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North Dakota’s Faison replaces Knowlton as NCAA Division I committee chair

North Dakota athletic director Brian Faison will serve as chair of the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee when it convenes to set the bracket for this season’s NCAA tournament.

Rensselaer athletic director Jim Knowlton had been the committee chair, but he is leaving the school for Air Force and has been removed from the committee roster.

The committee is made up of one member from each of the six Division I conferences. Three members must be administrators.

ECAC Hockey schools are in the process of choosing a replacement for Knowlton on the committee. Nominations were due Feb. 20 to the NCAA’s Administration Cabinet, which makes the pick.

Faison has been North Dakota’s athletic director since 2008 and has chaired the NCHC Board of Directors and the Big Sky Conference Joint Council.

He joined the NCAA hockey committee last season.

As with any member of the committee and his or her school, Faison will have to recuse himself from discussions involving North Dakota’s place in the NCAA tournament.

The committee also includes Minnesota senior associate athletic director Tom McGinnis and coaches Brian Riley of Army, Kevin Sneddon of Vermont and Mel Pearson of Michigan Tech.

Playoff preview: WCHA women

1D3L1730 Playoff preview: WCHA women

North Dakota will be home for the entirety of the WCHA playoffs should it advance, but still needs a big performance from Shelby Amsley-Benzie.  (BRADLEY K. OLSON)

It’s conference tournament time.

Two weeks, three rounds, and four conference champions will be determined. More so than any previous year, a wide variety of narratives could unfold in most of the leagues. Let’s scratch the surface of what a few of those might be.

No. 1 Minnesota versus Minnesota State
Postseason history: When the two teams met in the 2010 quarterfinals, MSU extended Minnesota to the third overtime in the second game.

Minnesota Gophers
Record: 29-2-4
Impact players: Hannah Brandt is second in the NCAA with 62 points; linemate Dani Cameranesi has had a breakout sophomore season with 55 points to rank fourth in the country, and her 34 assists are third.
Hurdles to overcome: Minnesota lacks the offensive balance through its lines that it enjoyed last year.
Why they will advance: The Gophers are the only team to reach the semifinals in all 15 seasons.
Why the Gophers will win the WCHA tournament: Their seniors won their first three years.

Minnesota State Mavericks
Record: 3-30-1
Impact players: Freshman forward Nicole Schammel leads the team in all three categories with 11 goals, 10 assists, and 21 points; senior Kathleen Rogan is third in team scoring despite missing 13 games.
Hurdles to overcome: MSU ranks dead last in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
Why they will advance: Returning Mavericks can be encouraged by the memory of pushing Wisconsin to three games last year when nobody gave them a chance.
Why the Mavericks will win the WCHA tournament: Though it would take more wins in nine days than the Mavericks have had all season to date, there’s always a chance.

No. 2 Wisconsin versus St. Cloud State
Postseason history: The Huskies were swept at Wisconsin in 2013 and are 0-6 all time against the Badgers in the postseason.

Wisconsin Badgers
Record: 24-6-4
Impact players: Although much of the impact comes from the team’s balance, goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens and freshman Annie Pankowski have stood out.
Hurdles to overcome: There have been days during the second half where the only place to see Wisconsin’s offense was on a milk carton.
Why they will advance: The Badgers’ penalty kill has allowed only four goals all season.
Why the Badgers will win the WCHA tournament: Just reaching the final would be a good step, something they haven’t done since 2011.

St. Cloud State Huskies
Record: 8-26-1
Impact players: Although the numbers may not always show it, the strength of St. Cloud State is its goaltending.
Hurdles to overcome: Already offensively challenged, the Huskies’ scoring is down from last year.
Why they will advance: Julie Friend will need to repeat her performance from Friday when she made 52 saves to bump off the Badgers.
Why the Huskies will win the WCHA tournament: First-year coach Eric Rud has been holding some top-secret tactics in reserve.

No. 3 North Dakota versus Ohio State
Postseason history: This is the first postseason meeting.

North Dakota
Record: 20-11-3
Impact players: Goaltender Shelby Amsley-Benzie has the top save percentage in the country, and junior Becca Kohler is having a career year to lead the scoring.
Hurdles to overcome: At times the offense provides little margin for error.
Why it will advance: It displayed a knack for getting by the Buckeyes in tight games.
Why North Dakota will win the WCHA tournament: UND will be playing on home ice the whole way and is as hot as any team in the country, going 10-1-1 over its last dozen games.

Ohio State Buckeyes
Record: 17-14-3
Impact players: Four of the team’s top five scorers are seniors.
Hurdles to overcome: North Dakota does many of the same things, and it does them a little better.
Why they will advance: It’s due to get a few bounces at UND’s expense.
Why the Buckeyes will win the WCHA tournament: They can ride the scarlet and gray wave started by the football team.

No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth versus Bemidji State
Postseason history: UMD defeated the Beavers 7-3 in the semifinals in 2010, the only time they’ve advanced beyond the first round.

Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs
Record: 19-10-5
Impact players: Six players have at least 20 points, but only Zoe Hickel tops 30.
Hurdles to overcome: It’s looking likely that no Bulldogs player will reach 40 points for the third straight year, after only having one such season through the program’s first 13 campaigns.
Why they will advance: I can’t imagine Shannon Miller losing her final game in Duluth.
Why the Bulldogs will win the WCHA tournament: It seems like the kind of thing Miller would do for a swan song.

Bemidji State Beavers
Record: 18-15-1
Impact players: Goaltender Brittni Mowat, leading scorer Kaitlyn Tougas, and a bunch of kids sporting ice bags from blocking shots.
Hurdles to overcome: They’ll almost surely have to win four games versus ranked opponents to win the championship.
Why they will advance: The Beavers outscored the Bulldogs 9-6 in splitting the season series.
Why the Beavers will win the WCHA tournament: Determination can go a long way.

Assessing NCHC teams’ goals for the final two weeks of the regular season

28469November 15 2014 Assessing NCHC teams goals for the final two weeks of the regular season

North Dakota and Miami go into the final two weeks of the NCHC regular season in the top two spots in the standings (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

When the NCHC was announced as the rival to the newly constituted Big Ten, it was recognized as a power conference. Talk to any coach in the league and they will comment on how competitive the league is, and how hard it is to sweep a league opponent.

In just its second year, the NCHC has surpassed all expectations. The league sports the best out-of-conference record of all six conferences at 53-25-4. Of the league’s eight teams, seven have at least a .500 or better record against out-of-conference competition.

The lone team below .500 is Colorado College, which went 4-5 against out-of-conference teams, including 1-0 against the Big Ten and 2-0 against the WCHA. As a comparison, CC is 1-18-1 in the conference, so it did far better when playing nonleague opponents.

That stellar out-of-conference record has translated to the PairWise Rankings, where the NCHC has three teams in the top four, five teams in the top eight, and six in the top 14. The next-best conference after the NCHC in terms of the top 15 teams who could conceivably make the NCAA tournament (the Atlantic Hockey champion is awarded an autobid, and Robert Morris is the highest-ranking AHC team at 23 in the PairWise, so 15 teams maximum will make it) are Hockey East and the WCHA with three. The ECAC has two, and the Big Ten one.

With two weeks to go in the regular season, the competition for the Penrose Cup, awarded to the league regular season champion, is fierce. Six teams have a mathematical chance at both home ice in the first round of the NCHC playoffs and the Penrose Cup. Let’s break down each team.

North Dakota

League record: 13-5-2
Nonleague record: 9-1-1
Conference rank: First
PairWise rank: Second
Highest possible finish: First
Lowest possible finish: Sixth
Series left: St. Cloud State (home), Miami (away)

North Dakota controls its destiny, thanks to the split last weekend between Miami and Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State’s sweep of Omaha. Win out, and UND wins the Penrose Cup.

Considering its opponents, that is easier said than done. St. Cloud has shown flashes of the form that won the Huskies the inaugural Penrose Cup, and Miami has battled North Dakota for first all season long.

North Dakota has a lot of pluses, including the seventh-best offense in the country and the 10th-best defense. The latter is particularly impressive, since UND is only 23rd in the country in penalty killing.

Zane McIntyre has been a force in net, sporting a 1.95 GAA and .932 save percentage.

UND’s chance at the Penrose Cup could come down to its last series against Miami.

Miami

League record: 12-7-1
Nonleague record: 7-3
Conference rank: Second
PairWise rank: Fourth
Highest possible finish: First
Lowest possible finish: Sixth
Series left: Denver (away), North Dakota (home)

Some people, including yours truly, picked the RedHawks to win the NCHC this year. Miami has a lot going for it, including goaltender Jay Williams, who sports the fourth-best GAA in the country at 1.72.

Williams is one of the reasons Miami boasts the 10th-ranked defense in the country.

Miami also has talented offensive stars, including Austin Czarnik, Riley Barber and Sean Kuraly, the latter of whom is chasing fellow conference forward Austin Ortega for the national game-winning goals lead.

If Miami is going to win the NCHC, it will have to do it the hard way. It faces the third and first teams in the conference to close its season. Beating Denver in Denver is a tough ask, and whether North Dakota is home or away, it always seems to get points.

If Miami can stay within three points of North Dakota ahead of the series between the two on the last weekend of the year, it will control its destiny — sweep North Dakota, and Miami wins the Penrose.

Denver

League record: 11-8-1
Nonleague record: 7-2-1
Conference rank: Tie, third
PairWise rank: Seventh
Highest possible finish: First
Lowest possible finish: Sixth
Series left: Miami (home), St. Cloud State (away)

After sweeping archrival Colorado College, Denver leapfrogged Minnesota-Duluth into a home-ice spot for the first round of the NCHC playoffs. Like several other teams in the conference, the Pioneers control their destiny. Win out, and Denver is home for the first round.

The Pioneers have a talented group on offense, including freshman Danton Heinen, who is 20th in the country in scoring and the top-ranked NCHC player nationally in scoring.

The defense is anchored by senior and Hobey Baker Award candidate Joey LaLeggia, who is 33rd in the country in scoring.

While Denver could finish first, it would need help. Taking home ice for the first round of the playoffs is more pressing.

20141121 Omaha UMD 11 MBishop Assessing NCHC teams goals for the final two weeks of the regular season

David Pope and Omaha hope to pull out of a slump that has the Mavericks 3-5 in their last eight games (photo: Michelle Bishop).

Omaha

League record: 11-8-1
Nonleague record: 6-2-2
Conference rank: Tie, third
PairWise rank: Eighth
Highest possible finish: First
Lowest possible finish: Sixth
Series left: Minnesota-Duluth (away), Colorado College (home)

Entering last weekend’s series with St. Cloud State, Omaha was tied for first in the NCHC. However, after last weekend’s sweep by the Huskies, Omaha is fighting just to capture a home-ice spot for the first round of the playoffs.

Sophomore forward Ortega has been a bright spot, tying the NCAA record for game-wining goals with 10.

Coach Dean Blais has gotten a lot out of his team, especially considering how young the Mavericks are; they sport 10 freshmen on the roster.

Omaha has struggled over the last month, posting a 3-5 mark, which is one reason Omaha, which had sole possession of first in early January, is now down to fourth and fighting to stay ahead of Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud for the final home-ice spot.

Even hosting Colorado College on the final weekend of the year isn’t a good omen, considering CC’s one league win came at Omaha’s expense in January.

Minnesota-Duluth

League record: 11-8-1
Nonleague record: 8-4
Conference rank: Fifth
PairWise rank: Third
Highest possible finish: First
Lowest possible finish: Sixth
Series left: Omaha (home), Western Michigan (away)

It says something about the competitiveness of the NCHC that while Minnesota-Duluth is third in the PairWise, the Bulldogs are only fifth in the NCHC. In the second half of the season, the Bulldogs have a 4-5-1 mark in conference play, but a 3-1 mark in nonconference play.

Saturday’s OT loss to Miami was particularly costly. The Bulldogs held a 3-1 lead but couldn’t hold on, and the loss dropped them out of the home-ice spot for the first round of the NCHC playoffs.

Winning the NCHC is not outside the realm of possibility, as the Bulldogs host reeling Omaha and then close against Western Michigan, but the first priority for Duluth has to be getting more points than Omaha in the series between the two this weekend so that the Bulldogs get to host the first round of the playoffs.

St. Cloud State

League record: 10-9-1
Nonleague record: 5-5
Conference rank: Sixth
PairWise rank: 14
Highest possible finish: First
Lowest possible finish: Sixth
Series left: North Dakota (away), Denver (home)

St. Cloud boasts some impressive wins this season, but also some puzzling losses that have hurt its playoff chances. However, after sweeping Omaha last weekend, the Huskies have moved up to 14th in the PairWise, which could be enough to get them into the NCAA tournament, depending on how the conference tournaments shake out.

A home-ice spot for the Huskies is possible, but challenging. Like Miami, St. Cloud closes its season with the first and third teams in the conference. Denver swept the Huskies in January in Denver, and St. Cloud split with North Dakota in November.

Regardless, the Huskies should look at the big picture: making the NCAA tournament.

20150213 Omaha WesternMichigan 06 MBishop Assessing NCHC teams goals for the final two weeks of the regular season

Western Michigan will be on the road for the first round of the playoffs (photo: Michelle Bishop).

Western Michigan

League record: 5-11-4
Nonleague record: 7-3
Conference rank: Seventh
PairWise rank: 24
Highest possible finish: Fifth
Lowest possible finish: Seventh
Series left: Colorado College (away), Minnesota-Duluth (home)

The Broncos know they will be on the road for the first round of the NCHC playoffs, but who they play and how they finish is up in the air. Further, at 24th in the PairWise, the Broncos would need to win the NCHC tournament to advance to the NCAA tournament.

First up for the Broncos is a road series with Colorado College, from whom they took five of six points at home in December right before the break. The win was a one-goal affair. With the Tigers looking for any positive, a sweep is no sure thing.

Then the Broncos host Minnesota-Duluth; the Bulldogs got a tie and win back in January against the Broncos in Duluth, but also lost the shootout, which is the reason Minnesota-Duluth trails Denver and Omaha, despite having identical records.

The most points Western could get is 34, which means the Broncos are definitely on the road.

Colorado College

League record: 1-18-1
Nonleague record: 4-5
Conference rank: Eighth
PairWise rank: 53
Highest possible finish: Eighth
Lowest possible finish: Eighth
Series left: Western Michigan (home), Omaha (away)

Colorado College has had a challenging season, and is the only NCHC team that knows exactly where it will finish, and exactly what its fate is. CC will finish last in the NCHC and go on the road to take on the top team in the conference. CC’s only chance at making the NCAA tournament is to win the autobid that goes to the NCHC playoff champion.

