Jim: Well, Todd, we’re in the nitty gritty of the season. Three leagues will begin their playoffs this weekend as the ECAC, CCHA and Atlantic Hockey all kick things off on Friday. At the same time, the WCHA, CHA and Hockey East will wrap up their regular seasons, though Hockey East is the only league that hasn’t crowned a regular season champ. That league will actually put forth this week’s marquee matchup when first-place New Hampshire and second-place Boston College square off for the league title. All UNH needs is a single point against the Eagles to clinch the title, but BC has also won three straight and eight of 10. New Hampshire, on the other hand, has just four wins in its last nine games. So as thin as BC’s hopes may seem, they’re still in it.
Todd: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say we’ll know the champion Friday night. New Hampshire hosts first in the home-and-home series, giving the Wildcats the chance to clinch on home ice. I think either they’ll do so, or if Boston College manages to come out with a win, it will swipe the title with another win at home on Saturday. Of course, it’s not just the top of the standings that are left to be decided in Hockey East; only three teams (New Hampshire, Boston College, Maine) have clinched a playoff spot, leaving six teams competing for the last five spots, with three points separating those teams. Massachusetts goes into the weekend in ninth, meaning it has work to do to avoid missing the postseason. Any thoughts on how the race to avoid being ninth will play out?
Jim: You also left off the fact that all six of those teams fighting for a playoff spot could also earn home ice. Talk about uncertainty. Merrimack, in theory, has the easiest road as it faces Providence, which is guaranteed to finish last, twice this weekend. But even that series isn’t a slam dunk. If I play out each series in my head and make my predictions of how each series goes, the result would be Massachusetts making the playoffs and Massachusetts-Lowell squeaking into the final home ice spot.
Todd: There’s a rarity over in the WCHA, where going into the final weekend of the regular season we know both the identity of the league champion (Denver) and which five teams will host first-round series. The latter almost always goes down to the last game and the former usually is in question at least until the last weekend. St. Cloud State is battling for second place, but it will do so without Aaron Marvin, who on Monday was issued a three-game suspension by the WCHA for an unpenalized hit to the head of Wisconsin’s Blake Geoffrion nine days earlier. The penalty is significant in that it extends into the playoffs, but I wonder whether it will serve as a deterrent for others to help rid the game of a bad element.
Jim: Well, first off let me say that I didn’t see the Marvin hit and because of that don’t want to pass judgement on the severity of the suspension. But to your point, I think it is a sort of statement-making suspension as it is long (three games) and impact a player’s post-season. What’s more curious to me is the length of time it took for the suspension to come down. The game was played on Feb. 20 and the suspension was announced on March 1. I know that logistically things can be difficult in that the league needs to receive the tape of the game, must distribute it to those who will make the decision, etc. But the delay in the process now pushes the suspension into the WCHA playoffs first round. That’s strange to me at least.
Todd: What I heard from people connected to the WCHA was that they made sure they got it right and could take some time because St. Cloud State didn’t play last weekend. The league also has in its bylaws that the entire appeals process, which involves a hearing with the faculty representatives, has to play out before anything can be announced. I’m sure that delayed things, too. But it did seem like it took too long, and I think rewriting the bylaws to speed up the process would help. The other issue in all this is that there was no penalty called on the play. The NCAA sent out a memorandum in November saying that officials “must be vigilant in their awareness” of hits to the head, intimating that the opportunity to work in the NCAA tournament was on the line. I wonder whether the WCHA referees that called that game, Todd Anderson and Brad Shepherd, will be negatively impacted when it comes tournament time. Anderson was one of the referees in last season’s national championship game, so he probably would be picked otherwise.
Jim: Again, without seeing the play it’s difficult for me to say either way. I do generally defend officials as I believe that have the hardest job of anyone on the ice. Even with two officials, penalties can be missed. I will say that college hockey has done a pretty good job in recent years of developing and using a system to evaluate officials for the NCAA tournament. The thought that referees need to be more vigilant about head contact is important but I don’t think that’s the only reason for a referee to make the NCAA roster of officials. I really want to see officials that are consistent in the way they call games throughout the entire season.
Todd: And let’s be clear that I think the overwhelming majority of the officials are consistent. But it doesn’t take much to get singled out by an enraged fan base. Moving on to the opening of the postseason this weekend, and in the CCHA, you’ve got a first-round series between teams that played in the NCAA tournament last season but have fallen on hard times: Notre Dame at Ohio State. The Buckeyes have to play this series in the old OSU Ice Rink because of a scheduling conflict at Value City Arena. Injuries have made this season tough for the Irish, which was picked for second in the CCHA preseason polls, but my gut tells me they have a little something left to give. By the way, the team picked for first in the CCHA, Michigan, is hosting a first-round series after finishing seventh — the first time since 1988 that the Wolverines have finished outside the CCHA’s top four. Not exactly the way people saw this finishing this year.
Jim: I think there have been a number of surprise teams this year across the NCAA. Michigan and Notre Dame are certainly in that group for the wrong reasons, but then you look at clubs like Nebraska-Omaha, Ferris State, Northern Michigan and Alaska — all exceeded expectations in my mind in the CCHA. In the ECAC, Union is one win away from matching last year’s total of 19, the most since joining Division I. Merrimack in Hockey East could make the playoffs for the first time 2004 and, if the stars align right, could get home ice for the first time ever. And Sacred Heart in Atlantic Hockey impressively finished second despite getting a new head coach in C.J. Marottolo after the season had begun. Any teams stand out as shockers to you?
Todd: Well, since the Bemidji State shock wore off pretty early this season, I’d go with Sacred Heart’s season as being the most impressively shocking, if that can be used as a term. The Pioneers were 12 games under .500 last year and currently stand six games over. An 18-game swing from one season to the next, given what you mentioned about Marottolo coming in after most teams had started their seasons, is simply outstanding. There’s plenty of intrigue this weekend, and we’ll be back next week to break it down.