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College hockey conference championships preview

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

NHL prospects like Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau will shine on conference championship weekend. (USATSI)
NHL prospects like Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau will shine on conference championship weekend. (USATSI)

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It is conference championship week in college hockey, and all of the action will start Thursday in St. Paul, Minn. The weekend will prove important for national tournament seeding and, for some teams, getting in at all, which makes for exciting action.

With such an important week ahead, Eye on Hockey wants to get you squared away with what to watch for, including the best games, top NHL prospects and predictions for the weekend. (All times ET.)

WCHA Final Five -- St. Paul, Minn.

Thursday, March 21
Minnesota State vs. Wisconsin -- 3:07 p.m.
Colorado College vs. North Dakota -- 8:07 p.m.

Friday, March 22
Minnesota State/Wisconsin vs. St. Cloud State -- 3:07 p.m.
Colorado College/North Dakota vs. Minnesota -- 8:07 p.m.

Saturday, March 23
Championship game -- 8:07 p.m.

All games air live on Fox Sports North

Must-See Matchup: It's going to take some work to get there, but the game that a lot of college hockey fans will be hoping for is North Dakota vs. Minnesota for one last time in the WCHA before they go their separate ways. North Dakota will have to handle Colorado College first, but a shot at getting one of the best rivalries in college hockey on this stage is exciting. The number of pro prospects on both rosters only adds to the intrigue.

NHL Prospects to Watch:
Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota. The Florida Panthers first-rounder has 21 goals this season and has been a force at both ends of the ice. He's expected to sign when the season is up, so you won't want to miss seeing what he can do at the college level.

Danny Kristo, North Dakota. A Montreal Canadiens pick, the UND senior has been on a tear this year with 50 points, good for third in the country. His blinding speed and devastating shot make him one of the more exciting players in the college game.

Drew LeBlanc, St. Cloud State. One of the top free agents in college hockey, LeBlanc is likely to have an NHL contract waiting when his season is done. He helped lead the Huskies to their first WCHA regular-season title, which they shared with Minnesota. His 37 assists lead the nation.

Championship Game Prediction: Minnesota over Wisconsin
The Badgers have been strong in the second half and as a bubble team for the national tournament. Motivation should be high. UW will have to win twice to get to the final, which is a tough task, but they should be up to it. Minnesota, however, has been the strongest team for most of the year. They'll be tested in St. Paul, but it's tough to pick against the Gophers.

Hockey East Championship -- Boston

Friday, March 22
Providence vs. UMass-Lowell -- 5 p.m.
Boston University vs. Boston College -- 8 p.m.

Saturday, March 23
Championship game -- 7 p.m.

All games will air live on NBC Sports Network

Must-See Matchup: With all due respect to the great tilt that is expected between Providence and UML, there's a lot of history in BU-BC that should provide for a thriller. Legendary BU coach Jack Parker is retiring at the end of the season, and the Terriers need to win it all this weekend to go to the national tournament. Think that's enough motivation? Unfortunately, BC's legend behind the bench, Jerry York, won't be there this weekend as he recovers from eye surgery. That puts a slight damper on what should be an incredible game with such high stakes.

NHL Prospects to Watch:
Johnny Gaudreau, Boston College. A 2011 draft pick of the Calgary Flames, Gaudreau has had an incredible year, from helping Team USA win gold with seven goals at the World Junior Championship to his 49 points as a sophomore. A magician with the puck, Gaudreau might be the most skilled player in college hockey.

Jon Gillies, Providence. Like Gaudreau, Gillies is a Calgary prospect and was a member of the U.S. WJC team. The freshman netminder has been incredible in his first season and is probably Providence's MVP. In 34 starts, Gillies has a 17-11-6 record, 2.08 goals-against average, .931 save percentage and five shutouts.

Connor Hellebuyck, UMass-Lowell. Selected by the Winnipeg Jets in the last NHL Draft, Hellebuyck had to earn his starting gig between the pipes for the RiverHawks as a freshman. His numbers are staggering with a 16-2-0 record, .944 save percentage, 1.49 goals-against average and four shutouts. The 6-4, 200-pound goalie has been a key to UML's incredible late-season run, going 10-1-0 in his last 11 starts.

Championship Game Prediction: Boston College over UMass-Lowell
Lowell has been hot for the second half of the season, while Boston College has sputtered. However, the Eagles are the defending champs, with a lot of winning experience on the roster. They know how to close, and it should show this weekend in Boston.

CCHA Championship -- Detroit

Saturday, March 23

Ohio State vs. Notre Dame -- 1:05 p.m.
Michigan vs. Miami -- 4:35 p.m.

Sunday, March 24
Championship game -- 2:05 p.m.

All games air live on Fox Sports Detroit

Must-See Matchup: The big game between Michigan and Miami should be a doozy. The Wolverines are one of the hottest teams in college hockey with a 7-0-1 record in their last eight. It was a dreadful year for Michigan until the last few months, so they need to win the CCHA title to earn a 23rd consecutive national tournament berth. Meanwhile, Miami is the CCHA regular-season champion despite having a very young team. Both teams are loaded with future NHL talent. The two squads split the regular-season series in Ann Arbor.

