TMQ: As championship weekend nears, Northeastern continues to impress

Freshman forward Lincoln Griffin and No. 14 Northeastern have won 18 of their last 21 games (photo: Melissa Wade).

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: Well, it’s the best time of the year — conference tournament weekend. Although some teams’ seasons have come to an end, there are still 26 teams with the hope of hoisting a trophy on Saturday night. Man, I love this upcoming weekend.

But before we dive too deeply into the tournaments, I want to bring up what I think is a bit of an abnormality this time of year. I just had a peek at the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll and noticed that Northeastern, which hasn’t been ranked all season, debuted this week at No. 14. That’s a pretty incredible jump for any team to make this time of year but it’s hardly unexpected. After beginning the year 2-12-3, Northeastern finished the season on an 18-1-2 tear and has itself suddenly not just alive for the school’s first Hockey East tournament title since 1988 but also very much alive for an NCAA tournament bid.

Now, I’ve been around the game long enough to remember some great turnarounds in college hockey. The 1994 Minnesota team stands out, having begun 2-7-3 but playing lights out from Thanksgiving on to win the WCHA tournament and make the Frozen Four. But this year’s Northeastern team simply defies belief. How coach Jim Madigan didn’t lose his locker room when this team had two wins in 17 games is mind-blowing and makes him my early favorite for the Spencer Penrose Award as the nation’s top coach.

The Huskies ride a 12-game unbeaten streak (11-0-1) into the TD Garden after beating Notre Dame on the road last weekend and have to be the best storyline of the conference tournaments.

Paula: What the Huskies have done is exceptional. They must have had an incredible locker room and overall belief in the team and the coaches to hang in the way they did through the first half. We all know that winning can breed winning, and after their road playoff sweep against Notre Dame, the Huskies must feel as though they can beat anyone. Yes, I think theirs is the best storyline of the conference tournaments as well.

It’s interesting that they not only played themselves into the poll this week but they played themselves into PWR consideration. I think, sometimes, that poll voters look at the PairWise Rankings at this time of year to consider where they should place some of the teams on their poll ballots. Northeastern is No. 14 in the PWR, so I’m not surprised that’s where the Huskies debuted in the poll. I had them at No. 15, for the record.

Like you, I love this coming weekend of hockey. In fact, the conference tournament is my favorite weekend of the year, and I love covering conference championship tournaments. The NCAA tourney is great and the Frozen Four is fantastic, but there’s something to be said for capturing a conference playoff championship.

Looking at the conference I cover, the Big Ten, it’s interesting to me that the conference is yet again in the position to place only one team in the NCAA tournament on PWR alone — and that team is second-place Michigan, and not regular season champion Minnesota. With back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin, the bottom two teams in the league, the Golden Gophers played themselves off the PWR bubble to a tie for No. 17 in the PWR. Meanwhile, because of the way they played all season, the Wolverines are returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012. It still boggles my mind that there isn’t a single player on Michigan’s team that has NCAA tournament experience.

As for Minnesota, something that shouldn’t be overlooked is that the Gophers captured their fifth consecutive conference championship — the first three B1G titles and the last two years they were members of the WCHA. That’s an accomplishment.

Jim: I will tip my hat to Minnesota for winning five straight conference titles. But that’s where the cheers for the Gophers end. This team is now in peril of missing the national tournament, needing to win the Big Ten tournament to get a bid. The finish Minnesota had to the season has been awful and it is easy to believe this team doesn’t deserve an NCAA bid.

Michigan, on the other hand, played its best hockey when it needed to and nearly took the regular season title. This is my favorite to win the Big Ten tournament, although I also know in a six-team, single-elimination tourney, things are wide open.

That tournament could be the pivot point for Hockey East, which is in position to get six teams into the NCAA field for the first time ever. Boston College, Boston University, Providence and UMass-Lowell have all secured their NCAA bids. Notre Dame is darn close (93.1 percent, by calculations). And Northeastern, short of two wins at the Garden, seemingly needs two things to happen: Michigan to win the Big Ten and either Harvard or Quinnipiac to win the ECAC Hockey. If those two things happen, Northeastern, regardless of how they perform in the Hockey East tournament, seems solid for the NCAA field.

Granted, I believe the Huskies believe they can win it all in Boston this weekend and that would take care of all doubt.

