Tuesday Morning Quarterback: Earning the waiting game

Todd: Well, Jim, it’s the week of the year when college hockey takes a toll on productivity unlike any other week — the one where we have the PairWise Predictor to try to find interesting scenarios for the final 19 games before the NCAA tournament field is selected on Sunday. The five leagues are down to their championship weekends, where dreams will be made and shattered. But we saw a lot of noteworthy events over the last few days; what stands out to you?

Jim: Todd, I feel like this year there are higher-than-average bubble teams who won’t be able to play for their NCAA tournament future. Nebraska-Omaha, Maine, Boston University, Rensselaer and Minnesota all sit between 13 and 19 in the PairWise but have all been eliminated. I lost about an hour or so Sunday night finding scenarios that would allow Maine and BU into the tournament, and I’m sure fans of those other teams will be doing the same over the next few days. Regardless, there will be more lame-duck scoreboard-watching next weekend than I ever remember.

Todd: I think of it in poker terms for the teams that are sitting there waiting. They’re down in the hand, but how many outs do they have? I’m pretty sure that Minnesota is drawing dead — I don’t think anyone has found a way to get the Gophers in the tournament. Nebraska-Omaha has a few outs, but there are some cards they definitely don’t want to see land on the table. Maine, BU and Rensselaer might need the right card to hit on the river.

Now that I’ve talked well beyond my actual poker knowledge, I’ll say this: Teams that are sitting and waiting for things to happen this weekend have earned the right to sweat that out by falling short in the conference tournaments. I think Nebraska-Omaha was one of the most shocking and unsurprising at the same time. You would have expected the WCHA’s three seed to get to St. Paul, but the Mavericks were never able to beat Bemidji State this season.

Jim: You see the WCHA teams a heckuva lot more than I do, so maybe you can explain what Bemidji’s hex is on UNO. I didn’t even realize the troubles for the Mavericks until Friday’s loss when I looked back at the schedule.

You are right, though, oh, Doyle Brunson of college hockey analysis. Any of those bubble teams we mentioned all deserve the heartburn and waiting. They played themselves out, each and every one of them. And now the waiting game begins. Here’s my question, though: If you’re the coach of any of these teams, do you keep practicing?

Todd: Bemidji went 5-0-1 against Omaha this season, and the way our reporter in Omaha, Matthew Semisch, described in it his recap from Saturday night, the Mavericks had trouble all year dealing with the Beavers in transition. Sometimes there’s just a favorable matchup that you’re able to exploit.

As for the question of whether to keep practicing, I think you have to in at least a limited capacity. When I covered Wisconsin in 2008, they needed a ridiculous set of outcomes and got them, but they kept practicing while keeping their fingers crossed. If you can find at least one scenario where your team gets in the tournament, I think you have to keep practicing.

Jim: I agree. No hockey player minds a few more days on the ice, right?

On the other end of the spectrum, we have a few teams really close to sewing up a No. 1 seed. Yale, North Dakota, Boston College and Michigan all are in position to take No. 1 in their respective regions. Any chance that Yale isn’t the No. 1 overall at this point? I can’t seem to find a lot of scenarios that knock them off the top perch, though I will admit I haven’t focused on the top as much as the bottom of the PWR. And are there other teams that might sneak into the No. 1 spots?

Todd: Our Jayson Moy has been throwing things at the PairWise Predictor, and it seems like Yale, North Dakota and Boston College are going to be No. 1 seeds, leaving one spot open for the likes of Michigan, Miami, Denver, Merrimack and Minnesota-Duluth. I’m guessing there may be a scenario where Yale can be moved from the top overall spot if it loses twice in Atlantic City.

I’m wondering whether the bubble to get into the tournament will shrink thanks to the likes of Cornell or Colgate running the table in the ECAC, Northeastern winning in Hockey East or Bemidji State or Alaska-Anchorage going the distance in the WCHA. Some teams that have a better-than-average shot of getting in could see their hopes dashed by upsets.

Jim: There were just enough upsets last weekend to keep teams near the bottom of the bubble up at night. If we had Alaska-Anchorage, Northeastern and Cornell all running the tables, teams we haven’t even talked about such as Western Michigan could easily be left out. But I guess that’s what this time of year is all about.

Switching gears a bit, some of the teams that lost over the last two weekends featured potential Hobey Baker Award candidates. Guys like Paul Zanette at Niagara, Chase Polacek at RPI, Keith Kinkaid at Union, Gustav Nyquist at Maine and Justin Schultz at Wisconsin won’t have another shot at showing their value to the Hobey voters. Do you think that this will preclude all of these players from being named college hockey’s top player?

Todd: I’m not sure any of them were in position to win it anyway, but my thinking is this: Not being able to add to their resumes this weekend (or, for some of them, until the voting is done after the NCAA regionals) means that they won’t have the opportunity to make up ground on the front-runners. I’ll be interested to see whether all of them make the list of 10 finalists that will be released later this week.

Jim: I feel like a healthy number of these players I mentioned have a chance at being finalists, but as you point out, not playing at this point likely has crushed the chances of these players winning the award. So, then, who would you say are the leaders for the Hobey Hat Trick heading into the conference finals?

Todd: I think my top three right now would be North Dakota’s Matt Frattin, Miami’s Andy Miele and New Hampshire’s Paul Thompson. Not that it’s written in stone or anything. I’m not sure whether Blake Geoffrion was in my top three at this point last season, but his postseason presence put him over the top. So you can see what these upcoming games will mean for the Hobey hopefuls. Who do you have in your top three?

Jim: I’ve been saying that Andy Miele is my favorite for a few weeks now and that really hasn’t changed. Having seen Thompson play a lot I have to include him in there. And I think that Frattin and Minnesota-Duluth’s Jack Connolly can be switched for one another. I think that Connolly doesn’t get as much exposure as Frattin because he plays for Duluth. But his numbers have been consistently solid, and last weekend he was right in the scoring mix against a pesky St. Cloud State team.

Todd: Frattin has nine goals in his last six games, but four of those games were against last-place Michigan Tech and two were against 10th-place Bemidji State (no pushover, obviously, given what we’ve already remarked). How much of a factor do you think that will be to voters?

Jim: I actually did factor that when I mentioned that Connolly was interchangeable with Frattin. Connolly’s only knock is that he doesn’t score as many goals. Points are points to me, but I know that a lot of people put weight on goal scoring. Personally, I put stock into what players do in the postseason. So let’s get back to that. It’s the ultimate crunch time in this weekend’s conference finals — so what games stand out to you?

Todd: I’m really interested in whether Western Michigan can pull off an NCAA bid in its first season under coach Jeff Blashill. That would be a great accomplishment and a boon for the program, but with Michigan standing in the way in Friday’s CCHA semifinals, it won’t be easy to seal the deal. I’m hoping for a good atmosphere for the first WCHA quarterfinal game Thursday afternoon when Minnesota-Duluth plays Bemidji State in St. Paul. But it’ll be fun watching everything trickle in from around the country and seeing what we come up with Saturday night. Which games jump out at you?

Jim: Well, I’ll begin with Colgate, which, according to Daily Gazette hockey writer Ken Schott, has a senior class that is 9-3 in elimination games over their four years. That’s absolutely incredible to me.

At the same time, I want to see if either Northeastern or Merrimack (or both, for that matter) can reach the Hockey East title game. The Huskies haven’t won since 1988 and Merrimack has never reached the championship game. If either of those teams wins, it will be a memorable Hockey East tournament.