This Week
This Week in Hockey East

College Hockey:
Future unknown for Hockey East’s single-elimination first round despite positive debut

Steven Summerhays and Notre Dame got past Boston University last weekend, but Boston College is waiting in a rematch of the regular season finale won by the Irish (photo: Melissa Wade).

The experiment that was the single-elimination opening round of the Hockey East playoffs went off without a hitch.

In fact, you may say that it was an extreme success in that the three highest seeds advanced to the quarterfinal round, all three games were close and entertaining and the attendance at all three venues was above average to excellent.

Hockey East playoffs

See the tournament bracket and get links to schedules and stories at Hockey East Playoff Central.

And with all those superlatives for the first new playoff format in Hockey East in nearly two decades, there’s no guarantee the league will use a similar format next season, according to Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna.

“Going forward, there still will be a discussion because the coaches are still on the side of a [best] two-out-of-three [format for the opening round],” said Bertagna. “The [athletic] directors who passed this didn’t pass it by an overwhelming majority. It was a fairly close vote.”

Bertagna said the major factor beginning next year, with the addition of Connecticut, is that more teams will play in the opening playoff round, putting more teams who assembled decent or sometimes more-than-decent seasons at major risk of being upset in a one-game scenario.

“You’re now extending this opening round to the fifth-place team. A 12-versus-5 upset would probably resonate more than this year,” said Bertagna. “If I was a betting man, it wouldn’t shock me if they changed [the opening round] to a best-of-three next year.”

Bertagna noted that there are also rumblings of finding a way to eliminate a bye week altogether.

The two options for that would be to either eliminate four teams after the regular season, moving right into an eight-team postseason, or to hold six best-of-three first-round series and hold the tournament at the TD Garden over three days with six participants.

The coaches, Bertagna said, do not support eliminating any teams before the playoffs. As for the three-day tournament at the Garden, Bertagna wondered whether there would be enough interest from the paying customers.

“In my mind, as great at hockey town as [Boston is], I don’t think the fans could support that,” Bertagna said about a three-day tournament at the Garden. “We can support a Beanpot. We can support a college championship, but the latter only when it’s the right circumstances. We still need certain teams to get in and certain draws to get to the high side of our [attendance] range.”

Bertagna pointed to the tournament’s drop in attendance in years where it hosts Frozen Fenway to show the potential lack of support for a third day at the Garden. Each Hockey East tournament has had a lower attendance in the March following January games at Fenway, something that points to a limited budget on the part of the consumer to attend live sporting events.

“There are people who will pay $40 for a ticket once, not twice,” said Bertagna. “Asking people to come in [to the Garden] three times as opposed to twice might not work.”

What did work with this year’s single-elimination first round was the ability to create a great atmosphere.

Attendances at Vermont, Maine and Notre Dame were all solid, particularly compared to some of the half-empty arenas that have hosted best-of-three series in past years.

Vermont announced a crowd of 2,823, or 70 percent capacity, even with students on spring break. Maine pulled in 3,678 of a possible 5,174, or 71 percent capacity.

And Notre Dame had the best attendance, packing a sellout crowd of 5,022 into Compton Family Ice Arena.

The single game on the weekend likely had a lot of do with these higher numbers, said Bertagna, although he also expects this weekend’s quarterfinal series on each campus to have higher attendances than in recent years because of the compelling matchups in all three series.

All in all, you’d have to think of last weekend’s first round as a glowing success for Hockey East. But success doesn’t always translate to repetition, something that may be realized at this year’s playoffs are reviewed in the coming months.

River Hawks begin their title defense

The Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks will attempt over the next two weekends to do something that a team not named Boston College hasn’t done since 2003 — repeat as Hockey East champions.

In fact, when you take out Boston College’s back-to-back titles in 1998-99, 2007-08 and 2010-12 (back-to-back-to-back), repeating as Hockey East tournament champions has been pretty rare in the league’s 29-year history.