NHL Prospects to Watch:
Jacob Trouba, Michigan. The first-round selection of the Winnipeg Jets last year, Trouba has been one of the brightest freshmen in the country. He has 27 points, including 12 goals, and has delivered many a big hit. He is likely to get offered a contract at the end of the season, but will he stay or will he go? What happens in Detroit could play a big role in that decision.

Riley Barber, Miami. As one of the big surprises this year, Barber is the nation's leading scorer among freshmen. The Washington Capitals prospect also leads Miami in all major categories with 15 goals, 23 assists and 38 points. He has been automatic this year offensively.

Anders Lee, Notre Dame. The Irish have a lot of NHL draft picks on their roster, but one of the most intriguing is Lee. The junior is a draft choice of the New York Islanders and leads the team with 37 points, including 19 goals. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, he's very close to NHL readiness, but will he sign? There is some doubt as he could opt not to sign and become an unrestricted free agent this summer. He'd be in demand, too.

Championship Game Prediction: Michigan over Notre Dame
The Wolverines will have to get past a very tough Miami squad. But with history in the balance, Red Berenson should have a very hungry team. Michigan can only go to the national tournament by winning the CCHA title. Unbeaten in its last eight, Michigan is rolling and has looked unbeatable at times. The Irish have struggled with consistency but have the guns to get to the title game and provide a classic final in the last CCHA championship game ever.

ECAC Championship -- Atlantic City, N.J.

Friday, March 22
Brown vs. Quinnipiac -- 4 p.m.
Union vs. Yale -- 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, March 23
Third-place game -- 4 p.m.
Championship game -- 7 p.m.

All games will air live on Fox College Sports

Must-See Matchup: Quinnipiac has been one of the best teams in country all year with a 26-6-5 record, but the Bobcats have not beaten Brown. QU grabbed two ties this year against the Bears, but they'll play until there's a winner this time around. Quinnipiac's fate is solidified in the national tournament, but skating out of Atlantic City without the ECAC title would be a big disappointment.

NHL Prospects to Watch:
Shayne Gostisbehere, Union. The offensive defenseman was a fourth-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers last year. He was also a member of Team USA at the World Juniors. With his terrific skating and high-end skill, Gostisbehere is solid at both ends of the ice and a lot of fun to watch. He has 24 points.

Antoine Laganiere, Yale. He'll be one of the most coveted college free agents and will have most NHL teams looking to offer him a contract as soon as Yale's season is over. He's not an overly flashy player, but he has some decent offensive tools and pro size at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. Laganiere has 14 goals.

Eric Hartzell, Quinnipiac. Also a free agent, Hartzell has been one of the nation's absolute best goaltenders and is a big reason why QU heads into tournament time as the No. 1 team in the rankings. He has a 26-5-5 record, .935 save percentage, 1.50 goals-against average and four shutouts.

Championship Game Prediction: Quinnipiac over Union
The Bobcats survived a scare against Cornell, winning in double overtime to secure a spot in Atlantic City, but that kind of adversity could be good. Union was a Frozen Four team last year and is on the bubble for the tournament, so they need a good showing. Quinnipiac's goaltending and the way the Bobcats have been rolling all year might be too much to overcome.

Atlantic Hockey -- Rochester, N.Y.

Friday, March 22
Canisius vs. Niagara -- 4:05 p.m.
Mercyhurst vs. UConn -- 7:35 p.m.

Saturday, March 23
Championship game -- 7:05 p.m.

Must-See Matchup: With campuses about 25 miles apart, Canisius and Niagara have become solid natural rivals. Niagara has been one of the big surprises this year, winning the Atlantic Hockey regular-season title, and is well positioned for a national tournament spot. Canisius has beaten Niagara once this year and will be motivated by a chance to earn an automatic bid to nationals. This also could be a great goaltender's duel with Niagara's Carsen Chubak and Canisius' Tony Capobianco putting up some strong numbers this season.

Championship Prediction: UConn over Niagara
If UConn can pull off the upset, it would likely mean Atlantic Hockey gets two teams in the national tournament and really upsets the apple cart. The Huskies have been a surprise team this season, performing well despite having an interim head coach behind the bench for much of the year. UConn only gets a shot at nationals with an AHA title. Niagara is pretty much a lock to go to the national tournament, so there's a chance at a bit of a letdown here.

Prospect to Watch:
Carsen Chubak, Niagara. While there are no drafted players in this tournament, a few potential free agent will be targets. Chubak might be high on that list. He's had a remarkable year with a .941 save percentage and 1.81 goals-against average to go along with a nation-leading six shutouts. He's a big reason why the Purple Eagles are in this position.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @chrismpeters on Twitter and like us on Facebook. Also, subscribe to our YouTube Channel.

 
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