TMQ: Thoughts on conference playoffs, Hobey Baker predictions

The Harvard University Crimson defeated the Yale University Bulldogs 6-4 in the opening game of their ECAC quarterfinal series on Friday, March 11, 2017, at Bright-Landry Hockey Center in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Harvard defeated Yale 6-4 in the opening game of their ECAC quarterfinal series on Friday, March 10 (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.

Paula: I want to start by thanking Candace Horgan for doing such a great job in my absence last week. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the NCHC consolation game, as a third-place or consolation game was always a subject of great debate when I covered the CCHA because of its potential impact on the PairWise Rankings. And the PWR itself is something that I hope we get into in a bit, but first off, Jimmy, I’d like to talk about the playoffs, especially how relatively routine the results were for three conferences.

In Atlantic Hockey, top seeds Canisius, Air Force, Army and Robert Morris advance to the conference playoff championship. In Hockey East, Boston College, Boston University, UMass Lowell and Notre Dame advance. In the NCHC, it’s the top foursome of Denver, Minnesota Duluth, Western Michigan and North Dakota. In spite of the series that advanced to three games, in three conferences the top contenders will play for the league’s championship title and automatic NCAA bid.

Given how fierce the competition was in the regular season — especially in Hockey East — this result surprises me. I didn’t necessarily expect a lot of upsets, but I didn’t expect this. Does any of this surprise you, at least a little?

Jim: In a way, yes, the lack of upsets certainly surprise me. I think there was a lot of belief, particularly in the NCHC and Hockey East, that some of the lower seeds had more than enough talent to pull off road upsets. And there were a couple of close calls. In Atlantic Hockey, Army West Point trailed Mercyhurst in the third period of game three but mounted a comeback. In the NCHC, Western Michigan needed overtime to defeat Omaha.

But what you say is correct. There were a good number of series that not only didn’t go past two games, but the results were blowaways. Boston College, winless in seven entering its quarterfinal series, scored 14 goals in two games against a Vermont team that had been stingy. Notre Dame executed against Providence, outscoring the Friars 10-2.

If you were looking for nail biters, though, ECAC provided the drama. Every series had at least one game that was a single-goal differential. While Quinnipiac upset St. Lawrence in three games, Union won in the most dramatic fashion in game two to sweep Princeton. Countering a late goal that looked like the game-winner, the Dutchmen tied the game with an extra-attacker goal from Spencer Foo that forced overtime. Then, with a move than can go a long way in the highlight department of a Hobey campaign, Mike Vecchione won the game in the extra session with a penalty shot.

So while we lacked the upsets that some may have expected this weekend, we certainly had a little bit of drama. That’s what postseason hockey is all about!

Paula: I thought the ECAC tournament was very exciting. How amazing are Foo and Vecchione, two players that you and I have mentioned this season and that many college hockey fans know but who are relatively unknown otherwise? They have 53 goals between them, a dozen more than the two of them scored combined in their previous seasons. Vecchione is a senior, Foo is a junior, and both are free agents. Sometimes that kind of rare college hockey magic can carry a team far into the postseason.

There was drama elsewhere as well, with Bowling Green sweeping top-seeded Bemidji State, advancing the Falcons to their first conference championship title game since 1990. For a little perspective, the 1989-90 season was Bowling Green coach Chris Bergeron’s rookie year at another Ohio school, Miami. I couldn’t be happier for Bergeron and his coaching staff. They worked hard to rebuild at BGSU.

The Falcons’ won each game in that sweep by a single goal. In Friday’s 5-4 overtime win, BGSU came from behind twice and senior Kevin Dufour earned a hat trick with the game-winning goal at the 17:23 of OT. Dufour had the equalizer Saturday when the Beavers led 1-0. The Falcons won that game 2-1.

The play of Foo and Vecchione and Dufour reminds us of a truism that is inescapable: big players need to show up in big games. That happened for Michigan, too, this past weekend. It wasn’t playoff hockey, but the Wolverines swept Penn State at home, a series in which junior Tony Calderone had three key goals – the tying goal in the third period of Friday’s 3-2 win and a power play goal early in the second that put Michigan up 2-0 in a game they won 4-0. That shutout went to senior Zach Nagelvoort, too. Big players, big games.

What the Wolverines have done in the past three weeks is worth noting. They are 4-2-0 in that stretch, all wins over ranked teams and shutouts against Ohio State and Penn State, two of the top three offenses in the country. Michigan finishes the Big Ten season in fifth place, with just six wins in conference play. And the Wolverines meet Penn State again Thursday night in quarterfinal action of the Big Ten tournament. It’s wild enough that Michigan enters the Big Ten tournament 36th in the PairWise Rankings after such a dismal season overall; it’s wilder still that the Wolverines may have finally figured out how to play as a team and have a chance at a conference playoff championship and the automatic NCAA bid that accompanies it.

Jim: Well, that’s the craziness that the Big Ten tournament brings. Still the only conference that uses a basketball playoff formula – single-elimination played on consecutive days – the Big Ten rewards the team that gets hot. I do think that a three-games in three-days formula, particularly when two teams in the field get byes, can be excruciating in hockey. But we also know that any team can also ride a hot goaltender, and that’s something that the Wolverines can deliver in Nagelvoort.

