Christmas comes but once a year, as does the best weekend in Division III hockey. The NCAA tournament is almost a letdown when compared to the conference championships, where 18 teams battle for six league titles, as well as that magical spot in the national tournament. Throw in the Northeast-10 title game and you have the ultimate weekend in small-school hockey.
One’s Already Done
The MCHA wrapped up its seventh season with a new champion: Milwaukee School of Engineering. The Raiders, a charter member of the league, won their first title in style, on home ice at the Kern Center, their new arena that just opened this season.
“It was fantastic to be able to do it in the new rink,” said MSOE coach Mark Ostapina. “Dreams do come true. This season was kind of like that with us being able to take it all the way through to opening the rink and then winning it here.”
Ostapina said the crowd made a difference in helping the Raisers to pull out a 3-2, 4-3 sweep of Minnesota-Crookston.
“Our fans were great,” he said. “We had a good crowd on Friday, but it was the last day of exams before our break. I told our players not to expect that kind of support on Saturday, but the students still came out. We took our team picture in front of the fans section. It was appropriate based on the support they gave us all season.”
Brian Soik got the game winner for the Raiders in overtime on Saturday, generating one of those magical moments where a goal clinches a championship.
“Brian was great for us,” said Ostapina. ‘He didn’t get named to the all-tournament team even though I thought he was just fantastic the whole tournament. It didn’t bother him though. After the game, he said, ‘Coach, I’m just glad we won the (Harris) Cup.'”
Out of the 24 teams that will still be playing come Thursday, 20 of them are still in contention for one of the nine spots in the Division III tournament. At least one squad that’s out of the running for a conference title still has a shot as well.
Here’s a breakdown of who’s looking good for an NCAA berth, and who needs some help:
Stone Cold, Lead Pipe Locks: St. Norbert and St. John’s — These teams are in no matter what happens. At the most, each can lose just one more game, and that won’t be enough to keep them from claiming one of the two Pool C bids.
Looking Good: Trinity. The only way the Bantams don’t get an NCAA bid is if they fail to win the NESCAC title and St. Norbert and St. John’s both lose.
Almost There: Manhattanville. The Valiants are close to clinching the Pool B spot. The only way they don’t for sure is if they lose to Utica in the ECAC West championship game. If that happens, it’ll be too close to call — a tough decision for the NCAA selection committee, which would have to decide if a 3-0 advantage to Utica in head-to-head play would offset smaller leads by Manhattanville in the other criteria. However, if Utica does claim the Pool B bid, Manhattanville is in line for a Pool C, having the advantage over every team except for the ones mentioned above.
Better Chance Than Most: Wisconsin-Superior and Babson. If all the favorites win, these should be the Pool C recipients.
Need Things to Break Their Way: Norwich, Bowdoin and Middlebury. These teams would need a lot of help and a kindly weighting of the criteria to secure an at-large bid.
Need to Win: Bethel, St. Olaf, St. Thomas, Curry, UMass-Dartmouth, Geneseo, Plattsburgh, Colby, Utica, Southern Maine, New England. These teams need the automatic qualifier that comes with a conference championship, except for Utica, which needs to win the ECAC West title, preferably against Manhattanville, to have a shot at Pool B.
Still Playing, But No Chance: Elmira, RIT, St. Anselm, Southern New Hampshire. RIT and Elmira can win the ECAC West title, but go no further. They are each too far down in the criteria to secure a Pool B or Pool C bid. St. Anselm and Southern New Hampshire will play in the Division II Northeast-10 championship and are ineligible for the NCAA Division III tournament.
Still a Chance: Oswego. The Lakers are playing a waiting game and must hope for semifinals losses for Norwich and Middlebury, plus all the favorites to win.
So what will happen on Sunday night? Let’s take it step-by step.
Before the NCAA Division III Ice Hockey Committee meets via conference call, two regional advisory committees will meet via phone and rank the teams in their region. Members of those committees are:
Russ Reilley, Athletic Director, Middlebury — chair
Vince Eruzione, Assistant Athletic Director, Curry
Ed Gosek, Coach, Oswego
Tony Mariano, Athletic Director, Norwich
Mark Taylor, Coach, Hobart
Chris Brown, Coach, Hamline — chair
Steve Freeman, Coach, Wisconsin-River Falls
Steve Nelson, Athletic Director, Wisconsin-Superior
Don Olsen, Coach, St. Mary’s
Mark Ostapina, Coach, MSOE
Committee members who have teams under consideration must excuse themselves while their teams are being discussed.
Once the regional advisory committees are done, the Division III Mean’s Ice Hockey Committee convenes. This group is comprised of Brown, Eruzione, Nelson and Reilly, who chairs. Chris Schneider, NCAA Assistant Director of Championships, facilitates.
This group will first award the Pool B bid, which comes down to Manhattanville or Utica. If Manhattanville doesn’t get it, it will be considered for Pool C. This is where the real work takes place — the awarding of the Pool C bids, since the committee may have to make comparisons between teams from different regions.
