We’ve reached the first full week of March with only one regular season league championship still up for grabs. The WCHA will come down to the final weekend of play, with North Dakota sitting just two points behind league-leader Colorado College.
The Tigers may have the tougher opponent this weekend then they’ll face in-state rival Denver, while North Dakota squares off against St. Cloud State. SCSU did prove a problem for Wisconsin over the weekend, earning a split, but they’ll be traveling to Grand Forks for this final weekend which gives the edge to the Sioux.
Though most league titles have been settled (if you’re just joining us New Hampshire won Hockey East, Clarkson took the ECAC crown, Army won its first-ever league title in Atlantic Hockey, Michigan edged out Miami for the CCHA crown and Bemidji State was victorius in what may be the final regular season for the CHA) there still plenty at stake for the three leagues still in regular-season action this weekend.
In addition to crowning a champ, the WCHA still has a four-way battle for the final two home ice positions between Wisconsin (currently in 4th), St. Cloud and Minnesota State (currently tied for 5th) and Minnesota (currently in 7th, three points out of fifth).
The ultimate battle to the finish will be in Hockey East. Despite New Hampshire wrapping up the title earlier than any other team in the nation, the remaining teams are all locked in various battles.
There’s a six-team battle for three home ice spots between Boston University, Vermont, Providence, Boston College, Northeastern and Mass.-Lowell. Five points total separate second-place BU and Vermont from NU and Lowell (both currently tied for sixth).
Similarly, there’s a three-way battle for the final playoff spot in Hockey East (the only league in the country that makes its regular season mean something by eliminating teams at season’s end). UMass seemingly has the fast track, holding a slim two-point lead over Maine and a four-point lead over Merrimack. What’s interesting is that Maine holds the tie breaker over UMass and Merrimack, which faces UMass this weekend, would hold the tie breaker over either Maine or UMass (Merrimack would have to sweep the Minutemen this weekend to get into a tie and thus would win the season series).
The most intersting storyline in Hockey East is Maine. It desperately needs a sweep of a somewhat hot Lowell team this weekend to qualify for the playoffs. Maine, along with BU, BC and Providence, have never missed the playoffs in the 24-year history of the league.
WCHA Dominance in the PairWise
If the NCAA Tournament Selection Show were taking place today, the WCHA would have a 50/50 chance of winning this year’s national championship based on the field itself (WCHA fans, I’m sure, will argue that the league’s “superiority” would give them better than a 50/50 shot, but to that I digress).
Currently, eight of the ten WCHA teams rank in the top 14 of the PairWise rankings. That was made possibly when Minnesota crept from the 15th spot to the 12th position over the weekend, while a skidding Minnesota-Duluth club held on for dear life to the 14th and final PWR rank.
I don’t have the math brain to say what the chances are the through the playoffs that eight WCHA teams will maintain their PWR. Obviously, the lower the seeds that advance to the Final Five the better the chance that we’ll see seven or eight WCHA teams.
It does create a bit of an interesting issue. As one who enjoys the “national” flavor of the tournament, I’d prefer to see no more than six teams from the same conference. The fact that five conferences could split the final eight non-WCHA tournament spots is a bit absurd, particularly given the fact that two of the top five teams in the PWR come from the CCHA (and that conference also has a third team, Michigan State, appearing to be a tournament lock).
What could throw a wrench in all of the plans, of course, would be lower-seeded teams winning conference tournaments to earn the automatic bid. In the ECAC, that certainly seems feasible as it does in Hockey East.
It’s far to early to begin griping about an unbalanced tournament field, but certainly something to keep an eye on in coming weeks.
There are a few teams that are streaking towards the finish line in a rather impressive manner:
North Dakota: 15 games without a loss is pretty impressive, though Minnesota-Duluth gave them a run for their money over the weekend.
Connecticut: The Huskies have won four straight and had top goaltender Beau Erickson make a surprise return to the lineup this weekend. That helped UConn climb from the Atlantic Hockey cellar to sixth place.
Harvard: Left for dead entering the Beanpot, the Crimson dropped only the Beanpot title game down the stretch to go from hoping for home ice in the opening round of the ECAC playoffs all the way to a first-round bye.
New Hampshire: The Wildcats locked up the regular-season crown with plenty of time to spare and, though they had a hiccup with a tie this weekend against Merrimack, have gone 11 games without a loss.
Controversial Goal in Maine/UMass series
A couple of people inquired why I haven’t had any commentary about the controversial goal at the end of the UMass-Maine game that led to the Black Bears winning in overtime last Sunday afternoon.
To recap the play, which I was fortunate to watch live on ESPNU, a Maine defenseman cleared a puck the length of the ice with about two minutes left in the overtime. The trail linesman signaled for icing, but the rough ice conditions led to the puck slowing down. Just as it was about to cross the goal line for icing, the lead linesman waved off the icing ruling that the UMass defenseman giving chase (I don’t remember who it was) could have played the puck.
Maine’s Andrew Sweetland, hot to the heels of the UMass defenseman, pressured the puck behind the net, created a turnover and centered the puck to Wes Clark who deflected it over the goaltender Dan Meyers for the victory.
UMass coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon was lived after the play, chasing the officials around the ice, holding his hands on his head. While it would seem that Cahoon had a gripe, after I slowed the play down on replay numerous times, it would appear that if the UMass defenseman stretches out his stick, he would have reached the puck before it crossed the goal line.
What Cahoon does have a gripe with, though, is how late the linesman waved off the icing. The puck had already crossed the line before the signal was made, putting the UMass defender in an awkward situation – he was expecting a whistle and instead was now forced to play the puck with a forechecker close in toe.
One thing I know from this play – it was not a black and white call. I could understand why either side would argue for or against the icing call. It’s unfortunate that the game was deciding on the ensuing play. But if anything this play teaches a solid lesson to all players – you have to play until the whistle. Letting up for even a second because you believe the play will be blown dead can be costly in a fast-paced game.