Tuesday Morning Quarterback: Feb. 24, 2009

Scott: Jim, let’s do this thing. There’s only one week of regular-season play left in Atlantic Hockey, the CCHA and ECAC Hockey, and two of those three league races have come down to the wire. Notre Dame clinched the CCHA last weekend with a pair of wins over Nebraska-Omaha, but Yale fell back to the pack in the ECAC, leaving both Princeton and Cornell with a shot at hardware — and the Big Red play the Bulldogs this Friday to boot in a game that could either guarantee Yale a share of first or set up a wild Saturday with all three teams in the mix. And in the AHA, we’re going to get the finish everyone’s been eyeballing for over a month: Air Force at RIT for a pair of games with the title on the line. Predictions?

Dan Ringwald and RIT are in position to claim the Atlantic Hockey regular-season title at home this weekend.

Dan Ringwald and RIT are in position to claim the Atlantic Hockey regular-season title at home this weekend.

Jim: Wow, not even the least bit of easing into the week’s column, eh? Well, I’ll start with the ECAC. The fact that Yale and Cornell face each other on Friday gives the Big Red a glimmer of hope should they beat the Bulldogs. But even if that happens, I don’t see Yale losing to Colgate on Saturday. So giving Yale that game eliminates Cornell’s chance of a league title and puts Princeton in a position where the best they can hope for is a share of the league title. To do that, they’d have to sweep Dartmouth and Harvard on the road, which I don’t see happening. So in the ECAC, I’ll give the title to Yale. In Atlantic Hockey, it’s much more complex. RIT and Air Force enter the final weekend in Rochester in a dead heat for the top spot. Though I love RIT’s chances on home ice, I also think the Falcons are very capable of pulling out one victory. So I think the most likely scenario is a series split and we have co-champions. How does that stack up against your thoughts?

Scott: Only the tough questions for you, buddy, and I agree regarding the ECAC. Incidentally, if Yale splits the weekend and Princeton wins out, the Tigers would get the top seed in the playoffs on the grounds of having the higher number of conference wins. In Atlantic Hockey, I’m going to stick my neck out and call an RIT sweep for the regular-season championship. Not only is RIT at home, but the Tigers have been the better team in the second half, losing just one game since early December. Both teams will of course sit out the AHA playoffs’ first round with byes, as will Yale, Princeton and Cornell in the ECAC no matter what happens this weekend. Now, having sorted that all out, maybe we should take a look at a couple of teams going in the wrong direction — namely Minnesota and Boston College. Both are now on the unpleasant side of the cut for the NCAA tournament — the Golden Gophers are No. 19 in the PairWise and the Eagles are tied for 21st — and BC has fallen out of the top 20 in the USCHO.com/CBS College Sports poll as well. If those teams don’t turn it around right now, both will see notable national-tournament streaks end: Minnesota has played in eight straight and BC in six straight, including the last three Frozen Fours and last year’s NCAA title. You’ve seen Boston College up close and personal as it stumbles down the stretch; what’s the deal on Chestnut Hill?

Jim: I think right now Boston College is affected by a battery of negative influences. First of all, they’re missing two key defensive players in Tommy Cross, who is out for the season, and Tim Filangeri, who suffered a concussion two weeks ago and is questionable this week against Providence. When you take the fact that BC’s blue line has been shaky since day one, pulling these players from the lineup certainly don’t help. Additionally, the team seems to be battling itself. Bad penalties, danger-zone turnovers. All of these factors have led to recent losses. This past weekend, BC came out flat on Friday against New Hampshire, played better towards the end of the second and dominated the third. That was all a little too late. A night later, BC had a decent first but allowed a late goal, played a perfectly awful second and then dominated the Wildcats in the third. But again, the hole they’d dug was simply too large. After the loss, Jerry York said he simply has to get his team on playing a consistent, 60 minutes of hockey. Are the Gophers problems similar?