“It could be tough,” said Chris Brown. “How do you compare, say, Wisconsin-Superior with Manhattanville? For comparisons within regions, you have more to go on, especially if they’re met head-to-head. But for comparisons like this, you really need to look inside the numbers, look inside the wins and losses.”
It’s the upsets that make things interesting, according to Brown.
“Most years it’s pretty cut and dry, and then the upsets happen,” he said. “Last year, we were three minutes away from a five-minute phone call. But then Wentworth beat Curry and now you’ve got Curry, St. John’s and River Falls all in the mix.”
While upsets can and do occur in the West, those teams are at the mercy of the East, especially when it comes to getting the magic four teams in the tournament that would bring a Division III frozen Four to the West.
“People keep asking me what the chances are of having four (Western) teams in and I tell them we have no idea and won’t until the last game is played. The chance for upsets is higher in the East simply because they’re awarding four AQs and we are giving out two.”
After the nine teams have been selected, then the committee seeds the teams and assigns the pairings. In the event of a six-three East-West split the second and third seeds will play off mid-week with the winner traveling to the top seed on Saturday. The Eastern quarterfinals will pair off the six seed and the one seeds, and so on. Adjustments can be made based on what teams have put in bids for the quarterfinals, and how far teams would have to travel. There’s lots of leeway that makes predicting the pairings difficult, even when the teams are known.
One thing’s for sure — come Monday morning, at least one team will be very unhappy. But there’s one way for all the teams under consideration to ensure a spot — win their tournament.
Revenge of the Return of the Son of Bracketology
Our fifth and final installment offers a last look at the predicted brackets before the real ones come out.
If the season ended today, we’d have the following teams in the tournament (assuming that the top remaining seed in the conference playoffs win the league title):
ECAC East — Norwich
ECAC Northeast — Curry
MIAC — St. John’s
NCHA — St. Norbert
NESCAC — Trinity
SUNYAC — Geneseo
Manhattanville — The Valiants are the top Pool B team in PWR, and win all individual comparisons with other teams under consideration.
Wisconsin-Superior — The YellowJackets are the highest team in the PWR not in first place, and win all individual comparisons with all other teams in Pool C.
Babson — This one is very close between Babson, Bowdoin and Middlebury, but Babson comes out on top. They all beat out St. Thomas, the next highest Western team.
Based on the national PWR, the NCAA rankings, and taking individual comparisons into consideration, the pairings would be:
#3W Wisconsin-Superior at #2W St. John’s — The NCAA rankings have St. Norbert as the top team in the West, but the PWR has St. John’s leading in winning percentage and common opponents, with St. Norbert ahead in strength of schedule. The NCAA has confirmed that it looks at the significance of difference in the criteria, so St. Norbert’s larger lead in Strength of Schedule outweighs St. John’s smaller lead in the other two categories.
Under this scenario, the winner of Wisconsin-Superior and St. John’s would play at #1W St. Norbert.
Other quarterfinals would be:
#6E Curry at #1E Trinity
#5E Geneseo at #2E Manhattanville
#4E Babson at #3E Norwich
I’m putting Norwich ahead of Babson in the seedings, even though right now Babson is ahead on the PWR and NCAA rankings. I did this because the first assumption is that the conference regular season champ will win in the playoffs, and if that’s the case, the teams will be switched by then.
St. Norbert has plenty of streaks on the line as it goes into this Saturday’s NCHA title game against Wisconsin-Superior.
- SNC will take an unbeaten streak of 49 (47-0-2) consecutive games at the Cornerstone Community Center into this Saturday. The Green Knights’ last loss at the CCC? A 4-2 setback to Superior in a NCAA Division III Tournament game on March 10, 2002.
- St. Norbert currently owns a 25-game unbeaten streak, going 23-0-2 since a 5-3 loss at the University of St. Thomas on Nov. 5. This is the fourth longest unbeaten streak in D-III history. Middlebury holds the record, going without a loss 29 straight games from Dec. 31, 1994 to Jan. 7, 1996. Plattsburgh State and UW-Stevens Point are tied for the second-longest streak at 28.
- And perhaps the most impressive, St. Norbert is 203-0-5 in its last 208 games when leading after two periods, a streak stretching over 10 years since a 5-4 overtime loss at UW-Eau Claire on Jan. 21, 1995.
The following teams ended their seasons since my last column. Best
wishes to the seniors:
ECAC East: Castleton, Salem State, Skidmore, UMass-Boston
ECAC Northeast: Fitchburg State, Framingham State, Johnson & Wales, Plymouth State, Salve Regina, Wentworth
ECAC West: Hobart
MCHA: MSOE, Minn-Crookston
MIAC: Augsburg, Concordia, Gustavus Adolphus, Hamline, St. Mary’s
NCHA: Lake Forest, Wisconsin-River Falls
NESCAC: Amherst, Hamilton, Tufts, Williams
Northeast-10: Assumption, Franklin Pierce, St. Michael’s, Stonehill
That makes 22 Division III and two Division II teams still playing. There will be nine left after this weekend as we count down to the National Championship.
Best of luck to everyone.