It's the longest, and certainly most grueling, of all seasons on the college sports calendar.
Ice hockey starts with preseason practice in September, with games from October to early March, followed by playoffs leading to the NCAA Frozen Four, which this year will be April 10-12 at Denver's Pepsi Center.
Perhaps the runners (cross-country, indoor track, outdoor track) might compete for more months. But they aren't putting on those heavy, smelly pads every day and slamming into the boards, delivering or absorbing the relentless hits and checks that are so much a part of hockey.
You think college football is physically demanding? Not as much as hockey, in which everyone except the reserve goaltender shares in the playing time.
So when February arrives, everyone is wearing down. The best teams and coaches have to think about more than raw talent and strategy. They have to stay as fresh as they can, with playoff spots and titles at stake.
Handling and overcoming the inevitable fatigue, not just from practices and games but the long road trips, often becomes as challenging as the opposition.
Such is the case now for Colorado College, which begins to explain why CC head coach Scott Owens was smart to leave the Tigers' schedule blank last weekend. It was a block break at the school, meaning the players were out of classes with no tests or assignments hanging over their heads. They could totally relax and recharge before the stretch run.
With three huge series to end the regular season at Minnesota-Duluth this weekend, Minnesota State (Mankato) here on Feb. 29 and March 1, then Denver to finish (at DU on March 7, here on March 8) the Tigers find themselves battling North Dakota, the nation's hottest team, 10-0-1 in its past 11 games. They're tied for first place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, though CC has six more league games to play, versus only four for UND.
Their first battle is for the McNaughton Cup, which goes to the WCHA regular-season champ, with Colorado College trying for its sixth title in 15 seasons. That's important, obviously, but just the beginning of what the Tigers hope to accomplish.
Next will come the league playoffs, starting with a first-round home series (March 14-16) that has often proven treacherous for CC in the past. If the Tigers survive that, they'll go to the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul, Minn.
There, the form charts suggest CC and North Dakota should meet for the tournament title. That alone would be meaningful, because the Final Five champion gets the Broadmoor Trophy (yes, given by our Broadmoor) and, almost certainly, a No. 1 regional seed to the NCAA Tournament.
This is where the ice becomes slippery. What the WCHA hopes, obviously, is that both CC and the Nodaks can earn No. 1 seeds. That would put the Tigers atop the bracket for the West Regional here on March 28-29 at Colorado Springs World Arena, since CC would be guaranteed to play at home as a regional host. And if North Dakota is also a No. 1, it would have to go elsewhere.
At this point, the candidates for NCAA No. 1 seeds include Michigan, Miami of Ohio, New Hampshire, CC and North Dakota. (Denver has faded lately but could resurface.) Michigan and New Hampshire would appear to be practically certain, barring surprises in their league tournaments, with Michigan in the Midwest at Madison, Wis., and UNH in the Northeast at Worcester, Mass.
That leaves the East at Albany, N.Y., which could have Miami or North Dakota as a traveling No. 1 seed.
The best break for Colorado College would be to secure No. 1 in the West, drawing a low seed in the first round before likely facing a tough No. 2 seed for a Frozen Four berth. If North Dakota goes elsewhere, the Tigers could avoid the rugged assignment of perhaps facing the Fighting Sioux on two straight weekends Final Five and the West Regional.
The bottom line is this: As of now, the WCHA deserves two No. 1 regional seeds in the NCAA bracket, but that's no guarantee. There's also little debate that, top to bottom, the WCHA is the nation's strongest and deepest league, and often its members beat up on each other, even in the playoffs.
What Colorado College must avoid is slipping to the point of falling out of contention for one of those No. 1 seeds.
That's why having a weekend off in mid-February could have been the best prescription for the Tigers that is, if they come back looking more like the swarming, explosive group they've been most of the season.
It's already clear that CC is capable of making the Frozen Four. But we could fill a book talking about college hockey teams that looked good enough for most of the winter, then couldn't make it to April.
Will these Tigers join that club of frustrated also-rans? Or, this time, will they last all the way through the longest college season?
The answers start coming now.
CC hockey schedule
Feb. 22-23: at Minnesota-Duluth
Feb. 29-March 1: Minnesota State
March 7: at Denver
March 8: Denver
March 14-16: First-round WCHA series, best-of-three, World Arena
March 20-22: WCHA Final Five, St. Paul, Minn.
March 28-29: NCAA West Regional, World Arena
April 10-12: NCAA Frozen Four, Pepsi Center, Denver
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