TMQ: Building to a dramatic finish in league races

Jim: Depending on the league, we have either one or two weeks left in the regular season, and we here at Tuesday Morning Quarterback have a stand-in, our longtime CCHA Columnist Paula C. Weston.

So let’s jump right into it. Playoff races are tightening up and no place could it be any tighter than Hockey East. After Boston College defeated Merrimack in overtime on Sunday, there is a three-way tie for first in the league between BC, Providence and New Hampshire. In fourth place is Merrimack, one point behind, and in fifth (right now outside looking in on a home-ice spot) is Massachusetts-Lowell, though the River Hawks are just two points out of first. Is it me or is this race so tight you actually need a shoehorn to crack open this top five?

Paula: I have to say, Jim, that I love a photo finish when it comes to conference standings, so I’m really enjoying what’s happening in Hockey East. This kind of excitement — especially a race that challenges the status quo, with Providence in the mix — shines a spotlight on that league and provides real entertainment for the fans.

Given that BC has five remaining games to four for New Hampshire and Providence provides an interesting twist. At the start of the season, who could have predicted that BC’s series with Providence this weekend would be so pivotal? And that doesn’t even touch on Merrimack, Massachusetts-Lowell and Boston University. Exciting.

Jim: BC will play that game in hand on Tuesday night, and while it seems the Eagles should be licking their chops, that game is against Lowell, possibly the hottest team in Hockey East right now. The River Hawks shut down a talented BU team last weekend. If there is any issue for Lowell it remains goal scoring, but when you’re not allowing much that isn’t always a problem.

Another race to the wire is going on in the WCHA. What do you make of that race?

Paula: As usual, the WCHA appears to be a very, very solid league this season. Seven teams are still in the hunt for the regular-season title, at least according to the numbers. There are no gimme games remaining for any of those teams in the WCHA.

The potential for offense that each of these teams has makes each game and weekend interesting. I’m particularly intrigued by Minnesota State lately. The Mavericks are on a four-game win streak, outscoring two opponents 19-6 in their last four games, with freshman goaltender Stephon Williams looking pretty confident and consistent.

Jim: It also amazes me how series can turn so dramatically from one night to another. Look at the Denver-North Dakota series from last weekend. Denver got a 5-4 win on Friday but then lost 6-1 on Saturday. That’s a pretty dramatic difference.

Moving from the WCHA, the CCHA feels like it is all but decided. Miami has a five-point lead with just six available. So is it safe to assume that the RedHawks are the final CCHA champs? And which teams do you see getting first-round byes?

Paula: I definitely think the RedHawks will be the last-ever CCHA champions. Not to slight Ohio State, which is a pretty good team that was dealt two losses by archrival Michigan last weekend. The Buckeyes travel to Oxford, Ohio, for two games against Miami to end the season. All Miami needs is one point to clinch, and I don’t see OSU sweeping this weekend. The RedHawks are 5-1-1 versus the Buckeyes in their last seven meetings, including a 2-0-1 record against OSU this season.

The first-round byes are already locked up: Miami, Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Ferris State and Ohio State.

What remains interesting in the CCHA at this point is at the bottom of the standings. Sixth-place Alaska is done with league play; the Nanooks play Alaska-Anchorage twice this weekend. Regardless, the Nanooks can finish no lower than seventh and so will host a first-round playoff series. Michigan State can finish no higher than ninth and so is sure to travel in the first round.

Up for grabs are the last two first-round home ice positions, with Lake Superior, Bowling Green, Michigan and Northern Michigan each vying for one of those spots — and three points separating the eighth-place Lakers from the 10th-place Wildcats.

Jim: Let’s change the focus a bit and look at the PairWise Rankings. For a few hours on Sunday evening, Atlantic Hockey had one team solidly cemented in the PairWise (Niagara) as well as the team right outside the PWR bubble in Robert Morris. It led me to ponder that AHA could (admittedly a long shot) possibly get three teams in the NCAA tournament if Niagara and Robert Morris qualified as at-large teams and another club wins the AHA tournament.