The Tigers have struggled mightily, often playing teams tough, only to fade in the last minutes of the third period. They played Denver tough last weekend, forcing a 3-3 tie in the third period Saturday only to have the Pioneers score three times in the final five minutes, only one of which was an empty-netter.

Players of the week

Offensive player of the week — Danton Heinen, Denver: Heinen, the top NCHC scorer nationally, paced Denver to a sweep of Colorado College and the Gold Pan trophy, extending his point streak to five games with four points on the weekend. On Friday, Heinen had two goals and an assist in Denver’s 6-4 win, tying the game in the first period with a goal and scoring the go-ahead goal in the second to make it 4-3. On Saturday, he notched an assist on the final Denver goal. Heinen finished plus-5 on the weekend.

Defensive player of the week — Joey LaLeggia, Denver: Hobey Baker Award candidate LaLeggia won his third straight NCHC defensive player of the week honor, and fifth of the year, by notching four points in Denver’s sweep of Colorado College. LaLeggia, who is the NCHC’s top-scoring defenseman and second-best scoring defenseman nationally, had two assists on Friday, then scored a goal and an assist, both on a power play. LaLeggia finished plus-2 on the weekend.

Rookie of the week — Nick Schmaltz, North Dakota: Schmaltz helped his team sweep Western Michigan by getting two assists, including the primary assist Friday on the game-winner while posting a plus-1 rating on the weekend.

Goaltender of the week — Zane McIntyre, North Dakota: McIntyre posted a 1.46 GAA and .957 save percentage in North Dakota’s sweep of Western Michigan. On Friday, the only goal he gave up came late in the game with Western Michigan having an extra attacker, and on Saturday, both of Western’s goals against McIntyre came with an extra attacker. McIntyre stopped 67 of 70 shots on the weekend and earned his fourth goaltender of the week honor.

Playoff previews: Hockey East women

lefort1 Playoff previews: Hockey East women

BU’s Sarah Lefort is a key to the Terriers’ offense. (Melissa Wade)

It’s conference tournament time.

Two weeks, three rounds, and four conference champions will be determined. More so than any previous year, a wide variety of narratives could unfold in most of the leagues. Let’s scratch the surface of what a few of those might be.

No. 1 Boston College versus Providence
Postseason history: The Eagles defeated the Friars 3-2 in overtime in a semifinal in 2011.

Boston College Eagles
Record: 30-1-2
Impact players: I could probably just insert a link to the whole roster, but they have both the country’s highest scoring player in Alex Carpenter and defenseman in Emily Pfalzer.
Hurdles to overcome: Traditionally, BC doesn’t seem to be at its best in the league tourney, winning the event only once, four years ago.
Why they will advance: The Eagles have the nation’s top offense, while Providence ranks 32nd defensively.
Why the Eagles will win the Hockey East tournament: BC went undefeated against this field in 22 games, so it is unlikely that anyone will stop them over the next four contests.

Providence Friars
Record: 6-23-4
Impact players: Providence has some nice senior forwards, Beth Hanrahan, Haley Frade, and Brooke Simpson.
Hurdles to overcome: The best time to face the top team in the country is probably not while on an eight-game losing skid.
Why they will advance: PC isn’t as big of an underdog as Bye — or maybe that’s not true.
Why the Friars will win the Hockey East tournament: Last season was the first year they didn’t reach the semifinals of Hockey East, so many of the Friars remember better days.

No. 2 Boston University versus Vermont
Postseason history: The two teams meet in the playoffs for the first time.

Boston University Terriers
Record: 21-8-3
Impact players: The Terriers have two of the country’s premier players, and they’ve put up nearly identical scoring lines with Sarah Lefort (22-21-43) and Marie-Philip Poulin (21-21-42)
Hurdles to overcome: BU can be very ordinary at times.
Why they will advance: While there were more favorable first-round opponents than Vermont, BU should manage just fine.
Why the Terriers will win the Hockey East tournament: Brian Durocher has them playing their best every year at tournament time.

Vermont Catamounts
Record: 15-17-2
Impact players: Dayna Colang outscored more-heralded teammates Amanda Pelkey and Brittany Zuback.
Hurdles to overcome: Vermont has yielded a lot of goals, including nine in the last game versus the Terriers.
Why they will advance: They shut BU out a month ago; now they just have to remember how they did it.
Why the Catamounts will win the Hockey East tournament: As much as this may seem like a mismatch, BU has just six more overall wins than does UVM; the second round is where a miracle will be needed.

No. 3 Northeastern versus New Hampshire
Postseason history: New Hampshire defeated Northeastern 5-0 in the semifinals in 2004.

Northeastern Huskies
Record: 12-15-5
Impact players: Kendall Coyne seems to have found a running mate in freshman Denisa Krížová.
Hurdles to overcome: After season-ending injuries to Hayley Scamurra and Paige Savage, production up front isn’t very deep.
Why they will advance: When Chloé Desjardins is at the top of her game, Northeastern can beat anyone — or at least, almost anyone.
Why the Huskies will win the Hockey East tournament: They have come so close to making the NCAA field a number of times in recent years, so it would be fitting that they do so now when nobody expects it.

New Hampshire Wildcats
Record: 9-21-3
Impact players: Point production drops off quite sharply after sophomore Jonna Curtis.
Hurdles to overcome: A matchup with Maine would likely have suited UNH much better.
Why they will advance: The Wildcats have been better of late and are on a 5-5-2 stretch.
Why the Wildcats will win the Hockey East tournament: They’ve done it as many times as any other program.

No. 4 Maine versus Connecticut
Postseason history: This is the first playoff meeting.

Maine Black Bears
Record: 10-18-3
Impact players: Senior Meghann Treacy in net gives Maine a chance every time out.
Hurdles to overcome: Only RIT’s power play converted at a lower rate.
Why they will advance: If before the season Maine was offered the possibility of a home-ice playoff series versus a team that didn’t reach double digits in wins, it would have jumped at the chance.
Why the Black Bears will win the Hockey East tournament: Maine might fare better if the league champ was determined by popular vote.

Connecticut Huskies
Record: 9-17-8
Impact players: Leah Lum has made a difference on the blue line as a rookie, and senior Sarah MacDonnell leads the team in scoring with 28 points.
Hurdles to overcome: It’s a strange situation to be opening the playoffs on the road in the same building where you swept a series the week before.
Why they will advance: Their first opponent has only one more win than they do.
Why the Huskies will win the Hockey East tournament: The Huskies path to a championship would figure to get easier if there is at least one other upset winner in Hockey East’s first round.

Playoff preview: ECAC women

 

staenz Playoff preview: ECAC women

Yale will need a big series from Phoebe Staenz if it wants to advance past Harvard. (Sam Rubin/Yale Sports Publicity)

It’s conference tournament time.

Two weeks, three rounds, and four conference champions will be determined. More so than any previous year, a wide variety of narratives could unfold in most of the leagues. Let’s scratch the surface of what a few of those might be.

No. 1 Clarkson versus Dartmouth
Postseason history: Clarkson swept the Big Green in a 2014 quarterfinal, claiming a pair of 2-0 verdicts.

Clarkson Golden Knights
Record: 22-9-3
Impact players: Clarkson is the top seed thanks to new arrivals like goalie Shea Tiley and defenseman Savannah Harmon, and the growth of returnees such as forwards Cayley Mercer and Shannon MacAulay.
Hurdles to overcome: The Golden Knights aren’t especially deep, and only had 15 skaters dressed when they shut out Harvard to secure first.
Why they will advance: Clarkson swept the Big Green during the season, including a dramatic OT win on the final weekend.
Why the Golden Knights will win the ECAC tournament: After a breakthrough past two years, it’s the one prize missing from the trophy case.

Dartmouth Big Green
Record: 13-13-2
Impact players: Dartmouth is led by the triple threat of forwards Lindsey Allen, Kennedy Ottenbreit, and Laura Stacey.
Hurdles to overcome: The Big Green have the league’s best power play, but their penalty kill ranked 10th, so they’ll need to either improve or stay out of the box.
Why they will advance: Dartmouth has been down this road before, losing a hard-fought series in Potsdam to a much deeper Clarkson.
Why the Big Green will win the ECAC tournament: The gap between them and the rest of the field isn’t as big as it usually is for a bottom seed.

No. 2 Harvard versus Yale
Postseason history: Harvard advanced out of a quarterfinal series in 2014 by taking the third game, 4-0, after splitting a pair of double-overtime contests.

Harvard Crimson
Record: 21-5-3
Impact players: Harvard is deep at forward, deep at defense, but seems to go as junior goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer goes.
Hurdles to overcome: The whole has been mystifyingly less than the sum of the parts at times.
Why they will advance: In the wake of a somewhat flat weekend at home to close the season, I wouldn’t expect another one.
Why the Crimson will win the ECAC tournament: After taking four championships in five years, they haven’t won since their perfect ECAC performance in 2008, so the Crimson are due.

Yale Bulldogs
Record: 15-13-1
Impact players: Jamie Haddad and Phoebe Staenz share the scoring lead with 24 points, but the balance is improved.
Hurdles to overcome: Yale will have to tighten up a defense that ranks seventh.
Why they will advance: Ivy League teams always get up to play Harvard.
Why the Bulldogs will win the ECAC tournament: The Bulldogs are riding a season-best five-game winning streak.

No. 3 Quinnipiac versus Princeton
Postseason history: The Bobcats swept the Tigers in a quarterfinal series in 2011.

Quinnipiac Bobcats
Record: 24-7-3
Impact players: Taylar Cianfarano leads the country with eight game-winning goals, and Chelsea Laden sits atop the shutout list with 14.
Hurdles to overcome: A lot of air has leaked out of the balloon in recent weeks; Quinnipiac has scored multiple goals only three times in its last 10 games.
Why they will advance: The Bobcats didn’t give Princeton much reason for optimism in sweeping the season series.
Why the Bobcats will win the ECAC tournament: For Quinnipiac to make its first championship a reality, it will need to get back to being near impossible to score against.

Princeton Tigers
Record: 15-12-2
Impact players: Kelsey Koelzer leads ECAC defensemen in points with 26, while Molly Contini is tops on the team with 28.
Hurdles to overcome: Goalie Kimberly Newell will have to be on her best form, because any goals allowed will be very challenging to answer.
Why they will advance: The Tigers haven’t reached the semifinals since their NCAA tournament year in 2006, so they’re due.
Why the Tigers will win the ECAC tournament: Princeton is also looking for its first crown, but this year, there doesn’t appear to be a dominant team to overcome, so the time is ripe for a surprise winner.

No. 4 Cornell versus St. Lawrence
Postseason history: SLU fell to the Big Red in a semifinal in 2013 after defeating them in the final in 2012.

Cornell Big Red
Record: 16-10-3
Impact players: Cornell has the league’s biggest offensive threats in seniors Brianne Jenner, Emily Fulton, and Jillian Saulnier.
Hurdles to overcome: The Big Red rank fifth in scoring defense and penalty kill in the league.
Why they will advance: Cornell has won its last five quarterfinal series.
Why the Big Red will win the ECAC tournament: With the players they are graduating, it could be a while before they have a realistic chance to win the tourney again, like they did the last two years.

St. Lawrence Saints
Record: 19-10-5
Impact players: Defenseman Amanda Boulier, goaltender Carmen MacDonald, and a solid stable of forwards.
Hurdles to overcome: There was a wide variance between the Saints on their best day and their worst.
Why they will advance: SLU will need to start faster, as they’ve fallen into 4-0 and 3-0 holes in losing twice to Cornell this year.
Why the Saints will win the ECAC tournament: They’ve come from off the radar to do it before, but only the seniors and Boulier were around to see it.

Minnesota State, Michigan Tech ready for series that could decide which will hoist MacNaughton Cup

Mavericks Win Minnesota State, Michigan Tech ready for series that could decide which will hoist MacNaughton Cup

Minnesota State’s Bryce Gervais (9) and Matt Leitner can clinch the WCHA title with two wins over Michigan Tech (photo: Adelle Whitefoot).

Mike Hastings said the first meeting between his Minnesota State Mavericks and Michigan Tech “seems like two years ago,” but Huskies coach Mel Pearson recalled thinking about the rematch after that November series in Houghton.

“You got the sense that somewhere down the road we’d meet again and it would be meaningful,” Pearson said.

On the penultimate weekend of the regular season, they meet again in Mankato — and it is indeed meaningful.

The second-ranked Mavericks hold a one-point lead over the third-ranked Huskies atop the WCHA standings. A Minnesota State sweep would give the Mavericks their first MacNaughton Cup championship, while two wins by Michigan Tech would slingshot the Huskies into first place and put them in great shape for their first WCHA title since 1976 with a week to go.

“One’s going to finish first; one’s going to finish second,” Hastings said. “Winning a regular season championship, I think, is very difficult in our league.”

The Mavericks swept the Huskies three months ago in a pair of one-goal games, handing Michigan Tech its first losses of the season after a 10-0 start and knocking it out of the No. 1 ranking.

“I still have that feeling and that sense of intensity and that pace and grittiness of those games in November,” Pearson said.

He said the same of the last season’s regular season finale in Mankato in which a tie between the two teams cost MSU a share of the MacNaughton Cup and kept Tech out of a home-ice spot.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the MacNaughton, if you’re talking about home ice or talking about making the playoffs, one point is usually the difference,” said Hastings, whose own team was recently knocked off the top of the rankings. “Everybody’s playing for something at this time of year — everybody. So I think it’s an exciting time for hockey.”

There’s definitely excitement for the series in south-central Minnesota, where the games are expected to be played in front of two packed houses — perhaps more than 5,000 strong each night — at the Verizon Wireless Center.

And why not? It’s not just about rankings and standings. The series will feature 10 of the WCHA’s top 11 scorers — Tech’s Tanner Kero and Alex Petan and Minnesota State’s Matt Leitner and Bryce Gervais, just to name a few — as well as two of the league’s best goaltenders in the Huskies’ Jamie Phillips and the Mavericks’ Stephon Williams.

“These are the games you want to play in,” Pearson said. “Going into a tough rink against a good team. You can’t ask for anything more. … And it’s good for our league. It sheds some spotlight on our league.”

Both coaches are trying to put the weekend into perspective. No matter what the outcome is in the series, there’s a lot more hockey to be played, including the final weekend of the regular season, the first round of the conference playoffs, the Final Five and the NCAA tournament.

“We’ve found ourselves in a good position,” Pearson said. “We didn’t know that we’d be here. We’re trying to approach the game Friday and again Saturday as being the same as playing Lake Superior in October. It’s two points.”