You mentioned the NCAA tournament, and as our esteemed colleague Jayson Moy pointed out yesterday morning in the Bracketology Blog, it appears that only eight spots are locked up this weekend headed into play. From Denver in the top spot down through UMass Lowell at eighth in the PairWise, that octet is in regardless of what happens this weekend. Other teams are very close – namely Providence and Notre Dame – but each have a few doomsday scenarios that they must avoid all of which includes a number of multiple upsets. Cornell, North Dakota and Penn State are all very close to punching tickets and each control their destiny. A single win by each seems to be enough to sew up their spots.

For everyone else, the best road to the NCAA tournament will be to win their conference this weekend. Boston College, Ohio State and Air Force all have a chance at at-large bids but all also need coordination with other outcomes out of their control.

By my math, there are 786,432 possible combinations of outcomes still remaining (and someone will probably run most of these through the PairWise Predictor before Thursday, I’m sure). That’s what makes this time of year for PairWise nerds, like myself, more fun.

Paula: I love the conference championship weekend for the PairWise possibilities and all of the discussions that ensue – among our staff, among fans, in the press box. I’m always approached in the press box as though I’m some sort of expert. Thank goodness for the PairWise Predictor.

Beyond how this weekend can affect the NCAA tournament chances of so many teams, I simply love covering a conference championship. I will admit that the shine is a bit diminished for me when covering the Big Ten tournament because of how late into the season that league play begins and the fact that all six current teams play, but when I covered the CCHA, the conference championship weekend rivaled the excitement of the Frozen Four for me. There is something wonderful about seeing a playoff champion crowned after a long season of hard work, and while there are many teams that look past this weekend to the NCAA tournament – or view the conference playoff championship only as a means to get to the NCAA tournament – there are many programs for whom capturing a playoff title is a very big deal.

Last March in Grand Rapids, I couldn’t have known that I was covering the last-ever WCHA Final Five. I was more than a bit nostalgic when I covered the final CCHA championship in 2013. This weekend, the excitement of covering the Big Ten tournament will be paired with nostalgia once again as this will be the last college hockey played in Joe Louis Arena before the building is closed for good.

It’s a long season of college hockey and the conference championship feels like a resolution of sorts and an affirmation that everything associated with college hockey matters. Obviously, for the players and coaches and fans, a championship is something historic. For many of us who cover the sport, this weekend begins a family reunion of sorts, something that culminates at the Frozen Four. As exciting as the sport is, Jimmy, you and I and many of our colleagues always come back to the stories the sport creates, beyond the numbers and statistics. I’m really looking forward to the stories that will unfold in the coming weeks – but especially this weekend at the conference championship tournaments.

Jim: I also think there are compelling storylines in each and every tournament. In Atlantic Hockey, you have the two military rivals – Air Force and Army – facing off in the semis. In the ECAC, many think that a Harvard-Union battle in the finals in inevitable, but Quinnipiac, with so much postseason experience, and Cornell look for their say. In Hockey East, Notre Dame is looking to grab its first – and last – piece of league hardware in its final season in the league. And in the NCHC, it’s simple: can anyone stop Denver?

I think that may be the most compelling tournament. You have four teams that have been strong all season to different degrees but a nearly immovable force in Denver. Since opening weekend, Denver has just four losses despite playing the sixth most difficult schedule in the country. I, for one, am glad that tournament is nationally televised giving me the opportunity to DVR those games. Even if I know the result, they should be incredible games to watch.

You’ve Got Mail

Usually we answer a reader’s email in this section of TMQ. But without any question this week, along with the fact that this Thursday the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award will be announced, we thought it would be a good time to give you our top three candidates as we approach final voting.

Note that we have no knowledge of any of the 10 finalists so any of these candidates may not even make the top 10. But for each of us, we think they’re pretty deserving:


Zach Aston-Reese, Northeastern: The cog in an offense that missed so many pieces throughout the season, Aston-Reese is one of the best two-way forwards in the country.

Mike Vecchione, Union: This player is a do-it-all type of forward who, along with linemate Spencer Foo, have paced Union to an ECAC co-champion in the regular season and an NCAA tournament bid.

Will Butcher, Denver: It’s rare you see a defenseman win the Hobey, but if one is to this year, it has to be Butcher. On a talent-laden lineup, his play stands out every single night.


Mike Vecchione, Union: It’s not just the number of goals he’s scored this season – 29 so far – but the manner in which he’s scored them. He has eight power-play goals, four shorthanded goals, seven game-winning goals. His five empty-net goals may be seen as a detriment but may also be a testament to the situations in which he’s trusted to play. His defense is as solid as his offense.

Jake Kulevich, Colgate: Kulevich is an excellent stay-at-home defenseman and also a great clutch player. He led the Raiders in points this season with six goals and 16 assists, and while I usually don’t put much stock into the assists category, I know that Kulevich is the kind of defenseman whose transitional game can propel offense. He was named to the ECAC’s All-Academic team his first three years at Colgate, too.

Parker Gahagen, Army West Point: It’s so tough for goalies to get Hobey Baker recognition because the previous winners at this position set such high standards, but Gahagen has had a stellar senior season so far, with a .933 save percentage, 2.03 GAA and five shutouts; those stats only add to his solid career numbers. Additionally, Gahagen enters active duty in the U.S. Army upon graduating from college. I think the Hobey should mean something more than statistics, and Gahagen exemplifies what I think the award should be about.