Jim: Well, Todd, quite a topsy-turvy weekend for the top teams. Of the top 20 teams, only four picked up two wins last weekend — St. Cloud State, Bemidji State, New Hampshire and Massachusetts-Lowell. For the rest of the teams, the M.O. seemed to be splitsville, as nine teams split their weekend series. You were at the marquee matchup of the weekend that pitted No. 1 Denver against No. 3 Wisconsin. Bucky earned three points with a tie in the opener on Friday and a win in the finale on Saturday. Miami, which entered last weekend at No. 2, took only three of four points against Alaska, which begs the question: Does Wisconsin’s efforts against Denver earn them the top spot in this week’s poll?
Todd: I went back and forth on this one, but I decided to go with Miami. I decided to judge based on the entire body of work, and, as the RPI and PairWise Rankings show, the RedHawks’ resume is just a little better right now. Now, those were incredibly entertaining games at the Kohl Center last weekend, and Wisconsin did well to earn the series victory. And I think I would have a different opinion if the Badgers had held onto their third-period lead Friday and got a clean sweep. What was clear in the aftermath of that series is that the top teams in the country aren’t too far apart. How did the top of your ballot turn out?
Jim: I actually voted opposite of you. I placed Wisconsin at one, Miami two and Denver at three. I think the Badgers’ consistency of late (only loss since December was to a very good Colorado College team) and their performance against the No. 1 team in the country this past weekend earned them the top spot. Had Miami swept Alaska as opposed to earning a tie and a shootout win (and I don’t take shootouts into account when putting together my ballot), I might have given the RedHawks the No. 1 vote. So when you look at it, I think we both voted opposite of one another for similarly opposite reasons.
Todd: Wisconsin has been an interesting team to watch this season because while I don’t think they have the greatest collection of talent around, they’re working well enough to win games. And I agree with what coach Mike Eaves said after Saturday night’s game: His team is better for playing such a competitive series against Denver, and even better for having come out ahead. It seems crazy, though, that the Badgers are still outside the top three in a WCHA race that now includes five teams at the top separated by two points. Things seem to be opening up a little more at the top in Hockey East — can New Hampshire, now up five points with a game in hand, run away with the league?
Jim: I’ll be the first to say that New Hampshire shocks me. I saw the Wildcats play earlier in the season against Massachusetts-Lowell and thought the team looked awful. That came at the end of a pathetic non-league run that has an outside chance of haunting the Wildcats when the NCAA berths are announced. But whatever has been put in the water in Durham seems to be working these days. The Wildcats held off a pesky Providence team on Friday, eeking out a win in overtime and then manhandled Boston University on the road on Saturday, the night after BU played arguably its best game of the season against Boston College. I guess at this point, I don’t see many teams giving UNH a run. Lowell looked great against BC on Friday and pulled back to fourth place. BC played two games with nothing to show this weekend and UMass looked mortal Sunday against Vermont when its power play completely stalled, going 0-for-9. I’m not ready to coronate the Wildcats just yet, but a five-point lead will feel extremely safe if UNH keeps the wins coming.
Todd: It is interesting to note that the Wildcats close with a home-and-home series against Boston College, so there might be some intrigue there. While we’re talking Hockey East, I wanted to pose a question. We learned last week that the WCHA likely will go with a 12-team playoff format when it expands next season. Hockey East, of course, has an eight-team format, which means the bottom two teams in the standings don’t even get to take part. One could argue that both ways of doing it have their flaws. Do you think the WCHA should reconsider and keep the playoffs the tried-and-true 10-team affair that wouldn’t then require changes to the Final Five?
Jim: Personally, I think the WCHA should cut back its playoffs to an eight-team format. I think that the ECAC, Atlantic Hockey and the CCHA should all do the same. There’s nothing I like less that rewarding teams for bad seasons with a spot in the playoffs. I’m a little less concerned now that all leagues have best-of-three formats prior to the final four (Atlantic Hockey was the final league to adopt that format) as I never liked seeing a team catch fire for a couple of games and end up playing for the title. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for Cinderella stories, but I feel that if you lay an egg in the regular season, you don’t even deserve a chance to being the Cinderella. Yes, I know, I’m the postseason Scrooge of college hockey. Bah humbug!