Tell that to the fans packing the place hoping to see a championship clinched.

“You set goals at the beginning of the year,” Hastings said. “The first is you want to get home ice in the playoffs. The second is you want to be competing for a league championship. … Those are hard to win; it’s hard to get home ice. So it’s an opportunity. And if you win it, you better keep an eye on what’s in front of you.”

2015012419 13 479443 Minnesota State, Michigan Tech ready for series that could decide which will hoist MacNaughton Cup

Bemidji State is tied for fourth place with Northern Michigan and holds the head-to-head tiebreaker (photo: Jim Rosvold).

Home ice on the line

Meanwhile in Big Rapids, there’s another big series between two teams that actually haven’t played in nearly a year.

And depending on how the series breaks, either host Ferris State or visiting Bemidji State could find itself in the league’s fourth and final home-ice position at the end of the weekend.

“Every single team in our conference has something to play for this weekend,” Bulldogs coach Bob Daniels said on a local Big Rapids radio show. “Whether it’s trying to make the playoffs, improve your playoff position, like we are, or playing for the MacNaughton Cup.”

The teams haven’t played at all this season, but they met six times in 2013-14, including the first round of the WCHA playoffs in Big Rapids.

Daniels has been keeping tabs on the Beavers, however.

“They’re coming in on a four-game winning streak,” said Daniels, whose own team has won three in a row. “They’re hard to play against. I’ve been able to catch them a number of times on TV. They’re playing well; they’re well coached. I think we’re going to be tested again this weekend.”

The Beavers are tied with Northern Michigan for fourth place but hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Wildcats. The Bulldogs are just two points behind them.

“It’s always interesting playing Ferris,” Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said. “They’ve had a lot of success as of late. Frozen Four a couple years ago, league title last year. They’re a very good hockey team that’s playing well right now.”

A Bemidji State sweep would eliminate the Bulldogs from home-ice consideration. If Ferris State sweeps, the Bulldogs would leapfrog the Beavers with two games remaining.

Although neither team can clinch anything or be eliminated by themselves — Northern Michigan will have a lot to say about that as it spends the weekend at Lake Superior State — it’s clear the teams know the implications.

“We have to win all these games right now,” Beavers freshman forward Kyle Bauman said. “We realize how close of a race it is with Northern and Ferris. We’re only beating Northern by a head-to-head tiebreaker, and Ferris is two behind. So we just have to keep winning.”

Ice chips

• Alabama-Huntsville sophomore defenseman Brandon Carlson leads the nation with 74 blocked shots after getting in front of three shots last week against Ferris State. The WCHA has four players in the top 10 nationally in that category, including Bemidji State’s Sam Windle (fourth with 71) and Michigan Tech’s Matt Roy and Cliff Watson (tied for sixth with 69 each).

• Alaska-Anchorage will close out the regular season with four consecutive home games. The Seawolves, who have lost eight games in a row, are hoping to climb out of the league cellar and make the postseason. To do that, they will need to win at least two of their final four games — they host Bowling Green and Alaska — and have Lake Superior State go winless over the next two weeks.

• Alaska plays its final four games of the season on the road, starting this weekend at Alabama-Huntsville. While the Nanooks are ineligible for the postseason, they can still finish as high as fourth place in the league standings by sweeping out and getting some help.

• After getting swept at home by Northern Michigan last weekend, Bowling Green remains two points shy of clinching home ice. A win at Alaska-Anchorage also will secure third place for the Falcons, who are on a three-game losing streak, their longest slump of the season.

• Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan will play this weekend for the Cappo Cup, which dates to the 1991-92 season. The team that scores the most goals in the series wins the trophy. The Lakers, who have lost three games in a row, were swept at home by the Wildcats 4-2 and 3-0 in October. Northern Michigan heads into the home series fresh off its upset sweep at Bowling Green. Wildcats senior Reed Seckel has 10 points in 12 career games against the Lakers.

• This week’s league players of the week are: Northern Michigan senior forward Reed Seckel (offensive), Ferris State senior goaltender CJ Motte (defensive) and Bemidji State freshman forward Kyle Bauman (rookie).

Hockey East hands Northeastern’s Madigan two-game suspension for behavior toward officials

madigan Hockey East hands Northeasterns Madigan two game suspension for behavior toward officials

Northeastern coach Jim Madigan will miss both games against Boston University this weekend (photo: Melissa Wade).

Northeastern coach Jim Madigan has been suspended for his team’s final two regular season games because of what Hockey East called unsportsmanlike behavior directed at officials.

Madigan, whose Huskies play a home-and-home series against first-place Boston University on Friday and Saturday, are tied for sixth place, one point behind a group of three teams tied for third. The top four teams earn a first-round bye in the Hockey East playoffs, while the next four host a first-round series.

In suspending Madigan, Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna cited Madigan’s behavior toward officials after last Saturday’s loss at Maine and after Monday night’s overtime loss to Boston University in the Beanpot final.

The Northeastern bench was issued a game misconduct penalty after Monday’s game, which ended with a BU overtime goal 42 seconds after a Northeastern penalty.

“Coach Madigan’s actions are not consistent with the expectations we have for our department,” Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby said in a statement. “We hold all members of our department to a high standard, and we expect our representatives to treat others with respect and to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner both on and off the field of competition.”

Northeastern said associate head coach Jerry Keefe will lead the team during Madigan’s suspension.

Madigan is eligible to return to the bench in the Huskies’ first Hockey East playoff game.

“We are committed to operating an athletics program that is reflective of the values of the university and department we represent,” Roby said. “We look forward to having Coach Madigan back behind the bench for the start of the conference playoffs.”

Previewing the D-III women’s postseason

It’s tournament time for the six women’s Division III conferences and one other tournament for ECAC teams that don’t qualify for their tournament.

The ECAC East, ECAC West, MIAC, NCHA, NESCAC, and WIAC all play one-and-done formats, with some games getting underway Thursday night. Games continue through the weekend, with championships being decided a week from now.

In the ECAC East, top-seeded Norwich looks to be the favorite going away and with a spotless record in league play this season (15-0-2), the Cadets have all the confidence right now.

That said, Salve Regina finished 13-4-0 in conference play and could pose a threat to Norwich winning out.

None of the other six teams in the field won more than eight games in conference play this season.

Over in the ECAC West, the top two teams in the conference and in the nation (No. 1 Elmira, No. 2 Plattsburgh) earned first-round byes into the semifinals next weekend.

This conference is really a two-horse race with Elmira and Plattsburgh, and there is no denying that. It’s a fact. The winner of Cortland and Oswego gets Plattsburgh and then the Utica-Buffalo State winner draws Elmira. Yeah, the old “out of the frying pan into the fire” adage bodes well here.

Still, get Elmira and Plattsburgh on opposite ends of the ice and it’s anyone’s game. Literally. Then again, throw Ashley Ryan and Ashton Hogan on the ice for Elmira and it could be lights out, Plattsburgh.

The MIAC has the makings for an upset.

Gustavus Adolphus is the top seed and plays the winner of the Bethel-St. Mary’s quarterfinal, while Concordia (Minn.) and St. Thomas get at it in the other semifinal.

GAC finished the regular season 15-2-1 and St. Thomas right behind at 11-3-4. These two should wind up in the finals, but after that, it’s a roll of the dice as to who comes out of the MIAC.

Adrian ruled the roost in the NCHA this year and enters that conference’s tournament as the top seed. Goaltender Jade Walsh is a solid Laura Hurd candidate and only lost once in regulation this season, which was also the number of times the Bulldogs lost in regulation all year (20-1-4).

Lake Forest could give Adrian a run for its money in the tournament final, but odds are the Bulldogs will be the ones cashing in. Adrian seems like a team on a mission.

Both Adrian and Lake Forest get byes into the semifinals.

In the NESCAC, eight teams make the field, headlined by No. 3 Middlebury, the favorite and regular-season champs.

Second-seeded Amherst has shown an affinity to win big games this season, too, so that squad should not be counted out at all.

The brackets show we could be in for a Middlebury-Amherst final, and that would surprise no one.

The WIAC quartet is probably between Wisconsin-River Falls and Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Wis.-River Falls gets Wisconsin-Eau Claire to open up things and the Pointers, who handed Adrian its lone loss this year, draw Wisconsin-Superior.

All four teams played tough nonconference schedules this season, and that level of competition matters now.

At the end of the day, though, it should be River Falls and Stevens Point battling it out for bragging rights in the state of Wisconsin.

The ECAC Open pits Holy Cross against St. Anselm and Franklin Pierce taking on St. Michael’s. All four are not Division III schools and as such, do not play in the ECAC East tournament.

The Holy Cross-St. Anselm game has the potential to be a barn-burner, though Franklin Pierce may have an edge over St. Michael’s. The winner of the tournament will be who has the momentum after the Holy Cross and St. Anselm game.

Check back to USCHO.com as Candace and Matt pick this weekend’s contests.

Playoff previews: CHA

141004 14004043 Playoff previews: CHA

Melissa Piacentini (SU – 14). (Melissa Wade)

It’s conference tournament time.

Two weeks, three rounds, and four conference champions will be determined. More so than any previous year, a wide variety of narratives could unfold in most of the leagues. Let’s scratch the surface of what a few of those might be.

College Hockey America

No. 1 Mercyhurst versus Bye
Postseason history: Bye was no match for the Lakers in last year’s quarterfinal.
Mercyhurst Lakers
Record: 23-8-3
Impact players: Junior forward Emily Janiga posted her third straight season of 40-plus points with a career-best 45; classmate Jenna Dingeldein (35 points) is also in the 100-point club for her career.
Hurdles to overcome: Their inconsistency over the last 14 games has been surprisingly unlike the Lakers, trudging along at 7-6-1.
Why they will advance: The Lakers have reached the final of every CHA tournament.
Why the Lakers will win the CHA tournament: While the advantage over the rest of the league has shrunk, Mercyhurst is still hosting and needs a tournament win to add to its string of 10 consecutive NCAA appearances. In addition to the top scorers in the league, the Lakers possess the top-scoring defenseman in senior Molly Byrne.

Bye
Record: none recorded
Impact players: none; it doesn’t even have players.
Hurdles to overcome: Questions remain regarding coaching, scoring, goaltending, every other position, and willingness to compete.
Why it will advance: Mercyhurst won’t see it coming.
Why it will win the CHA tournament: Bye has been able to find its way to the bracket of many national tournaments over the years; now that the CHA has an automatic bid, look out.

No. 2 Syracuse versus Bye
Postseason history: The Orange advanced with a quarterfinal bye in 2013.

Syracuse Orange
Record: 10-14-10
Impact players: Junior Melissa Piacentini leads the team with 18 goals and is tied for the points lead at 29 with freshman Stephanie Grossi, the team assists leader with 20.
Hurdles to overcome: Syracuse has struggled at times to put together a full 60 minutes and has been done in by bad stretches in games.
Why they will advance: Despite their propensity to tie, the Orange should be able to manage this one.
Why the Orange will win the CHA tournament: They are the best team in the league of those still looking for a first conference championship, and now that they’ve finally earned that elusive first win over Mercyhurst, the Orange should enter the playoffs with more confidence.

Bye
Record: winless on the season
Impact players: cannot point to anyone who is likely to be a factor.
Hurdles to overcome: One of the knocks on Bye over the years is that it doesn’t show up for big games.
Why it will advance: I doubt that it can; Bye isn’t even going through the motions.
Why it will win the CHA tournament: I don’t see it; Bye lacks championship mettle.

No. 3 Robert Morris versus RIT
Postseason history: The Tigers beat RMU, 4-1 in the semifinals, in 2014.

Robert Morris Colonials
Record: 11-17-5
Impact players: The sophomore class provides much of the clout for the Colonials, including leading scorers Mackenzie Johnston, defenseman Mikaela Lowater, Rikki Meilleur, and goalie Jessica Dodds.
Hurdles to overcome: Robert Morris was maddeningly mediocre in most areas over the course of the season, but its sweep at Penn State was its most complete weekend to date.
Why they will advance: The playoffs provide an opportunity to atone for everything that has gone wrong over the year and get back to the championship game for the first time since winning it three years ago.
Why the Colonials will win the CHA tournament: After a nightmarish start to the season, RMU has gone 5-3-2 over the past month and at last looks to be gathering momentum.

Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers
Record: 11-18-5
Impact players: When healthy, senior Ali Binnington is one of the top goaltenders in the country. Offense has to be by committee, because top scorer Celeste Brown is tied for 18th in the league.
Hurdles to overcome: The Tigers will need to play a complete game, because they don’t have the firepower to compensate for lulls in intensity.
Why they will advance: RIT visited Robert Morris two weeks ago and played a pair of 2-2 ties. Repeating those games would favor the underdog.
Why the Tigers will win the CHA tournament: This is the final chance for a very accomplished senior class to write another chapter in program history, and they’ve been at their best in the postseason.

No. 4 Penn State versus Lindenwood
Postseason history: This is the first postseason clash of the two programs.

Penn State Nittany Lions
Record: 15-15-4
Impact players: Sophomore forward Laura Bowman emerged as a star and is the league’s third-leading scorer, while junior Celine Whitlinger ranks second in the CHA in winning percentage and third in save percentage.
Hurdles to overcome: After contending for the conference crown, PSU finished with a five-game losing streak that dropped it down to fourth; the team will need to shake off that disappointment in a hurry.
Why they will advance: The excitement of the first home playoff game in program history should help dispel any blues not related to the uniform color.
Why the Nittany Lions will win the CHA tournament: Why not? Things looked dark for Cinderella when the hour grew late, and it turned out okay for her.

Lindenwood Lions
Record: 10-19-2
Impact players: Senior Jordyn Constance and junior Shara Jasper, both with 27 points, have provided the Lions a one-two punch that they’ve lacked previously.
Hurdles to overcome: Lindenwood hasn’t won two games in one weekend all season.
Why they will advance: The Lions have never won a postseason game, but then neither has their opponent.
Why the Lions will win the CHA tournament: Nicole Hensley; if Lindenwood is going to top last year’s win by RIT for biggest CHA shocker of all time, their junior goaltender will need to take her place in program lore from historic to legendary.

Heading into final weekend, Hockey East has a number of close races to watch

150130 21542906 Heading into final weekend, Hockey East has a number of close races to watch

Boston College and Providence both have designs on taking next weekend off (photo: Melissa Wade).

We’re into the home stretch now. This weekend’s games will complete the Hockey East regular season and set the stage for playoffs that will extend the season for some and end it (either mercifully or cruelly) for others.

