Here We Go
As I’ve said at this time of the year for as long as I’ve been covering D-III hockey for USCHO, the NCAA tournament really starts this weekend.
The NCHA and SUNYAC begin playing down to a single team that will claim that conference’s automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament, which starts in just under three weeks. The rest of the conferences will follow suit shortly.
For all but three at-large teams, the conference championship is the only ticket to the big dance. Lose and you’re gone.
Let’s take a look at where each conference stands in the closing days of the regular season. But first, a message from the NCAA, which recently released its latest regional rankings:
These rankings are important in assessing where teams stand in terms of an at-large bid. If they don’t win their conferences, there can’t be too many other teams above them in the rankings if they want a shot at making the NCAA tournament.
Now, on to the leagues. Let’s start with the three that have finished their regular seasons:
The quarterfinals are this weekend, and, for the first time since entering the league in 1992, Lake Forest is hosting a playoff series. The Foresters will take on Wisconsin-Stout at the Alumni Memorial Rink. Conversely, Wisconsin-Stevens Point is on the road for just the third time since the NCHA went to a quarterfinal playoff system in 1994-95. Only once has a road team won a playoff series since then: the Pointers over Wisconsin-Stout in 2001.
Who’s In: Everybody. All eight teams make the playoffs. St. Norbert hosts St. Scholastica, Wisconsin-River Falls hosts Wisconsin-Eau Claire (which beat the Falcons last weekend), Wisconsin-Superior has Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and Lake Forest takes on Wisconsin-Stout. The format is a pair of games, complete with overtimes. If the teams split or both games end in a tie, then they’ll play a 20-minute minigame on Saturday, followed by sudden-death (or “sudden-hug” as RIT play-by-play man Randy Bloechl calls it) overtime if things are still deadlocked.
Who’s Out: Nobody, but the home teams have history on their side, winning a total of 35 of the past 36 quarterfinal series.
NCAA Possibilities: St. Norbert is probably in no matter what. River Falls can make a strong case, especially if it makes it to the NCHA semifinals and St. Norbert wins the title. Of course, all eight teams are alive right now for the AQ which goes to the playoff champion.
For the fifth time in the past six seasons, Plattsburgh again finished atop the standings. Picked second at the beginning of the season, the Cardinals went undefeated in the conference and had things sewn up by Christmas. Chasing them all season long was defending champ Oswego, but the Lakers fell by the wayside, going 0-4 against the North Country teams. Instead, it was the Potsdam Bears that snuck into second place, earning a first-round bye. After going 0-4-1 in nonconference games in January, the Bears returned to SUNYAC play and went 5-1-1 in league games to vault into the number-two position.
The teams will also play a two-game series with a minigame.
Who’s In: Plattsburgh and Potsdam have byes this week, while Cortland travels to Oswego and Fredonia to Geneseo. The Red Dragons lost to Oswego by a combined score of 16-4 in two games this season. Fredonia and Geneseo split.
Who’s Out: Buffalo State and Brockport, which ended their seasons Tuesday and Saturday, respectively.
NCAA Possibilities: Besides Plattsburgh, only Oswego stands a chance at an at-large berth, and it’s a remote one. If the Lakers don’t win the title, they have to hope that Plattsburgh does, as well as having Norwich and Middlebury win their leagues while Bowdoin and New England fall apart. I other words, they would need a lot of help.
League play as been completed, although some teams have nonconference games this weekend. The playoffs take place February 27-29 at the Blueline Ice Center, hosted by Marian, which won its second regular-season title in three seasons.
Who’s In: Everyone makes the playoffs. Northland and Lawrence will square off in a play-in game, with the winner taking on the top-seeded Sabres. Minnesota-Crookston and MSOE play the other semifinal.
Who’s Out: Nobody.
NCAA Possibilities: None. There is no AQ for the league champion. MCHA teams are eligible for a Pool B at-large berth, but no team is in the running.
The following leagues end their regular seasons this weekend:
Top-ranked Norwich clinched the regular season last weekend, but has a pair of tough games this weekend with NCAA implications. The Cadets travel to Williams and archrival Middlebury. The winner of the latter game, between the top two teams in the East, will get the equivalent of a “Get Out of Jail Free” card — the best chance at an at-large bid should they stumble in the playoffs.
Who’s In: All seven Division III teams make the playoffs, and spots 1-4 are already locked in. Norwich has clinched first place, gets a bye in the first round and will host the semifinals and finals. New England is the second seed, followed by Babson and Salem State. Those teams will host first-round games. Mass-Boston is locked into last, while Skidmore and Southern Maine are battling it out for fifth and sixth.
