TMQ: Around the country, margin for error is getting smaller

Canisius got past 10th-seeded Niagara in the Atlantic Hockey first round (phoo: 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.

Paula: This week we welcome Dan Rubin, who covers Atlantic Hockey for USCHO, while Jim Connelly is away.

I would like to start with Atlantic Hockey. All three first-round AHC playoff series took three games to decide, and two of the second games in those series went to overtime. In each of those overtime games, the team that had lost Friday scored in the third period to tie and then won in OT. What a crazy opening weekend of playoff hockey for the AHC.

Do you think this typifies Atlantic Hockey this season?

Dan: You know, Paula, it’s indicative of the way this league operates. Top to bottom, the seeding really doesn’t matter. You have a team that finishes seventh in Canisius, a team that was sixth going into the last day of the regular season, and it goes three games with a big-time rival in 10th-seeded Niagara, a team that was borderline finishing 11th.

You have a team like American International, which finished 11th, being able to beat Army West Point, one of the hottest teams in the league over the second half of the season, to push it to three games. And you have Bentley and Sacred Heart taking each other to the limit in one of the best series of hockey games I’ve ever personally seen.

It’s what the league does. The margin for error is razor thin from start to finish. A loss or tie in October doesn’t seem like much until March rolls around and all of a sudden, it’s the difference between a first-round bye or home series. It’s the difference between Sacred Heart playing at Bentley, which is only a couple of hours away, and Bentley going the other direction to play on the road — or even out to Buffalo to play Canisius or out to Air Force in Colorado. It’s like this from start to finish, and you just kind of learn to live your days with a Maalox bottle in the press box.

Paula: It’s interesting that you talk about losses and ties in October and how that can affect what happens in March. One of the criticisms of Big Ten hockey has been how its collective early season nonconference performance — before Big Ten conference play begins in December — put the league behind in the PairWise Rankings at the end of the 2014-15 season, and now we’re seeing the same thing happen this year.

Each of the top three teams in the league — Minnesota, Michigan and Penn State — lost at least a game last weekend to one of the league’s bottom three teams; each of the top three teams was in the hunt for an at-large NCAA tournament spot entering the weekend, and each of the bottom three teams was not.

That really took a bite out of Minnesota’s and Penn State’s NCAA hopes. With one weekend remaining in regular season play, Minnesota still leads the Big Ten and Penn State is in third place, but each is now tied for 17th in the PWR. Michigan — which was swept by Ohio State — dropped from sixth to a tie for eighth place. If Michigan does well against Penn State next weekend, the Wolverines will probably be solid for the NCAA tournament, but each of the other five teams will have to win the league’s autobid to get into the tournament. For a while, it looked like the Gophers, the Wolverines and the Nittany Lions were in good shape to make the tourney, but that isn’t the case anymore.

And perhaps that’s rightly so. When you have a three-team league, have a mediocre run through an extended nonconference schedule before league games begin, and your league’s top teams can’t play consistently well for the season, your league deserves to have just one team go to the big dance.

Dan: I agree. With the Atlantic Hockey example, everyone talks about the need for nonconference wins, and until everyone from top to bottom gets more of those wins more consistently, it’s always going to be a one-bid league. It’s a lot like grading on a curve. Unless you have one team that’s breaking the curve and really busting out, the entire league is responsible for its collective performance.

If you look at the NCHC and Hockey East, your last point really can be driven home. Both conferences could be sending upwards of five teams apiece to the national tournament, including all four top seeds. The only team standing in their way of that is Quinnipiac, a team with by far the nation’s best winning percentage but a team that’s only second in the PairWise.

Why is Quinnipiac second in the PairWise? It’s not necessarily the bottom of the league, but the tops of the other leagues were so consistently good when they needed to be that they had more trump cards than the Bobcats.

Paula: Absolutely agree there. ECAC Hockey is no slouch, but in the bigger leagues from top to bottom, it’s difficult to maintain a high enough degree of excellence — or even consistency — that the league’s own conference schedule isn’t a potential hindrance.

My gripe, of course, is that this is the very problem in the Big Ten, that a league with such resources hasn’t been able to achieve and maintain any kind of level of decent play and consistency from top to bottom. It’s not quite the super conference that I think the Big Ten envisioned. But I’ll stop beating that horse for now.

You mention the NCHC, and that is a league that is impressive, for sure — so impressive that Denver’s second-half run within the conference helped to bolster its NCAA tournament chances. I’m looking at the first round of the NCHC playoffs this coming weekend, and it kind of blows my mind that third-seeded Denver is hosting sixth-place Omaha, and that both teams are in the at-large hunt, although UNO has struggled mightily recently, ending the season with six consecutive losses. Yet the Mavericks are still in the mix and on the bubble.

The other really interesting playoff pairing in that league this weekend is Miami vs. Minnesota-Duluth. The RedHawks are not in the mix for an at-large bid but had a nice second half.

Dan: That’s what makes the quarterfinals so compelling in all of the leagues. In Hockey East, Boston University is a higher ranked team in the PairWise but finished behind UMass-Lowell. They meet this weekend in Lowell after the Terriers swept through UMass. Northeastern, which is now a borderline bubble team, heads to Notre Dame. I’m really excited for that series.

In the ECAC, Cornell goes to Quinnipiac. If the Big Red somehow beat the Bobcats, they can win their way into the tournament while eliminating a conference brother from a potential top seed. How that messes with the bracketology could be incredibly fun to watch.

Thumbs up

Thumbs up to the Michigan Tech Huskies, the trustees of the 103-year-old MacNaughton Cup, for bringing home the trophy for the first time in 40 years when they claimed a share of the WCHA regular season championship Saturday night. The Huskies beat Northern Michigan 5-1 and co-champ Minnesota State lost 1-0 to Bemidji State. Michigan Tech holds the tiebreaker over Minnesota State and is the No. 1 seed for the WCHA tournament.

Thumbs down

To Massachusetts. The Minutemen started this season with so much promise, going 4-0-1 and 6-2-1 to open things up. After that, however, they only won two games the remainder of the year, both coming in nonconference games. Despite pushing Boston University to overtime on Friday, they lost a pair of one-goal games to end their season in sweep fashion. On Sunday, athletic director Ryan Bamford fired John Micheletto.

The next coaching search for UMass is going to be incredibly important. Four years ago, Micheletto accepted the job after several other candidates turned down their chance to coach in Amherst. As the coaching slot becomes open again, what happens next will be very interesting to watch as the Minutemen attempt to climb back up the ladder of one of the nation’s best leagues.

Coming up

There are some key games and playoff series this weekend for teams on the bubble:

• No. 14 Penn State plays at No. 9 Michigan in the final weekend of Big Ten regular season play.

• No. 15 Cornell plays an ECAC Hockey first-round series at No. 1 Quinnipiac.

• No. 17 Omaha returns to No. 6 Denver, where it closed the regular season, for an NCHC playoff series.

• And No. 11 UMass-Lowell hosts No. 8 Boston University for a spot in the Hockey East semifinals.

See the full schedule here.