I said this at this juncture last season, and I’ll say it again — the NCAAs really start this weekend. With just one at-large bid available, all but a select few teams know they must win their conference championship to advance to the national tournament.
Lose, and your season is over.
The postseason gets underway this weekend with the SUNYAC and NCHA playoffs, and six teams will end their seasons as a result. In the SUNYAC, non-qualifiers Buffalo State and Brockport are already done.
So, in our countdown to the final four, 63 teams are still alive, with another 15 to finish up this weekend. Playing their final games of the season will be:
1. The SUNYAC and NCHA playoff losers
2. Either MSOE or Lawrence in the MCHA (one won’t make the playoffs)
3. Conn. College and Wesleyan in the NESCAC (didn’t make the playoffs)
4. St. Olaf, St. Mary’s, Hamline, Gustavus Adolphus (already eliminated) and either St. John’s, Augburg or Bethel in the MIAC.
5. Neumann, an independent, which will play its last games of the season this weekend. Neumann will join the ECAC West next season.
Hats off to the seniors on those squads.
Around the nation
Wisconsin-Stout will host an NCHA playoff series for the first time in school history this weekend. The Blue Devils, who set a school record for regular-season victories this season (15-9-1) captured fourth place by virtue of a sweep last weekend of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (4-3) and Wisconsin-Stevens Point (6-4).
Stout was picked to finish last in the NCHA this season, while Stevens Point was picked first, and second in the nation in the USCHO.com preseason poll.
However, Point finds itself in the unfamiliar position of being on the road for a quarterfinal series (just the fourth time in 15 seasons). The Pointers have dropped three games in a row and are just 5-6 in conference in the second semester.
Stout and UWSP split their season series, with the Pointers winning at Stout 9-1 on February 2, and the Blue Devils winning 6-4 at Stevens Point last Saturday.
In other quarterfinal matchups:
No road team has ever won a quarterfinal series since the current playoff format was initiated in 1993. Road teams are 1-43-4 over that span.
The format will consist of a two-game, “first to three points” with a possible minigame. No overtimes will be played in either game, and the team that comes out 2-0 or 1-0-1 advances. In the event the teams split or tie twice, a 15 minute minigame will follow the second game. If that game ends in a tie, then sudden-death overtime will be used to determine a winner.
Plattsburgh won yet another regular title with a 5-2 win at Oswego last Saturday, and earned a first-round playoff bye. The Cards, who finished the regular season 21-4 and ranked fourth in the latest USCHO.com poll, will host the lowest surviving seed in a two-game series beginning February 23.
Oswego clinched second place and the other first-round bye on Tuesday thanks to a 5-1 win at Cortland, and Potsdam’s 5-0 loss to Plattsburgh. The Lakers, who finished the regular season 17-7-1 and ranked ninth in the nation, are also off until February 23.
Potsdam will host Cortland State this weekend in a two game series, using the same format as the NCHA (this format will also be used by the MIAC and in the NCAA quarterfinals). The Bears and Red Dragons have already tangled three times this season, and Potsdam has come out on top every time. The Bears won 5-3 way back in October in their own tournament, and then swept the season series, 6-2 and 5-2.
The other first-round series has fourth-seeded Fredonia hosting Geneseo. The Ice Knights needed a last-game victory over Brockport to clinch a playoff spot, as they were pushed to the brink down the stretch by Buffalo State. The Bengals made it very interesting by taking four points last weekend for the first time ever, including a 9-4 victory over Geneseo. Buffalo State’s season came to an end on Tuesday with a 5-2 loss to Fredonia.
Geneseo upset Fredonia last season in the first round of the SUNYAC playoffs. The Blue Devils swept the season series this year, 5-2 and 4-1.
There’s only one game in the ECAC West this week, but it’s a big one. Round two between top-ranked RIT and number-seven Elmira takes place on Saturday at RIT. The Tigers locked up the ECAC West regular-season title thanks to Manhattanville’s win over Elmira last Friday.
Elmira’s slim NCAA hopes hinge on beating the Tigers on Saturday, and then again in the ECAC West playoffs two weeks after. A win or tie by RIT on Saturday locks up what would be a sixth-straight NCAA bid for the Tigers.
The game will be the last of the season for RIT, which at 21-0-1 in NCAA play is looking to record its first season without a loss since 1964.
Norwich, which got back into the USCHO.com Top Ten this week, has already clinched the regular-season title, and, since everybody makes the postseason, this final weekend will find teams jockeying for playoff positions.
As you might expect, the teams with the momentum are at the top of the standings right now. Norwich and Salem State are each riding three-game winning streaks, and third-place New England College has won four in a row.
Those three plus Babson have all clinched home-ice quarterfinal games, and Skidmore has fifth place locked up. The real battle is between MCLA and Southern Maine to see who has to play Norwich in the first round.
Middlebury has already clinched the reason title, and Conn. College and Wesleyan have already been eliminated, so the seven playoff teams are known. Only the order for positions two through seven remains to be decided.