Maine in 1992 and 1993 became the first team to win two Hockey East titles in a row. And only Boston University (1994-95) and New Hampshire (2002-03) have otherwise accomplished the task.

Thus, it’s no surprise that winning the Lamoriello Trophy for the second straight year will be a tall task for the River Hawks, who drew Vermont in the best-of-three quarterfinal round to begin Friday at the Tsongas Center in Lowell.

Massachusetts-Lowell starts its bid for a second straight Hockey East playoff title against Vermont (photo: Melissa Wade).

Coach Norm Bazin was clear that the one thing he can’t do is compare last year’s team to this year’s, even in terms of how the team is playing entering the tournament.

He did say that he likes where his team is heading into the playoffs.

“It’s safe to say that I feel very good about this team,” said Bazin. “I think they’ve got their strengths and weaknesses. It’s a very different team than it was a year ago in that we do have some different personnel. And those [freshman] are going to have to play a role in the same way the new guys last year had to find a way to play a role.”

Advancing past Vermont will be no easy task. Lowell registered a 1-0 overtime victory before dropping a 3-2 decision on the final night of the regular season.

“They’re a good team structurally,” said Bazin. “They’ve got good depth. They’ve got a couple of 40-point guys in [Chris] McCarthy and [Mario] Puskarich. It’s clear we have to be aware of their balance.”

So what will make this River Hawks team successful enough to repeat as champions? According to Bazin, it will come down to mental strength.

“I think the mental part is even bigger than the physical part,” Bazin said about the need to be mentally strong in the postseason. “Forget about who you have in the lineup. It’s who mentally is prepared to pay the price.”

The impact of the quarterfinals on the national picture

I know many readers may be sick of reading about the national picture at this point. Yes, there are still two weeks to play before the PairWise Rankings even matter.

But at the same time, a number of people have asked, “What will happen to my team, if …” And from there you can fill in a number of blanks.

Does my team need to reach the Garden to have a chance at the NCAA tournament? What if my team sweeps? What if my team gets swept?

Well, thanks to data made available by Jim Dahl, who runs the site SiouxSports.com, here is a brief breakdown of what this weekend means to each team still playing in the Hockey East tournament:

No. 1 seed Boston College: The Eagles have clinched their NCAA bid.

No. 2 seed Massachusetts-Lowell: A sweep or 2-1 series win over Vermont will likely make the River Hawks a lock for the tournament as they would be somewhere between fifth and ninth in the PWR after the weekend (likely 6, 7, or 8). A 2-1 series loss still keep the River Hawks on solid footing but makes them prone to upsets in conference tournaments that could bump Lowell out. A sweep at the hands of Vermont drops the River Hawks to the bubble where they can end the weekend as high as ninth or as low as 15th.

No. 3 seed Providence: The Friars really need a series win against Maine to solidify their NCAA chances. Advancing over the Black Bears places Providence between sixth and 12th in the PairWise come week’s end, the most likely scenario between ninth and 11th. Losing to Maine 2-1 could leave Providence as high as 11th or as low as 17th and done. Being swept by the Black Bears means Providence likely would be between 13th and 17th in the PWR and in strong peril of missing the tournament.

No. 4 seed New Hampshire: This one is very simple. New Hampshire must advance to keep its NCAA chances alive. And even then there will be work to do. If the Wildcats advance, they will enter next week somewhere between 15th and 21st in the PairWise. And it won’t be until next week and all of the matchups are solidified across the country that UNH will know if it can reach the tournament without winning the Hockey East title.

No. 5 seed Northeastern: Two wins over New Hampshire will help Northeastern’s cause significantly. Currently 11th, the Huskies could creep as high as eighth or drop as low as 15th by advancing. If they can pull out one win while losing the series, all hope is not lost for an NCAA bid, but the Huskies will then rely on other teams for help during the championship weekend. A sweep at the hands of UNH and Northeastern can just about kiss its NCAA hopes goodbye as it would have less than a 10 percent chance to remain 15th or higher in the PairWise.

