Todd: Let’s break down a little bit of what we saw last weekend: Union won its first ECAC Hockey regular-season championship despite a Friday night slip that could have opened the door for Yale. Michigan overtook Notre Dame on the final day to win the CCHA title. North Dakota wrapped up at least a share of the WCHA title with a week left in that league’s regular season. Rochester Institute of Technology had already wrapped up the Atlantic Hockey title, but the Tigers stumbled in a series with Niagara, losing at home on Friday and earning a road tie on Saturday.
That leaves one title left to be decided this weekend, and it should be a great series between first-place New Hampshire and Boston College, which is one point back. What does your crystal ball tell you about that series this weekend?
Jim: I have a gut feeling that the BC-UNH series will go down to the final night of the regular season, which is just a dream scenario for Hockey East. BC has played very well at home all year, though it did lose a close one very early in the season at home to UNH. I will admit that the folks that make up the schedule in this league must have a crystal ball. Hockey East’s dream of having a four-way tie for first, however, is long gone by the wayside. Merrimack, Boston University and UNH all dropped enough points to kill that.
Todd: There’s a little bit of drama at the other end of the table, too, where three teams — Vermont, Massachusetts and Providence — are vying for two spots in the playoffs. You could argue that they’re just playing to get run over in the first round of the playoffs, but I think we’ve seen enough first-round oddities to know that there’s a chance one of them could knock off either UNH or BC.
My gut tells me that Providence is going to be left out, considering that it’s two points out of eighth and has to play a home-and-home series with Merrimack, which should have its dander raised after being swept by Maine.
Jim: Your pick and my pick are similar. Providence hasn’t won in league play since Nov. 5. Granted, that game was a win over Merrimack, but at this point I’m hard pressed to pick the Friars. They haven’t shown anything in the second half and barely grabbed one point from Massachusetts-Lowell last weekend.
You do bring up a good point, though, about first-round matchups. If either New Hampshire or Boston College takes its first-round opponent too lightly, they’ll be bounced in the first round. It happened to UNH last season against Vermont (granted, that was an eighth-place Vermont team that also made the NCAA tournament). But both UMass and Vermont proved to be scary teams down the stretch.
Todd: I want to turn West for a while and note the differing statuses of a pair of teams. North Dakota is on the rise, going 17-3-2 since Thanksgiving, including a 5-0-1 record in February that let it emerge from the pack to claim at least a share of the MacNaughton Cup (it needs only a point at Michigan Tech to wrap it up).
On the other hand, there’s defending national runner-up Wisconsin, which looked like it was going to overcome all the obstacles — departed stars, departed assistant coaches, etc. — and give itself a chance to get back to the top of the pack. But when you go 0-5-1 in February, you pay the price. The Badgers sit 21st in the PairWise Rankings and need things to turn around or they won’t even have home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
I guess it just goes to show you how important February is in college hockey. They’re the dog days, but you get slammed if you’re not able to keep up.
Jim: It amazes me that, although the NCAA eliminated the record over the final 16 games as a criteria, when teams falter in February and March, you can watch their simultaneous fall in the PairWise. For Wisconsin, that’s exactly what happened. It looks like a big-time postseason run will be needed to get the Badgers back to the NCAA tournament. You see them more than anyone: Do they have that in them?
As for North Dakota, chalk up the regular-season title. The Sioux really came into their own since the first half of the season and I think of them as possibly the hottest team in the country. They’re getting close to locking up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and I feel like they’re going to be a legitimate threat to reach the Frozen Four.
Todd: With Wisconsin, it’s important to remember that the Badgers have done this before and emerged OK. In 2006, they lost seven times in a stretch from Jan. 20 to Feb. 25 but recovered to win the national championship. That team, though, was a lot deeper, veteran and, I believe, skilled than this one. The big one, though, is veteran. Will the leadership be strong enough to pull the team out of this funk? It has to start this weekend against Colorado College.
Turning now to Atlantic Hockey, where a sixth-place team gets a first-round playoff bye. Connecticut, 13-12-2 in the league and 13-17-4 overall, is off this weekend because it came in second in one of the league’s six-team pods. Robert Morris, which had the Huskies beat by three points in the overall standings, has to host Mercyhurst this weekend because it’s in a pod with stronger teams. Fair?
Jim: I really don’t think this Atlantic Hockey playoff system is fair at all. It’s almost like Robert Morris and others from the western pod are being punish by playing a stronger schedule and the teams in the eastern pod are being awarded for playing a weaker schedule. The ECAC and CCHA are the playoff models that, in my opinion, should be followed. That said, we know why this was done: to reduce travel costs in the first round. Keep teams within their “pods” for a single-game opening round will eliminate, say, Bentley flying to Air Force to play a single game.
Still, I don’t like it. If Atlantic Hockey and its members want to be considered a legitimate conference, it’s time to set up a legitimate playoff system. To think that either Robert Morris or Mercyhurst will be eliminated after this weekend but UConn will move on without having to play is just a joke.
Todd: Our colleague Chris Lerch has been beating that drum all season, and now we can see why.
While Atlantic Hockey, the CCHA and ECAC Hockey all open playoffs this weekend, the WCHA and Hockey East decide a lot of playoff positions. I’ll be keeping an eye on Wisconsin’s home series with Colorado College. The Badgers need three points to overtake the Tigers for the final home-ice playoff spot, unless St. Cloud State sweeps at Denver, in which case the Badgers might need a sweep of CC, depending on what Minnesota does against Bemidji State. That’s a lot of scoreboard watching.
Beyond the UNH-BC finale, what’s on your radar?
Jim: Every Hockey East series means something to the standings, but the Merrimack-Providence series combined with the Maine-Massachusetts series will have the most impact. Providence needs three points just to have a chance to stay alive, while Merrimack needs two points to clinch home ice. UMass, if Providence gets some points, will have to beat Maine. Plus, no team wants to back into the playoffs, so UMass really needs to get things going here. When we return next week, we’ll know the final 42 teams with a chance at a national title.