Keep in mind that the key dividing lines are between fourth and fifth places as well as between eighth and ninth. The team that finishes fourth locks up the last first-round bye and home ice in the quarterfinals. The team that finishes eighth secures the final first-round home-ice slot.

As you’ll see below, I predict Notre Dame and Maine to be the two major casualties in those two tight races.

Let’s look at where each team stands and make some predictions. The teams are ordered based on my expected final playoff seedings.

1. Boston University

Current number of points: 29

Remaining games: A home-and-home series with Northeastern

Best case: The Terriers take at least one point from Northeastern, or Boston College fails to sweep at Notre Dame, giving BU the regular season crown and No. 1 seeding outright.

Worst case: As detailed in the Monday morning blog, if BU gets swept, BC sweeps and Northeastern finishes third, the Terriers will be the No. 2 seed.

Analysis: That worst case includes a whole lotta ifs, all of which must come true for BU to fall out of first place.

You can never say never. Ask the Green Bay Packers about their certain trip to the Super Bowl.

Or better yet, ask a Seattle Seahawks fan about the certainty of Marshawn Lynch scoring from the 1-yard line or the improbability of a guy named Malcolm Butler sending them into the offseason crying.

Heh, heh, heh. Let’s spend just a couple seconds savoring that moment yet again.

Ahhhhh, yes. How sweet it is!

Back to our regularly scheduled programming …

All caveats aside, BU is as close of a lock to gaining the No. 1 seed as there is in Hockey East this year.

Projected points: 31

Projected seeding: 1

2. Boston College

Current number of points: 25

Remaining games: Two at Notre Dame

Best case: The Eagles sweep and the Terriers get swept, making the two archrivals co-champions of the regular season. Additionally, if Northeastern finishes third (or at least above Massachusetts-Lowell and Vermont) to give BC the tiebreaker, then BC becomes the No. 1 seed.

Worst case: BC gets swept and other results drop the Eagles all the way to sixth.

Analysis: Notre Dame certainly was a thorn in BC’s side last year, defeating the Eagles at Kelley Rink in overtime, and then as the No. 8 seed, toppling the seemingly unbeatable top-seeded Eagles, two out of three. (BC did win the game at Fenway Park.)

The Irish are also 4-1-2 in their last seven, including taking three of four at BU last weekend. And this weekend’s contests are in South Bend.

So it wouldn’t be shocking at all to see Notre Dame sweep its way into a top-four position.

However.

BC is still 12-2-3 since the start of December. The Eagles have done so quietly because this isn’t the offensive juggernaut of last year, and one of those losses was on the big stage of the Beanpot opening round.

But quietly winning is still winning.

I really can’t see the Eagles getting swept this weekend. I see them getting two points and holding onto second place.

Projected points: 27

Projected seeding: 2

3. Providence

Current number of points: 23

Remaining games: Hosts Maine for two.

Best case: The Friars sweep Maine and BC gets no more than two points at Notre Dame. That reasonable scenario gives Providence the No. 2 seed. (The Friars own the head-to-head tiebreaker with Lowell in case the River Hawks also sweep, and Providence also owns the most-conference-wins tiebreaker with both BC and Lowell.)

Worst case: Providence gets swept and, with other action going the wrong way, slides all the way to seventh.

Analysis: Of the five teams clustered within a point of each other (and make it six if you include BC), Providence is the only one that isn’t facing another member of the cluster.

That is, the Friars are the only member of the group jostling for a first-round bye that is a clear favorite this weekend, that is playing an opponent outside of that group. They’re also at home.

As a result, I’m predicting the Friars to get three of four points from Maine.

Why not all four points and a good shot at second place?

A week ago, that would have been my expectation. But Providence has displayed a frustrating inability to sweep weekends. Yes, I know it’s tough with Hockey East’s top-to-bottom strength and the sport’s overall parity. But last weekend’s split with last-place Massachusetts capped off a string of no-sweeps interrupted only by one over a Lowell team in the midst of free-fall.

And while Maine earned a bad reputation last year as a near-automatic two points when you faced it in your barn, the Black Bears are 5-7-1 on the road this year and have won three of their last four overall, including one over red-hot Northeastern.

So I’m not sure if the Friars take all four points. Put me down for three and third place.

Projected points: 26

Projected seeding: 3

4. Massachusetts-Lowell

Current number of points: 25

Remaining games: Hosts Vermont for two.

Best case: Sweep Vermont and with other teams’ cooperation, use head-to-head tiebreaker wins over BC, Northeastern and Notre Dame to slide into second place.

Worst case: Lose and slide all the way to seventh.

Analysis: For a while there, the wheels had fallen off the River Hawks bandwagon with six losses in seven games. But there may be new rubber on Lowell’s ride into the playoffs. In their last two contests, the River Hawks destroyed Massachusetts 7-1 and then went on the road and tied BC.

So while they almost certainly weren’t as good as they looked in the first half, they every-bit-as-much certainly aren’t as dreadful as they looked for much of the second.

Plus, they’re hosting a Vermont team that also looked a lot better in the first semester than this one.

Still, I’m projecting no more than a split. But based on my other projections, that will leave the River Hawks tied with Notre Dame, over whom they hold the tiebreaker.

So the Hawks hold on by the very tips of their fingers to the all-important first-round bye and second-round home ice.

Projected points: 25

Projected seeding: 4

5. Notre Dame

Current number of points: 23

Remaining games: Hosts Boston College for two.

Best case: The Irish sweep their Catholic rivals, and both Providence and Lowell get no more than three points on the weekend. That will give Notre Dame second place.

Worst case: Get swept and tumble all the way to seventh.

Analysis: Last weekend’s three points from BU certainly gives reason for optimism. The previous weekend was a split with Providence and before that three points from Maine.

So the Irish are looking pretty good now. The only concern is that BC is, too.

This looks like a split between two hot teams.

The downside is that I’m projecting a tie for fourth place with Lowell that will equate to anything but a tie. The chasm between fourth and fifth place is enormous and the Irish appear to be on the wrong side.

Projected points: 25

Projected seeding: 5

6. Northeastern

Current number of points: 22

Remaining games: A home-and-home series with BU

Best case: Like all the other teams already mentioned in this cluster, the Huskies could sweep and with other teams’ cooperation, vault into second place. While the rest of the dominos might not fall, a sweep would put the Huskies in good shape for a first-round bye.

Worst case: Getting swept could dump the Huskies all the way to eighth place. Fortunately for them, though, that’s still good enough for first-round home ice.

Analysis: The Huskies have been playing as well as anyone. Will their heartbreaking overtime loss in the Beanpot championship game set them back? Or will they be primed for revenge against the Terriers?

This weekend series could go either way, especially since it pits teams facing each other for the second and third times in five days.

It looks like a probable split to me. And in the event of a tie with Vermont, the Huskies get the nod thanks to a better record against first-place BU.

Projected points: 24

Projected seeding: 6

141011 19133900 Heading into final weekend, Hockey East has a number of close races to watch

Brady Shaw and Vermont could finish as high as third (photo: Melissa Wade).

7. Vermont

Current number of points: 22

Remaining games: Faces Lowell on the road for two

Best case: Not even a sweep can get the Catamounts into second place, but they can reach third.

Worst case: Getting swept could drop them to seventh.

Analysis: Their matchup with Lowell is one of two teams that were red hot in the first half but both of whom cooled off in the second. Arguably, Vermont cooled while Lowell went Antarctic, but the River Hawks have begun to rebound.

Since Vermont is a good road team (9-5-1 compared to 9-5-2 at home), this looks like a split.

Projected points: 24

Projected seeding: 7

8. New Hampshire

Current number of points: 17

Remaining games: Hosts Merrimack for two

Best case: The Wildcats sweep and Maine does no better than split with Providence. That’s good for eighth place.

Worst case: UNH gets swept and falls out of a first-round home-ice berth, potentially all the way to 11th.

Analysis: The Wildcats have won their last three and four of their last five. By stunning contrast, Merrimack has won only one game in its last 11, and that was one in which Lowell outshot the Warriors 52-17.

Especially with both games at the Whitt, and Maine facing a tough road series with Providence, this is a great opportunity to grab that last home-ice berth.

I won’t call it a “gift-wrapped” opportunity because Merrimack tied Vermont in its last outing. There are no sure things. But considering how this season started for UNH (including a share of last place), home ice would be quite the recovery.

And that’s my prediction.

Projected points: 21

Projected seeding: 8

9. Maine

Current number of points: 18

Remaining games: Two games at Providence

Best case: If Maine sweeps and Northeastern gets swept, that inches the Black Bears up via tiebreaker one spot from their current position to seventh place. But their ceiling goes no higher.

Worst case: Maine gets swept or in some lesser way still fails to stay ahead of UNH. The Black Bears own a one-point lead and the head-to-head tiebreaker but remain vulnerable.

Analysis: As already noted, I think New Hampshire has a great shot at sweeping its series, which would force Maine to take three of four points from Providence to force a tie in the standings.

I don’t see that happening. I think UNH leapfrogs the Black Bears, forcing them on the road for the playoffs.

Projected points: 19

Projected seeding: 9

10. Connecticut

Current number of points: 16

Remaining games: Host Massachusetts for one

Best case: In theory, the Huskies could defeat last-place UMass and vault over Maine and UNH for the final home-ice berth.

Worst case: UConn loses and Merrimack leapfrogs into 10th place.

Analysis: That theoretical chance at home ice is a tough theory to swallow.

In their last six games, the Huskies have a 1-0 win over Merrimack to their credit. The other five? A collective shellacking to the tune of 34-4.

UConn was one of the great stories of the league for much of the season. But sadly, it’s well past midnight for Cinderella.

Projected points: 16

Projected seeding: 10

11. Massachusetts

Current number of points: 11

Remaining games: One at UConn

Best case: A win combined with two Merrimack losses to escape the cellar (via tiebreaker).

Worst case: A loss to stay in last place.

Analysis: I’ve been rather negative about UMass’ chances this year. I’m sure someone in Amherst feels I’ve surgically attached the “last-place” adjective to the “UMass” noun and the two can never be set asunder.

Well, it’s sundering time.

Based on how poorly UConn and Merrimack have been playing down the stretch, and based on some much improved performances from the Minutemen, I see them getting out of the cellar.

Projected points: 13

Projected seeding: 11

12. Merrimack

Current number of points: 13

Remaining games: Two at UNH.

Best case: A sweep would launch the Warriors all the way to ninth place. True, that still means going on the road for the playoffs, but ninth is the only road matchup that avoids the cluster of top-seven teams in the league.

Worst case: Get swept while UMass wins its lone game, and fall into last place.

Analysis: Unfortunately, I see the cellar on Merrimack’s immediate horizon. As already noted above (in the New Hampshire section), the Warriors have won only once in their last 11 and got severely outplayed in that one.

They were a great story over the first half, but this isn’t going to end well.

Projected points: 13

Projected seeding: 12

One extra nugget

This one comes from the incomparable John “Jocko” Connolly at the Boston Herald.

Within the past week, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced a panel to investigate the storm-related problems at the MBTA. If you recognize the name of that panel’s chairman, kudos to you. You know your hockey history.

Paul Barrett, the Southie native named as the chair, ranks as the No. 9 goalscorer at Boston College. (He’s tied with three others. See if you can guess their names. The answer is below.)

Barrett was co-captain of the 1978 team that lost to BU in the NCAA championship game held in Providence.

Have you given yourself enough time to guess the identity of the other three who also scored 78 career goals?

Here they are: Bob Sweeney (1982-86), Blake Bellefeuille (1996-2000) and the player who even newbies should have gotten, Johnny Gaudreau (2011-14).

And finally, not that it has anything to do with anything, but …

This is one last reminder before it disappears from the newsstands.

The current issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine — the No. 1 mystery magazine in the world — contains “Huram’s Temple,” a unique story of mine. Look for the March/April double issue.

You can always follow my fiction writing on
my website where you can sign up for my newsletter so you can hear (never more than once a month) about my latest releases.

Men’s Division III conference tournaments on tap

2015 02 20 afl 1126 Mens Division III conference tournaments on tap

Oswego hopes to celebrate with a stick salute at the end of the SUNYAC conference tournament (photo: Angelo Lisuzzo).

Just two months ago, we were singing that it was “the most wonderful time of the year.”

While probably true, the next month in Division III circles will be special times, too.

Some conference tournaments have already kicked off, while others start shortly.

Our esteemed columnists take a look at what’s on tap:

ECAC EAST – Not only is Norwich the top seed in the East playoffs, which hits the semifinal round Saturday, the Cadets are also the No. 1-ranked squad in the country. Norwich has captured the last 17 regular-season crowns, with 10 tourney championships in that span, but all that hardware means nothing in the one-and-done playoff world. That knowledge alone should be enough to keep the Cadets focused on their next opponent, fourth seed Castleton, whom they beat in both regular-season meetings. The other semi will pit No. 2 Massachusetts-Boston and No. 3 Babson. Babson took three out of four points from the Beacons during the season.

ECAC NORTHEAST – Nichols is the top seed in the Northeast for the second year running and receives a bye into the second round as does No. 2 seed Salve Regina. This weekend’s quarterfinals will include No. 3 Johnson and Wales and No. 6 Suffolk, who split their season series with each winning in overtime on the road. The Rams clinched the final berth with Tuesday night’s 5-4 overtime win over WNEU in what was essentially a play-in game that eliminated the seventh-place Golden Bears. Curry, the fourth seed will meet No. 5 Wentworth in the other quarterfinal.

ECAC WEST – The West will get its tournament off tonight with a pair of tilts, No. 5 Utica at No. 4 Elmira and No. 6 Manhattanville at No. 3 Nazareth. It will be the first-ever playoff home game for Nazareth, whose program is just three years old. Waiting in the wings for the survivors are No. 1 Hobart and No. 2 Neumann.

MASCAC – The final seedings won’t be settled until after Thursday’s regular-season finale pitting Framingham State and Worcester State, but who will be the top seed is no mystery at all. That would be Plymouth State, which wrapped up the regular season MASCAC title weeks ago. Salem State will be the second seed. Fitchburg State and Westfield State will host quarterfinal games this weekend with Massachusetts-Dartmouth, Worcester State and Framingham State all as possible opponents.

MIAC – In the MIAC, St. Thomas will look to continue its impressive run. The No. 12 Tommies won at least a share of the regular season title for the fourth consecutive season and have their sights set on another tourney crown.

Still, coach Jeff Boeser knows nothing is guaranteed for the Tommies (16-5-4)

St. Thomas plays either fourth-seeded Augsburg (12-13) or fifth-seeded Hamline (11-10-4) in a semifinal on Saturday.

