Todd: It’s officially playoff time in Division I men’s hockey — for three leagues, at least — and before we get into what lies ahead for teams, I wanted to form a list of candidates for national coach of the year and see who might be favored.
There’s obviously still time for things to change, but this list usually includes new coaches who have turned teams around, veteran coaches who have led their teams to higher-than-expected places and coaches whose teams have claimed regular season hardware in impressive fashion.
That being said, which names stand out to you?
Jim: Well, I’ll start out in my league, Hockey East, where I think there are a number of candidates. Norm Bazin at Massachusetts-Lowell could be a repeat COY in that league but I think you also have to look at Nate Leaman, who has turned around Providence in just two years, and New Hampshire’s Dick Umile, who has a team that has played well despite entering the year with little expectations.
In ECAC Hockey, obviously Rand Pecknold stands out for bringing Quinnipiac to the top. But you also have to look at Seth Appert at Rensselaer. No one saw RPI taking home second place in that league. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Appert take that league’s COY award.
In Atlantic Hockey, I think this is a slam dunk. Dave Burkholder’s Niagara team ran away with the league. Maybe you give a nod to Paul Pearl at Holy Cross?
That’s the east. Who from the west should be looked at?
Todd: There’s an interesting split in my thinking in the WCHA. Mike Hastings last summer took over a Minnesota State team that had suffered four straight losing seasons and eight in the last nine, and he has the Mavericks on the verge of an NCAA tournament spot and one win away from setting the school Division I record for wins in a season.
But then there’s St. Cloud State, where Bob Motzko took a team that was picked for fourth in the WCHA by the coaches and sixth by the media and has it in the lead for the regular season title with two games left. That’s a tough decision but if memory serves me, the tendency in the past has been to reward the new guy.
As for the CCHA, Miami was not a popular pick for the regular season title going into the season — it didn’t get one of the 98 first-place votes cast by the media and coaches — but Rico Blasi got the RedHawks through some late bumps to come out ahead. He would certainly be a fair pick. I was impressed also by how Jeff Jackson and Notre Dame got through a very rough stretch of the season to right themselves, so Jackson could figure into things, too.
Our colleague Adam Wodon from College Hockey News mentioned on Twitter after Penn State beat Wisconsin last Monday that Guy Gadowsky could be in the mix for the national award after what appears to be a successful first season for the Nittany Lions program. An intriguing thought but I don’t know if it’ll gain a lot of traction.
Jim: Well, if Gadowsky is to win the Spencer Penrose Award, the AHCA will have to break its own rules. If memory serves me right, there is no provision for an independent coach to win the award unless they reach the Frozen Four. The list of Penrose candidates includes the coach of the year in the five conferences as well as the four coaches whose teams reach the Frozen Four. To quote from a story on our site last year:
The nominees represent any coach who won or shared top coach honors in his conference this past season, along with coaches whose teams have advanced to the NCAA tournament semifinals.
I’d be very surprised to see the AHCA make a special provision for Penn State.
Todd: You’re right, it’s out of the AHCA criteria but not necessarily for us media types that give out awards at the end of the season.
Moving on, Atlantic Hockey, the CCHA and ECAC Hockey are into playoff mode, with first-round series set for this weekend. The top teams get the weekend off so it’s left to the lower-seeded teams to fight for spots to join them in the quarterfinals.
In the CCHA, Michigan hosts Northern Michigan in a best-of-three series, and I have a feeling that it’s going to be a doozy. Any series stand out to you?
Jim: I think Harvard at Dartmouth in the ECAC may be one of the more compelling series. Dartmouth seemed poised at times this year to make an NCAA run (and still could happen as the Big Green is 19th in the PairWise Rankings) and they’ll face a Harvard team that in the last month has played its best hockey of the year. For some reason, Ted Donato’s teams are always a tough out and, if the Crimson can pull out the upset, they’ll end a pretty good season for Dartmouth.
We also can’t forget about Michigan State at Alaska. The Spartans beat Alaska just two weekends ago so the belief that the upset could happen has to be pretty high. Alaska is another NCAA bubble team whose hopes likely would end if it loses to Sparty this weekend.
That’s a great thing about the opening round of the playoffs: The highest seeds aren’t just fighting to survive in the playoffs, they’re also battling for their NCAA lives.
Todd: Alaska is the only team in the top 16 of the PairWise Rankings as it stood after Sunday’s game that will be in playoff action this weekend, so that series with the Spartans definitely merits attention. In Atlantic Hockey, the Rochester Institute of Technology home series against American International could be a good bet to go the distance (and I’m not talking about just the combined length of the team names). RIT has just one win in its last four games, while AIC has won three straight and is 7-1-1 in its last nine games.
All that being said, Hockey East and the WCHA are headed toward an incredible finish to the season. In both leagues, five teams are within four points at the top of the standings. In Hockey East, what are Massachusetts-Lowell’s chances of holding on for what would be an unlikely regular season title?
Jim: I don’t know if a lot of people would’ve believed in November that Lowell could go from the bottom to top of Hockey East, particularly when given that Lowell had lost six of its first eight league games. But Lowell had a lot of young players to break in, many of whom have had a major impact.
No player has made more of a difference, though, than rookie goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. Since losing his first game at Denver, Hellebuyck is now 13-0-0. Now I’m sure most of the votes on the all-rookie team will go to Providence’s Jon Gillies, but Hellebuyck has quietly become possibly the best goaltender in the league.
To answer your question, though, I do indeed believe that the River Hawks can win the Hockey East title. No other team is playing this well in Hockey East. The team standing in Lowell’s way is Providence, which developed a game plan last year to knock the River Hawks out of the Hockey East playoffs. The question is whether Nate Leaman can do that again and play the role of spoiler.
Todd: I don’t think you need to look much further than Providence’s 5-1 win at Boston College last Saturday to know that the Friars have that potential.
In the WCHA, St. Cloud State needs two points from a series at Wisconsin to ensure at least a share of the MacNaughton Cup — it would be the school’s first — and the top seed in the league playoffs. Wisconsin, on the other hand, could hope for a title share with a sweep and the right results involving Minnesota’s series at Bemidji State and the North Dakota-Minnesota State series. The Badgers also could end up on the road for the first round, showing what kind of volatility exists in the standings.
My guess is that St. Cloud State ends up with the top seed but I’m not convinced it will have the hardware to itself.
Jim: Well, the month of March begins with most every team still having a chance to win a national title. At this point, only three teams can’t win (Penn State, Alabama-Hunstville and Northeastern). By the time we write again, as many as 12 more teams will lose that chance. By the time the month ends, there will be just four teams with national title aspirations.