Jim: Todd, we’re one weekend into playoffs in the ECAC, CCHA and Atlantic Hockey, and if the first weekend is any indication, we’re in for a wild ride. Eight of the 11 home teams were eliminated, including all of the higher seeds in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs. The one upset that seems to stand out to me is Rensselaer falling to Colgate. RPI, many thought, was poised for its first NCAA bid since 1995. But stumbles in the final two weeks of the regular season pushed RPI to fifth place, where they lost on Sunday, 2-1 in double overtime in Game 3 of its series with Colgate and now, suddenly, RPI’s season is over.
Todd: We talked a few weeks ago about how many ECAC Hockey teams would make the NCAA field of 16. At that point, there were four teams in position to make it. Now, Union and Yale still look solid, but Dartmouth is hanging at 13th in the PairWise Rankings and can’t fall victim to the same home-ice trap that so many teams did last weekend. What surprised me Sunday night was that both games that went to double overtime were won by the road team. So much for the rigors of travel combined with a three-game series, I guess.
Jim: I’ve always believed that the three-game series, while taxing, is more about emotion. That’s what Colgate and Bowling Green showed on Sunday night. Both teams hung tough after losing Game 1, forced a Game 3 and then finished things off in dramatic fashion. That wasn’t the only drama of the weekend, though, as the Michigan State-Alaska game went to overtime both games — the second reaching double overtime — before the Nanooks swept the series. The loss for the Spartans ended the coaching career of the legendary Rick Comley, though from reading Internet reports about a postgame incident on Friday night, it seems Comley wasn’t going away quietly.
Todd: What we know, through a story in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, is that there was some sort of commotion as Comley returned to the locker room after Friday’s overtime loss. A Michigan State spokesperson said the school was aware of the incident and was cooperating with the CCHA’s review. Whatever happened — I don’t think we’ve heard the whole story — I don’t think anyone looks very good in it. Not Comley, not the fans, not the setup at Alaska’s Carlson Center, where security was reportedly upped around the Spartans tunnel for Saturday’s game. Not the kind of thing you’d want to have from your penultimate game as a college hockey coach, I’m sure.
Jim: What made it worse is that Michigan State fell a night later and thus Comley’s legacy ends in a whimper, certainly not what any Comley fan wanted. Speaking of whimpers, that was the perfect description of last weekend’s Atlantic Hockey playoffs, where all four home teams lost the single-elimination first-round series. Of course, a lot has been made of the fairness, or lack thereof, in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs this season and losing two top teams from the west scheduling pod — Niagara and Robert Morris — right off the bat makes the playoff system look even further flawed. I have a feeling that this playoff system, particularly given all the controversy surrounding it in the media, will be gone come next season.
Todd: I hope they find a better way that meets both requirements — travel savings and competitive fairness. I also question why they play a single-game series for the first weekend, then go to a series for the quarterfinals. If your first round can be summed up in one game, shouldn’t the rest of the playoffs, too?
Jim: That is kind of curious, too. I’m making the assumption that because the first round is within your “scheduling pod” it will be a day trip and not overnight, thus eliminating the need for hotel rooms in the opening round if the series is a single game. While I understand the need for cost containment, I also understand that these teams want competitive fairness. I don’t place the blame on the league, either. I place it on the programs themselves. They need to make a commitment financially to running a competitve and fair tournament.
On the other side of things, we’ll have two league beginning playoffs this week: Hockey East and the WCHA. The Hockey East regular season title went down to the final period of the final game between Boston College and New Hampshire, with the Eagles coming out on top. That, along with the other games last weekend, set up some interesting quarterfinal series. Boston University and Northeastern will face off beginning Thursday after having played a home-and-home series last weekend. That means a minimum of four, possibly five straight games against the game opponent. Can you say blood bath? Another potential blood bath is between Maine and Merrimack. Those two teams faced off in Orono two weekends ago and combined for more than 300 penalty minutes. This time the games are played in the always-charged Lawler Arena at Merrimack. Think the fact that these games are playoffs will make any of these four teams be on their best behavior?