“The toughest thing for us is that we don’t know who we play until after Thursday,” Boeser said. “We have a very good league where anyone can be beaten on any night. The conference is one of the toughest in the country. We have to go in ready to play our best.”

The Tommies have won their last two and are 11-1-2 at home. Alex Altenbernd has fueled the offense with 12 goals and 13 assists.

Drew Fielding is 12-5-4 between the pipes and owns a goals-against average of 1.33.

“One of the keys to success in playoff hockey is defense,” Boeser said. “We also have be able to take advantage of scoring opportunities when we get them. We feel good about the way we are playing. We have to stay focused and take it one game at a time.”

St. Mary’s (14-9-2) is the second seed and in the postseason for the first time since 2004. The Cardinals’ 14 wins is the most since the 1997-98 team won 14 games. They face off against Concordia (13-8-4) in a semifinal on Saturday.

“We are familiar with each other but it comes down to who wants it more,” St. Mary’s coach Bill Moore said.

Martin Gruse has helped fuel the success, scoring 18 goals and dishing out 17 assists. Jed McGlasson has tallied 10 goals and 10 assists.

In goal, the Cardinals have leaned on the play of Phil Heinle, who is 12-8-2.

The Cobbers were idle last weekend. They split a series with St. Mary’s two weeks ago, losing 4-3 and winning 8-3. Jordie Bancroft leads the Cobbers with 14 goals and 11 assists.

“We have to attack the goal and do a better job of getting more traffic in front of the net,” Moore said. “We also have to tighten up on defense. We gave up eight goals the last time we played.”

Augsburg and Hamline will square off in the quarterfinal round Thursday. The Pipers are in the midst of a turnaround season and in the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. Hamline won only two games a year ago but have gotten on track under first-year head coach Cory Laylin.

“One of the keys to the turnaround was we had to make it fun to come to the rink again,” Laylin said. “When you have fun on the ice, you are going to get better.”

Charlie Adams has led Hamline with 16 goals and 10 assists. Brandon Zurn has tallied 11 goals and 15 assists.

Augsburg, swept by Hamline in the regular season, has won two in a row. Mack Ohnsted leads the way with 13 goals and 12 assists.

“We’re fairly evenly matched,” Laylin said. “So, when we get a good chance, we have to make the best of it.”

NCHA – In the NCHA, Adrian swept Concordia (Wis.) and is now focused on a Harris Cup semifinal showdown with St. Scholastica Saturday. The third-ranked Bulldogs (21-3-3) feature a high-scoring offense and a defense that keeps scoring opportunities for an opponent to a minimum.

Kyle Brothers has scored 20 goals and dished out 23 assists. Mathew Thompson has tallied 19 goals and 18 assists.

Scott Shackell has gotten the job done in goal, fashioning a 15-1-3 record.

“We’ve really honed in on being a good defensive team,” Adrian coach Adam Krug said. “Our defense has been solid and we also have a lot of depth. It’s been a process all year to get to where we want to be as a team.”

The Saints (12-12-3) come in off the high of an upset over Lake Forest, The sixth-seeded Saints needed a mini-game win to take out the Foresters.

During the regular season, the Saints lost (3-0) and tied (2-2-) in their series with the Bulldogs.

Dylan Nowakowski has paced the Saints, scoring 11 goals and dishing out 18 assists. Goalie Tyler Bruggeman has played in 20 games and owns a 9-7-3 record.

“It should be a physical game and should be a very entertaining game,” Krug said. “For us, we need to play our game and make sure that we are consistent with our effort. We need to have a 60-minute effort if we want to advance.”

In the other semifinal, reigning conference and national champion St. Norbert (19-5-2) will take on the Milwaukee School of Engineering (17-10).

Despite losing their starting goalie, David Jacobson, for the season, No. 7 St. Norbert has remained hot, winning five consecutive games, including a sweep of Lawrence in the playoffs. Michael Hill leads the offense with 20 goals and 13 assists.

Tony Kujava has played 11 games in goal and is 5-3-1 with a 1.73 GAA.

The 15th-ranked Raiders needed a mini-game victory to knock off Marian in the opening round. They are 6-6 in road games this year, including a 2-1 win at St. Norbert on Jan. 24.

Omar Mullan has led the way with 15 goals and 20 assists. The Raiders have scored 88 goals.

NESCAC – The NESCAC post-season slate will commence Saturday with four tilts, including top seed Trinity, which is ranked No. 2 in the nation. The Bantams, last year’s regular-season champs, will host No. 8 Tufts, whom they downed twice this year. Second seed Amherst will face No. 7 Middlebury, over whom they swept the season set. No. 3 Connecticut College will take on No. 6 Hamilton while the 4/5 affair will pit Williams and Bowdoin. Bowdoin was seeded fifth last year, too, but scored three tournament upsets to win the title as well as the league’s ticket to the NCAAs.

SUNYAC – Wednesday’s quarterfinal will see No. 6 Brockport visiting travel partner No. 3 Geneseo, which won the regular-season title last year and made it all the way to the Frozen Four. Meanwhile No. 5 Buffalo State will trek to No. 4 Potsdam to face the Bears, which put up its best season (12-10-3, 8-6-2) since 2001. The winners will advance to face No. 1 seed Plattsburgh or No. 2 Oswego, with the Lakers seeking to make a fourth consecutive Frozen Four appearance.

WIAC – With the WIAC not having an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, every game counts a little more. That is the way Wisconsin-Stevens Point coach Chris Brooks has been treating things since day one.

“Our focus from the start has been understanding the importance of each game,” Brooks said. “I’ve changed my lineup at times because it gave us the best opportunity to win. We have to go into the tournament ready to play at our best.”

Wisconsin-Eau Claire won the tourney a year ago but it wasn’t enough to get the Blugolds an NCAA bid. Stevens Point, which was eliminated by Eau Claire, made the tourney and went on to play for the national title.

The fifth-ranked Pointers (20-5) are in the midst of back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time in more than 20 years. They haven’t had a 20-win regular season since 1993, the last time they won the national championship.

“We’re playing pretty good,” Brooks said. “Our special teams have gotten better and we’ve continued to work hard to improve each week.”

The Pointers open the WIAC tourney against Wisconsin-Superior (9-17), which advanced to the semifinals with a 4-3 win over Wisconsin-Stout Tuesday.

Game one of the two-game series is set for Friday. The Pointers have won three consecutive games. Joe Kalisz is the top goal scorer with 16. He has also tallied 11 assists.

131115 UST UWSP M 0750 Mens Division III conference tournaments on tap

Joe Kalisz hopes Wisconsin-Stevens Point can get a headlock on the WIAC conference championship this season (photo: Ryan Coleman/d3photography.com).

Brandon Jaeger has been phenomenal in goal, going 20-4 with a 2.20 goals-against average.

Superior lost all three games to Stevens Point in the regular season, including a 7-0 loss on Feb. 21. Anton Svensson leads the Yellowjackets in points with eight goals and nine assists.

In the other semifinal series, Eau Claire hosts Wisconsin-River Falls.

The No. 12 Blugolds (17-6-2) won all three games against the No. 9 Falcons. Ross Andersen and Ethan Nauman have been the top threats, with each tallying 19 goals and 12 assists. Eau Claire has scored 97 goals in all.

River Falls has won four of its last six and is 8-3-1 on the road. Kyle Gattelaro leads the way with 11 goals and 12 assists. Tanner Milliron has started every game at goalie and owns a goals-against average of 2.06.

After weekend of splits, race for Big Ten title is no clearer

20141129 2103 After weekend of splits, race for Big Ten title is no clearer

Jake Hildebrand and Michigan State stayed in the race for the Big Ten title by earning a split at Wisconsin with a shutout win Saturday (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

Back when I was covering the CCHA, I grew tired of hearing — week in and years out — about how parity affected that conference. For nearly two decades, parity was the go-to word when no one emerged as the clear frontrunner, or when someone from the top tier of that league lost to someone in the middle or near the bottom.

In some seasons, it sounded like an excuse. In rare seasons, there was genuine parity in the league that had as many as a dozen teams at one time.

Last weekend’s Big Ten play reminded me an awful lot of the rare CCHA seasons when there was so much parity that it was difficult to tell who would emerge on top. The difference between the old CCHA and the Big Ten, of course, is that there are just six teams in B1G hockey and every team in the league will head to Detroit in March.

There were three conference series last weekend, and each produced a split. Wisconsin earned its second Big Ten win with Friday’s 2-1 victory over visiting Michigan State, a feat that also gave the Badgers their first consecutive wins of the season, as they had beaten Ohio State 3-2 on the road on Valentine’s Day. Naturally, the Badgers were angling for the sweep with Saturday’s game, but lost to the Spartans 3-0. That’s because a sweep, said Mike Eaves, is no easy thing.

“One team is elated, happy, satisfied that they won, and the other team is all ticked off and they’ve got a burr in their bonnet and they came back with that burr on Saturday and they earned that victory,” said Eaves on this week’s “Badger Hockey Digest.”

Neither the last-place Badgers nor fifth-place Ohio State has earned a Big Ten sweep this season; the Buckeyes have yet to put together back-to-back wins for all of 2014-15.

Each of the top four teams in the league has two conference weekend sweeps to its credit. Penn State’s two both came against Wisconsin. Michigan State has two as well, one against the Badgers and one against the Nittany Lions. Minnesota swept Michigan and Ohio State, and Michigan swept Wisconsin and Ohio State.

With Michigan and Minnesota tied for first place with 27 points each, Penn State and Michigan State tied behind them with 25 points each, Ohio State with 12 points and Wisconsin with 10 — and three weeks left in regular-season play — there is a lot to be determined but very little within each team’s control.

No one yet completely controls its fate as it relates to an outright regular season championship. With series remaining against the Gophers and Wolverines, Michigan State can claim first place by winning out, but Penn State could match and grab a share (the Nittany Lions own the first head-to-head tiebreaker with more conference wins).

If both Michigan and Minnesota win their final six regular season games, they’ll tie for the title and the Wolverines will have the tiebreaker for the first seed in the playoffs. They’re also the only two teams that can’t finish at the bottom of the standings, with fifth place being the lowest possible (and highly unlikely) finish.

So the Badgers and Spartans split, the Gophers and Nittany Lions split, the Wolverines and Buckeyes split. Every team that won that second game — the Spartans and Nittany Lions on Saturday, the Wolverines Sunday — did itself a tremendous favor. By the end of the weekend, there were more points but no one team had earned any advantage on any other.

Why? My best guess is the inconsistency with which we’ve seen every team’s defense play this season, with the exception of one: Michigan State. The Spartans have the best defense in the Big Ten, allowing 2.25 goals per game overall, tying them for 12th nationally with Merrimack. That’s the best in the conference.

Next is Minnesota at No. 31 nationally, followed by Penn State (36), Michigan (40), Ohio State (54) and Wisconsin (55).

While the Wolverines have the nation’s top offense and the Gophers and Nittany Lions are among the top 10 as well, the real parity in this league is the equality among the defenses, although there are signs that some teams may be improving exactly when they need to be.

In spite of allowing four goals in an overtime loss Saturday, the Gophers have allowed 1.83 goals per game on average in their last six contests. The Badgers have allowed 2.00 goals per game in their last four, a stretch in which they’ve gone 2-2.

Like the Badgers, the Buckeyes are 2-2 in their last four games, but they’ve allowed 3.00 goals per game on average in those two weekends.

The Nittany Lions are 1-3 in their last four, giving up 2.75 goals per game in those contests.

The Wolverines have allowed 3.00 goals on average in their last six games, during which they’ve gone 2-4; the first loss of that stretch broke a seven-game win streak for Michigan, a streak during which they were only marginally better defensively, giving up 2.85 goals per game.

Then there are the Spartans. They are 6-2 in their last eight games, all conference games, and they’ve allowed 1.25 goals per game in that span, which included wins against Michigan and Penn State. Junior Jake Hildebrand shut out opponents in half of those wins, too, most recently against Wisconsin last Saturday night.

I’ve been saying all season that the Spartans are tough to play, but I cannot articulate it as well as Eaves can.

“They’re an interesting team to play against because they play a system that lulls you into thinking there’s space and time,” Eaves told “Badger Hockey Digest,” “and then the next thing you know there’s a turnover because you’re going through a small area with a lot of people and they’re going back the other way.”

After Friday’s win over the Spartans, Eaves said: “They’re hard to play against. They’re not fun to play against because you don’t want to give the puck up and go get it. You want to keep it, but the way they play, you have to do that.”

Remember what I said at midseason, that the Spartans could play themselves into the NCAA tournament with a Big Ten playoff championship? While any team in this league could, they’re still my dark horse pick to come out of Detroit with the autobid.

What concerns me about the parity of the Big Ten is that there’s parity and then there’s parity — and the word can mean equally good and just plain equal. And if the league is mediocre defensively with the exception of the one team that can’t score goals consistently, there may be no one representing the Big Ten in Boston in April.

131019 20123698 After weekend of splits, race for Big Ten title is no clearer

Wisconsin’s Chase Drake opened the scoring in last Friday’s win over Michigan State (photo: Melissa Wade).

But let’s talk about Wisconsin

Putting two consecutive wins together is a big deal for the Badgers this season.

That is a sentence I never thought I’d be writing. And I’m delighted to be able to do so, given how well this team has kept its composure during what has been a very rough ride.

I know that Eaves can be a bit testy, but everything I’ve seen and heard from him this season has been professional and supportive of his players, which is how it should be.

After the Badgers beat the Spartans 2-1 last Friday night, Eaves praised senior defenseman Chase Drake for helping to hold together a young and underperforming team. Drake netted his third goal of the season — the sixth of his career — to open the scoring for Wisconsin early in the second period, a goal that Eaves said resulted from Drake’s preparation in practice leading up to the series.

“Chase, as one of the leaders of the senior class, I don’t think we can overstate what a good job of keeping the ship together,” said Eaves. “It’s not easy to have the record that we have and not have things pull apart. They’ve done an excellent job in practice and in the locker room … keeping everybody together. Chase has done a real good job by keeping the ship together and he was rewarded tonight on a nice goal by what he did this week in practice.”

Both goals in that game were scored by defenseman, the second by junior Kevin Schulze with less than a minute to go in the second. Schulze has four goals this season … and is minus-27. When Eaves was asked about that second statistic, Eaves brushed the question aside with one of my favorite quotes, ever. “Sometimes stats are for guys with good stats,” he said. “All that really matters is your next game.”

And a game-winning goal is a game-winning goal.

It may not be easy for Wisconsin fans to see this year’s team in a positive light, but Eaves is looking forward to finishing up much more strongly than the Badgers began.

