Eight Isn’t Enough
It’s old news by now, but in mid-December, shortly after my final column for 2001 was in the can, the NCAA Division III Men’s Hockey Committee announced that its recommendation to add a ninth team to the tournament field had been approved.
USCHO broke the story within an hour of the decision, but it took only 10 minutes for the criticism to start on the message board.
“Why just one more team? Why not 10?”
“How can there be a play-in game two days after the field is announced and just three days before the quarterfinals begin?”
“How come the play-in game is restricted to Eastern teams, no matter what the overall seedings are?”
“Why is the new at-large bid only available to teams from conferences with automatic qualifiers?”
While these are all valid criticisms, let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is the first time the field has been expanded since the first Division III championship in 1984.
This is a very good thing.
The changes in the selection process for all Division III sports that took place in 1999-2000 season severely limited the number of at-large bids. Division III hockey went from two automatic qualifiers and six at-large berths to six automatic qualifiers and two at-large berths. One is now dedicated to teams from the ECAC West and MCHA, while the other is available to teams from conferences with automatics, a second chance for a team which, for example, might be the regular-season champion of its league but was upset in the conference playoffs.
The ninth slot allows for an additional Pool C, or second-chance team. Some conferences are typically going to have at least two teams worthy of a spot in the nationals, so the ninth spot certainly helps there. Western teams could have had as few as two teams in the nationals; the extra slot doubles the chances of at least three teams from the West getting bids.
Yes, there are issues to resolve — initially the play-in game between the two lowest Eastern seeds was going to be played on the Wednesday between Selection Sunday and the quarterfinals on Friday. That was changed to Tuesday to give the team time to travel, most likely out West.
Time (and cost) considerations are why the play-in game will be held in the East, since there wouldn’t be time to pair an Eastern and Western team. Those that are criticizing both these decisions need to understand that they work together to ensure that a game can be played at all. Otherwise, the season would have to be extended by a week, which isn’t going to happen. Many schools, especially the NESCAC, would never approve extending what is already the longest winter sport season.
The way things will most likely play out is that there will be five Eastern and three Western teams. Sure, the West could grab both the Pool C bids, and the East could as well, but expect each region to get one. That would make for a play-in game between the ECAC Northeast champion and either the Pool “B” or East Pool “C” team, depending on who is seeded lower. The winner of this game will then be sent west to face the number-one Western seed.
The other major criticism of the ninth bid is that it isn’t open to Pool B teams, which include the MCHA and ECAC West. Elmira and RIT can’t both be in the nationals, and that will continue until either an additional Pool B berth is granted, or the ECAC West expands to seven teams and is granted an automatic qualifier, neither of which is expected to happen in the near future.
Don’t blame the Division III Hockey Committee for this — it’s consistent across all NCAA Division III sports, as is the ratio of tournament size to overall number of teams. The ratio is one tournament team for every 7.5 schools playing the sport: a ninth team makes that ratio one in 7.4 for hockey, so there’s no way a tenth team was going to be added.
This new system certainly isn’t perfect, but it sure beats the alternative of just having eight teams in the NCAA Division III tournament.
Go West, Young Man
What’s going on out West? According to St. Norbert head coach Tim Coghlin, the NCHA and MIAC are up for grabs.
“The top four or five teams out here are all very balanced,” Coghlin said. ” Nobody has singled themselves out as the frontrunner.
“I still think [Wisconsin-]Superior is the team to beat. They finished on top last season and have a lot of veteran players. Until somebody knocks them off, they’re number one in the West.”
St. Norbert defeated Superior 6-2 back on November 2, but Coghlin doesn’t put much stock in that now.
“That was very early in the season in a nonconference game,” he said. “It was 2-2 early in the third period.”
Wisconsin-River Falls, another top contender, has also fallen victim to Coghlin’s Green Knight squad, a 5-2 St. Norbert win on December 1, but again the coach isn’t ready to say his team is the one to beat.
“River typically doesn’t do very well in our building; I think it’s been a while since they’ve been able to beat us here. But it’s a different story when we go to their place.
