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 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.