Who’s Out: St. Anselm and St. Michael’s will compete in the Northeast 10 tournament with the other ECAC Division III teams.
NCAA Possibilities: Norwich is a lock, win or lose in the playoffs. New England can get in as an at-large team with a lot of help. The rest need to win their way in.
Don’t look now, but the Hobart Statesmen are knocking on the door. Hobart can claim its first-ever regular-season title if the Statesmen can beat RIT on Saturday and Manhattanville fails to take three points from Utica and Elmira. RIT can claim the title with a win over Hobart no matter what else happens, while Manhattanville needs Hobart to win and then take the three points on the road. A tie between RIT and Hobart will require the Valiants to sweep.
Who’s In: RIT, Hobart and Manhattanville, and Utica has the inside edge on the fourth and final spot. The Pioneers need two points in their final games against Manhattanville and Neumann to clinch their first-ever postseason berth. Elmira needs to sweep the same two teams and hope that Utica gets one point or less, a tall order for the defending champs.
Who’s Out: Neumann, which put a scare into both RIT and Hobart last weekend, is still winless in conference play.
NCAA Possibilities: RIT and Manhattanville will fight it out for the lone Pool B slot. Things probably won’t be settled till the ECAC West champion is decided.
Middlebury has clinched the top spot, but just two points separate teams in the second through sixth positions.
Who’s In: Besides the Panthers, Bowdoin, Trinity, Williams, Colby and Hamilton have all clinched and are still in the running for home ice in the first round. Wesleyan and Amherst fill out the final two spots, and will be on the road for the playoffs.
Who’s Out: Tufts and Conn. College have been eliminated. They’ll play their final two games this weekend.
NCAA Possibilities: Middlebury is a virtual lock, win or lose. Bowdoin is also in good shape provided there are no upsets.
These leagues still have another week to go:
Curry has clinched its first-ever regular-season title, and the Colonels reached the 20-win mark for the first time in 16 years. Curry won’t get to host the finals should it get that far, however. The ECAC Northeast has adopted a “final four” format for the first time, and those semifinals and finals will be held at Matthews Arena on March 6 and 7.
Who’s In: Besides Curry, Lebanon Valley has secured a home-ice quarterfinal game. Wentworth, Framingham State and Mass.-Dartmouth are fighting it out for the final two home ice slots. Salve Regina, Fitchburg State, Suffolk and Western New England are in the running for the final three positions.
Who’s Out: Nichols, Plymouth State, Worcester State and Johnson & Wales have all been eliminated. Stonehill, Assumption, S. New Hampshire and Franklin Pierce will play in the Northeast 10 Division II tournament.
NCAA Possibilities: Curry, third in the NCAA Eastern rankings, is in good shape for an at-large bid should the Colonels not win the title. The rest of the teams need to win to get in.
St. Thomas and St. John’s are on a collision course this weekend. The teams currently hold the two longest winning streaks in Division III and are within a point of each other for the top spot in the MIAC. The teams met three times last season, and every game went down to the wire. Expect the same this weekend.
Who’s In: With two weekends to go, only the Johnnies and Tommies are in for sure. Gustavus Adolphus, St. Mary’s, Augsburg, St. Olaf and Concordia are still in the running for the remaining three spots.
Who’s Out: Bethel and Hamline are eliminated. The Pipers, who had lost 19 in a row dating back to the beginning of the season, including seven by a single goal, finally got in the win column with a sweep over Northland, outscoring the Lumberjacks 20-5. Hamline had scored just 29 goals in their first 19 games.
NCAA Possibilities: St. John’s is in better shape than St. Thomas thanks to nonconference record. The Tommies probably have to win their way into the NCAAs.
The Northeast 10 Tournament provides a home for the ECAC Division II teams that can’t play in their conference playoffs. Seedings for the tournament will most likely be:
1. St. Anselm
2. St. Michael’s
4. S. New Hampshire
6. Franklin Pierce
The Hawks will be heavy favorites.
Final(?) Thoughts on “Miracle”
Since virtually all the other USCHO writers have waded in on “Miracle”, I figured I might as well, too. Frankly, I was not as impressed as the others — perhaps my expectations were too high based on all that I have read. The skating and the way the action was filmed were outstanding, and Kurt Russell did a great job. But frankly, I got more goosebumps watching the HBO special that came out in 2000. That one had great highlights that really recreated the moment, and interviews with the real players (from both the USA and the USSR), coaches and broadcasters.