But going back to six Hockey East teams. Paula, I know I might be chest-thumping talking about this as a Hockey East guy, but it is impressive.

Paula: And you should chest thump — absolutely. The possibility of six teams from HEA is very exciting. I played with the PairWise Predictor to see various permutations for various bubble teams and saw HEA poised to be represented very well.

I like it when leagues that seemed especially competitive, leagues that had really good seasons and provided a high level of play, are rewarded with many teams in the tournament. I’m also equally satisfied when leagues that did the opposite are represented only by their autobid.

I am happy that the Wolverines played themselves back into the NCAA tournament. Michigan is a dynamic, interesting, talented team and was clearly the cream of the Big Ten crop this season. I’m also disappointed that Minnesota and Penn State both played themselves out of real contention.

I won’t even go into how much I dislike the format for the Big Ten tournament here. I’ll save that for my column.

This weekend, I get to cover the WCHA Final Five, where the favorite Michigan Tech is a bubble team in the PWR. In a one-and-done, anything can happen — but because that autobid will be critical and because, in my opinion, the other three teams in the field are solid, it should be a good weekend of hockey in Grand Rapids. Minnesota State, Bowling Green and Ferris State round out that field, and both Minnesota State and Bowling Green could have taken care of business a lot better during the season to put themselves into position to make the NCAA tournament without the necessity of the autobid.

And this brings us back to strength of schedule. Clearly, Hockey East is a strong league this season; the Big Ten and the WCHA, not so much.

Jim: Well, there are strong schedules and there are teams that have success against their schedule, and those two things are often so confused. Let’s take Minnesota, for example. The Gophers had the seventh-toughest schedule in the country. But outside of the Big Ten, the Gophers were 5-10. On the contrary, in Hockey East you have UMass-Lowell, which boasts the 34th-strongest schedule but outside of league play (including last week’s playoffs) was a much more impressive 11-2-1 in nonleague play.

I have had a lot of coaches ask me how difficult they need to make their schedule to make the NCAA tournament. My answer is always the same: If you play in a pretty strong league, schedule whatever teams you want in nonleague play. But understand that the weaker the teams, the more important every nonleague win becomes. Lowell’s two nonleague losses came to Minnesota-Duluth and Robert Morris; neither is awful. But if one had come against Arizona State, we’d probably be talking about the River Hawks needing to win the Hockey East tournament this weekend to earn an NCAA bid.

But back to your point: Yes, Hockey East was strong as compared to the Big Ten and WCHA. But the reality is that the strength of the league came from its pure mass of nonleague wins (some of very high quality). That, in my mind, is what makes a league strongest.

Paula: Agreed. And not to further pick on the Big Ten, but I was so hopeful at the start of this season for the Big Ten’s chances in that extended period of nonconference play before league play began, so wanting to see the league stronger come March, and as it turns out, only Michigan took advantage of those opportunities, and now the Wolverines are tied for sixth.

I still can’t believe you have coaches ask you about strengthening their schedules. You guru, you.

There’s a lot that merits following closely this weekend. Other than covering the WCHA and watching the Big Ten from afar, I’ll be very interested in seeing how Air Force does in the Atlantic Hockey tournament. The Falcons are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games and they play Rochester Institute of Technology, a team that they defeated and tied in the regular season.

I also want to see if Denver can continue to roll. The Pioneers ride an 11-game win streak into the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and are 16-1-3 since Jan. 1. Talk about an interesting, strong conference: North Dakota is No. 1 in the PWR, St. Cloud State is at No. 3, Denver is tied for No. 6 and Minnesota-Duluth is at No. 14. The top four finishers in the NCHC all made it to the championship playoffs this weekend.

Thumbs up

To Jim Dahl, who ran all 3,145,728 potential outcomes for the list of 21 games this weekend to come up with what’s possible for the PairWise Rankings. All college hockey fans with an interest in what happens this weekend can appreciate that.

Thumbs down

To Omaha. Yes, I know it’s mean to pick on a team when it’s down, but I can’t believe how the Mavericks feel at the end of this season. UNO came off last year’s Frozen Four and appeared to be in great position when the calendar changed to 2016 to maybe return. But a 4-14 record down the stretch wasn’t just shocking, it ended the Mavericks’ season. Most notable in that stretch was six — yes six — losses to Denver, including Saturday’s double-overtime loss that ended the best-of-three series. You know that the Mavericks will regroup and be a strong competitor next year, but this one has to smart.

