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First wins, Holy Cross moments among story lines to watch for

Now that five days of complaining (you know who you are) about Wisconsin's inclusion in the tournament and New Hampshire getting jettisoned out West are behind us, it's time to focus on the 15 games that lie ahead.

This weekend is the best college hockey has to offer because it is a great combination of anticipation and excitement along with the most on the line for the greatest number of teams.

With that in mind, let's take a look at five key questions before the puck drops Friday afternoon in Albany, N.Y., to get the 2008 Division I Men's Ice Hockey Championship underway.

1. Which regional is toughest from top to bottom?

My initial response was the Midwest Regional in Madison, Wisc. There you have a No. 1 seed, North Dakota, that looked every bit like it was going to be the tourney's No. 1 overall seed until last weekend. Mix in Western Collegiate Hockey Association champion Denver (playing for the right to skate in a hometown Frozen Four), along with everybody's home-ice favorite Badgers and ECAC champ Princeton (winner of 16 of its past 21 games).

How can you top that? Head southwest 1,000 or so miles.

My new choice is the West Regional in Colorado Springs, Colo. It is loaded with good teams and plenty of intrigue. You have the lowest No. 1 seed, UNH, which still is looking for its first NCAA title. The Wildcats have a tendency to grip the sticks a little too tightly come tournament time, but this year's team has a very good mix of scoring balance and goaltending, and no one will be surprised if it advances up the road to Denver. There will be even less surprise if hometown host Colorado College emerges Saturday night as the regional champ.

And don't forget defending national champion Michigan State. Sure, nobody expects anything from the Spartans, but that's usually when Rick Comley's club plays its best. And with Jeff Lerg in goal, anything is possible. Speaking of goalies, look at the collection that will be on display at the World Arena. Lerg has the highest goals against average (2.23) of a group that also includes CC's Richard Bachman (1.82), Notre Dame's Jordan Pearce (1.94) and UNH's Kevin Regan (2.12). Can you say overtime?

2. Which conference has the most to prove?

Let's see … the WCHA has won five of the past six national championships. Hockey East has had at least one team in the title game in 10 of the past 11 years. The Central Collegiate Hockey Association has the No. 1 overall seed, Michigan, and the defending champion, Michigan State. For the purposes of this argument, we'll exclude Atlantic Hockey and College Hockey America and leave them at the kids' table.

That leaves the ECAC. The league hasn't won a title since Harvard in 1989. And if you remove Cornell from the discussion, the last team to win a game, any game, in the NCAA tournament was St. Lawrence back in 2000. It took the Saints four overtimes to send Boston University home in the longest game in NCAA tourney history. To be fair, Cornell advanced to the Frozen Four in 2003 and has won five NCAA games in this decade. But where's the rest of the conference?

Clarkson was a No. 1 seed last year and lost to UMass in the first round. This year, the Golden Knights are a No. 3 seed and will face St. Cloud State in Albany. That seems eminently more winnable than Princeton's 4-versus-1 matchup against the Fighting Sioux on Saturday in Madison. Either way, the conference needs to find a way to advance a team or two if it wants to shed its second-tier status behind the three big leagues.

3. Which team has the best chance of picking up its first NCAA win?

There are three choices here, boys and girls. Air Force and Princeton are making their second NCAA appearances. The Falcons will face No. 1 Miami (Ohio) on Saturday in Worcester, Mass., while the Tigers will take on No. 1 North Dakota. Assuming the seedings are correct, it's sensible to think the cadets and Hobey Baker's boys still will be searching for a win after this weekend.

So that leaves St. Cloud State. The Huskies are No. 2 in the East and will skate against Clarkson on Friday in Albany. No team has made more NCAA appearances without a win than St. Cloud, which has made six. Thanks to a best-of-three series format back in the late '80s, the Huskies actually have more losses (7) than appearances. Someday the hockey gods will shine on Bob Motzko's team, so why not this year?

4. Which No. 1 seed is least likely to advance to Denver?

UNH is the easy pick, for reasons stated above, so I'll go with Miami. Sure, the Redhawks are the No. 2 overall seed and have more wins (32) than any other team in the tournament, but they also are 1-5 in NCAA play and never have been a No. 1 seed before. Miami's only win came against UNH in the first round last year. Then, with a Frozen Four bid on the line, Enrico Blasi's club was shut out by Boston College 4-0.

This year in Worcester, the Redhawks will be afforded all the advantages that come with being the top seed. But even if they beat Air Force on Saturday, they will run into either Boston College or Minnesota, two of the biggest brand names in hockey. Neither the Eagles nor the Gophers will get stage fright in a regional final, but until proven otherwise, the same can't be said about a team that never has advanced beyond that round.

5. Is there a Holy Cross moment on the horizon?

I sure hope so. The Crusaders' win over Minnesota two years ago in Grand Forks, N.D., was the talk of the tournament. And while I was sitting in the DCU Center watching BU and BC run roughshod over Nebraska-Omaha and Miami, respectively, I wanted nothing more than to be at the Ralph to witness the monumental upset. If you don't have a dog in the hunt, then you want to see the epic games, and David picking off Goliath certainly qualifies.

On paper, there doesn't appear to be any of those lurking, but considering I see no hands being raised when the question is asked whether anyone predicted Holy Cross' holy jumpin' moment, we'll just have to wait and see.

For the record, I picked Denver to win it all (sorry George Gwozdecky), so that probably means the sub-.500 Badgers will pick off the Pioneers on Saturday. Would being the second team with a losing record to win an NCAA game (1971 Minnesota is the only one to date) qualify as a Holy Cross moment?

David Albright is the senior deputy editor for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at david.albright@espn3.com.