TMQ: Don’t blink as conference races wrap up

North Dakota clinched at least a share of the NCHC title with a sweep at Omaha last weekend (photo: Michelle Bishop).

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: Half of the Division I men’s college hockey world has completed the regular season, with Hockey East, ECAC Hockey and Atlantic Hockey all having wrapped up the regular season, and we have four league champions crowned. Yep, that’s right. Quinnipiac and Robert Morris took care of things in their respective leagues but Boston College couldn’t earn the necessary three points against UMass-Lowell and thus Providence, with an easy sweep of Massachusetts, earned co-champion status. The Eagles still took the No. 1 seed in the Hockey East playoffs, but the Friars earned the school’s first regular season Hockey East title.

Personally, I had my eyes all over the Hockey East races on Saturday night and over a 90-minute time span, so much happened. Providence earned the share of the title. UMass-Lowell, with some help from Notre Dame, locked up the final first-round bye. And Merrimack and Connecticut earned the final two home-ice spots for this weekend’s first round. The Huskies did it in dramatic fashion, scoring three goals in the final 17-plus minutes of regulation to tie the game against New Hampshire before winning in overtime.

I know we’ve said stuff like this before, but don’t you just love this time of year?

Paula: I absolutely do. I was watching the races this weekend, too, and of course paid close attention to the Michigan-Minnesota series. As I suspected, the teams split and the Gophers and Wolverines finished the weekend exactly as they started, first and second in the league, respectively, separated by a single point.

After Michigan won so handily Thursday night, Friday’s overtime game was exactly what I expected. Minnesota has shown that it’s a team that adapts well from one night to the next and has repeatedly turned itself around within 24 hours this season — and, in fact, did the exact same thing in Yost Ice Arena in December. After losing to Michigan 8-3 on Dec. 11, the Gophers bounced back the following day with a 3-2 win.

This time, Minnesota kept Michigan scoreless in the third period — a near-impossible feat this season — after the Wolverines scored the tying goal in the second. And Hudson Fasching’s 19th goal of the season was the game-winner in OT.

Not only was that game riveting because of the standings implications, but Minnesota has been fascinating to watch this season for the reasons I mentioned, plus you had Fasching — the team’s leading scorer — come through in overtime, a big player making a big play at a big moment. That’s certainly one of the things we love this time of year.

The other league that I’ve been watching closely is the WCHA. The top three teams in the league — Minnesota State, Bowling Green and Michigan Tech — each swept opponents, changing nothing in the standings at the top. The Mavericks have 37 points to the 35 that the Falcons and Huskies each have, but Bowling Green’s sweep was massive because it took two games from Ferris State, which entered the weekend tied with Northern Michigan, both teams just three points behind BGSU and MTU.

Now the Bulldogs have dropped to fifth place with 29 points, and by virtue of their Saturday tie against Lake Superior State, the Wildcats are a point ahead of the Bulldogs.

Heading into the final weekend of play, the WCHA regular season title is at stake and there is some exciting play in the middle of the standings, too, where four points separate sixth-place Bemidji from fourth-place Northern, and three points separate Bemidji from Ferris State. It’s dizzying. Yes, I love it.

Jim: I will say, regarding the WCHA, that looking at the top of the standings, I feel like it is an instant replay of what we saw heading into last weekend for Hockey East. Minnesota State has the two-point lead over Bowling Green and Michigan Tech but also faces Bemidji State this weekend, a team that pushed the Mavericks to the limit when the two met earlier this season.

It is wonderful to control your destiny, but when you look at the fact that Bowling Green plays last place Alabama-Huntsville, Minnesota State understands there is no room for error. A split with the Beavers and you could have another co-champs situation. In this situation, however, it would be Bowling Green that wins the tiebreaker, which really makes using the control Minnesota State has of its destiny so paramount.

That seems like the one title race we will watch this weekend because North Dakota has already clinched a share of the NCHC title and needs just a tie (regardless of shootout result) against Western Michigan to lock up that title solo.

Paula: On the surface, the schedule looks like it matters in the remaining races. Back to the Big Ten, I really feel as though Michigan’s chance was last weekend, when the Wolverines finished their season series against the Gophers. There are two weekends left in B1G play because there are no playoffs before the championship weekend, and Minnesota definitely has what can only be considered a more favorable schedule.

The Gophers play the two bottom teams to finish their season, this weekend in East Lansing against Michigan State and then at home against Wisconsin. The Wolverines, meanwhile, have a home-and-home series against Ohio State this weekend but end the season against a very strong Penn State team. The Nittany Lions are only six points behind the Wolverines in a league where every game is worth three points. Penn State ends its season on the road, but the Nittany Lions travel to Wisconsin this weekend before heading to Ann Arbor.