Todd: That’s actually a pretty good argument, and it almost has me converted. Almost. I’ve been thinking that if an ninth- or 10th-place team is so far out of the running with a couple weeks left in the season, what’s left to play for? I don’t like that element in the game — it sometimes ends up in massive negatives happening in the course of those final few games, and if it’s in the form of fighting majors, that can impact a team that’s still in the race. Then again, I’m guessing that, more often than not, there actually will be some competition down to the wire for the last playoff spots, and, while I can’t come up with the history off the top of my head, I’m guessing that’s what Hockey East has been like. And sometimes it seems that the only thing guaranteeing a team a postseason spot is a league’s tradition of doing so.
Jim: In my days in Hockey East, I’ve seen very few instances of a team being completely out of the picture and in the few I can recall, never were there any on-ice problems related to teams not being in the postseason. I think that most college players and coaches have too much pride to have their teams goon it up if the season is ultimately over. On the other hand, I recall the 2003-04 season when the most memorable of finishes decided the final playoff spot. Boston University was having a down year and entered the final night of the regular season knowing that if Northeastern won against Massachusetts, BU would have to upset New Hampshire to earn the final playoff spot. The BU-UNH game headed to overtime and BU didn’t know the final result of the NU game (NU ended up winning, 3-2). BU scored with 2:30 remaining in overtime for the improbable victory and after the game Jack Parker said he would have considered pulling his goaltender in overtime had the game progressed another minute or so. Some may remember that BU went on to upset top-seeded BC in the Hockey East quarterfinals before finally losing to Maine, 1-0, in the semis. All of that excitement might not have been present had BU known it automatically had a playoff spot by default.
Todd: Very valid point, but I think the WCHA makes too much money off the Final Five to think about making it only a two-day event as the result of an eight-team playoff field. Many people think that’s why they still have the third-place game, even after coaches have made their complaints about it heard. If an average of more than 14,000 people want to pay to watch teams play in what in most years is a meaningless consolation game, why would the league stop them? So having a game (or, possibly in the future, games) on Thursday of championship week is important to the WCHA, and, from what I’m hearing, so is having all 12 teams compete in the postseason.
Jim: Well, when you consider that often times the almighty dollar must overrule all else, a 12-team playoff makes sense for the WCHA. Anyway, with the great series between Wisco and Denver and talks of a playoff system, we’ve almost missed one of the more incredible stories of the weekend: Bemidji State’s sweep of what was a red-hot Minnesota-Duluth team. The two victories had some immediate benefit for the Beavers, who jumped to a tie for third in the USCHO.com PairWise Rankings. Bemidji now boasts the best record in hockey at 17-5-2 and likely is deserving of a jump back into the top 10. We started this conversation today talking about body of work and for the Beavers, aside from a not-so-great loss to Niagara (which took three points this weekend from a free-falling Quinnipiac team), I am pretty impressed by how well Bemidji is playing right now.
Todd: I think a lot of people started to put Bemidji on the back burner after it lost twice at home to Minnesota State, a ninth-place team in the WCHA, and then had the issues with Niagara that you mentioned. I think it’s finally time to realize that those missteps weren’t unlike any others by a top-tier team. Miami has its Robert Morris weekend. Denver had that head-scratching loss at Alaska-Anchorage. How a team is judged is how it responds to those falterings, and I think Bemidji’s sweep of Minnesota-Duluth is proof that it’s in the top-tier mix.
Jim: Now the magical question about Bemidji is if it can hold its PairWise position into its league championship where, in a one-game setting, an upset could result in the CHA getting half of its membership (2 of 4) into the NCAA tournament in the league’s final season.
Todd: That would be a head-shaking development, for sure. Completely understandable, of course, because that’s the way the playoffs go, but that’s certainly a dangerous scenario for those teams that will be hovering around the 13 spot in the PairWise. We’ve got a bunch of good games coming up this weekend that we’ll be following — Union at Yale in ECAC Hockey, Maine and Vermont in Hockey East, Wisconsin at Minnesota-Duluth and Denver at North Dakota in the WCHA, to name a few — so stay with us. Until next week …