Jim: Well, Todd, the season is winding down here quickly. To start this week, I will tip my cap to Miami, which clinched the CCHA regular season title on Friday night with a win over Bowling Green. The RedHawks are well on their way to locking up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. On the other end of the spectrum, though, is an interesting scenario developing in Hockey East. Vermont dropped three of four points last weekend to Merrimack, shrinking its lead over the Warriors for the final playoff spot in Hockey East to just two points. But at the same time, the Catamounts are holding their position in the PairWise Rankings, making me want to ask the question: Could Vermont become the first team to miss its conference tournament altogether and still earn an NCAA bid?
Todd: My congrats to Miami as well, but the Vermont situation is truly puzzling. It looks like the Catamounts are really being helped by nonconference victories over the WCHA’s Denver and Minnesota-Duluth — those wins are helping to give them PairWise comparison victories over the WCHA’s St. Cloud State, Colorado College, UMD and North Dakota. But the margin for error is very small with Vermont right now, so if it manages to lose enough games the rest of the way to miss the Hockey East playoffs, I think their PairWise status will go down in kind. The last six games of the regular season are all against teams under consideration, so this could get interesting.
Jim: I’ve been saying the same thing about Vermont for nearly a month: There’s no way this team can hover around eighth place and still make the NCAA tournament. But thus far, the system has proven me wrong. I guess we’ll see what happens over the next few weekends. Hockey East, in general, is a pretty strange league this year. Boston College kept pace with New Hampshire, though, in getting just two of four points against Massachusetts-Lowell but missed the opportunity to climb within a point. That said, I still contest that the Hockey East title won’t be decided until the final weekend when BC and UNH square off. The remaining teams in Hockey East are as tightly packed as possible (which further makes you understand how Vermont is in eighth place yet on the NCAA bubble). Just five points separate third-place Maine from eighth-place Vermont, meaning that any weekend where a team takes four points could mean a major move up the ladder and, of course, conversely any weekend where a team doesn’t get points could mean immediate descent. I’ve been around this league for a long time and don’t remember many seasons with this tight of a logjam in the standings.
Todd: It’s a similar story in the WCHA, where, with three weeks to play, no one has officially clinched home ice for the first round of the playoffs. (Michigan Tech and Minnesota State, however, are guaranteed to be on the road.) Denver pulled back into first place with a sweep of Minnesota last weekend, and the Pioneers have a one-point lead and two games in hand on St. Cloud State, and a three-point lead on Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin. Fifth-place Colorado College has a four-point lead on North Dakota for the last home-ice spot. Now’s about the time of year when we start looking at teams’ remaining schedule, and that gives you a pretty good reason to think Denver is going to skate with the MacNaughton Cup this year. The Pioneers host 10th-place Michigan Tech, play at ninth-place Minnesota State and have a home-and-home series with CC. I think the real battle in the last three weeks is going to be for second place.
Jim: I have to agree with you about Denver. I think it has the easiest road map for the remainder of the season. If the Pioneers don’t win the regular season title, you’ll have to wonder why. Speaking of second place, what happened to second-place St. Cloud State on Saturday night? An 8-1 loss at home against North Dakota that included surrendering a six-spot in the second period. I know teams can have off nights, but how does a second-place club in what is arguably the most competitive league in the country lose by SEVEN goals at home?
Todd: I think it tells you a little bit that the sixth-place team in the WCHA isn’t all that far off the second-place team. But remember there was a lot of emotion coming into that series from the North Dakota side. The last time the Sioux played the Huskies, they lost captain Chay Genoway — more and more likely for the season — to a concussion caused by a hit from SCSU forward Aaron Marvin. North Dakota lost a close game on Friday, and I think Saturday was just one of those cathartic episodes. Does it provide a badly needed spark for the Sioux the rest of the way? Maybe. Does it hurt St. Cloud State for more than one night? I’m guessing not. It was a bad night. The Huskies will move on.
Jim: I agree that St. Cloud had nothing more than an off night on Saturday. Which was the case for many teams throughout the weekend. Defense wasn’t exactly on the forefront for Bowling Green, which surrendered 10 to Miami on Saturday; Maine, which allowed seven and five goals on back-to-back nights against BU; Western Michigan, which gave up seven on Friday against Northern Michigan and, of course, Minnesota State, which joined St. Cloud in surrendering an eight-spot (to Wisconsin) on Saturday. It’s almost like defense is thrown out the window for some of these teams.
Todd: I just ran a quick comparison, and goal scoring is indeed up slightly this season. Last year, games averaged 5.62 goals for both teams; that number is up to 5.87 so far this year. We’re told that Joe Fan doesn’t like defensive hockey, so I guess that’s a good sign. But when you’re the team giving up eight, it’s probably not that comforting. What’s on the docket this weekend?
Jim: Well, personally, my weekend begins a day late and runs two days long as I’ll be at Vermont-New Hampshire on Saturday night as the Catamounts look to pull things together on the road, then will be at BC on both Sunday afternoon and Tuesday evening as the Eagles take on Northeastern and Merrimack, respectively. As for the major tilts, Air Force and RIT will lock horns in a series that could either clinch the title for RIT or eliminate the Tigers breathing room in the standings. You also have Lowell and Maine locking horns for two in Orono as both teams look to come back from losses last weekend. Maine, though, should have the upper hand as Lowell has just one win in its last 16 in Orono. And nearly all of the ECAC games this weekend could have first-place implications as Yale, Cornell and Union are separated by just two points at the top of the league. How about out west?
Todd: Wisconsin hosts St. Cloud State in a matchup of top-five teams that’s especially important for the Huskies because it has only one regular season weekend remaining after this one, compared to two for most everyone else. If SCSU can’t put up some points, it risks sinking to fifth place by the time it gets to its final-weekend home-and-home series against Minnesota State. In the CCHA, Michigan State and Ferris State play a home-and-home series that could break their second-place deadlock. And Bemidji State can finally wrap up the CHA title when it closes down its long history in the John S. Glas Fieldhouse by hosting Niagara. Until next week …