Candace: Well Arlan, form mostly held true to the favorites over the weekend, but there are a couple of interesting results to look at that threw a wrench into things. Let’s start out west, where Minnesota State tied North Dakota, though the Fighting Sioux did win the shootout. What to make of that draw? Minnesota State isn’t exactly an offensive powerhouse, so its ability to put up three goals while holding North Dakota’s offense in check could be a sign of trouble in Grand Forks come playoff time.
Arlan: I’m not sure that game revealed anything new about North Dakota. Minnesota State is a strange team to figure out. It isn’t completely lacking in offense, and does have some good results over the course of the season, such as winning two of four from Bemidji State and splitting a pair of one-goal games with Mercyhurst. Chalk that up to Senior Day motivation. Once the game went to a shootout, the first three shooters for each team scored. I don’t ever remember seeing that before, but that fits for UND. The Sioux are third in the country in scoring offense, ahead of Wisconsin and Minnesota. However, they are in the bottom half in scoring defense, yielding a goal more per game than those teams do. UND won’t run into too many opponents in the postseason that will yield four or five goals, so it has to tighten up on defense. We probably saw the both the worst and the best from North Dakota on that front when Minnesota played in Grand Forks a couple of months ago. It allowed seven goals the first day and none the second. Now the teams meet in Minneapolis in a series that means nothing in the WCHA race, but has big national implications, especially for the visitors. Results like the tie with MSU chip away at UND’s RPI. The PairWise comparison with Harvard currently swings North Dakota’s way based on a .0046 lead in RPI. If the Fighting Sioux don’t win in Minneapolis, they will lose that comparison, and they already lose the direct comparison with Northeastern, a team below them in the PairWise Rankings. UND still has work to do.
Another team that got hit by a flying wrench was Dartmouth. After falling to Rensselaer, the Big Green are now the last team under consideration after being in the top eight. How do we explain that result? More Senior Day inspiration, the Engineers desperate to extend their season, or some fatal flaw in Dartmouth?
Candace: Complacency? I don’t know. Since you correctly picked that game, I was going to ask for your insight, because I’ve got nothing. It’s an odd result to me though, because the Big Green jumped out to a 2-0 lead after one period before giving up four goals, including one in the final minute of the second period and then a short-handed goal early in the third. Dartmouth is offensively-challenged, so it has had to win many of its games this season by playing tough defense. Aside from two weird games against New Hampshire, plus early season games against Boston College and Cornell, Dartmouth has been very good at keeping its opposition to two goals or fewer, even in the games it’s lost. Giving up four to RPI just seems odd. In any case, Dartmouth’s loss means it can’t overtake Clarkson for third, and probably can’t overtake St. Lawrence for fourth, so it will have to start the ECAC playoffs on the road. Of course, home ice hasn’t exactly been kind to Dartmouth this season, so it might be good for them to be heading to Canton for the first round. What’s your take on Dartmouth’s loss, and the way the ECAC playoffs are shaping up? Frankly, given that the second place team gets a very stingy Princeton squad, Harvard may hope that Clarkson passes them so it can play Quinnipiac instead.
Arlan: I’d assume that isn’t the way the Crimson are thinking, because losing games to teams like Brown or Yale at this point is no way to foster NCAA hopes. If they want to hope for something, hope that the Tigers team that shows up at Bright is the one that yields 10 goals in two periods, not the one that shutout Harvard for the first four frames. As for RPI over Dartmouth, I’m behind you in the picks, so I was just looking for anything with upset potential. Dartmouth has overachieved to a certain extent, RPI has underachieved, Senior Day, the Engineers need points — it all factored in. As for picking UNH over Providence, that was all about hoping the historical rivalry counted for something; I guess not.
Coaches will tell you that one of the hardest things to do in sports is to end another team’s season. When you get into elimination rounds, that motivation is equal on both sides. At this point, you can still find games where the desperation is more palpable for one team than the other, because the higher-ranked team is already in the conference tournament, or will still make the NCAA tournament even should it lose.