Todd: I wonder how the coaches will go at that. You want your players to be emotionally charged right up to the point where it does your team damage. It sounds like that line got crossed a few times in the regular season, and I don’t know if it’s possible to keep it from happening again. But I’m sure everyone involved will stress the need to be smart about what players are doing to avoid putting the team in a hole. For some of these teams, it might take only one slip-up to end the season.
We get our first look at a 12-team WCHA playoff system this weekend, with six series instead of the former five. I find it interesting that between five leagues, no two do things the same in the postseason. I’d like to see how the WCHA Final Five operates as a six-team tournament before passing judgment on the new system, but I can see where fans would be confused by the name being the same despite the tournament being overhauled.
Jim: Well, it’s very strange to me to call a six-team tournament the Final Five. I know there is some brand equity to the name Final Five, but I also think that the name Final Six or Super Six would catch on. Either that, or they could do what I lobby for so often: drop some teams from the playoffs. There is no reason for every team to make a league playoff. I’ll beat that issue until it’s dead. I just see a value in the regular season that is lost in an all-inclusive playoff system.
Todd: The explanation I got on the name was that it now represents the final five games. Clever, I know. And it is completely a branding thing. They could have eight teams in it and still want to call it the Final Five because it’s so well known around the WCHA.
I know that cutting teams at the end of the regular season was in the WCHA discussion, but it didn’t get very far. There are merits on both sides of that argument, but I think the WCHA didn’t want to come off exclusionary when it can financially handle having everyone in the tournament.
Jim: Turning to a different topic, on Monday Northeastern decided to end Greg Cronin’s (and assistant coach Albie O’Connell’s) suspension. What is your take on this? When you put everything into perspective with the information we have now, did Northeastern take the right steps?
Todd: I’m struggling to keep all of the issues together. Cronin and O’Connell got a six-game suspension (for now) for the recruiting violations, and assistant coach Sebastien Laplante, who was running the team in their absence, will get the same suspension at the start of next season. Amid all that, the investigation is going to go to the NCAA, which could always add more punishments, especially because Northeastern is already on probation from a men’s basketball violation. I wonder whether Northeastern’s decision to reinstate Cronin and O’Connell right before the playoffs will reflect negatively in the NCAA’s eyes. The timing seems peculiar.
Jim: You do make a good point in that the timing seems suspect. I’m willing to take the school at its word. I’m not positive the NCAA will do the same. In instances of this that I’ve read about in the past, the coach wasn’t generally suspended until the investigation was complete. Granted, those schools weren’t already on probation, and that may have played into Northeastern’s reasoning for suspending the coaches as soon as the violations were uncovered. I can tell you talking to Cronin on Monday that he was not in the loop on timing throughout the entire process, which makes me believe the school’s stance that everything was coincidental.
OK, heading back to the playoffs, what are your thoughts on the top series out West?
Todd: I think there will be a lot of people paying attention to the Ferris State-Western Michigan series in the CCHA. The Broncos are tied for 14th in the PairWise Rankings, meaning any kind of slip could be disastrous. In the WCHA, Colorado College and Wisconsin match up for the second straight weekend, but this time it’s in Colorado Springs. The Tigers are the team that’s tied for 14th with Western Michigan, so they’re in the same boat. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has gone from a safe PairWise position to probably needing to win the WCHA’s automatic bid to make the NCAA field. What’s it looking like out East?
Jim: Well, certainly the Harvard-Dartmouth series will be interesting in the ECAC as the Crimson is red hot and Dartmouth is playing for its NCAA life. There are major implications for BU as it faces Northeastern and for both Maine and Merrimack. That series means a little more to the Black Bears than the Warriors, so that will be interesting.
Todd: We’ll see if the road-ice advantage continues, or if the higher-ranked teams in ECAC Hockey, Atlantic Hockey and the CCHA are able to move on to the final weekend.