The Panthers (19-2-1), ranked third in the nation, travel to Wesleyan and Conn. College this weekend, looking not to be tripped up by two teams with nothing to lose. Win or lose, Middlebury will be idle next weekend and then host the NESCAC final four the first weekend in March.
Colby and Amherst have clinched the right to host first-round playoff games, while Trinity, Bowdoin and Hamilton will battle for the other home-ice advantage. The Bantams lead the Polar Bears and Continentals by three points in the standings with a pair of games left, but don’t hold either tiebreaker. That means Trinity needs at least two points this weekend against Williams and MCLA to clinch home ice.
This is another conference where first place has already been decided going into the final weekend of the regular season. St. Thomas swept upstart Bethel, 3-1 and 6-5 to win its 26th regular-season title and clinch its 16th consecutive playoff appearance.
The Tommies have finished the regular season at 14-8-3, and will host the fourth seed in a MIAC semifinal two-game series beginning February 23.
Concordia has also earned a playoff spot. The Cobbers play two games with last-place Hamline this weekend, and need to take three points to guarantee a home-ice semifinal series.
St. John’s, Augsburg and Bethel are still battling for the final two playoff positions, and each could finish as high as second or as low as fifth and out of the running. St. John’s plays a weekend series with St. Olaf, while the Auggies and Royals go head-to-head. A sweep by either squad clinches a playoff spot and eliminates the other.
First-place in the regular season has definitely not been decided yet in the Northeast, where three teams are neck-and-neck. Johnson & Wales and Tufts are tied for first, and defending champ Wentworth is two points back. All three have two conference games left. Wentworth controls it own destiny, as its remaining games are against Tufts (2/15) and J&W (2/18).
All three have locked up home ice for quarterfinal games, and Lebanon Valley, Mass.-Dartmouth and Fitchburg State have all cinched postseason berths.
That leaves Worcester State, Suffolk and Salve Regina still alive, all fighting for the final two spots.
In the Division II league, New Hampshire College (15-6-1) has opened up a big lead in the standings and will be one of the favorites for home ice in the playoffs. St. Anselm (7-13-2) from the ECAC East will also be in the mix, and the Hawks, while not having as good a record as New Hampshire College, play in a stronger conference and has already beaten the Penmen twice this season. They can make a strong case to be seeded number one.
The other battle is between St. Michael’s and Stonehill, separated by just a point in the standings with one conference game to play. The lower seeded team will have to face Assumption in a play-in game to make the ECAC D-II semifinals.
The playoffs officially get underway in the MCHA on February 23, but the Lawrence-MSOE series this weekend is essentially a play-in round. The teams are tied for the fourth and final playoff position. Lawrence holds the advantage, as the Vikings beat and tied the Raiders earlier in the season. A win in either game clinches a first-ever playoff berth for the Vikings.
Marian plays Northland in the other final series of the season, and this one will be a semifinal preview, since the Sabres have second place locked up, and the Lumberjacks have clinched third. The two teams will play again in the MCHA semifinals on February 23.
Regular season champion Minnesota-Crookston will face either Lawrence or MSOE in the other semifinal, with the championship game scheduled for February 24. Marian is hosting the playoffs this season.
Last week: 7-3
On the season: 56-24-2 (.695)
Wisconsin-Stevens Point at Wisconsin-Stout (2/16 and 2/17) — A road team has never won a quarterfinal NCHA series, but there’s a first time for everything. UWSP 4, Stout 3; UWSP 4, Stout 2
Lake Forest at No. 5 Wisconsin-River Falls (2/16 and 2/17) — For this series, I think history holds true to form. UWRF 6, Lake Forest 3; UWRF 4, Lake Forest 1
St. Scholastica at No. 8 St. Norbert (2/16 and 2/17) — Ditto. St. Norbert 5, St. Scholastica 1; St. Norbert 4, St. Scholastica 2
Wisconsin-Eau Claire at No. 2 Wisconsin-Superior (2/16 and 2/17) — Double ditto. UWS 5, UWEC 3; UWS 7, UWEC 2
Geneseo at Fredonia (2/16 and 2/17) — The Ice Knights upset the Blue Devils in this series last season, but Fredonia’s defensive style means a minigame win. Geneseo 3, Fredonia 2; Fredonia 3, Geneseo 2; Fredonia 1, Geneseo 0 in the minigame
Cortland at Potsdam (2/16 and 2/17) — A sweep for the Bears, who need to not look past this series to another showdown with Oswego. Potsdam 5, Cortland 2; Potsdam 6, Cortland 4
Bethel vs. Augsburg (2/16 and 2/17) — The Royals are oh-so-close to wrapping up their first postseason appearance ever, but I think they’ll come up just short. Augsburg 4, Bethel 3; Augsburg 3, Bethel 1
No. 7 Elmira at No. 1 RIT (2/17) — Round two goes to the Tigers at home. RIT 3, Elmira 2