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: What a weekend of hockey, Jimmy!
Six first-round playoff series needed three games to be resolved and in all but one series, the top seed prevailed. In those series alone, there were four overtime games, including Saturday’s triple-overtime win for Sacred Heart to send that series with RIT to three games and American International’s double-OT win over Niagara to win that series.
Overall, 11 games went into overtime for the weekend, eight of them in playoff hockey and three in the final weekend of regular-season play for the NCHC.
Then there was the craziness of the opening round of Big Ten play, six games that saw 56 goals scored. Wisconsin netted nine goals against Michigan and yet the Badgers were eliminated from the B1G playoffs because the Wolverines managed to score 13. Minnesota scored eight goals against Penn State and yet the Golden Gophers lost both of their games. There were 19 power-play goals scored in the six Big Ten games played.
All of it is dizzying, but certainly made for some entertaining and nail-biting hockey.
Jim: Playoff hockey is always my favorite time of year and this weekend didn’t disappoint.
Beginning back on Thursday night when Massachusetts and Vermont kicked things off and needed overtime, it seemed that bonus hockey was plentiful, particularly in Hockey East. Four of the seven games in that league went to overtime, including both games in Merrimack’s upset of defending champion UMass Lowell. The Sacred Heart-RIT 3-OT thriller, of course, took the cake becoming the longest game in each school’s history, second-longest AHC game and 18th-longest D-I men’s game of all time. It also kept Sacred Heart alive, allowing the 11-seed in the tournament to pull the major upset on Sunday.
The Big Ten playoffs had my head spinning. While it is great to see so much goal scoring, particularly for the fans, I was left at home questioning whether any team in this league – besides of course top-seeded Notre Dame, which was idle – can play defense.
I know that in the last few years we’ve had a couple of explosive offenses in Denver and North Dakota that claimed the national titles. But I feel like both of those teams also played lock-down defense most of the time.
So it makes me question whether some of these high-powered offenses in the Big Ten might run into a little trouble when the NCAAs roll around if there isn’t a significant improvement in each team’s defense.
Paula: I agree with your assessment about the Big Ten.
Goaltending and team defense have been problematic since the league’s formation, but it seemed as though this season there was improvement in both of those areas for several teams. Ohio State has the fourth-best defense nationally, but should have shut down Michigan State’s 46th-best offense. And in their last two games of the regular season, the Irish gave up seven goals to the Spartans.
It’s a rare team that can advance far into the NCAA tournament while allowing a lot of goals.
The conference championships are my favorite weekends of the year, too. There’s just so much emotion and the autobid on the line, and there are still many teams that don’t look past the conference championships to the NCAA tournament, programs that consider a conference title a thing in itself and not merely an autobid. For obvious reasons, I’m eager to see how the new Big Ten playoff format plays out – in terms of results and attendance this coming weekend – but even more so I’m looking forward to the NCHC playoffs. That is one tight league.
The playoff series that is by far one of the most interesting is between No. 13 Omaha and No. 14 North Dakota, who are 14th and 15th respectively in the PairWise Rankings. Omaha finished the regular season with a road split against No. 8 Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota lost to No. 1 St. Cloud State by a goal Friday before tying the Huskies Saturday.
Do you anticipate any playoff upsets this weekend? Frankly, I can see the possibility of Notre Dame losing to Penn State, given that the Nittany Lions have confidence from their five-game win streak and the Irish were 3-4-1 in February. Ohio State took all four games from Michigan this season, but the rivalry between these teams is so intense that it’s possible for Michigan to leave Columbus with a win.
Jim: I feel like upsets should be inevitable in the quarterfinals this weekend, particularly in leagues like Hockey East, ECAC and Atlantic Hockey where teams have already been eliminated.
That is the one change over the years that is interesting to me because instead of having the first-place team facing the last place team in their first playoff game, they’re often facing not just a team that isn’t anywhere close to last place but also that has played and survived a first-round playoff series.
Momentum can be such a funny thing come playoff time. I say that but can look at, say, the Hockey East playoffs and easily make a case for why all the top four teams should sweep.
Before we sign off this week, I do want to take the time to mention the passing of legendary Michigan Tech broadcaster Bob Olson. We spend a good amount of time talking about the USCHO poll in this column. Bob was the founder of the first poll in college hockey, the WMPL College Hockey Poll. Bob had a lasting impact on Michigan Tech, is a member of the Huskies athletics Hall of Fame, and has the press box at MacInnes Arena named for him. He was a college hockey legend who will be missed.
A Tip of the Cap to …
Paula: … three players who scored three of the slickest goals we’ve seen this season.
AMAZING! @SCSHUSKIES_MH breakaway goal by Ryan Poehling – between the legs and into the net! SCSU leads 3-2 in the 3rd. pic.twitter.com/vvfmcsF69R
— SCSU Men’s Hockey (@SCSUHUSKIES_MH) March 3, 2018
St. Cloud State sophomore forward Ryan Poehling scored an impossible-looking, behind-the-back goal to put the Huskies ahead 3-2 in the third period of their overtime win against North Dakota Friday night.
Two Minutemen freshmen outwitted the Vermont defense and passed to themselves on the breakaway to score in Massachusetts’ two wins in the series that went to three games against the Catamounts.
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) March 2, 2018
Midway through the third period in Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win, defenseman Cale Makar skated the puck the entire length of the ice, threaded the puck through two defenders, caught it himself on the other side, and scored the game-tying goal.
OMG John Leonard!
One of the slickest moves you’ll ever see on ice!
“A double toe-drag there Donnie”
— UMass Hockey (@UMassHockey) March 4, 2018
In the third period of Sunday’s 5-1 win, forward John Leonard skated to the slot and held up long enough for a Vermont defender to skate right on by and then got behind UVM goaltender Stefanos Lekkas for Massachusetts’ fifth goal of the game.
Jim: These were three of the best goals I saw all season and they all occurred in a four-day stretch.
For both Poehling and Makar, the added pressure of the situation – both goals were scored in the third period – made each even more impressive.
Let’s hope as the postseason continues, these types of highlights continue!