TMQ: As some conference title races wind down, others wind up

Todd: Let’s start with the standings this week, Jim. I’m penciling in Quinnipiac and Niagara as regular season champions in ECAC Hockey and Atlantic Hockey, respectively, but the Hockey East standings got a lot more interesting to me last weekend.

Merrimack collected wins over Massachusetts-Lowell and New Hampshire to push into third place and make itself more of a contender for what would be considered an unlikely run at the Hockey East title. How surprised are you that the Warriors have put themselves in that position?

Jim: Nothing against Merrimack, but I’m very surprised that the Warriors are back in the picture. This team struggled through the midseason, particularly out of conference. But they have suddenly won the key games and put themselves back in the Hockey East race. The Warriors still have a lot of work if they hope to move up the PairWise Rankings and qualify for the NCAA tournament. But after last weekend, there is a lot of hope.

On the other side, Hockey East’s hottest team cooled off. Massachusetts-Lowell dropped a 1-0 decision to Merrimack and a 4-3 overtime game at Maine on Super Bowl Sunday. Lowell had been winning a lot of close games and suddenly it finds itself on the wrong side of the decisions. At the same time, the River Hawks are on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble when you look at the PairWise.

Todd: And hats off to Maine for finally winning a league home game. Or maybe it should be hats off to the Maine fans for waiting until February for a home league win.

Getting back to the ECAC and Atlantic Hockey standings for a second, I’m struck by the pileup of teams after the leaders. It’s really no different in other leagues but their pack of teams is chasing the championship, which appears to be decided in favor of Quinnipiac and Niagara. In those leagues, teams two through 10 are separated by no more than six points. I guess that’s what happens when you have a dominant team at the top and some struggling sides near the bottom (Cornell, anyone?).

Jim: That’s exactly what happens when a single team is running the gamut. Everyone else seems to be playing follow the leader. In Atlantic Hockey, it’s five points from second through 10th. In the ECAC it’s a tiny bit wider with six points separating second and 10th. But in the ECAC you also have five teams tied for sixth (through 10th) place.

That’s a pretty thin margin for so many teams when you consider any could easily move up to fourth and earn a first-round bye but could easily fall all the way to 10th and be on the road in the opening round of the ECAC playoffs.

Todd: Cornell, sitting in 11th place in the ECAC ahead of Harvard, has really fallen on tough times since the break, winning just twice in 10 games. The Big Red are on a five-game losing streak entering the final four weeks of the regular season, during which they’ll face one ranked team each weekend.

You don’t see Cornell allow 10 goals on a weekend very often but it happened last weekend, and that has to be one of the biggest concerns in Ithaca.

Jim: It’s pretty incredible to think this Cornell team went from a nationally ranked contender to a near cellar-dweller. Obviously, the inability to keep the puck out of the net is now the major problem for the Big Red.

It does seem the wheels have come off since the loss to Maine in the Florida College Classic, but one has to think that the three straight losses in early November (to Princeton, Quinnipiac and Cornell) was an ominous sign.

Todd: Let’s turn to the west, where we’ve got two big series coming up this weekend. In the CCHA, first-place Miami goes to second-place Western Michigan, which is one point behind. In the WCHA, No. 1 Minnesota travels to first-place St. Cloud State. The Gophers are in third place, five points behind the Huskies, who can really gain some separation. I think it’s fair to say that those series could play a big role in determining the western leagues’ champions.

Jim: I do feel like this is a weekend in the WCHA and CCHA that could be a defining moment. Miami is coming off a four-point weekend and Western Michigan a three-pointer. Minnesota, of course, was idle last weekend, which is a curious point in the season to be without games. That, of course, combined with St. Cloud State’s sweep of Bemidji State last weekend is what helped open up that cushion over the Gophers.

Todd: We can’t finish up without mentioning the Beanpot, which started with a bit of a jolt Monday night when Northeastern knocked off a slumping Boston University team. That’s a great result for Jim Madigan’s team in a season that hasn’t seen many highlights. What was the reaction around the Garden?

Jim: The Garden was pretty much as shocked as anyone who follows this tournament. It had been 25 years since Northeastern had beaten BU in the Beanpot, and there is actually a good omen there. It was, of course, 25 years ago in 1988 when Northeastern last won this tournament.

Granted, they’ll have to get past Boston College (just like ’88) if the Huskies are going to win their first Beanpot in a quarter century. The last time these teams met in the final was 2011 when BC won 7-6 in overtime in one of the more entertaining finals of all time.