“I’m fine with our second-half goals of playing our best hockey in March,” said Eaves. “By getting a couple of wins in a row, getting our first win on the road, those are all indicators that we’re moving in the right direction.”

Players of the week

It’s all Michigan this week — the state, that is.

First star — Michigan freshman forward Dylan Larkin: Larkin had a goal in each game as the Wolverines split a home-and-home series with the Buckeyes. He added four assists as well, one Friday and three in Sunday’s 5-2 win. Larkin is second in the nation among freshmen and fourth overall with 1.46 goals per game. This is his second career Big Ten weekly award.

Second star — Michigan senior forward Zach Hyman: Hyman also had six points, with a goal in each game against the Buckeyes and a single assist Friday with three more Sunday. He leads all Big Ten players with 43 points, averaging 1.54 points per conference game this season. Hyman has 18 goals and 25 assists in 28 games this season; he had 13 goals and 22 assists in the 114 games of his first three seasons with the Wolverines. This is his fourth career Big Ten weekly award, and all four have come in 2014-15.

Third star — Michigan State junior goaltender Jake Hildebrand: Hildebrand registered his fourth shutout of the season Saturday, stopping all 31 shots he faced when the Spartans beat the Badgers to split the weekend in Madison. For the two-game set, Hildebrand had a .959 save percentage and 1.01 GAA. He’s the league’s leading goaltender (.937, 1.98) in conference play. This is his eighth career Big Ten weekly award and his fourth of the season.

My ballot

1. North Dakota
2. Michigan Tech
3. Minnesota State
4. Minnesota-Duluth
5. Miami
6. Boston University
7. Omaha
8. Denver
9. Boston College
10. Bowling Green
11. Quinnipiac
12. Providence
13. Vermont
14. Yale
15. Minnesota
16. Michigan
17. UMass-Lowell
18. Robert Morris
19. St. Lawrence
20. Colgate

Sacred Heart reaches one goal, now wants to generate playoff momentum

DSC 5928 Sacred Heart reaches one goal, now wants to generate playoff momentum

Sacred Heart is locked into the eighth seed in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs and will host Army in the first round (photo: Omar Phillips).

With one week left until the first round of the Atlantic Hockey playoffs, much of the focus will be on the eight slots unclaimed and still contested throughout the standings. Attention will be spent on math, and the number of possible scenarios and permutations is both staggering and utterly mind-boggling.

While eight teams scoreboard-watch and enter games not knowing their opponents or seeding, three teams know their definitive outcome. Robert Morris knows it’ll have a weekend off as the league’s regular season champion, the undisputed No. 1 seed. Sacred Heart and Army, meanwhile, will be able to play out their weekend with the knowledge they’ll be playing a first-round series — against each other, no less.

For Sacred Heart, that means meeting goals.

“One of our goals this season was to get a home spot in the playoffs, and we have achieved that,” coach CJ Marottolo said. “It’s about the growth of our program. We’ve improved from last year to this year, and now it’s time to try and take the next step to win a playoff series.

“We know that Army is going to compete hard [in the playoffs], and they’re a team that’s playing very well right now. So we need to work very hard to get ready for that series.”

Despite back-to-back losses against Bentley and Holy Cross, Sacred Heart is one of the hottest teams in Atlantic Hockey during the second half of the season. Starting in late January, the Pioneers went on a tear where they simply didn’t lose, going 3-0-3 before their loss to the Falcons two weekends ago.

Last weekend, they rallied from a 1-0 loss to the Crusaders at home by pummeling Holy Cross on the road, scoring a 5-0 victory at the Hart Center behind four second-period goals.

Tied 0-0 after the first frame, the Pioneers received two goals from Evan Jasper and one each from Kory Kennedy and Zach Luczyk. A fourth goal scorer, Jeff Carroll, scored late in the third on the power play to put the cherry on the top of the sundae.

“We’ve been in a lot of games that are tough, playoff-style games,” said Marottolo, “and we’ve been consistently getting better. Our guys have really bought in, and we’ve had a lot of fun this year. Our play without the puck has been really good, and we’ve been really stressing and growing. We’re getting results, and we’re getting points every weekend.”

Sacred Heart (10-17-6, 9-12-6 AHC) rolls into the final week of the season with a single game at 7 p.m. EST Thursday at home against Bentley. The Pioneers know their seed in the playoffs (eighth) and their opponent in the first round (Army), which allows them a little bit of breathing space before they host their first playoff series in five seasons.

Despite all of that, don’t expect this team to take its foot off of the gas pedal.

“We are preparing for the game like any other,” said Marottolo. “We want to win, and we can create some good momentum into the playoffs. We know that our games against Bentley are fast-paced games, and it’s going to be a tough, hard-fought game.”

DSC 0307 Sacred Heart reaches one goal, now wants to generate playoff momentum

Robert Morris’ win over Niagara in the Atlantic Hockey semifinals was one of nine games to go to overtime in last season’s playoffs (photo: Omar Phillips).

Get ready for drama

If there’s one thing we know about the playoffs, one step here or there could be the difference between a road to a championship and an early exit to the proverbial golf course.

Of the 23 games in the Atlantic Hockey tournament a year ago, 39 percent went to overtime. Of those nine games with overtimes, three went to double overtime.

In addition to those one-goal games, two games were decided in regulation by one goal. Both of them were elimination games.

For what it’s worth, here are the records for Atlantic Hockey teams this season in both scenarios, both overall and in conference play. What’s amazing is that your favorite team may be higher in the standings but not necessarily outstanding in a particular situation. Or it may be vice-versa.

We start with one-goal games:

Air Force: 7-6 (7-4)
American International: 1-6 (1-4)
Army: 5-4 (5-4)
Bentley: 8-4 (8-2)
Canisius: 2-4 (2-4)
Holy Cross: 3-10 (3-8)
Mercyhurst: 5-4 (3-3)
Niagara: 1-2 (1-2)
Rochester Institute of Technology: 2-6 (2-5)
Robert Morris: 6-3 (6-3)
Sacred Heart: 4-3 (4-3)

And we continue with records in overtime games:

Air Force: 5-3-1 (5-2-1)
American International: 0-5-2 (0-4-2)
Army: 2-2-3 (2-2-3)
Bentley: 5-2-3 (4-2-3)
Canisius: 6-1-2 (6-1-1)
Holy Cross: 2-4-4 (2-4-4)
Mercyhurst: 4-2-1 (4-2-1)
Niagara: 1-5-1 (1-4-1)
RIT: 1-2-3 (1-2-3)
Robert Morris: 4-3 (4-3)
Sacred Heart: 1-6-1 (1-4-1)

The importance of home cooking

There’s always an interesting argument when it comes to first-round byes in playoff hockey because there are two schools of thought.

One is that the extra rest and home-ice advantage after a week off is a huge plus because a team doesn’t have the grueling grind of a first-round series. But, increasingly, there’s a thought among fans and statistics that home ice in the second round ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Since the 2010-11 season, when Atlantic Hockey expanded to 12 teams, home teams have been dominant in first-round series, with one notable exception. In 2012, home teams went 8-2. In 2013, they were a perfect 8-0. In 2014, first-round home series again went 8-2 in favor of the home team.

The lone exception was 2011, the year of the ill-fated divisional series. With the top two divisional teams receiving byes, the remaining four teams from each division played single-game playoffs. Road teams won them all, and the home team that year went 0-4.

The quarterfinals, however, provide a contrast. In 2012, home teams went 8-3, but in the last two years, they’re under .500 at 9-10. The 2013 playoffs saw home teams go 5-4, but last year’s playoffs saw a game and a half regression to 4-6. Each year, a home team’s been swept out of the playoffs.

So if you’re keeping score at home, the tightest race in the Atlantic Hockey standings sits around fourth, fifth and sixth. Mercyhurst has the inside track to the bye with 31 points, and RIT is in fifth at 29 points. Air Force and Holy Cross are tied with 27 points.

Two of those teams will end up with a home series next week. One will host whoever’s left (as the fifth slot). But if you win, do you really lose?

Players of the week

Here’s the latest from the league office:

Player of the week — RIT’s Brad McGowan: McGowan had himself a weekend by scoring five points. He notched three goals and two assists, with a plus-3 rating, to help RIT split with Robert Morris. McGowan is within three points of scoring 100 points for his career.

Goaltender of the week — Sacred Heart’s Alex Vazzano: I failed to mention Vazzano earlier, and this is why. Vazzano made 53 saves on the weekend and registered both a 0.51 GAA and a .981 save percentage. He had one of those weekends where after Saturday’s game, I hope he asked someone, “Do you like apples? Well how ’bout them apples?”

Rookie of the week — Bentley’s Jayson Argue: Argue registered 66 saves on 69 shots for a .957 save percentage. He’s second in the nation with a .940 save percentage and eighth with a 1.86 GAA. After four years of having Branden Komm set every record in the book, Argue is in position to shatter a couple of them less than a year later.

Defenseman of the week — Canisius’ Doug Jessey: Jessey helped Canisius grind out a playoff-type performance; the Griffs allowed only three goals in two games against a Mercyhurst offense that is one of the most potent in the nation. He also blocked seven shots.

Michigan State suspends Gatt, Pavelek indefinitely

20141128 2026 Michigan State suspends Gatt, Pavelek indefinitely

Defenseman Carson Gatt had played in all of Michigan State’s games this season before sitting out last Saturday (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

Michigan State freshmen Dylan Pavelek and Carson Gatt have been suspended indefinitely by the team for a unspecified violation of team rules, the Lansing State Journal‘s Chris Solari reported on Twitter:

 

Gatt played in last Friday’s game at Wisconsin but did not dress for the next night’s game, the first game the defenseman has missed this season.

Pavelek didn’t appear in either game. He missed four games early in the season because of a concussion.

WCHA suspends Minnesota women’s defenseman McMillen one game

The WCHA women’s conference announced Tuesday that it has assessed a one-game suspension to Minnesota junior defenseman Milica McMillen.

The suspension is a result of McMillen’s game misconduct infraction for contact to the head that occurred at the 7:59 mark of the third period last Saturday, Feb. 21, at Bemidji State.

Minnesota’s next scheduled game is game one of the best-of-three WCHA first round playoff series this Friday, Feb. 27, against Minnesota State. McMillen is eligible to return for game two of the series on Saturday, Feb. 28.

Wednesday Women: Playoff possibilities

Nicole Hensley3 Wednesday Women: Playoff possibilities

Nicole Hensley of Lindenwood. (Tim Brule)

Arlan: If our sport keeps going the way it has been, we can change our column from “Wednesday Women” to “Wacky Women.” The ECAC led the way with puzzling developments, but the other conferences got in on the action as well.

Everything seemed to be lining up for Harvard after a somewhat inconsistent season. All the Crimson needed was a split on home ice from the St. Lawrence and Clarkson travel pair, or even just a tie if the tie was versus Clarkson, but they couldn’t get it done. Quinnipiac continues to wheeze and sputter toward the finish line, one step forward only after taking one back. Now the Bobcats get a Princeton squad that they swept, but back in the days when they looked far more formidable. Yale finished with a five-game winning streak, its longest of the season and equal to the best active stretch in the country. It gets the Bulldogs right back to where they were a year ago, on the road at Harvard, but that is at least slightly less daunting than it appeared a week ago. Then there’s Clarkson; I never thought the Golden Knights would be backing up their first ECAC title with a second consecutive crown, shared or not, but here we are.

Other leagues have their own curveballs. Just when Mercyhurst looked to be back to its old self, it came up with a dud at Lindenwood, or at least was unable to save itself from becoming the latest victim of Nicole Hensley. Robert Morris finished with its best weekend of the year to steal some of the luster from Penn State’s gem of a season. Its reward is a date with an RIT crew that looks ready to flip a switch it hasn’t used all year.

Hockey East is always good for some chaos, and it was once more. Boston University was rather inept in falling by five at Boston College, but once it got back home, it ruined the Eagles’ perfect league campaign with a 2-2 tie. Connecticut started a sweep at Maine with a dramatic rally that ensured that series was just a warmup for a playoff round. Northeastern took a circuitous route but ultimately wound up where we expected, and Vermont waited until the very last day to move out of the cellar.

The WCHA finished mostly how we’d have guessed, but the one exception was a doozy with Wisconsin finding Julie Friend’s name can be misleading. I almost said in our picks column that if Wisconsin over St. Cloud State wasn’t the biggest lock of the week it was only because North Dakota was hosting Minnesota State; shows what I know.

Do we need to start in the ECAC, or would you prefer to save that brainteaser for later?

Candace: The thing is, it seems like all of the conferences have been throwing out interesting results. I guess we might as well start in the ECAC. There were a lot of strange results in that conference over the weekend, but perhaps the biggest one was Yale beating Quinnipiac. The Bulldogs had lost twice to the Bobcats this year, and both of the previous two losses had been by three goals. Quinnipiac has been somewhat of a defensive-minded team, but the Bobcats have really struggled in the last few weeks, getting shutout by St. Lawrence and Yale, and beating Brown and Clarkson by 1-0 scores. If Quinnipiac doesn’t find an offensive gear, its season could be over quickly.

Yale also beat Princeton on Saturday, marking the first time in four weeks that the team that defeated Quinnipiac on Friday defeated the Tigers on Saturday. The Bulldogs look to be peaking at the right time, and they gave Harvard fits last year in the playoffs, splitting the first two games in double overtime before  losing the third 4-0. Harvard can’t be happy to see a seemingly hot Yale team. I guess the silver lining is that even if Harvard loses in the playoffs, its PairWise position is likely good enough that it still makes the NCAAs.

I guess its ironic that the Quinnipiac-Princeton travel pair faces each other in the first round. Princeton has proven a pretty difficult team to beat in the last six weeks, so I wouldn’t count the Tigers out in that one. Like Harvard though, the Bobcats are likely secure in the NCAA tournament, regardless of what happens in the ECAC tournament.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to ponder is that I honestly can’t look at any of the first round playoff matchups in the ECAC and say, “Yes, the favorite, and home team, is a lock to win this series.” Clarkson plays Dartmouth in the first round, and the Big Green have shown some good results, and then Cornell hosts a St. Lawrence team that has beaten a lot of quality opponents this season.

Do you feel differently than me, or do you agree that the ECAC is one big wildcard?

Arlan: I felt that way when sitting trying to do picks, but Hockey East and the CHA were worse, and teams like Bemidji State and Ohio State did their best to make the WCHA wide open. This year, the ECAC was definitely tighter than I remembered from past seasons. Four points spanned the top five teams in the final standings, with ties for first and fourth.

