What Happens When The Season Ends?

Ready for the post-season? It’s here! The NCHA and SUNYAC playoffs begin this weekend, and the other conferences will follow shortly thereafter. To help fans follow the action, here’s a bit of background on the various Division II/Division III conferences, and the NCAA selection process.

The Conferences

Let’s begin out west, where things are a bit simpler. There are three main conferences, the MIAC (Minnesota Collegiate Athletic Conference) and the NCHA (Northern Collegiate Hockey Association). A list of teams in the MIAC and NCHA as well as all the other D-II/D-III conferences can be found at the USCHO Div. II-III page.

In the MIAC, the top four teams make the playoffs, which begin this year on Feb. 26-27. The semifinals consist of a “first to three points” system that is common at this level. This format calls for two games with no overtimes. The team that wins both or wins one game and ties another advances. If the teams split the games, or tie both, then a 15-minute “minigame” is played to determine the winner. If the mingame is tied at the end of regulation, then a sudden-victory overtime is played.

The winner of the MIAC playoffs is granted an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Championships.

The NCHA is slightly different. All teams make the playoffs with the exception of Division II Bemidji State, who is prohibited in order to assure a Division III champion, this ensuring the NCHA an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III tournament. Bemidji is moving up to Division I next season. The playoffs continue over three consecutive weekends starting Feb. 19, and follow the same “first to three points” format.

The MCHA (Midwest Collegiate Hockey Association) is a new conference, full of emerging D-III programs, in addition to D-II Findlay. There are six teams in the league, and the top four will make the playoffs, which will be hosted by Findlay University on Feb. 26-27. The format there is single elimination semifinals and finals. No team from the MCHA is expected to make the NCAA tournament. Findlay is moving up to Division I next season, and the remaining Division III programs are still developing, so there is no automatic bid.

Now let’s turn to the east, where things are considerably more complicated.

The SUNYAC is an all-Division-III conference, and therefore also has an automatic bid for their champion. Six teams make the playoffs, which are also “first to three points”. The #1 and #2 seeds are granted first round byes.

The ECAC West is a mixed conference which currently includes three Division III teams (Elmira, Hobart, RIT) and a Division II program (Mercyhurst). Mercyhurst is moving to Division I next season. All four teams are eligible for the playoffs. Their format is a single-elimination “Final Four” affair. The ECAC West does not receive an automatic bid.

The ECAC East will keep fans in suspense until their last conference games are played on 2/21. Like the ECAC West, the East is a mixed conference with 17 Division III members, plus Division II St. Anselm. The ECAC East has an additional complication to be factored in, however. Nine of the 18 teams belong to the NESCAC (New England Small College Athletic Conference). NESCAC rules prohibit participation in more than one post-season tournament. The NESCAC schools in the ECAC East (Amherst, Bowdoin, Colby, Conn College, Hamilton, Middlebury, Trinity, Wesleyan, Williams) who clinch one of the ten playoff spots may elect to vacate it in favor of waiting for an NCAA bid. Therefore, one cannot determine the playoff teams or seedings based on simply looking at the final standings. On 2/21, each of the NESCAC schools must declare for either the ECAC playoffs or the NCAAs. The top ten remaining teams are then selected and seeded. Since the eventual ECAC East champion has a good chance of either being a NESCAC or non-Division III team, the ECAC East does not receive an automatic NCAA bid.

There is one additional conference in the east, the ECAC Northeast. The Northeast also has mixed divisions, and is considered to generally play a lower level of Division III hockey than the other leagues. While technically eligible for the D-III nationals, teams from these leagues are almost never considered. Instead, the Northeast runs a playoff involving its top eight teams.

The Nationals

Eight teams make the Division III nationals. Typically four teams are selected from the western region and four from the east. However, since there are far more teams in the east, the selection committee has the option of a five-three east-west split.

Since the west has two slots guaranteed to the MIAC and NCHA champions, that leaves them at best two and possibly just one additional at-large team. Typically this has been the NCHA runner up, or the NCHA regular season champion if they don’t win the playoff title. Since the NCHA is thought to be the stronger conference, it is a rare occurrence that more than one MIAC team is offered a bid, although no NCAA rule prohibits this.

One of the east’s four or five slots is allocated to the SUNYAC champion; the rest are at-large. Typically, the ECAC East and West champions will also get bids, provided they are eligible (i.e. a Division III non-NESCAC school). The committee also looks at any NESCAC schools that have elected to sit out the ECAC East tournament, as well as any other ECAC East, SUNYAC or ECAC West team that has had an excellent regular season.

The current format for the D-III nationals is a “first two three points” quarterfinal series hosted by the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds from each region. After that, a single elimination “Final Four” format is used, hosted by one of the four surviving teams. Recently, there has been some discussion of holding the finals at a pre-determined site, perhaps during the Division I championships.

Since there are only six schools currently playing hockey at the Division II level who are eligible for the NCAAs, the D-II “tournament” field is comprised of just two teams, each getting an at large bid. The championships are a “first to three points” series hosted by the higher seed. This will be the last year for the tournament, since Division II has dwindled from 14 to 6 teams in two years.

Small school hockey, while complicated, is certainly never dull, and the intensity of the players competing for their conference title and a national championship is as high as that of their Division I counterparts. Check out the action if you can, otherwise check U.S. College Hockey Online for the latest playoff results.