Speaking of the NCHC (as you were), I’m kind of in awe of the second half that Denver has put together. While it’s likely that North Dakota will wrap up the regular season, it’s amazing that the Pioneers are tied for second place with St. Cloud State. Denver is 12-1-2 since the start of the calendar year, and while I don’t want to look too far past the exciting conference playoffs, I think a team like Denver could make some noise in the NCAA tournament. Any team playing with that kind of confidence heading into the playoffs — as we said last week, playing the best hockey of the year at just the right time — may surprise a few people.

Jim: Denver and Northeastern, to me, are probably the two scariest teams in the postseason. You mentioned Denver’s record down the stretch. Northeastern is equally as impressive, going 16-2-3 after winning just once in its first 14 games (an opening night win followed by a 13-game winless skid). From December on, Northeastern lost just a single league game to Boston College and a single nonleague game, a Beanpot loss to Boston University. Maine will face the Huskies this weekend in the playoffs after falling 5-3 and 7-1 this past weekend against them. You have to think the Black Bears are massive underdogs.

Taking that a step further, if Northeastern advances and Boston University holds serve against last-place Massachusetts this weekend, Northeastern will head to South Bend to take on Notre Dame. Although the Irish beat BU 1-0 on the final night of the regular season, Notre Dame lost three of its last four games. I really thought with a couple of weekends left Notre Dame could win Hockey East and now may be in a spot to play one of the hottest teams in the country to get out of the conference quarterfinals. Volatility is simply crazy this time of year.

Paula: You mention Notre Dame, and while I don’t like to dwell on the negative, there are a couple of teams that have done themselves no favors these past few weeks. The Irish looked like contenders and then hit that three-game skid. After flying out of the proverbial gate in January, Rochester Institute of Technology had a terrible February, going 2-4-2 for the month. Harvard had three wins in February yet managed to finish in third place in the ECAC standings — and Harvard remains No. 11 in the PairWise, showing you just how tough the Crimson had been previous to that. Then there’s Omaha, still No. 13 in the PWR in spite of a fairly bad second half. The Mavericks have lost four in a row and are 4-10 in the second half.

All of this talk makes me wonder about sleeper teams, especially through the conference playoffs. You mentioned Denver and Northeastern, two teams no one wants to face in the NCAA tournament, should they make it. There is so much potential traffic, so to speak, among the teams that are below the top few spots in the PWR so I know I need to wait a bit before being able to talk more about the NCAA tournament. But within the conference playoffs, there’s potential for upsets, dark horses and spoilers.

There are only six teams in the Big Ten, but I’m looking at both Penn State and Ohio State as potential dark horses. Both have offenses that can click; both have goaltending that can be solid. “Can” is the operative word for each — and maybe for every team in the Big Ten with the exception of Michigan, whose offense is almost nearly a given.

In Atlantic Hockey, the top four teams have had to play consistently well to finish where they have. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Air Force were the team to emerge with that league’s autobid, as the Falcons have wins over Robert Morris, Holy Cross and Mercyhurst, the other three teams crowding the top of the standings.

I think anyone from Bemidji State on up can take the WCHA tournament, and in addition to Denver, I like Miami in the NCHC.

Thumbs up

To the two teams that secured outright and alone their regular season titles last weekend. Robert Morris and Quinnipiac barely wavered from the start of the season to the finish, leaving little doubt of who would emerge at the top of Atlantic Hockey and the ECAC. Kudos, too, to Hockey East co-champs Boston College and Providence. BC had the good fortune to own the tiebreaking 1-0-1 record over Providence in regular season play to secure the No. 1 seed in HEA, but Providence hustled to capture part of that championship, ending the season with eight straight HEA wins.

Thumbs down

To New Hampshire, which needed a home win on Saturday night against Connecticut to clinch home ice in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs. Leading 4-1 heading into the third, the Wildcats surrendered the lead in regulation and lost in overtime. Yes, this could equally be a thumbs up for UConn but, simply put, when you have a three-goal third-period lead at home, regardless of what is on the line, you need to seal the deal.

Coming up

There are four playoff series in ECAC Hockey and Hockey East and three in Atlantic Hockey. The postseason gets started Thursday night, when New Hampshire and Merrimack open their best-of-three Hockey East series.

The WCHA eliminates two teams to get down to eight for the playoffs, and Alaska will host Alaska-Anchorage in a two-game series to decide which team goes on and which one goes home. The Seawolves have a two-point lead for the final playoff spot, so the Nanooks need to get at least a win and a tie to finish eighth.

The last weekend of NCHC play features a series to decide the final home-ice playoff spot. Minnesota-Duluth hosts Miami with the teams tied for fourth place. The Bulldogs hold the tiebreaker between the teams, so the RedHawks need to do better than split to host a first-round series.