Jim: So one week of tournament action is in the books and we’ve already lost two teams that we talked often about this year. The first is a little less shocking as Ohio State fell to Notre Dame. The Buckeyes were a darling of the first half but had just one win since the calendar turned to 2012. The second is a deja vu-like shocker as on Sunday Bowling Green upset Northern Michigan 4-1 to eliminate the Wildcats from the CCHA playoffs. It’s the second straight years these two teams met in the first round. Both years, Northern Michigan won Game 1 only to lose the final two games.
After this year’s upset, though, Northern Michigan is sitting right on the PairWise Rankings bubble. If the tournament began today, the Wildcats would be the first team out. So if you’re coach Walt Kyle, do you keep practicing for the next two weeks?
Todd: When you look at how close a few teams in Northern Michigan’s neighborhood are in the Ratings Percentage Index, and when you consider how a few games can change that for other teams, I think you have to at least keep in shape for the possibility that you’ll get back in tournament position. The Wildcats will know a lot more about their position after the coming weekend, but I always think back to when Wisconsin got in the tournament in 2008 after losing its WCHA first-round playoff series. That was a serious long shot, but things worked out in the Badgers’ favor.
On the Ohio State side of things, what a tremendous opportunity lost for the Buckeyes in the second half of the season. In the end, maybe they overperformed in the first half and underperformed in the second half and ended up about where they were expected to, but when you play like they did early it’s hard to forget the potential that was there.
Jim: I agree on both counts. Certainly, OSU will look back at this season as a “what could have been” scenario. And it is too early for Northern to simply hang things up. Certainly, it’s a long shot for the Wildcats to make the field of 16 now, but stranger things have happened.
Stepping outside of the playoffs, two teams wrapped up their conference titles this past weekend as Minnesota claimed the WCHA title and Boston College took home a record 12th Hockey East regular season crown. It has been quite some time — six years, in fact — since the Gophers claimed the MacNaughton Cup, and you have to like the way this team is playing down the stretch. With St. Paul hosting the West Regional, is it too much of a stretch to say that the Gophers have the inside track on its first Frozen Four since 2005?
Todd: I don’t know if I’m ready to go that far yet, at least without knowing who the Gophers will have to go through in St. Paul. Granted, the crowd will be on their side and they won’t have to travel, but the Xcel Energy Center isn’t exactly home. The last time they played there was in 2009, when they lost to Minnesota-Duluth in the WCHA Final Five play-in game. The rink is NHL-sized, whereas their rink at Mariucci Arena is Olympic.
That being said, rallying in the third period against Wisconsin on Saturday showed some grit out of the Gophers and may have been enough to make up for an outing to forget the night before. On that note, the Badgers have made themselves a tough draw in the WCHA playoffs, and going to Denver might actually favor them. Wisconsin always seems to do well against the Pioneers in the postseason.
Jim: I think the WCHA is filled with great matchups in the first round, as is Hockey East. Maine and Merrimack will get to square off for the second straight year in the quarterfinals, this time in Orono. A season ago, Merrimack dominated Maine at home to advance to the semifinals.
Boston University and New Hampshire will play a best-of-three series in Boston with the Terriers coming off, by coach Jack Parker’s description at least, a pretty poor weekend. UNH has played its best hockey in the second half of the season.
Massachusetts-Lowell will host Providence having just swept the Friars. Sounds like good news, although we all know how difficult it is to win four straight or even four of five from the same team.
And lastly, Boston College hosts Massachusetts for the third straight year. This time, though, UMass won the season series, placing another interesting wrinkle. I don’t believe it would happen, but if seeds 5 through 8 all won in Hockey East, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Todd: The Maine-Merrimack series jumps out to me, given Merrimack’s precarious position in the PairWise Rankings. Right now, the Warriors are the last team in, so losing the series might give Northern Michigan that opening that we were talking about before. And Maine has lost at home only once in the second half of the season. I guess you’d expect the 4-5 series to be the closest, and it seems like it’s setting up that way here.
The 5-8 series in the WCHA offers some intrigue, too. Colorado College hosts Michigan Tech in a rematch of a series from last weekend that the Tigers swept. Instead of going back to Houghton and then returning to Colorado Springs, the Huskies are staying put in Colorado while they’re on spring break. The last time those teams met in the playoffs, Tech won in three games in 2007.
Jim: I think it is an interesting and very smart move for Michigan Tech to stay in Colorado. It helps the team remain acclimated to the higher altitude, reduces the travel burden and allows them to practice on the same ice they will play on. And given the cost of flights and fuel these days, it might actually be the more economical solution.
Continuing on with some interesting matchups, there are definitely two that stand out in ECAC Hockey. Harvard, after a surprising third-place finish, will face Yale. Not only are these two teams pretty decent hockey rivals, Harvard will be looking to avenge a 7-1 loss to the Eli in New Haven just a couple of weeks ago.
Another pair of rivals will face off when Rensselaer, fresh off an upset of Clarkson, faces Union. These two schools are separated by about a 15-minute drive and fans might want to strap themselves in for some long overtime games. With RPI’s triple-overtime game against Clarkson on Saturday, those two schools have been involved in three of the six longest games in NCAA history.
Todd: It’s crazy that ECAC Hockey seems to add a new entry to the longest games list every postseason. I don’t know whether that’s a sign of how tight the teams are or just a fluke, but it makes for some long nights. Regular season champion Union seems pretty secure with an NCAA tournament spot, but it has to be feeling a little pressure to get through its first playoff series, don’t you think? The Dutchmen lost to Colgate in three games as the No. 1 seed last season.
Jim: Yes, Union has to feel a little pressure to succeed this weekend. Having regular season success is one thing. To actually accomplish anything in the playoffs is another thing. We remember that Union also was one-and-done in the NCAA tournament last year, meaning that despite experience in the postseason this club has zero experience when it comes to advancing from one round to the next.
Todd: I wonder about the bye week for the top four teams in the ECAC and Atlantic Hockey, and for the top five teams in the CCHA. I’m sure it has its good points and its bad points but there are obviously some occasions when having that week off, especially after the high of winning the league title, can get you a little off your game. And at this point, that might be all an opponent needs to win a best-of-three series.
We’ll see how Atlantic Hockey champ Air Force manages that this weekend. The Falcons are 8-0-4 in their last 12 games against the Huskies, whose last win against the Academy was in 2007.
Jim: So before we close, which of the five leagues do you see being the most competitive in the quarterfinals? Even though I said Hockey East is as tight as it gets, I still feel like the CCHA has so many compelling matchups and will probably produce the most upsets. Your thoughts?
Todd: Part of me wants to say the ECAC is going to be the most volatile, just because history suggests there are going to be some OT games and plenty of chances for those to go either way. But you’re right about the CCHA. Just from looking at the matchups, I can pretty easily talk myself into thinking either team will win each of those series, and I don’t think that’s the case with the other leagues.
One week after a Notre Dame-Ohio State series, we get a Michigan-Notre Dame series. The Irish faded down the stretch, but they also split with Michigan earlier this season. Western Michigan and Lake Superior State are both on the outside of the PairWise after previously residing in NCAA spots, so that series has a lot riding on it. Really, though, there’s intrigue everywhere you look this weekend.