As for home ice in the ECAC quarters, Dartmouth is still in good shape, with Yale and Brown coming up this weekend. I have to like the chances of the Big Green to take those games, while SLU still must face Cornell in Ithaca. If Dartmouth wins out, the Saints beat Colgate and lose to Cornell, they’d finish tied. SLU and Dartmouth split head-to-head, but I believe that the Big Green hold the next tiebreaker. The most likely order of finish behind Cornell is Harvard, Clarkson, Dartmouth and St. Lawrence. St. Lawrence has only lost to Cornell since the end of November, so that figures to be a competitive quarterfinal series no matter where it takes place.
The biggest mystery in the ECAC is which team secures the final playoff spot. Colgate is still alive, but down two points to both Brown and RPI, and having to host SLU and Clarkson, the Raiders’ chances must be on life support. The Bears hold the tiebreaker over the Engineers, and they better hope that comes into play, because Brown will be a big underdog at both Harvard and Dartmouth. Meanwhile, RPI goes to Princeton and Quinnipiac in search of points to break the tie. Which team do you see emerging, and does it matter in the least to Cornell, given that only Colgate in a 6-2 loss back in October managed to score against the Big Red?
Candace: I think I can safely say that Colgate won’t get in. The Raiders would have to sweep St. Lawrence and Clarkson, and I just don’t see that happening under any circumstances. It comes down to RPI and Brown. Of the two, the Engineers have a slightly more favorable schedule, even if Dartmouth has been known to have an off game or two. I like RPI’s chances to at least pick up a point and get the final spot. In the Engineers’ early-season games against Princeton and Quinnipiac, they tied the Tigers and lost 2-0 to the Bobcats. Brown lost 3-1 to Dartmouth and 3-0 to Harvard. Whoever it is won’t stop the Big Red juggernaut however. I could see Cornell possibly losing in the finals to either Clarkson, Harvard, or Dartmouth, if one of those teams gets in gear, but I don’t think anyone else will beat Cornell.
Looking at the other Eastern conference, I think we were both slightly surprised that Northeastern swept Maine, not only because Maine has played well on the road and has something to prove, but because it would have seemed the Huskies were bound to have a letdown after an emotional OT win over Boston University in the Beanpot. Instead, they used that win as a momentum-builder, something good teams do. Boston College’s chances of overtaking the Huskies for the Hockey East regular season title took a hit, but are still alive. I guess it’s almost ironic in a way, since Providence’s 6-2 beatdown of the Eagles vaunted Northeastern into first. Now the Huskies close their season with the Friars, and if the Friars win one game and Boston College sweeps Vermont, the Eagles claim the Hockey East regular season title and the favorable seeding in the tournament, since I’m sure neither BC nor Northeastern relishes the thought of a semifinal clash with suddenly hot BU. Who do you see taking the Hockey East crown?
Arlan: As the weeks have passed, more and more Northeastern has looked like the better team between BC and NU. Much of that can be attributed to Florence Schelling. The Huskies have only allowed as many as five goals once, that back in October to Princeton, of all teams, when the Tigers connected four times in 11 attempts on her and added an empty-net goal. Meanwhile, the Eagles have yielded at least five on four separate occasions, including twice in the last month. As you say, Northeastern has a much tougher road with Providence home-and-home. The key should be the Friday game on the road; if the Huskies can pull that one out, then I like their chances to close it out at home. If they play like they did last week in the Beanpot and versus Maine, the Huskies should triumph.
While I agree that the Terriers will be as dangerous as a wounded animal come Hockey East tournament time, I don’t know that we can write off the team to advance to the other semifinal. Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, assuming that BU will automatically take care of business in the other quarterfinal. There will be zero pressure on that sixth playoff team; it will be playing with house money at that point. Providence and Maine have demonstrated that they can upend the top teams, so we can’t assume that the only upsets will be coming from the Terriers. It is looking like the only way BU can make the national tournament is to win Hockey East. With a maximum of five games remaining, I doubt that two wins over Connecticut, another over UNH or Vermont, plus one over BC or Northeastern, followed by a loss to the other of those teams, is enough to push the Terriers into the top eight. The automatic bid seems to be their only remaining life line.