Coming up

Check out the schedule and TV listings for this week’s games in the six conferences. And follow us all weekend for live blogs and full coverage from the sites, then leading into selection Sunday.

60 COMMENTS

  1. What I find interesting is how the first 2 teams talked about are now intertwined. Assuming Northeastern doesn’t win out to improve their position, they’d make the tournament, but only if Minn does not win out and get the auto-bid.

  2. No clue where you pull your numbers from, but according to this website, Goof U had the 13th hardest schedule, not 7.

    • I was wondering about the strength of sch. too? Maybe they took it from the begin of the season and not the end since it most likely changed, i don’t know? But they do need to rotate the writers weekly since it seems like the same article from last week.

      • The SOS numbers change as games go on. At one point they were somewhere around 30 early in the season and upper teams, and then now at 13. So I have no clue where 7 would have come from.

    • Conflicting information. The RPI table has the Goofs at 7 for SOS.

      They had a pretty solid non-conference schedule. Series with Notre Dame, St. Cloud, Northeastern, Mankato, and Duluth (4-6).

      They get the auto bid for the North Star College Cup as well….one would argue there are four other teams in MN that are more deserving. 0 for their last 4 in that tourney. :)

      • That tournament should be formatted so that the team that loses twice during the weekend will not play in it the next year. So there’s a fair rotation. Play well, and you stay in. Repeatedly sucking and getting to stay in it, stupid.

        • That’s another topic for another day, but they actually did propose that upon inception. The Gophers did not agree to it because their argument was attendance would suffer if they didn’t play in it, which is probably true even if they’ve lost both the past 2 years.

  3. Nice job throwing some NCHC talk in there for about half a paragraph. Must be tough to actually talk about good conferences instead of babbling on about garbage conferences.

    • This article is better served being placed the the BIG10 or HEA blog. There was little mention of NCHC or WCHA and no mention of ECAC or AHA. You have writers covering all the conferences, use them. USCHO has become way to fascinated with the BIG10 this season. And I’m not trying to bash those teams here but none of them are worth all the mentions they garner on this site. How many times have we heard “Minnesota has won every BIG10 title since it’s inception!!!!” Based on the teams comprising that league that’s not a huge accomplishment.

    • I’m a fan of “College Hockey” first, so I can say this objectively… The NCHC had more ink last year, and deservedly so, when they got 6 teams in. The NCHC doesn’t have much drama. Except for the one issue with Duluth I’ve mentioned, it’s pretty settled. 2-3 number 1 seeds, 3-4 teams in. UNO bombed, lost 8 straight? down the stretch. No chance for a 5th.
      I hope HEA doesn’t get 6. I don’t believe any conference ever should, because it looks bad for the rest of CH. And history proves at least 2 of 6 don’t show up… 5 can be a stretch.
      I said my piece… Tired of hearing the same old rag from either side.

      • Is the point of these Tuesday pieces supposed to be about all of college hockey or do they just do their best to only focus on the same crap over and over?

        • At times, your point (discussing the same crap) is well taken… But on last week’s TMQ, they did a great job spreading it around. And really, when was the last time anything positive could be said about Northeastern?

        • “… only focus on the same crap over and over?”

          Mr. Pot, Mr. Kettle called while you were out. I told him you’d call him Black.

          • Yeah. Babblings about big joke and hockey east. Nothing really in here about ECAC or Atlantic. Plenty of happenings in those conferences.

          • Speaking of babbling… or are you just butthurt that these people aren’t spreading hosannas over the NCHC? Go write your own column.

          • Did you actually read the post you responded to? Little to none about ECAC and Atlantic in this piece.

  4. Duluth and Cornell are also intertwined. If Duluth wins one game (the semi or 3rd place), they’re in (over Cornell). If UMD loses two, Cornell is in… UMD is out UNLESS either Minnesota (BIG) or Minnesota State (WCHA) wins their AQ, regardless of who wins the ECAC, HEA or BIG AQs. If Duluth wins both, they’re in, and Cornell is out completely.

    • Cornell remains a mystery to me. I clearly don’t understand how the PWR works. 8 seed in their conference (8-8-6 record), 16 wins total with what looks like one quality non-conference (8-3-1 record) win against Providence in OT….talk about a huge goal that was.