Looking at statistics from conference play alone, the eight best scoring offenses and defenses advanced to the playoffs. The offenses vary from 3.55 goals per game down to 2.45 goals per game; the defense ranges from allowing 1.14 down to 2.68. Quinnipiac has the toughest scoring defense, but it has the worst scoring offense of the teams that remain. The Bobcats’ last five games have produced shutouts either way; they’ve only been shut out twice this season, but both came in the last two weeks. You mentioned that they’ve only scored two goals total over their last four games. Nicole Kosta missed the first of those two weeks with an injury, and she’s back now, so maybe as she gets healthy and in a groove, she can serve as a bit of a catalyst.

Even more so, Quinnipiac goes as its defense goes. After sweeping Robert Morris, it stood with a 20-1-3 overall record. Quinnipiac had only allowed as many as two goals five times, and only one of those was more than two. While finishing 4-6, it allowed two or more goals in all of the losses, including four games where the defense yielded more than two goals. It’s true that those losses were against tougher competition, but those are the kind of teams it will be seeing the rest of the way.

Top-seeded Clarkson plays similar games of late. Over the last two weekends, its scores have been 2-1, 0-1, 2-1, and 1-0. The games where it scored more than twice over the second half came against teams that didn’t reach the ECAC playoffs, with the exception of a 3-1 win over St. Lawrence.

The Yale and Harvard series looks like it could be a bit more open offensively, but then as you said, they went to a second overtime twice last year. That seems to fit a wildcard description as well.

The ECAC series most likely to open up is the SLU at Cornell pairing. They combined to score 14 goals in the two head-to-head meetings this series, and I think both teams are comfortable playing a high-tempo, skating game.

While I think Princeton at Quinnipiac will produce the games most likely to go to overtime, I think that Saints and Big Red series will be the most fun to watch. If you could be at any ECAC series this weekend, which would you pick to attend?

Candace: That’s a really tough question to answer. I think I’d vote for Harvard hosting Yale. If last year’s series is an indication, it should be a barn-burner. Yale has a few legitimate scoring threats in sophomores Krista Yip-Chuck and Phoebe Staenz and junior Jamie Haddad, the latter of whom leads the team, in scoring. Staenz still has the best points-per-game average on the team, but Haddad and Yip-Chuck aren’t too far behind, and it must be nice for Yale to know that an opponent can’t just concentrate on shutting down Staenz. In net, Jamie Leonoff has a very respectable .923 save percentage.

Harvard, despite hanging the only loss on Boston College all year, has been a team that can be very hot and cold, sometimes even on the same weekend. I’m sure Katey Stone will have her team motivated after losing the ECAC crown on the last day of the year, but Harvard still has times when it seems to go on walkabout. As you’ve alluded to in the past, Emerance Maschmeyer can be very up and down in net. A few forwards have had down years, including seniors Lyndsey Fry and Hillary Crowe. I could honestly see anything from a Harvard sweep to a Yale sweep and everything in between. So, that’s my vote.

Let’s stay out east for now. Boston University responded to Boston College’s 5-0 thumping by tying the Eagles the next night, though in some ways, the Terriers might be disappointed as they couldn’t hold a lead. Providence finished its season in free fall, and gets to play BC in the first round, where I expect the Eagles to come out flying and sweep. The other three series all have interesting storylines. BU plays Vermont, a team that has played to its level of competition for much of the year, and in fact defeated the Terriers in January. Connecticut just swept Maine in Orono and now journeys back for a first round series with the suddenly vulnerable Black Bears, and Northeastern gets a New Hampshire team that has shown some fire, though the Huskies did just sweep the Wildcats last weekend. It’s funny that two first round series are rematches of series on the final weekend of the regular season. We’ll have to see if the same results happen.

You asked me about what ECAC first round you’d watch, so I’m responding: what Hockey East series would you watch if you had the chance?

Arlan: Just so everyone is clear on the ECAC, Clarkson and Harvard share the regular-season championship. Right now, it feels like Clarkson won something more because they are the higher seed with the right to host the next two rounds if they advance, but when we look back on this season, we’ll see two champions.

As for the most compelling Hockey East series, I’ll go with the process of elimination.

Providence at BC? No. I know that the Friars played BC tough the last time out, but still, no. Even though they are better than back in the fall when they lost by eight goals and then couldn’t push a split-squad version of Boston College, I just don’t see them finding a way out of this round. Now that the Eagles should be motivated again with the arrival of the postseason, it figures to be over fairly quickly.

Next is the first one of our two final-series reprises, Connecticut at Maine. The first game of that series is likely more of what we can expect in the tournament. The ending was compelling, with Connecticut rallying late and winning with not more than a second to spare, and it certainly came in handy in our picks contest, but a pairing of two teams whose best player is in net doesn’t always make for must-see action. Four of the Huskies top five scorers are seniors who could be on a mission, and they have more pop overall, but Maine might ride the emotion of playing at home in the postseason. I might like this one more if we hadn’t just seen it.

The other retread is UNH at Northeastern, and I watched some of their game on Sunday. Sixty minutes is a long time for the Wildcats to have to worry that Kendall Coyne will swoop in, steal the puck, and race away to score. Northeastern just has the advantage in too many areas, not the least of which is experience at advancing beyond this round. I think this series is two and done.

That leaves Vermont at BU, and I’m happy with that one. I still believe that the Catamounts have more than they demonstrated by going a rather anemic 6-14-1 in conference play, and their 9-3-1 mark out of the league backs that up. The game features players who have been the face of both programs in recent years as seniors embarking on their final postseason excursion — Amanda Pelkey and Brittany Zuback on one bench, Marie-Philip Poulin on the other. Talented players make games worth seeing. UVM did post that shutout win in Boston, but the Terriers exacted swift retribution the next day. It makes me wonder what would happen should Vermont have the audacity to steal a playoff game.

Would you go somewhere in Boston, given you are already in the area to watch Harvard?

Candace: I might go see one of the BC-Providence games, just to see if Alex Carpenter, Haley Skarupa, Kate Leary, and Emily Pfalzer find another gear now that the postseason is here. At times, it seems like BC has just been in a holding pattern in the second half, waiting for the real season to start. In terms of drama though, I agree with you. That one should be over quickly.

That leaves the other series in Boston, and yes, that is one I’d like to see. Vermont has definitely been up and down, at times showing flashes of brilliance and at other times seeming as if the players were trying to skate on concrete. In addition to the win over the Terriers, the Catamounts beat North Dakota in Grand Forks and gave BC fits in all three games, so the talent level is definitely there, especially since the Terriers have been very inconsistent. I think that one will go three games, and all three games will be very entertaining.

Last week, you said that you thought Penn State might almost prefer to finish in third, since it would then be home for the first round of the playoffs, where the Nittany Lions have done very well, instead of playing a semifinal game in Erie on Mercyhurst’s home ice. That played out, as Penn State got swept by Robert Morris. The CHA first round also seems to be a coin flip. On paper, it would seem that Penn State and Robert Morris should advance, but RIT has solid goaltending and won the tournament last year, so the Tigers will be looking to turn around a somewhat dismal season with that memory to drive them. Penn State gets Lindenwood and Nicole Hensley, who can be a wall, as she was two years ago against Robert Morris in a three-OT thriller in the first game of a best-of-three. Might Hensley’s heroics be enough to catapult Lindenwood to Erie, or does Penn State being at home prove an advantage?

Arlan: Penn State has definitely been better at home; that’s where it’s most impressive results have come. The tie with Quinnipiac back when the Bobcats were nearly invincible, a win over Princeton, a series win versus Syracuse, and of course, the sweep of Mercyhurst, all came at Pegula Ice Arena. The venue didn’t help the Nittany Lions any versus Robert Morris. Was that a hangover effect after the demoralizing sweep at the hands of the Lakers in Erie? Was it a sign that the Colonials are rejuvenated and ready to make an impact in the tourney? Maybe a lack of depth is starting to catch up with Penn State, not that it will be at any disadvantage in that regard against Lindenwood. I’m sure if PSU was going to have to play this weekend, it would have preferred to hang onto the third seed and avoid the possibility of seeing Mercyhurst in a semifinal, even if it isn’t the Lakers of old.

Both of these quarterfinals pair teams that match up rather well. The home team has a touch more scoring pop in each case, but then when you look down to the other end and see Hensley or Ali Binnington, it has to be just a little sobering when you know what they’ve been able to do in postseasons past. Teams like this year’s Lions or Tigers must live for the playoffs. Winning 20 games over the course of the year is a tall order, but 50 saves here and 50 saves there, why not win a couple games and advance to Erie? I think the CHA’s quarters matching the third and sixth seeds and the fourth and fifth are as wide open as in any league. All these teams finished with double-digit win totals; they have to feel pretty good about their chances of playing another week. A person trying to pick which two teams advance might select one pair of teams before the series, another duo after Friday, and still want to have a change of heart on Sunday morning.

I never would have thought it before the season, but I think Penn State is the place to be this weekend. First, I’ve heard that arena is something to see, and Lions versus ‘Lions is always a good stylistic bout. Plus, with only two series being contested, there aren’t a lot of options. Would you head there as well, or have you always wanted to go to Moon Township?

Candace: Tough call, but I would probably go to Penn State as well. I’d like to see Nicole Hensley play a college game, especially since she hails from my adopted state of Colorado. The women’s game has really grown here. The Colorado Select girls play very competitive hockey. I actually know several women who came up through that program who could have played D-I if they’d actually wanted to go to college, but that wasn’t where their interests lay. You are also right that the arena is supposed to be amazing, so it would be an experience to see that game.

I’m not sure who will actually come out on top in that series. Goaltending can sometimes steal away home ice, and if any goaltender is capable of doing so, it’s Hensley. Also, Minnesota-Duluth transfer Shara Jasper has definitely helped the offense for Lindenwood.

Regarding the other series in that league, I’ve always expected Robert Morris to right the ship a bit. There are signs that the Colonials might be ready to make a push, but their offense is still very shaky. The leading scorer, Mackenzie Johnston, averages only .636 points per game. Still the Colonials have a talented senior group, including Rebecca Vint, and that senior class can remember winning the CHA tournament three years ago, so anything is possible.

Of course, RIT has its own talented senior group, and that group won the D-III Women’s Ice Hockey National Championship in RIT’s last year at the D-III level, so there’s that experience to draw on.

Let’s move out west, and start by taking a look at Wisconsin. What are we to make of the Badgers’ loss to St. Cloud last weekend? Where has Wisconsin’s vaunted consistency been? Over the last month, it seems that Wisconsin has one game where its offense is firing on all cylinders, and one where it struggles to score. That doesn’t bode well for the playoffs.

Arlan: Wisconsin scored an average of more than four goals per game during the 2014 portion of the schedule, but has averaged less than two and a half goals in 2015. Sometimes Blayre Turnbull is scoring, or Karley Sylvester, or Annie Pankowski, but it doesn’t seem like any Badgers have gotten hot and stayed hot so that several will be clicking at the same time. The potential for that is definitely there, but everything has yet to fall into place. That might be the downside of being as deep at forward as Wisconsin is; the best four lines aren’t always as obvious as they are on some teams. Mark Johnson has tried a wide variety of line combinations, but the time for experimentation is over. At this point, he’ll have to go with his best hunch and hope it works out.

The Badgers’ save percentage is a little lower than it was last season, but the goals-against average is down as well, and that’s what really matters. If Wisconsin can score at least two goals per game, it will be a tough foe for anyone. Doing so hasn’t been automatic of late, as it has fallen short six times after the new year. That’s why the Badgers’ 17-2-1 first half has slowed to a 7-4-3 pace in 2015. They get another shot at St. Cloud this weekend, and I expect Friend will need to make more than 52 saves to spring another upset.

The two WCHA series to watch will occur a little farther north. North Dakota was undefeated against Ohio State this season, but none of its three wins was by more than a goal. Not that UND will worry about that. It has become expert at winning the grind-it-out games, and has eight shutout victories in 14 games in 2015.

Ohio State is a similar team, in that both want to win battles all over the ice, and play a gritty team game. It figures to be a very physical series, but at this time of year, a bad decision can lead to a penalty that results in a power-play goal that ends a season. North Dakota ranks third in the country in penalty minutes, but it overcomes that by having the third-best penalty kill. The Buckeyes specialty teams aren’t their strength, so they’d probably prefer five-on-five hockey. It will probably come down to UND having the hottest goaltender in the country in Shelby Amsley-Benzie.

Even more intriguing is Bemidji State at Minnesota-Duluth. The teams split both series down the middle. The play of UMD goalie Kayla Black will be crucial in the outcome this time. The Beavers block so many shots, and Brittni Mowat is seldom beat by anything that does get through, so Black can’t afford to surrender anything cheaply. The Bulldogs have the better offense, but only marginally, and it has tended to go missing against top teams. I could definitely see this series going three games.

For all the balance that we’ve seen in the WCHA over the season, will the seeds ultimately hold? If so, then we wind up with the four teams that we’d have chosen in September playing in Grand Forks in another week. Or is there one more upset about to drop?

Candace: I don’t think the seeds will hold, though I have a hard time picking which series might be an upset. If I had to bet, I’d say it would be in Duluth. Bemidji has proven itself to be a dangerous opponent, and has beaten not only the Bulldogs, but all the top teams except Ohio State, which it inexplicably has four losses to this season. Nevertheless, I think the Beavers match up well with the Bulldogs, and might swing the upset.

In the others, Minnesota State will be lucky to keep it close against Minnesota, and Wisconsin, despite the loss to its opponent this past weekend, is too good to lose a best-of-three to St. Cloud. That leaves North Dakota and Ohio State, and while the Buckeyes are talented, and might push it to three games, I have difficulty seeing a scenario in which North Dakota falls before the Final Five, which it hosts.

As final weekend approaches, some picks for the ECAC Hockey individual awards

20150214 7D2 5096 As final weekend approaches, some picks for the ECAC Hockey individual awards

Goaltender Kyle Hayton has played in all but one of St. Lawrence’s 32 games to date (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, there is a 90 percent chance of awards over the next four weeks, coinciding with intense episodes of playoffs and the New Moon opening the month.

Hey, it predicted a bad winter, too, so let’s not roll our eyes out of hand, eh?

Esteemed colleague and dismayed Northeastern alumnus Nate Owen detailed the lay of the land with one weekend to play, so I’ll skip that stuff and dive right into something a bit more debatable.

Trophy season

There are 12 games separating us from the ECAC Hockey annual awards. Granted, the winners won’t be announced until the final days before the league’s championship weekend, but the votes are gathered and tallied before the first round even begins.