Speaking of the sixth seed in Hockey East, none of the bottom three took points last week. Can we expect more of the same this weekend?
Candace: If I were a betting woman, which I’m not, I would say there’s a decent chance of it. I don’t think Vermont is going to beat Boston College, and it seems unlikely that Connecticut will beat Boston University. That leaves New Hampshire, which travels to Orono to play a very inconsistent Maine team. New Hampshire hasn’t won in the month of February, and its last victory was against Vermont. Since the Wildcats got pasted, 8-0, by Northeastern, they have looked very unsure of themselves. Maine won the earlier encounter, 3-0, and I think with the way things are going, New Hampshire is going to back into the playoffs and get pasted by BU in the first round. Of course, one of the Wildcats’ wins back in January was over BU, so maybe they can right the ship in time for the playoffs, but I doubt it. Then the question becomes, can BU beat BC and most likely Northeastern back-to-back? The Terriers have the talent. I’d like their chances against the Eagles, whom they beat twice this year, but less so against Northeastern. However, if anyone can solve Florence Schelling, it’s the balanced Terriers’ offensive group. For now though, looking into my far-off crystal ball, I’m going to guess the Terriers will fail to make the NCAA tournament.
Looking out to Pennsylvania now, Robert Morris has put itself in position to claim the CHA regular season crown by beating Mercyhurst this weekend. It’s most likely a long-shot, but do you think they can do it? Actually, looking at the tiebreaker, if the Colonials get a win and a tie, they would win the regular season crown by virtue of two wins over Mercyhurst. It would be great for the CHA if they can break the Lakers’ hegemony.
Arlan: My understanding is that if Robert Morris takes three points this weekend, the Colonials and Lakers would be co-champions of the CHA, much like Mercyhurst and Wayne State were back in 2007-08, so the Lakers’ run would continue in that case. You are correct that the Colonials would hold the tiebreaker and enjoy the top seed. I suppose a first-round CHA tournament game versus Syracuse would offer some advantage, as the Orange have yet to win a game in conference, although they have three ties.
Do I think that the Colonials can do it? No. As inconsistent as the Lakers have been, they’ve always managed at least one win out of every series all season, and that’s all that they’ll require here. If they are in danger of losing a crown, it still figures to be in the tournament. I think it’s a good sign for the league if RMU can give Mercyhurst some good games this weekend, now that the Colonials no doubt have the Lakers’ attention.
We talked about interesting results earlier; one thing that surprised me this week, at least to the extent that I don’t remember it ever happening before — Minnesota-Duluth is not ranked in the USCHO poll. Going back to the USCHO poll on October 4, 1999, before the Bulldogs had played their first varsity game, they were ranked No. 5. In those days, the poll just consisted of eight teams, plus those receiving votes. Since the poll expanded, there have been weeks where they’ve been ninth and even No. 10, but this is the first time that I can recall UMD only receiving votes, and my scan through the years seems to confirm this. Apparently, the voters finally lost patience with all of the splits. I expected that at some point the Bulldogs would find another gear, but the losses have continued at essentially the same rate. Is the UMD streak of seven straight NCAA tournaments going to end along with its run of appearances in the USCHO poll?
Candace: I’m thinking it might be. We talked about this last week, and I felt that Minnesota-Duluth would need to at least make the finals of the WCHA tournament to have a shot at getting an at-large bid. I still had ranked them at 10 in my voting, instead of St. Lawrence, but I could see why other voters chose the Saints. The Bulldogs close their regular season this weekend against Minnesota State, which isn’t really going to help them in the PairWise. Then they will host Ohio State in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, a series I think will likely go three games, with the possibility the Buckeyes can pull out the upset. Even if Minnesota-Duluth scrapes by in that game, the Bulldogs would then host Wisconsin, where they will go down fighting, but still most likely lose. That’s just not enough to make up the RPI or TUC record in the PairWise, especially if, as seems possible, the Hockey East or ECAC winner is someone not in the top eight right now.
