The Playoff Picture: West
It’s that time again.
One Western league has already concluded its regular season, and two have a week to go before the playoffs hit, meaning it’s time to take a look at the playoff possibilities, with an eye on NCAA tournament consequences.
The CCHA’s final regular-season games were played Friday and Saturday, and though Miami had long since locked down the title, last weekend’s schedule had plenty to offer.
Under the CCHA’s new playoff format, which replaced the discarded “Super Six” layout of recent years, four teams earn tournament byes while the remaining eight line up in home-road pairs for the best-of-three first round. That setup is now identical to the one in the ECACHL, college hockey’s other 12-team league; next weekend’s winners take on the bye teams, and the four quarterfinal survivors meet at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit for the CCHA championship.
With three points against Lake Superior State, Michigan State secured the No. 2 seed for the playoffs, and despite a stunning overtime loss to Ferris State Friday, Michigan ended up third. The big loser on the weekend was Nebraska-Omaha, which took only one point from lowly Western Michigan to lose out to Northern Michigan (which swept fading Ohio State) for the fourth and final bye.
Miami, MSU, Michigan and NMU will now get a week off, while UNO must play its first-round series against last-place Bowling Green in a set which can only hurt the Mavericks’ NCAA tournament hopes. Those who know the workings of the PairWise Rankings will recognize that BGSU’s overall record of 13-21-2 is poor enough that even one loss — to say nothing of two — by UNO in the first round could cripple its Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), which would leave the Mavericks twisting in the wind on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Elsewhere, Lake Superior hosts Western Michigan in another of those no-win scenarios thanks to the Broncos 8-22-6 record, although the Lakers’ NCAA hopes are limited to winning the Mason Cup as the CCHA tournament champions, anyway. And Notre Dame hosts Alaska-Fairbanks in another matchup of teams who only make the NCAAs with a playoff championship.
The most intriguing first-round series may be Ferris State hosting Ohio State. The Bulldogs, like the Lakers, Irish and Nanooks, aren’t going dancing without the Mason Cup, but the Buckeyes still hold out some hope. Despite going 1-6-1 in its last eight games, OSU could conceivably pull itself back onto the NCAA bubble with a sweep of FSU and a strong finish in the CCHA tournament after that, even without winning it all.
Of course, given the Buckeyes’ recent play, a first-round exit seems more likely, but as long as there are games left to be played, hope remains for everyone involved.
The MacNaughton Cup has been handed out to top-ranked Minnesota, which swept Alaska-Anchorage last weekend to take its first regular-season title since a shared championship with North Dakota in 1996-97, and its first outright Cup since 1991-92.
Now, the party line in Minnesota all season has been to focus on the NCAA tournament. To say Don Lucia doesn’t care about the WCHA championship is too harsh, but there’s no question the Gopher bench boss prefers to set his sights as high as possible, and the ultimate hardware which will be awarded in Milwaukee in early April is the goal.
To get there, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is a big plus, and Minnesota looks to have that locked down. The Gophers are the current No. 1 overall team in the PairWise Rankings, and their numbers are so good that it’s likely they’ll get a No. 1 seed no matter what happens from here on out.
Minnesota hosts Minnesota-Duluth to cap off the regular season, and will then see UAA again, this time at Mariucci Arena, in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. The WCHA tournament setup includes all 10 teams, with the top five hosting the bottom five in the first round and the winners of those best-of-three series moving on to the Final Five at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., where they will be reseeded and the bottom two remaining seeds play one another to get into the semifinals.
Two other home-ice berths in the first round were secured over the weekend, with Denver nailing down one of them after Saturday’s 7-3 win over North Dakota and Wisconsin backing into a top-five finish despite getting swept by Minnesota State.
The final week of regular-season play will determine the remaining two home-ice slots, with fourth-place Colorado College a strong candidate for one of those — though the Tigers must face archrival Denver in their final series. CC could finish as high as second in the final standings given the right combination of outcomes next weekend.
The other two candidates are North Dakota (which plays Michigan Tech) and St. Cloud State (which takes on Wisconsin). Either of those teams could finish as high as fourth if CC stumbles, but neither can get a top-three finish, which would guarantee avoiding the play-in game at the Final Five if they win their first-round series.
The bottom four teams are set. Minnesota State, which has already completed regular-season play, will finish seventh, while Michigan Tech and Minnesota-Duluth will be the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds in some order. UAA, as previously mentioned, is locked into last place with its regular season done.
The only route to the NCAA tournament for any of the CHA’s six teams is through the league’s tournament championship. No CHA squad is currently a Team Under Consideration (meaning a team with an RPI of .5000 or better), meaning none has a chance of an at-large bid this season.
That makes the CHA’s unique playoff format all the more interesting. All six teams qualify for the postseason, with the top two teams earning first-round byes and the remaining four playing single-elimination quarterfinals to advance. The whole shebang takes place on a single weekend at the Michigan State Fairgrounds Coliseum in Detroit, and since every game is do-or-die, the byes are critical.
Right now, no team has earned that right. Alabama-Huntsville leads the CHA standings by two points over Niagara and four over Bemidji State, and fittingly, the Chargers face the Beavers — the preseason favorites — on the regular season’s final weekend. BSU could make up the four-point differential with a sweep, which would make for ties in the CHA’s first two tournament seeding tiebreakers: total CHA wins (which would be 12 each) and head-to-head record (which would be 2-2-0).
That would send UAH and BSU to the third tiebreaker: fewest goals allowed head-to-head. The Chargers hold a three-goal lead on the Beavers in that category, so a decisive BSU sweep would put the Beavers ahead of UAH in the playoff seeding.
That leaves Niagara as the wild card. The Purple Eagles visit fourth-place Robert Morris to finish the regular season, and control their own destiny for a bye. One win against RMU would guarantee the Purple Eagles a tie for second place regardless of what Bemidji State does, and Niagara then wins the second tiebreaker with a 3-1-0 record against BSU this season thanks to last weekend’s head-to-head sweep.
And Niagara can still win the regular-season title outright with a good showing and some missteps by UAH next weekend.
Robert Morris, meanwhile, cannot finish higher than fourth, and needs just one point against Niagara next weekend to guarantee that slot. Of course, since the quarterfinals are at a neutral site, the concept of “home ice” for the quarters doesn’t mean that much to the Colonials. Air Force could pass RMU for fourth — though it’s not likely given the four-point disparity between them — and Wayne State, which plays AFA next weekend to close out the regular season, cannot finish higher than fifth in the six-team league.
Regardless, the single-elimination format guarantees a wild weekend at the CHA championship.