No. 6 seed Maine: Similar to UNH, Maine must advance to have any chance at reaching the NCAA tournament. Unlike UNH, however, I believe that sweeping Providence could put the Black Bears in a more solid position in the PairWise than a UNH sweep of Northeastern. Maine could finish this weekend as high as 13th though likely between 15th and 19th with two wins. Thus, one more win in the semifinals could be enough to earn a bid. That, however, is still to be determined.

No. 7 seed Vermont: It seems crazy to imagine, but both Vermont and Notre Dame have might brighter NCAA futures than New Hampshire, Northeastern and Maine. If Vermont advances past Lowell, the Catamounts will end the weekend between sixth and 13th in the PairWise (likely between 7th and 10th). If they lose the series 2-1 all hope is not lost. Vermont likely would end the weekend between 13th and 15th in the PairWise and still have a shot, though unable to control its destiny. Should the Cats gets swept, even, there would be a reason to keep practicing as they would finish the weekend anywhere from 12th to 18th, and most likely 15th.

No. 8 seed Notre Dame: If Notre Dame can beat Boston College in the series, there is a strong chance it will punch its NCAA ticket. The Irish would enter the Hockey East tournament between fourth and ninth in the PairWise, likely somewhere around seventh. And even if Notre Dame loses the series, its NCAA hopes are hardly out the window. One win against BC on the weekend would place Notre Dame between seventh and 12th in the PairWise. And a sweep at the hands of the Eagles would place the Irish between ninth and 15th with one week to go. Other than Lowell and BC, no team has as high of NCAA hopes as Notre Dame.

USCHO covers Hockey East all week long on the Hockey East Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.

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  • tape

    I like the idea of the WHCA Final Five-style (the real Final Five, not this regular 8-team tournament the new WCHA is still calling the “Final Five” for no good reason) tournament. I’ve always thought that was a pretty cool format.

    I’m also fine with the more standard-style format, but the single elimination first round has to go.

  • DNR

    Someone please explain how Notre Dame ends up in 8th place in Hockey East, yet is ranked #9 in the Pairwise rankings – the ninth best team in the nation. There must be some glitch in how the math works.
    They do pass the eye test in that they have talent and just beat BC, but I think it says it’s more important to win your non-conference games, particularly against other high ranked teams.

    • fcc56

      Notre Dame is 9th in RPI and 12th in win percentage. Its out-of-conference record is quite good—it beats three of the teams above it in the PWR on common opponents, and almost all the teams below it. ND also does very weil in non-conference head-to-head comparisons. Since PWR and RPI are national rankings, it makes sense that the record against all teams and not just conference teams is important.

      I would note that despite all the attention paid to the PWR, at the end of the day pretty much the same result would be achieved by using just RPI, since PWR rank is almost identical to RPI rank (as of today, the only difference is the swap of Colgate and Minnesota State at 16/17). PWR is fun but not essential.

      I would note also that both PWR and RPI are far from perfect. Being #9 in PWR/RPI does not necessarily mean a team is the ninth best D1 team in the country. Indeed, unless every team plays every other team at least once, there is no mathematical way to accurately rank teams from best to worst.

      • Northender78

        WoW! very good explanation of the RPI and PWR!

      • bronxbomberz41

        Yeah but they also stomped on Alabama-Huntsville three times instead of playing real opponents. Their RPI/PWR is adjusted so they don’t get penalized for that. I don’t know for sure if they would get knocked down too much if those were included, and you beat who is on your schedule, but come on….3 games against Huntsville? All at home, mind you. UNH hosted Michigan twice plus flew out to Colorado to play CC and Denver. I know they needed more home games, and the travel east for all the HEA games adds up, but I don’t think they are truly as good as their RPI/PWR puts them.