“[UWRF] has a strong defense and very good goaltending. They’ll be tough to beat again.”
According to Coghlin, you can’t take anything, or anyone, for granted.
“Everybody is beating everybody,” he said. “Look at what’s been happening. St. Thomas beats Superior and River Falls, but loses to Elmira. Elmira has beaten us and St. Thomas but lost to St. John’s and Gustavus.
“We need to step it up in every game starting with this weekend.”
The Green Knights kick off the 2002 portion of their schedule with a weekend road trip to Concordia and St. John’s, followed by a two-game homestand against Wisconsin-Superior the following weekend. That series will go a long way in determining the regular season NCHA champion.
That regular-season title becomes even more important this season, with the new playoff format awarding the highest surviving quarterfinal seed the right to host a “Final Four” final round. This is the format used by the MCHA, NESCAC, ECAC East and ECAC West, but it will be the first time it’s used in the NCHA. The MIAC is also adopting this format beginning this season.
“I’m really excited about the new format,” said Coghlin. “If we make it, this will be the first time St. Norbert has ever played in a postseason Final Four. It’s great preparation for the NCAAs, which Western teams don’t usually get, since we don’t play in tournaments very often.”
Another thing that’s made Coghlin and probably every other Western coach happy is the ninth NCAA bid.
“It used to be that we were upset only getting three Western teams in (the tournament),” he said. “Now we’re thrilled to have a good chance to get three in at all.
“Times have changed, But that doesn’t diminish the quality of the teams out here.”
The Cavalry Has Arrived
Defending ECAC champion New England College got off to a slow start this season, going 3-5 in its first eight games. But help may have arrived in the transfer of sophomore Travis Banga from New Hampshire. The forward from High River, Alb., had seven points (three goals, four assists) in the his first game with NEC, and followed up the next day with two more assists to lead the host Pilgrims to the championship of the NEC Holiday Classic Tournament.
Scott Borek’s team defeated Southern New Hampshire 11-4 in the semifinals, and Potsdam State 2-1 in the championship game. Next up are a pair of road games, at Skidmore and MCLA.
I’m Schizophrenic, And So Am I
It’s been a wacky season so far at Elmira, which has defeated (at the time) the number-one, -two and -six teams in the nation, the most recent being a convincing 6-1 win over sixth-ranked St. Thomas at the Johnson & Wales Invitational last weekend.
But the Soaring Eagles followed that up with a 6-5 loss to Gustavus Adolphus, yielding the deciding goal with just 17 seconds to play. At 8-5, all five losses have been to teams unranked at the time (although Oswego, which beat Elmira 9-6 back on November 27, is now ranked 10th in the USCHO.com Division III Poll).
That’s got to have head coach Tim Ceglarski and his players scratching their heads.
The Soaring Eagles will face at least three more ranked opponents in their final 12 games, a rematch with Plattsburgh on January 12 and a pair of crucial conference games with RIT (home on January 27, away on February 16).
Watch out for the NESCAC
Could we have two Eastern Pool C teams this season? The NESCAC is making a case so far. Middlebury, Colby and Bowdoin are a combined 18-1-3 so far, and all will probably be ranked in the top 10 next week.
Overall, seven of the ten teams in the NESCAC are over .500.
For What’s It’s Worth
I included a kind of off-topic rant in my last column concerning cell phones, and I got a huge amount of reader response — ironically, more than I’ve gotten for any hockey piece I’ve done for USCHO.com in the past four seasons.
Why argue with success? Look for semi-regular rants here throughout the rest of the season.
Today’s topic? Pop-up windows.
Did you ever play the arcade game where you have a mallet and you’re supposed to pop these little beavers (or alligators or whatever) when they randomly pop their heads out of a series of holes laid out before you? Nail ’em before they pull their head back and you score points. My kids love these games.
I get to play too, while I’m surfing the web. Pop-up windows are everywhere. The trick is to close them as soon as possible, to keep them from obscuring the web page you actually came to see.
“The X10 Mini-Cam!”
You get the idea. Rest assured you’ll never see an uninvited advertisement at USCHO.com.
Did I mention our new selection of USCHO T-shirts?