Scott: The Gophers’ issues are more straightforward, though no easier to solve. Although there have been injuries and games lost to suspension during the second half, Minnesota is simply giving up too many goals. Through Jan. 17, the Gophers had averaged 2.28 goals against per game; since then, it’s been 4.08 as the team has gone 3-8-1 with all of those games in WCHA play. That’s the biggest reason why Minnesota is now seventh in the league and scrambling for home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. As to why, it’s no secret that sophomore goaltender Alex Kangas has been struggling, though the defense hasn’t done him any favors with breakdowns here and there. Head coach Don Lucia mentioned earlier in the month that Kangas needed to be more aggressive in confronting shots, and I thought he did that versus Alaska-Anchorage a week and a half ago, but against Colorado College he gave up four goals on 18 shots Saturday (CC also scored an empty-netter in a 5-3 win to get the series sweep). Lucia prefers to go with one goalie down the stretch, but has acknowledged that backup Kent Patterson, a freshman who has played in only four games this season, may see time this weekend against Minnesota Duluth. The decision may prove crucial; by my examination of the PairWise Rankings, even one loss against UMD leaves the Gophers needing a sweep of Michigan Tech and then a first-round playoff series win (which may be a road series) to get back in the margins of the NCAA tournament picture.

Jim: Yes, I’ve always thought that by this weekend of the season, being anywhere around 18, 19 or 20 in the PairWise is extremely dangerous. Below that is deadly and generally means you have to win your league tournament in order to be dancing in late March. Speaking of the PairWise, the volatility this time of year is often interesting to watch. You can explain to the readers exactly why this happens as I believe you studied the PairWise before I knew how to read. Two big movers — in opposite directions — are Yale and New Hampshire. The Bulldogs looked like a shoo-in until last weekend’s debacle. New Hampshire looked very bubblicious until its sweep of BC last weekend. Maybe you can explain that. Also, what seems to be the magic number for safety at this point? The top four can write their tickets to the NCAA? Maybe lower?

Scott: Jim, glad you asked — and not just because I find it easier to evaluate the PairWise than to remember the difference between the left-wing lock and the neutral-zone trap. First, as of now the only true “locks” are Boston University, Notre Dame and Michigan. Those teams are one-two-three in the PWR and it’s basically impossible for them to lose enough games to fall out of the NCAAs. BU’s lead in the criteria is so substantial that the Terriers could lose every game the rest of the way and still probably be a No. 2 seed, while ND and UM have the advantage of fewer games remaining in the regular season. Every team below that has some risk, however small. Now, Yale went from seventh to 12th in the PWR after a tie against Quinnipiac and a loss to Princeton, while UNH rose from 11th to a tie for eighth (ninth after the tiebreaker) by beating Boston College twice. Both of these moves come amidst a logjam in the PairWise which runs from Princeton in sixth down to about Yale; every team in that range has some PWR flaw, whether it’s a relatively poor Ratings Percentage Index or a bad record against Teams Under Consideration, that’s keeping it from feeling safe. UNH’s upward move was what one might expect from its results; the Wildcats flipped PWR comparisons with Miami (one point against Northern Michigan) and none other than Yale. Yale, meanwhile, lost comparison wins against Denver, Princeton and North Dakota along with UNH. Of those four comps, the easiest to win back are UND and UNH, which are hanging by a thread on the RPI criterion; the others are a little tougher to reverse. The moral is that right now, even teams that seem to be above the bubble are only a loss or two away from ending up there.

Jim: Wow. Without the math mind that you have that can move pretty fluidly through this process, I would’ve thought that any team that was about six or higher might be safe at this point. But it does prove that these final weeks are critical. For teams in Hockey East and the WCHA, there’s a chance for up to six losses (maybe even seven in the case of the WCHA because of its consolation game). ECAC and CCHA teams that are high in the PWR can lose two this weekend, one in the quarterfinal round (and still advance) and possibly two in the league tournament (semifinal/consolation game). So I guess top teams (like Vermont, Denver, Princeton and Northeastern) all have some potential dangers ahead. With that said, we’ll see how the games play out this weekend and reevaluate again next week. Until then …

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