        • fcc56

          ND has beaten Minnesota, BC, Maine, Northeastern, Vermont, and Providence, plus a bunch of mid-level western teams (W. Michigan, Michigan Tech, Minnesota-Duluth, Lake Superior, all sweeps except UMD). On the flip side, ND has been swept by UNH and UML.

          I don’t think ND is a championship team, but I do think it’s a dangerous team. Summerhays is in my view a solid but not great goaltender, but he can be very good on occasion; and there is some real talent at the other positions—Tynan, Hinostroza, Costello, Johns, and Lucia are all quality players.
          I would not be surprised if ND takes a game from BC this weekend (perhaps two if Demko falters in net), and I don’t think anybody is going to be looking forward to playing ND in the NCAA tournament. On the other hand, if Demko plays big I think BC can sweep.

        • wearendhockey

          You do realize how idiotic it is to complain that Notre Dame played weak opponents when teams like BC play Army, Holy Cross and Penn State, right? And for the record, I thought 3 games against UAH was a bit excessive, but even with those three games the ND schedule was still rated 7th toughest based on the RPI. Oh and by the way, coming into the game tonight ND was the only team that both played and beat Minnesota and BC this season if I’m not mistaken. Outside of the three games against UAH (and all the top 10-15 teams have weak opponents on their schedule) Notre Dame played as tough a schedule as anyone. BC has earned their spot at or on the top of the rankings and the RPI all season. To think Notre Dame hasn’t also fully earned their top 10 ranking is just ignorant, especially with the way the game tonight went.

          • bronxbomberz41

            Holy Cross also beat BC, and Minnesota crushed them as well. You have to beat who is on your schedule (can make the same arguments against Wichita St in basketball). I got the feeling last night that they packed it in for the next game. UNH actually has an SOS one notch below ND, beat ND twice, and have only two less wins, but are significantly lower in overall RPI than ND. Like i said, I don’t know if counting those games against the worst team in college hockey against their RPI would knock them too far down or out of the top 16, but their place is inflated because they make that adjustment. is ND good? yes they are good, and I think the travel schedule every other week for league play could have played a part in their standing in a close Hockey East. I mean, they lost twice to a good Lowell, twice to Northeastern, once to UMass, once to Duluth, once to Maine (Maine’s first road win all year) but finished strong against a weak BU team and a couple nice wins over BC.

    • John Devine

      Because Hockey East is that good, that’s why. Best darned conference in the country! In 2009-10 UVM made it to the NCAAs after coming in 8th in the league.

  • RebuildUMO

    HEA should stick with the 8-team playoff format for a lot of reasons, the least of which is that if you finish 9-12 in the league, then you didn’t play well enough to deserve to continue your season, regardless of what the coaches want.

  • John Mannino

    “Vermont announced a crowd of 2,823, or 70 percent capacity, even with
    students on spring break. Maine pulled in 3,678 of a possible 5,174, or
    71 percent capacity”

    Maine’s students are on spring break, too.

    • bronxbomberz41

      It kinda sucks that a lot of these schools are on spring break when the tourney starts. All the students have to leave campus Friday night (when last round started) and generally can’t come back until Sunday (unless they live off campus). Even then, if you have flights and such, they generally aren’t altering their return dates because of these games. UNH is going to be dead tonight because there won’t be any students there, and they are what drive the noise levels and excitement from the fans, at least at the Whit.

      • John Mannino

        Yeah, I agree. I live in an apartment on campus at Maine, and am in the pep band so I was up to see the game, but the student section was not as full as it normally would be. Same thing about senior night, it was the saturday after most students left on friday.

  • JakeB

    Thanks Jim for including the great explanation of HEA’s NCAA probabilities from Jim Dahl.

  • Quinnipiac Athletics

    Nothing is better than a one game total goals playoff format. Fans do not have the money and time for a best of three format in any sport or any league.

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