As long as we are talking about tournament positioning, let’s open a can of worms. The KRACH has Minnesota-Duluth at fifth, North Dakota at fourth, and Wisconsin and Minnesota at one and two, respectively, with Cornell at three and Boston College rounding out the top six. Seems like possibly a fairer representation for an NCAA tournament than the current PairWise rankings, does it not? Why should teams like Cornell and Harvard get more points with a much easier schedule, as they do in the PairWise?
Arlan: Each year, it gets more difficult to find people willing to champion the current selection criteria, but they must be out there somewhere, because outside of minor tweaks, the NCAA uses the same approach each season. I suppose some look at Minnesota-Duluth’s record and say, “Wow, that’s a lot of losses!” It’s true, 13 losses is a lot, but more than half of them have come against Wisconsin and Minnesota, the two teams that KRACH has first and second. One thing that KRACH has going for it over the PairWise is that it doesn’t produce the same wild swings as teams rise or fall from the list of the top 12 in the RPI and being a TUC. I still hope that will settle down before selections, so that a team getting in or not isn’t determined by some obscure game involving third and fourth party teams, but we saw it again this last week. There aren’t that many games left to play. Selection Sunday is less than three weeks away, and contending teams will play anywhere from three to seven more games, depending on their league and how they perform in the conference tournament. Given how close so many teams are right now, that may not be enough time to establish where teams should be placed. KRACH has been much more stable in that regard for a while now. I hate to see the fate of teams like Northeastern, Mercyhurst, and Harvard hinge on whether teams such as BU, Dartmouth, Clarkson, and St. Lawrence win or lose. A Dartmouth versus St. Lawrence quarterfinal in the ECAC may become huge in determining tournament seedings, even if neither the Big Green nor Saints are in the running for an at-large bid. Other ranking systems aren’t so volatile. A team from outside the grid taking an automatic bid by winning a conference championship may be a good thing this season, as it could mean one less controversial inclusion into the field — not controversial in terms of the work of the selection committee, but in terms of the criteria under which they must operate.
The good news is that it keeps a lot of teams alive for a spot in the tournament. You said earlier that your best guess at this point is that BU will fall short of the NCAAs. Not that the Terriers would be a classic underdog anyway, given they made the national championship game last year, but are there any Cinderella teams out there that you could see navigating the obstacles and reaching the NCAA tournament?
Candace: Well, we’ve already discussed BU a lot. My best guess for a Cinderella team to make the NCAAs would come out of the ECAC. Looking at the current PairWise, I think, barring unforeseen consequences, that North Dakota is safe, as is Boston College. Even if the Eagles go down in the semis of the Hockey East tournament, as long as they sweep Vermont, they should be in. Northeastern has a great shot as well. I’m going to pick Clarkson. The Golden Knights have kind of snuck in under everybody’s radar, but they are in third in the ECAC right now, which means they will avoid Cornell until the finals, and Harvard, while it has been playing well, still looks vulnerable. Should the Golden Knights get to the final, I think they would have a great shot to beat Cornell and capture the ECAC autobid. How about you? Are there any Cinderella squads you see making the big dance?
Arlan: I understand what you’re saying about the ECAC; the league does have a deep pool of nice teams. However, I think that Cornell, the subject of my column this week, is very legitimate. Some question the Big Red’s ranking based on supposed weakness of the league, but I think the weakness of the ECAC is mostly near the bottom, not the top. When push comes to shove, I see Cornell proving that they are the class of that conference. As much as Minnesota-Duluth wants to make a tournament run on home ice and claim the autobid, only once has a team in the WCHA tournament beaten two of the top three seeds in the tournament in the same year: Wisconsin in 2009, and that was a great Badgers team. I don’t see the Bulldogs being at that level. So if a dark horse is going to win, it would have to be in Hockey East. We look to BU, but why not Maine? They always seem to do what we least expect them to do. What will make that so hard to accomplish is if both Northeastern and Boston College are playing well. However, over the years, I think we’ve seen more semifinal upsets in Hockey East than in other leagues, so a team could take the championship without having to go through both Northeastern and the Eagles. Overall though, I’m starting to think that there may be no Cinderella, but if there is to be one, I’d look to the HEA.