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The sound of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's "Waitin' on a Sunny Day'' resounded through the loudspeakers Saturday night at the St. Thomas Ice Arena after the men's hockey teams from St. Thomas and Minnesota State Mankato finished their CCHA series.

The song hit an appropriate note for the home team. While St. Thomas lost 5-2 to the Mavericks, there already have been some sunny days and the promise of many more in the future for the Tommies, who are in their second season in Division I hockey after making the transition from Division III.

Friday provided St. Thomas a bright ray of sunshine in Mankato, where the Tommies defeated last year's NCAA runner-up 3-2 on Mack Byers' goal 57 seconds into overtime. Saturday's result was a series split and left St. Thomas with an 8-18-2 overall record and a 7-11-2 mark in CCHA play. Over their past three conference series, the Tommies are 3-2-1 with wins over the first-place Mavericks and second-place Michigan Tech, and a win and tie against third-place Bowling Green.

"Tonight was a really good learning experience for our team,'' Tommies coach Rico Blasi said. "We were able to be in a game where the mind-set has to change. We're not just playing games anymore. Our guys understood that at this time of the year now, things are a little bit different.''

Blasi aims to have his team playing well heading into the CCHA playoffs, which will conclude St. Thomas' season because it is not yet eligible for the NCAA tournament during the probationary five-year period from the move to Division I. The Tommies already have made huge strides from their D-I debut last season, when they went 3-32-1 and finished last in the conference.

Signs of improvement showed up early this season. In a Oct. 21 game at Penn State, a team that's No. 5 in the PairWise Ratings, St. Thomas had a shot ring off the crossbar in overtime only to fall 3-2 on a late Nittany Lions breakaway. The Tommies swept a home series against Lake Superior State in November and lost a tight, 2-1 game at Minnesota Duluth on Dec. 31.

"I take it as a huge positive this weekend,'' Blasi said. "We battled back last night. We were in a hostile environment.''

Added freshman forward Luc Laylin, whose third-period goal Friday forced overtime: "It's time to ramp things up.''

The biggest burst of sunshine for the Tommies came Jan. 17 with the announcement that the school received a $75 million donation to build the Lee & Penny Anderson Arena, which will hold 4,000 for hockey and 5,000 for basketball. Plans are for the arena to open for the 2024-25 season.

The Tommies' current home is the St. Thomas Ice Arena, located in Mendota Heights, 7½ miles away from their St. Paul campus. They've made do at that location and even drew a record crowd of 1,080 on Saturday. Still, the move to a brand-new home on campus carries hope – and responsibility.

"We're all about making sure that we develop the student-athlete, and we're going to be student-athletes at St. Thomas,'' Blasi said. "We're going to do it the right way. And you don't give that kind of money without a responsibility for us as coaches and players to make sure that we're doing that.''

Mavericks finding their groove

Last year, Minnesota State was 15 minutes away from winning its first Division I national championship before Denver's third-period surge in Boston produced a 5-1 Pioneers victory. The Mavericks finished 38-6-0 with their second consecutive Frozen Four trip and had the Hobey Baker Award winner in goalie Dryden McKay. It marked their fourth consecutive season with a winning percentage of .786 or better.

The 2022-23 season hasn't been as dominant for coach Mike Hastings and his team, but the Mavericks (19-10-1 overall) still sit atop the CCHA standings with 45 points, one more than second-place Michigan Tech. They've been on a roll lately, winning nine of 10.

"For us now, it's the time of year if you can have the opportunity to make your own way [to the NCAA tournament] and not have to worry about other people — we're in that spot,'' Hastings said Saturday. "Tonight was really big for us.''

The Mavericks, who've won five consecutive conference titles, aren't yet a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament. They're No. 13 in the PairWise, which would translate into a No. 4 NCAA regional seed, but they need to keep winning to secure their berth.

"It's been a good reset for the second half,'' Hastings said. "We started to get better goaltending and are defending better. … We need to take a deep breath and park in the rearview mirror and keep looking out the windshield.''

Clash of the Titans

The much-anticipated matchup between the top-ranked Ohio State women's team and the No. 3 Gophers didn't disappoint with the home team winning 4-2 at Ridder Arena on Friday and the defending national champion prevailing 5-1 for a series split on Saturday. That left the Gophers with a two-point lead over the Buckeyes with each team having WCHA series against Wisconsin and St. Thomas to complete the regular season.

"That's WCHA hockey right there, top teams getting after it,'' Gophers coach Brad Frost said. "… I would imagine they're going to be there in the end. And that's where we hope to be, too.''

Added Buckeyes coach Nadine Muzerall, "That's really [No.] 1 and 2 in the country. And I don't think it'll be the last time we see each other.''

Early February Bracketology

Since it's February, why not have a little fun and see what the NCAA men's tournament field looks like as of games played through Sunday?

The conference tournament champions of the Big Ten, CCHA, NCHC, Hockey East, ECAC and Atlantic Hockey will receive automatic NCAA bids. The remaining 10 spots will be filled via the PairWise Ratings, a computer formula that uses comparisons to rank the teams. In these projections, the teams that lead their conference standings are projected to win their conference tournaments.

The four NCAA regional sites, played from March 23-26, are Fargo (North Dakota as host); Allentown, Pa. (Penn State as host); Bridgeport, Conn. (Yale as host); and Manchester, N.H. (New Hampshire as host). Host teams that qualify for the tournament will be placed in their corresponding regional, and as of now, Penn State is the only team in the top 16 of the PairWise.

Here are the projected regionals with overall seedings. The Frozen Four is April 6 and 8 in Tampa, Fla.:

Fargo (March 23, 25)

1. Gophers vs. 16. Rochester Institute of Technology

8. Ohio State vs. 9. Western Michigan

Comment: RIT, No. 18 in the PairWise, gets the Atlantic Hockey autobid, knocking out No. 16 Nebraska Omaha from the field.

Bridgeport, Conn. (March 24, 26)

2. Quinnipiac vs. 15. Connecticut

7. St. Cloud State vs. 10. Michigan Tech

Comment: The Quinny-Connecticut matchup fits perfectly in the home state of the Bobcats and UConn. Also, three teams with Huskies nicknames in this projection would be a broadcaster's nightmare.

Manchester, N.H. (March 23, 25)

3. Boston University vs. 14. Michigan State

6. Denver vs. 11. Harvard

Comment: Boston U. and Harvard should help attendance in this regional.

Allentown, Pa. (March 24, 26)

4. Michigan vs. 13. Minnesota State Mankato

5. Penn State vs. 12. Cornell

Comment: Michigan vs. Mankato would be a matchup of 2022 Frozen Four teams.

Conclusion: There are no intraconference first-round matchups to be broken up, and the regionals are balanced decently for attendance, so there is no pressing need to mess with this bracket. Of course, these matchups will change as the season plays out.