Here are my unsolicited picks and analysis of the winners-to-be.

Rookie of the year: Kyle Hayton, St. Lawrence

There are only two viable candidates for this award: Hayton and Quinnipiac forward Landon Smith. Smith is a very good player, but he has not had the kind of standout season that Hayton has.

Hayton played all but one of SLU’s 32 games thus far, going 18-10-3 behind a team that was outshot by more than four shots a game on average. He stopped 30 shots or more 15 times, 40-plus thrice, and peaked in a two-goal, 51-save loss at Miami in October.

Hayton gave his Saints — picked 11th in the coaches’, media and both USCHO correspondents’ preseason polls — every chance to succeed by holding opponents to two goals or fewer 23 times so far.

Nothing against Smith, but the 6-foot Colorado sniper is merely third on the Bobcats in goals and fourth in points. That’s obviously nothing to sniff at, but he isn’t carrying his team to anywhere near the extent that Hayton has.

Ken Dryden Award: Kyle Hayton, St. Lawrence

ECAC Hockey boasts three top-flight goalies this season, and they are all underclassmen: Cornell sophomore Mitch Gillam, Yale sophomore Alex Lyon and Hayton. Among these top goaltenders (statistically speaking), Hayton is the only one whose league save percentage (.945) is higher than his overall save rate (.940).

Overall, Gillam’s .941 save percentage leads the league, but Hayton is obviously a goal or a couple saves behind; Lyon’s .938 is in the same ballpark as well. Against the ECAC, however, Hayton’s .945 is a full 11 points ahead of Lyon and Quinnipiac junior Michael Garteig.

Hayton is also second in the league in total saves (566), trailing Princeton sophomore Colton Phinney (584, whose save rate is .911); overall, Hayton is an astounding 142 saves ahead of the league’s runner-up, Steve Michalek of Harvard.

tl;dr: Hayton has played as well as anyone else in the league, and has shouldered a much larger workload to boot.

141115 20321611 As final weekend approaches, some picks for the ECAC Hockey individual awards

Rob O’Gara is second among ECAC Hockey defensemen at plus-15 (photo: Melissa Wade).

Best defensive defenseman: Rob O’Gara, Yale

This is a difficult award to flesh out because there simply aren’t any good metrics available with which we can compare players beyond the score sheet. That said, I believe big, bad O’Gara has as strong a case as anyone else for this honor.

The 6-foot-4 junior blueliner from Long Island was picked in the fifth round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft by the Boston Bruins, who got to see him play in their own backyard at Milton Academy with Harvard star defender (and fellow Long Islander) Patrick McNally.

This season, O’Gara made an impression on scouts as well as opponents with a plus-15 plus/minus rating, second-best among ECAC defensemen behind St. Lawrence sophomore Eric Sweetman.

While Sweetman bested O’Gara there as well as in points (2-15–17 to O’Gara’s 5-11–16), the Yale rearguard scored more goals in five fewer games due to the Ivy League schedule and boasts an incrementally better points-per-game average. The other factors that led to this choice are O’Gara’s 60 blocks (Sweetman has only 30) and 11 penalties (Sweetman: 17); it is hard to tell from box scores, but it would appear that O’Gara also played top-pair minutes more often than Sweetman this year.

Best defensive forward: Kyle Criscuolo, Harvard

Top plus/minus. Blocks shots. Kills penalties. Wait, are we talking about Criscuolo or Union senior star Daniel Ciampini? Hold yer horses, I’m getting there.

Yes, the prior criteria describe both Ciampini and Criscuolo. What separates them is that while Ciampini is slightly better than Criscuolo overall, the Harvard junior is well ahead of the Schenectady standout in league play.

Against the ECAC, Criscuolo leads all forwards with a plus-14 rating in 20 games played; Ciampini is just plus-8. They each average about three shots on goal per game, which gives them credibility as puck-possession players, but the Crimson forward’s 13 blocks are icing on the cake. Ciampini is an exceptional player, but he is no shot-blocker, with just eight in 20 outings.

Coach of the year: Greg Carvel, St. Lawrence

I initially figured Quinnipiac’s Rand Pecknold would take the title, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how truly shocking St. Lawrence’s success has been this season. As aforementioned, every single preseason poll picked the Saints to finish 11th in the league, and here they are in the second seat.

Yes, Hayton has been a mind-bending wizard in back, but a three-goal-a-game offense and 89 percent penalty kill are credits to the coaching, not the netminding prodigy or any other individual on the St. Lawrence roster.

Pecknold continues to craft national-caliber squads in Hamden, and this year’s Cleary Cup team was no safe bet with 18 freshmen and sophomores on the 27-man roster. That said, having Travis St. Denis, Matthew Peca, Sam Anas and Michael Garteig among the returning players ought to be good for at least a home-ice playoff series right there. I’m not attempting to marginalize what Pecknold & Co. have accomplished this season; it’s just that Carvel and the St. Lawrence staff have delivered a more unexpected success story.

141101 19241558 As final weekend approaches, some picks for the ECAC Hockey individual awards

Jimmy Vesey has at least one point in 25 of Harvard’s 27 games (photo: Melissa Wade).

Player of the year: Jimmy Vesey, Harvard

There could be a case made for Hayton, but I doubt the coaches would find the outstanding freshman worthy of all three honors for which he is eligible. Anyhow, Vesey has had quite an impressive campaign in his own right.

The junior winger and Nashville Predators prospect earned a point in 25 of his 27 games played — and he played every game for the Crimson this year — despite missing linemates and depth support to injury with uncomfortable frequency. He scored a goal in 17 games, demonstrating remarkable consistency, and led the ECAC in both overall points per game (1.52) and league points per game (1.55).

At nearly four and a half shots on goal per game in league, Vesey was an absolute puck-possessing terror to opponents, and his plus-13 ranks fourth in the ECAC behind two defensemen and frequent linemate Criscuolo.

Got a beef with a pick for a reason I haven’t addressed? Leave a comment or find me on Twitter.

Denver’s Larraza suspended one game by NCHC for head shot against Colorado College

The NCHC announced Tuesday that it has issued a one-game suspension to Denver senior forward Zac Larraza as the result of an illegal hit during the Pioneers game against Colorado College on Saturday, Feb. 21.

Larraza was suspended after a review of a play in which a hit was delivered to the head of a Colorado College player, who was not in possession of the puck, at 15:53 of the first period at Magness Arena.

Larraza will be required to serve the suspension during Denver’s next game on Friday, Feb. 27, against Miami and is eligible to return for the series finale against the RedHawks the following evening.

TMQ: Appreciating Quinnipiac, assessing the top coaches and picking dark horses

peca TMQ: Appreciating Quinnipiac, assessing the top coaches and picking dark horses

Senior Matthew Peca and Quinnipiac will be the top seed in the ECAC Hockey playoffs (photo: Melissa Wade).

Each week during the season we look at the big events and big games around Division I men’s college hockey in Tuesday Morning Quarterback.

Matthew: We’re quickly closing in on the start of our six conferences’ playoffs, and plenty of big news came from this last weekend’s action. Perhaps the biggest headline from the weekend was Quinnipiac clinching at least a share of the ECAC Hockey regular season title and the No. 1 playoff seed.

It’s a long shot, but I’ll put the question to you: After ECAC schools Yale and Union won the last two national championships, is there any chance Quinnipiac could make it three in a row for the league?

Jim: Going back to last week’s conversation, I think the field for this tournament will be wide open. So assuming Quinnipiac makes the field, there is no reason to believe it can’t win the title, particularly given the fact it was one game away from a national title two years ago.

What I love about this team is that Rand Pecknold has been able to bring in and hold onto one blue-chip recruit per class. Senior Matthew Peca is second on the team in scoring. Junior Travis St. Denis is third. Sophomore Sam Anas leads the team and rookie Landon Smith is tied with St. Denis at 27 points.

Having impact players from every class shows this team can recruit and reload, qualities of a national champ, don’t you agree?

Matthew: I absolutely do, and the continuity doesn’t just hold itself to the Bobcats’ skaters — it’s in their goaltending ranks, too. Michael Garteig has been outstanding this season and is arguably the best goaltender in ECAC Hockey save for maybe Kyle Hayton at St. Lawrence. If Garteig can keep it up into the postseason, I can see the Bobcats going far.

Speaking of Pecknold, where does he rank to you in terms of national coach of the year contenders? I’m not sure if he’s at the top of everyone’s list but he has to be considered.

Jim: I think there are a number of good candidates for the Spencer Penrose Award, and I think Mike Hastings at Minnesota State leads the way. Hastings brought the Mavericks to the NCAA tournament in each of his first two seasons with the team and this year is in position to have his team grab a No. 1 seed if not the top overall seed.

When realignment taking away the WCHA’s former powers, it was difficult to believe this league would produce another national champion for quite some time. Hastings has his team in position to win a title in year two after the realignment.

So Hastings leads my list of candidates for the Penrose. Who is on your list?

Matthew: Hastings tops my list, too, and it’s remarkable to see how much the Mavericks have grown since he took over that program. He had been in a good situation as the assistant coach to Dean Blais in Omaha before, but I think he felt the writing might have been on the wall that indicated a college head coaching job for him might lie elsewhere. He took that chance in Mankato and, boy, is he ever making the best of it.

As for the rest of my short list, I have Pecknold second and Greg Carvel from St. Lawrence not at all far behind in third. Blais is in fourth on my list, but UNO has lost four of its last five games now and I’m sort of wondering what’s going on there.

Jim: Let me throw four more names at you, all of whom are on my short list: Boston University’s David Quinn, Penn State’s Guy Gadowsky, Miami’s Enrico Blasi and — maybe a long shot on most lists — Derek Schooley at Robert Morris. Any of these guys serious contenders in your mind?

Matthew: I would consider Quinn and Blasi the top two out of those four. Quinn is unquestionably the Hockey East coach of the year for me, and Blasi’s RedHawks still have a very good chance of going from worst (last season) to first (this) in the NCHC.

Gadowsky I’m not as sure on as Penn State is fourth in a fairly mediocre Big Ten. Schooley deserves a ton of credit for what he’s doing at Robert Morris but I don’t know if he breaks into my top five for the Penrose.

Jim: Are you forgetting that Gadowsky has taken Penn State from nonexistent to a contender in the Big Ten in two seasons? I assume most thought the program would be a doormat in the league for at least five or six years. That alone, I think, deserves recognition.

Turning away from the Penrose talk and back to the hockey on the ice: Give me one team that, based on recent play, might be the biggest dark horse in its conference tournament.

Matthew: Personally, I’m not at all prepared to write off Western Michigan at this point. The Broncos most likely are going to be the No. 7 seed in the NCHC tournament, but they’re one spot behind Robert Morris in the PairWise at No. 24. I can’t guarantee that they’d make it to Minneapolis for the league’s championship weekend — No. 6 St. Cloud State might have a better shot against the No. 3 seed than Western would at the second-seeded team’s rink — but whomever Western plays in the first round in a few weeks’ time will need to be on high alert.

What about you? What’s your top sleeper pick for the conference tourneys?

Jim: I am going to give you two — one near the top of its league and one near the bottom. Bentley isn’t a team that is getting much attention in Atlantic Hockey given how hot Robert Morris has been, but the Falcons are on a roll of late.

In Hockey East, New Hampshire has struggled all season long but is playing its best hockey right now. I wouldn’t want to face the Wildcats in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs.

Thumbs up

To Boston University for kicking off Hobey Baker Award campaign season in a throwback presidential style.

eichel hobey TMQ: Appreciating Quinnipiac, assessing the top coaches and picking dark horses

Thumbs down

To Merrimack and Vermont, who tied 0-0 on Saturday in Burlington. With scoreless games like that, maybe overtime shootouts aren’t such a bad thing after all.

Coming up

The WCHA’s MacNaughton Cup could be decided this weekend when No. 2 Minnesota State hosts No. 3 Michigan Tech. The Mavericks have a one-point lead with four games remaining and can clinch the title with a sweep.

The NCHC has a pair of series between teams that are right next to each other in the standings. No. 7 Denver (tied, third place) hosts No. 5 Miami (second), while No. 6 Minnesota-Duluth (fifth) hosts No. 8 Omaha (tied, third).

In Hockey East, No. 14 Massachusetts-Lowell hosts No. 18 Vermont for a pair of games on the final weekend of the regular season, while No. 10 Quinnipiac plays at No. 16 Harvard in ECAC Hockey.

Norwich’s Pelletier tabbed Player of the Year in ECAC East

photo Norwichs Pelletier tabbed Player of the Year in ECAC East

Babson junior Jamie Murray is the ECAC East Goaltender of the Year for the second straight season (photo: Babson Athletics).

The ECAC East recently announced its year-end award winners for the 2014-15 season, in addition to three All-Conference Teams and an All-Rookie Team.

Norwich sophomore William Pelletier took home the Player of the Year award after averaging more than two points per game with 14 goals and 35 points in just 17 games for the Cadets.

For the second consecutive year, Babson’s Jamie Murray is the Goaltender of the Year. The junior went 17-5-3 this season with a 1.64 GAA and a .940 save percentage.

Massachusetts-Boston freshman Colin Larkin tallied nine goals and 15 assists for 24 points in 25 games and was named Rookie of the Year.

Norwich bench boss Mike McShane was named Coach of the Year after leading the Cadets to a stellar 21-3-1 mark this season.

2015 ECAC East All-Conference First Team

Player's Name
Position
School
Stephen BucoFMassachusetts-Boston
William PelletierFNorwich
Cheyne MathesonFNew England College
Mike VollminDBabson
Alec ThiedaDNorwich
Jamie MurrayGBabson

2015 ECAC East All-Conference Second Team

Player's Name
Position
School
Peter MacIntyreFMassachusetts-Boston
Michael PhillipsFBabson
A.J. PieprzakFSt. Michael's
Brian GreeneDCastleton
Dan CornellDMassachusetts-Boston
Corey HaleDNorwich
Ty ReichenbachGNorwich

2015 ECAC East All-Conference Honorable Mention

Player's Name
Position
School
Johnny DanielsFSt. Anselm
Dean NiezgodaFNorwich
Anthony BirdFSkidmore
Tyler BishopDMassachusetts-Boston
Tyler EsteeDSt. Anselm
Colby DrostGUniversity of New England

2015 ECAC East All-Conference All-Rookie Team

Player's Name
Position
School
Colin LarkinFMassachusetts-Boston
Charlie AckermanFBabson
Kevin SalvucciFNorwich
Jake DonahueDBabson
Alec BrandrupDNorwich
Ryan MulderGCastleton
Kyle ShapiroGSouthern Maine
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