Tuesday Morning Quarterback: March 3, 2009

Jim: Well, Scott, just when I thought that the PairWise was beginning to settle down and define a pretty clear picture of which teams were tournament-bound, we got thrown a wrench last weekend. The team I want to start with is Boston College. Jerry York said a few weeks back that the only way his team is getting into the tournament is by winning Hockey East. Well, after a sweep of Providence, the Eagles climbed from 22 to 17 in the PWR, quite a jump for beating a ninth-place club. With a two-game set against Northeastern and a best-of-three quarterfinal series with either New Hampshire or Vermont, it would seem to me that the Eagles could put together a couple of huge weekends here and lock up their NCAA bid. The other team that befuddles me is Yale. An apparent lock a couple of weeks ago, the Bulldogs fell to ninth in the PairWise and are just a couple of reversed head-to-head comparisons from dropping to the bubble. Is it too early for Yale to punch its NCAA ticket?

Scott: Jim, I’m putting together a Bracketology blog post which will address these issues and more, but the two questions you raise are among the most interesting ones. First, contrary to what I might have thought just a week ago. BC does not need to win the Hockey East tournament to make the NCAAs. But that’s contingent on a good showing this weekend against Northeastern — and by “good” I mean three points at a minimum, and preferably for the Eagles a sweep. Under that circumstance, a first-round playoff series win and then probably a semifinal victory gets them well onto the bubble, potentially high on the bubble depending on who they play in their Hockey East tournament games. For Yale, meanwhile, the loss to Colgate Sunday was crippling. If the Bulldogs lose their ECAC Hockey quarterfinal series, they’re in big trouble, maybe unsalvageable trouble even if tournament upset champions don’t materialize. The fan in me thinks that would be a shame given the excitement they’ve generated in the second half.

For Brock Bradford and the defending national champion Eagles, the path to the NCAA tournament doesn't have to run through the Hockey East playoff title.

For Brock Bradford and the defending national champion Eagles, the path to the NCAA tournament doesn’t have to run through the Hockey East playoff title.

Jim: I have to agree. And if Yale does miss the tournament, I have to wonder if this will give rise to the old “Colorado College rule” of the mid-’90s. For those unfamiliar, Colorado College missed the NCAA tournament in 1994 under head coach Don Lucia despite winning the WCHA regular-season title. After that, the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Committee voted to award each of the (then) four conferences up to two automatic bids — one to the regular-season champion and one to the tournament champion. That rule, though, was abolished when the AHA (then MAAC) and CHA received autobids and the tournament was still a 12-team event. Now that we’re at 16 teams and soon, only five conferences, Yale missing the tournament could once again call for this, don’t you agree? One other question: Does the volatility in Yale’s PairWise Ranking suggest that maybe the ECAC isn’t as strong as we think? Don’t forget, we’re only a week or so removed from having four ECAC teams in position to receive NCAA bids.

Scott: I was just thinking something similar the other day. Having an autobid go to conference regular-season champion made it a much bigger deal than it is now. Few people will say it plainly, but a regular-season title is darn near meaningless under the current system. You get a trophy for the case, and that’s about it. I might favor restoring the CC rule for that reason, to be applied to all five conferences — Atlantic Hockey will be the sticking point in a lot of people’s minds, but to me the MAAC/AHA is primarily responsible for us having a 16-team tournament rather than 12, and with the CHA going away I can’t see a real problem with potentially allocating the AHA two bids. As far as grading the ECAC as a whole, it’s hard to judge by the PairWise. The trick, as always, is whether one or two teams fall on the right side of the bubble — a single win or loss has sent many teams to the NCAAs and an equal number home over the years. Stepping off in a different direction, congratulations on calling the ECAC and AHA regular-season champions correctly last week. I got Yale right but missed by calling the RIT-Air Force series for the Tigers, but you had both right.

Jim: Well, seeing as we were so correct in picking champions last week, how about we take on the same task this week? In Hockey East, you have Northeastern clinging to a one-point lead over Boston University. It appeared that the Terriers might give up some ground last Friday, trailing Massachusetts, 3-0, only to rally for six straight goals and a 6-3 win. This weekend, Northeastern faces Boston College for two while BU plays Providence in a home-and-home. My thought is that BC and NU will split, each winning at home on Senior Night. BU, on the other hand, will beat Providence on Friday and then take the title on Sunday afternoon on the final day of the Hockey East regular season. Why don’t you give your thoughts and set up the finish in the WCHA for us to pick as well.

Scott: I’ve got to go with BU as well — not that I lack confidence in Northeastern, but BC is a tougher nut to crack than Providence right now. So that settles Hockey East on paper, at least. Setting the stage in the WCHA, only North Dakota and Denver remain in contention for the MacNaughton Cup, with UND holding a one-point lead and also a game in hand. The Fighting Sioux play a pair at Wisconsin to finish the regular season, while Denver — thanks to an odd split-weekend series — has just one game left, at home against Colorado College on Saturday. Obviously the math favors UND without any need to go into depth about the quality of opposition, though both CC and UW have been up-and-down lately, with the Badgers more down than up the last two weeks. So the easy pick — and the one I’ll make — is to take the Fighting Sioux to complete another rousing second half with head coach Dave Hakstol’s first WCHA regular-season title.

Jim: I guess there’s really no going out on a limb with that prediction. A single point will wrap up at least a share of the title for the Sioux, while a win or a DU loss clinches things outright. Like you mentioned, this has certainly been one impressive turnaround for the Sioux. Consider this: The Sioux had eight losses before Christmas and picked up two more at the GLI right before New Years. But since the start of 2009, NoDak is an unthinkable 12-1-3. The funny thing about that stretch is that rarely did the Sioux sweep weekends, but quite importantly, as they did against Colorado College last weekend, took three of four points. An even better stat: over the last three seasons, North Dakota is now a combined 36-4-10 between New Year’s Day and the final day of the regular season. That’s just astonishing to me.

Scott: Impressive, indeed. The second-half charge has been a hallmark of Hakstol’s tenure at UND, that’s for sure. Of course, I suspect the coaching staff in Grand Forks is equally likely to wonder why the Sioux can’t play as well in the few months as they do later, but that’s a tougher question. UND seems like a relatively young team every year thanks to early defections to the pros, so maybe the Sioux gain ground as the season goes along thanks to experience; a lot of other teams deal with youth as a factor and they don’t necessarily do what the Sioux have consistently done in the second half. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to the conference tournaments. Until next week …

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