TMQ: Perilous playoff paths, defense vs. offense and Hobey’s freshman bias

Atlantic Hockey champion Robert Morris will host the lowest remaining seed in the conference quarterfinals after a weekend off (photo: Omar Phillips).

Each week during the season we look at the big events and big games around Division I men’s college hockey in Tuesday Morning Quarterback.

Jim: Here we are at the beginning of March, and the regular season is complete for three leagues (Hockey East, ECAC, Atlantic Hockey) and three are still playing. Let’s start with those leagues that are complete.

All three regular season champions (Boston University, Quinnipiac and Robert Morris) won their leagues with some comfort (BU won by four points; the others each won by six). But looking at the final weekend of the regular season, I don’t feel like any of the three are far and away favorites to win their conference championship.

BU dropped a game to Northeastern on Friday and struggled to clinch solo first. Quinnipiac fell to Dartmouth, albeit with nothing to play for in the conference (its spot in the PairWise Rankings is a different story). And Robert Morris lost to a Niagara team that, according to the PairWise, is the worst in college hockey. So how vulnerable do you think each of these teams are in their conference playoffs?

Matthew: I still feel like Robert Morris has the most straightforward playoff route of these three teams. Niagara did just play the Colonials close, but I would have trouble seeing either Army or Sacred Heart — or whichever lowest-ranked team emerges from the first round — win two of three games in Moon Township, and then RMU just has to take care of business in Rochester. That won’t be easy as Canisius and Rochester Institute of Technology both could give RMU real problems once the later rounds start, but I think the Colonials are the class of that league and should edge whoever they end up playing in the AHC tournament.

Boston University really ought to win the Hockey East championship. I can’t see Connecticut or New Hampshire shutting the Terriers down at Agganis, and I’m not sure I look at anyone else in the tournament field and think that any of those teams have a considerable edge over BU. There’s still plenty of hockey left to be played, obviously, but I would be surprised if BU isn’t celebrating again at TD Garden here in a few weeks like it was at the end of the Beanpot tournament.

That leaves us with Quinnipiac, which I think might be the most vulnerable of the three teams we’re focusing on here. The Bobcats will be favored to win the ECAC Hockey tournament, and rightfully so, but it’s so tight between second-seeded St. Lawrence and seventh-seeded Cornell that you dismiss any of them out of hand at your own peril. Is that fair to say, or do you look at it differently?

Jim: I agree about both Robert Morris (theirs to lose) and Quinnipiac (a tougher path). But I don’t know that the Hockey East tournament is BU’s to lose. I feel there are too many good teams playing well right now in Hockey East.

Providence has been equally as dominant in the second half and I’m not sure there is any quarterfinal opponent the Friars can face that should be scary. And in a single-game scenario, I prefer the team with the hot defense and goaltender. As good as Boston University has been in the second half, I worry about its defense. Using two goals against as a good threshold for the playoffs (meaning you should win a game if you allow two goals or fewer), BU has only done that six times in 17 games since the break.

Providence, on the other hand, has only allowed more than two goals five times in 16 games since January. In fact, Providence has limited opponents to two goals or fewer in each of the last eight games, going 5-2-1 in that span. I know BU has an offense that clicks, but doesn’t it seem like the BU defense might be a concern?

Matthew: That’s a good point, but while Providence boasts the league’s best defense — and you’re right, the Friars have been hot in their own end lately — BU isn’t necessarily a pushover. I don’t like that the Terriers gave up two and a half goals per game in league outings this season, but the game is played at both ends of the ice and BU is about as irresistible as it gets when it’s on the attack.

It starts with Jack Eichel and the potential Hobey Baker Award-winning season he’s having, of course, but he’s far from their only offensive weapon. BU is the kind of team that is going to ship goals in its own end but it’s also going to score plenty of its own, too, unless things start to go south in that department.

Jim: Well, you just brought up two words in the same sentence that have had my mind thinking a lot lately: Eichel and Hobey. As a freshman, Eichel’s stats are incredible. He exploded down the stretch and, to this point, has 55 points in 32 games, including 28 points in the 16 games since break. But Michigan’s Zach Hyman came on strong late, with 30 of 47 points in the 15 games the Wolverines have played since break.