      Maybe ties are as good as wins? or that win vs. a top 5 team = 3 wins? Anybody with more PWR knowledge please enlighten me.

      • You need to look at the actual comparisons between Cornell and the teams below it, and take into consideration that the comparisons are fairly limited (record against common opponents, head-to-head competition, and RPI).

        For the two teams immediately below it, Cornell ties both Minnesota and UNO on comparison wins (1-1 in each case) but beats both on RPI, which serves as a tie-breaker.

        To be honest, while entertaining, the PWR is a lot of extra work for little gain. The PWR rankings almost always mirror the RPI rankings, and the deviations are too insignificant to be meaningful most of the time. Currently, the only teams in the top 20 that are out of RPI sequence in the PWR are Yale and Harvard at 10/11, and Robert Morris and UNO at 18/19.

        I just want to observe here that a lot of folks seem to think the PWR rankings determine the NCAA field. This is not the case. The PWR attempts to mimic the process the selection committee uses without knowing exactly what calculations the committee uses. The PWR attempts to predict the tournament field but does not determine the tournament field—the committee has its own formula.

        • That said… More times than not, and recent history included, the PWR has been very accurate to the committee has determined. Even to the RPI, where a point difference in these couple of instances is nothing.

    • I disagree – Cornell is sitting 16th in the PWR right now, and their season’s over which means their RPI (and thus their PWR status) can’t improve enough to lift them any higher. That means that even if nobody else passes them up, they’ll be bumped out of the tournament by whoever gets the AHA autobid. Sorry, but Cornell’s out, period.

      • Just for fun, run the pairwise predictor and pick zero upsets….Have Mich beating UM in the Big10.

        Let us all know what it tells ya.

        It was published in another article that Cornell only have a 1% chance….however if all of the top seeds win…….

        • I stand corrected. Period (before someone else throws that in…). My scenarios didn’t have UMD dropping far enough to get bumped by only one autobid. Sometimes the most obvious scenario is the one most easily overlooked, eh?

          • Yeah. No doubt. I was surprised by that result as well. Surprising they would fall that much, losing to a pair of top 6-7 teams, and get passed by a bubble team that’s sitting idle.

            Like I keep trying to say, that one is beyond me.

  5. Denver has had just as impressive stretch as Northeastern, and you can argue against even a tougher sch. too. I am not an apologist for the NCHC but they need to talk about college hockey as a whole and not just the same two conferences every week.

  6. Yes,I am biased but I believe Hockey East is not only the strongest conference this year but every year. It should be a phenomenal weekend in the Gah-den.

  7. Northeastern deserves a ton of credit for never giving up. Once their freshman goalie (Ryan Ruck) settled in, he has been stellar. Once the coaching staff dialed in the right lineup, line combinations, everything changed.

    • NU gave BC all the could handle in their home and home series mid-season… 3-3 OT tie, and tough 4-3 loss. It’ll be interesting to see how much of difference the updated lineup makes. Both are playing much better since.

  8. This article is almost always worth a good read, but today is just a waste. I also like how they cherry pick “facts”.

    “But the reality is that the strength of the league came from its pure mass of nonleague wins (some of very high quality). That, in my mind, is what makes a league strongest…”,

    While this is true, they forget to mention the same league also has the most losses in OOC play (68-50-13) which makes it the THIRD best OOC record in CH. So is his point that wins is all that matter? Doesn’t matter how you actually do in OOC as long as you have a bunch of wins?

    • Maybe a 12-5-7 record against NCHC teams would have something to do with that, hmmmm?
      Of course, HEA is also 10-10-1 against the B1G, so there is that. And 25-26-5 against ECAC. And 2-3-0 against the mighty WCHA.
      Now, they *are* 13-6-0 against AHA, and 6-0 against independents (read: Arizona State).

      So, to sum it up, HEA’s getting the bulk of it’s OOC wins from the NCHC, AHA, and Arizona State. Mighty fine company to be in with, sport. Good thing that you NCHC guys had the B1G to clean up on…

      • Yeah 12 of those wins came against CC and WM. I wouldn’t be getting overly excited about that if I were you. Those aren’t the teams that your beloved east coast teams are going to get a shot at in the NT.

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