second half, the Huskies were a team to be reckoned with. They got some depth scoring from players like junior forward Tony Mosey (31 points) and sophomores Drew Leblanc (25 points) and Jared Festler (21 points).

"If we look at it now, things came together very well for us," Motzko said. "Our defensive core was strong, our goaltending solidified itself and I think at Christmas, the only thing we still hadn't established was we weren't scoring enough. But in the second half we became a much better offensive team. So I don't know if we're a great team yet but we have real good moments and like all teams, our deficiencies hit us at times. But overall I'm pleased."

Motzko liked his players' even-keel approach and now he's hoping they can turn it up a notch in the WCHA playoffs and hopefully the NCAA tournament.

"Our league can beat you down and you have seen teams go on swings and, obviously, teams that are on upswings like Denver and North Dakota, are in good shape," Motzko said. "But I am happy with how consistent we have been every weekend, taking points almost every weekend, getting better as we went on. I was happy that we didn't have swings where we could get too high or too low. But we have to know that in the playoffs and the tournament we have to go on that run. We need to catch fire and ride that momentum. We need to pay attention to little things and raise our level of play."
Tournament talk -- The tables are set for the conference tournaments and here's a look at the matchups:

CCHA: Last weekend, No. 12 Western Michigan lost to No. 5 Alaska, No. 11 Bowling Green lost to No. 6 Nebraska-Omaha, No. 10 Lake Superior lost to No. 7 Michigan, No. 9 Notre Dame lost to No. 8 Ohio State.

No. 1 Miami now hosts No. 8 Ohio State; No. 2 Michigan State hosts No. 7 Michigan; No. 3 Ferris State hosts No. 6 Nebraska-Omaha; No. 4 Northern Michigan hosts No. 5 Alaska.

All series are best-of-three. The semifinals will take place March 19 and the finals March 20 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

WCHA: The first round of the WCHA tournament starts this weekend. All series are best of three. Here are the pairings:

No. 10 Michigan Tech at No. 1 Denver; No. 9 Alaska Anchorage at No. 2 Wisconsin; No. 8 Minnesota State at No. 3 St. Cloud State; No. 7 Minnesota at No. 4 North Dakota; No. 6 Colorado College at No. 5 Minnesota Duluth.

A play-in to the Final Five will take place March 18 with the semifinals and finals March 19 and 20 at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul.

Hockey East: The first round of the Hockey East tournament starts this weekend. All series are best-of-three. No. 1 New Hampshire hosts No. 8 Vermont; No. 2 Boston College hosts No. 7 Massachusetts, No. 3 Boston University hosts No. 6 Merrimack, and No. 4 Maine hosts No. 5 UMass-Lowell.

The semifinals and finals will be held at TD Garden March 19 and 20.

Atlantic Conference: In the one-game play-ins last week, No. 7 Holy Cross beat No. 10 American International and No. 9 Connecticut beat No. 8 Bentley. The quarterfinal best-of-three series are set for this weekend, with the semifinals and finals March 19 and 20 at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, NY. Here are the quarterfinals matchups:

No. 9 Connecticut at No. 1 RIT; No. 7 Holy Cross at No. 2 Sacred Heart; No. 6 Army at No. 3 Air Force and No. 5 Canisius at No. 4 Mercyhurst.

ECAC: The ECAC tournament started last weekend with the top four teams getting byes. No. 5 St. Lawrence beat No. 12 Clarkson; No 11 Brown beat No. 6 Rensselaer; No. 9 Harvard beat No. 8 Princeton, No. 7 Quinnipiac beat No. 10 Dartmouth.

The best-of-three quarterfinals take place this weekend with the semifinals and finals at the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y. March 19 and 20.

No. 1 Yale hosts No. 11 Brown; No. 2 Cornell hosts No. 9 Harvard; No. 3 Union hosts No. 7 Quinnipiac and No. 4 Colgate hosts No. 5 St. Lawrence.
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