Merrimack-UNH has major implications

A look at the weekend's biggest series, courtesy of our friends at InsideCollegeHockey.com:

Merrimack vs. New Hampshire (Friday at Durham, N.H.; Saturday at North Andover, Mass.): Though both Merrimack and New Hampshire are virtual NCAA tournament locks, this weekend's home-and-home series plays a huge role in determining the Hockey East regular-season champion. And it should be a good battle; on paper, these two teams are almost identical. Both the Warriors and Wildcats rank among the top 15 nationally in scoring offense (Merrimack is tied for second, UNH is fourth); scoring defense (Merrimack is eighth, UNH is 14th); and power-play success rate (Merrimack is 11th, UNH is 13th).

The two areas where these teams are dramatically different are penalty minutes and penalty killing. Merrimack averages 17 PIMs per game (ninth most in the land), but its penalty kill is tied for second-best nationally at 88.8 percent. UNH, meanwhile, is second to last in penalty minutes at 9.3 PIMs per game, but ranks 42nd in the country in penalty killing at 80 percent. Even so, both clubs have given up 18 power-play goals this season.

It's also a head-to-head battle of Hobey Baker Award hopefuls (forwards Paul Thompson of New Hampshire and Stephane Da Costa of Merrimack) and All-American caliber goalies (the Warriors' Joe Cannata and the Wildcats' Matt DiGirolamo). If you can't find at least one thing about this series that intrigues you, we suggest you check yourself for a pulse.

Western Michigan at Miami (Friday-Saturday): Speaking of teams with NCAA tournament aspirations, Miami and Western Michigan are on the bubble as of right now. That could change real quick depending on the outcome of this series. For the Broncos, this weekend starts a critical three-week stretch of games -- after its trip to Oxford, WMU heads to Ann Arbor for a series with Michigan and closes the season with a home-and-home with Notre Dame. The RedHawks, meanwhile, are coming off series with Notre Dame and Michigan.

The burning question here seems to be, who can stop Andy Miele? The Miami forward has 21 points in his last nine games and 35 points in his last 20 games dating back to mid-November. WMU freshman forward Chase Balisy has quietly put together a terrific rookie campaign. He's got six goals and 13 points in his last nine games and along with classmate Shane Berschbach forms a potent scoring duo for the Broncos.

Cornell at Union (Friday); Cornell at Rensselaer (Saturday): While Yale, Union, and Rensselaer have alternately shared the spotlight in ECAC Hockey, perennial conference heavyweight Cornell has quietly sneaked into a tie for fourth place in the league standings. The Big Red is 7-1-2 since Jan. 1, turning a 4-8-1 record on New Year's Day into an 11-9-3 mark heading into this weekend. The keys? A balanced scoring attack led by senior forward Joe Devin, who has eight goals and 13 points in his last 10 games, and steadier goaltending from the duo of junior Mike Garman and freshman Andy Iles. And while the Union-Rensselaer roadie has become the most daunting weekend trip in the conference, it shouldn't faze Cornell -- the Big Red is 4-1-2 in ECAC Hockey road games this season.

Wisconsin at Nebraska-Omaha (Friday-Saturday): The fourth-place Mavericks and fifth-place Badgers are separated by two points in the WCHA standings and while a run at the MacNaughton Cup is not beyond the realm of possibility for either team, the immediate focus for both is earning a home series for the first round of the WCHA playoffs and beefing up their respective NCAA Tournament resumes. Only Boston College and Union enter the weekend with more wins than Wisconsin's 19 but, as we've mentioned before, the Badgers have just one win against a team with a winning record (Jan. 15 at Minnesota Duluth). Still, the selection committee doesn't ask how, but how many. UNO, meanwhile, has done pretty well against better teams; it's the ones they should beat (Alabama-Huntsville, Bemidji State, Quinnipiac) that give them trouble. With series against Denver and UMD remaining, they'll have opportunities to boost their stock.

Also: A win over Michigan in December sparked an 8-2-1 run for Ohio State. The Buckeyes, who've lost four of five, are in Ann Arbor this weekend seeking a similar jump start. That won't be easy against a Wolverines squad that's lost three in a row, including two at Miami last weekend. … Denver takes a five-game winning streak against Minnesota into Mariucci Arena this weekend. During that streak, the Pioneers have outscored the Gophers by an 18-2 margin. … Sacred Heart and Connecticut play Saturday at Rentschler Field in Hartford in the first of two Division I outdoor games at the facility this month. Army and American International also play there on Feb. 19, which is the same day as the Whale Bowl pitting the American Hockey League's Connecticut Whale against the Providence Bruins. … The CBC's always-excellent "Hockey Day in Canada" is set for Saturday with Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory serving as the backdrop for this year's proceedings. Those of you who don't get the Ceeb can check it out on the NHL Network starting at noon ET.

For more from Inside College Hockey, check out insidecollegehockey.com.