Offensively, those two rank one and two, respectively, in points per game. And while there are players with competitive numbers — notably Jimmy Vesey at Harvard (22 goals and 44 points in 29 games) and Eichel’s linemate, Evan Rodrigues (17 goals and 49 points in 33 games) — I still look at Eichel and Hyman as the favorites for the Hobey this season.

I am ignoring goaltenders to this point, and Alex Lyon at Yale has put up impressive numbers — 1.57 GAA, .940 save percentage and six shutouts. All of these numbers either lead or are tied for the lead among goaltenders. But goalies have never fared well with the Hobey Baker voters (two goaltenders, Robb Stauber and Ryan Miller, have won in the past) so I have my doubts whether Lyon will get the appropriate recognition.

So how do you see the Hobey race? Two horses? Three? Maybe more?

Matthew: At this point, I think it’s probably a two-horse race between Eichel and Hyman, although that beats the one-horse race that we had for so long last season with Johnny Gaudreau. Eichel really ought to win it, and I don’t see people splitting votes between BU players even with Rodrigues playing as well as he has.

I would suggest that Hyman might mean a little more to Michigan than Eichel does to BU, as I think BU is still better than Michigan without either of those two players involved. Although Hyman will get plenty of votes, I do think Eichel might have one hand on the trophy at this point. What do you think? Am I being short-sighted on this one?

Jim: Listen, there are a large number of excellent candidates for the Hobey, but I agree with you that these two (and probably Lyon at Yale, in my opinion) should garner the most attention. The one issue with Eichel could be that he is a freshman. Just once in the award’s history has a freshman won the award, and that was Paul Kariya at Maine when he scored 100 points his rookie year and led his team to a national championship. That was easily the most memorable rookie campaign in college hockey until this year.

Has Eichel lived up to Kariya? I’m not sure. I would argue that goals are a lot harder to come by these days than they were in 1993, but I would also argue that Kariya had more of an ability to simply take over a game on command. Even Gaudreau a year ago at Boston College had more of an ability to impose his will than Eichel seems to this year. So the major question is whether Hobey voters will be biased either for or against the fact that Eichel is a freshman. Do you agree that is possible? Or am I overplaying this fact?

Matthew: I don’t know that they would necessarily have to hold Eichel being a freshman against him. I wonder if, for sports in general, maybe we’ve been experiencing a sea change in terms of younger college student-athletes getting more attention in terms of national MVP honors.

Like you alluded to, Kariya winning the Hobey was a long time ago now — Kariya isn’t even in the NHL anymore, which never ceases to make me feel really old — but we’re not that far removed from watching Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston win the Heisman Trophy, both as freshmen for their schools. Manziel was a redshirt quarterback, but the point is it’s not beyond kids that are that talented to completely take over in their first season in college. Does the analogy extend to hockey? I don’t see why it couldn’t.

Thumbs up

On a play many might consider a thumbs down, we give a thumbs up to Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin for knowing the situation his team was in on Saturday night against RIT. Mercyhurst needed a win to gain the final home-ice spot in the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals. In overtime, Gotkin pulled his goaltender to try to win the game. The play didn’t work. Instead, RIT scored into the empty net, but that doesn’t take away from the fact Gotkin made the move in the first place. Sometimes coaches get so get caught up in a game they forget the various outcomes. Not the case for Gotkin.

Thumbs down

To overtime basketball games getting in the way of Michigan State fans seeing most of the bright spots for their team last Thursday. The Michigan State-Minnesota basketball game went to an extra five minutes, which in basketball of course means you can count on 15 to 20 extra minutes. So the Big Ten Network didn’t get to the Spartans-Gophers hockey game until Michigan State was ahead 3-0. Once BTN joined the hockey broadcast, the Gophers scored five unanswered goals to win.

Coming up

The postseason gets started in Atlantic Hockey, ECAC Hockey and Hockey East, with four best-of-three first-round series in each.

It’s the final week of the regular season for the NCHC and the WCHA, and No. 1 North Dakota can wrap up sole possession of the NCHC’s Penrose Cup with one point in a two-game series at No. 5 Miami. No. 2 Minnesota State has a three-point lead over No. 4 Michigan Tech. The Mavericks play at Bemidji State; the Huskies have a home-and-home series against Northern Michigan.