If this were to happen, I feel like the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Committee would find a way to change the criteria for selection for years to come so as to avoid this many AHA teams from qualifying. Do you agree?

Paula: That is a very interesting question, Jim. I haven’t heard anything along those lines out here — outside of the east, that is — so I’m curious as to whether that’s been discussed or speculated about in your neck of the woods.

I guess I’d counter that with a question of my own: Why would the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Committee change the criteria to avoid such a circumstance? Inherent in your question is the idea that Atlantic Hockey is the red-headed stepchild of college hockey and somehow undeserving of as many as three teams in the NCAA tournament based on current selection criteria. Now, mind you, I’m not saying that you’re saying this and I can acknowledge the idea that there are probably many people who feel that the AHA doesn’t deserve three teams in the tournament.

Also inherent in the question is that there is something mistaken that needs to be fixed in the selection criteria to prevent this from happening again.

But here’s another question: What if three AHA teams (should that happen) in the NCAA tournament is an indication of both the improvement of that league in recent years and the overall parity that many coaches agree is affecting college hockey nationwide?

And I have another question: If Atlantic Hockey places three teams in the NCAA tournament, why would those teams be any less deserving of their berths than any other teams in the country? A dark horse can come out of any conference. I can say with confidence that any team in the CCHA that gets to Joe Louis Arena next month can win the playoff championship, even teams that aren’t even on the PWR radar.

I guess I can’t answer your original question, Jim, because I don’t really have my finger on the pulse of this issue outside of the proverbial west, where I’ve heard little grumbling about it. Would the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Committee change criteria to prevent this from happening again? I don’t know. Should they? I don’t think so. How would the criteria change if they did? Your guess is as good as mine.

Jim: I agree with you that I don’t know how the NCAA could or would tweak things, but I know a lot of the purists of the game would be upset to see three teams from a “perceived” inferior league like Atlantic Hockey occupy spots in the 16-team field and might do anything possible to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

Looking ahead to this weekend, there are some critical end-of-season matchups. As we talked about earlier in Hockey East, every single game there matters, including two games coming up Tuesday night: Lowell at Boston College and Merrimack at Boston University. Those games along with BC’s series this weekend with Providence and Lowell’s with Merrimack stand out to me. What are some of the key games you’ll have your eye on?

Paula: Agreed about the perceived inferiority. You put it much better than I did.

This weekend, I find Wisconsin’s series at Nebraska-Omaha very intriguing. The Badgers have been inconsistent for much of the season but they have shown that they can play with anyone. It will be interesting to see if Wisconsin’s shortened week because of the Sunday-Monday series against Penn State affects the Badgers’ play at all.

In my own beloved CCHA — in the league’s final regular-season weekend of play — every series looks interesting to me but there are two that hold my interest the most. The first is Lake Superior at Northern Michigan. As I said, three points separate the teams, each is fighting for home ice in the first round of the playoffs and the rivalry between the teams is intense. The Lakers swept the Wildcats at home earlier this season, allowing just one goal in two games.

Then there’s the Ferris State-Michigan series. The Bulldogs had last weekend off, the Wolverines have a losing record at home (7-8), and in the first half of the season Michigan lost 5-0 to Ferris State in Big Rapids and tied 3-3 the following night. What if, however, the Wolverines really are as good as they looked last weekend in their road sweep of Ohio State? This will be a very telling series.

And in Atlantic Hockey, the home-and-home series between Mercyhurst and Robert Morris looks juicy. Robert Morris is tied for fourth place with Holy Cross; each team has 27 points and each is a single point ahead of sixth-place Mercyhurst. The top four teams in the AHA get a first-round playoff bye and this is the final weekend of regular-season play in that league.

Lots of drama here at the end of the season.