TMQ: Talking polls vs. PairWise, making sense of cloudy conference standings, early look at NCAA tournament

 (Melissa Wade)
Harvard and Rensselaer battle in an ECAC Hockey game on Jan. 4, 2019, a contest the Engineers won 3-2 in overtime (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: Once again, Jimmy, we see a pretty significant shift in thinking among the poll voters this week as St. Cloud captures 46 votes for first place, unseating Massachusetts after the Minutemen split their series with Northeastern, losing in overtime after coming from behind Saturday night.

That’s only the fourth loss of the season for Massachusetts and it came at the hands of another top-10 team, but St. Cloud swept its top-10 opponent, Western Michigan.

The Huskies have three losses this season, all to ranked teams, and three of Massachusetts’ losses have been to ranked teams. St. Cloud and Massachusetts are No. 1 and No. 2 in the PairWise Rankings as well.

At this point in a season that has really clarified the nature of parity in college hockey, what is the poll really telling us? I’ve always seen it as a snapshot of a narrower span of time than what the PWR measures, but is that the case? One loss seems to move the arrow of perception among people close to the game, but maybe only temporarily.

Jim: Well, I think I’ve said this in this column in the past, but the poll tends to be a barometer for what 50 diverse voters feel about teams right now, whereas the PairWise, at this point in the season, measures a team’s body of work to this point in the season.

Neither really tell us anything about which team should win a national title or what schools should lift league championship trophies. But we do like to have measuring sticks in sports, so each provides some sort of quantitative comparisons in their own way.

Neither, though, will tell you certain things like the fact that Penn State has allowed more goals in league play than they’ve scored. Or that AIC is the team in Atlantic Hockey that everyone should be talking about right now. Clarkson got nice boosts in both the poll and PairWise, but many may not realize this team hasn’t lost since before the holiday break.

You mentioned parity and that is what gives us storylines like Michigan State sweeping Minnesota, a weekend after I thought maybe the Gophers were finding their stride.

There are a few good storylines for us to chew on, so I’ll let you take your pick of them!

Paula: You know that I can talk B1G hockey all day and I will resist the urge to make it my sole focus today, but I do want to look at that Michigan State sweep of Minnesota.

The last time Michigan State swept a Big Ten opponent in a weekend series was in February of 2016, when the Spartans took two road games from Wisconsin. The last time that Michigan State swept Minnesota in two games was 1976. The Golden Gophers were 4-0 against the Spartans last season. This past weekend, then, was an important one not just for the six points that the Spartans earned in conference play but also for their progress as a program.

With the sweep, Michigan State established a three-game win streak and vaulted into fourth place in the Big Ten standings with 19 points, 10 behind first-place Ohio State. The Spartans are now one game shy of the total number of conference wins they earned in 2017-18.

Perhaps just as important is the way in which Michigan State won. The Spartans trailed once in the two games and seven different players found the net.

Then there’s that huge momentum shift for Minnesota, just a week after sweeping Notre Dame on the road – and a momentum shift for Notre Dame, who took five of six points from Wisconsin, and perhaps for Ohio State, who swept Penn State on the road.

B1G hockey is crazy this season. Four teams are at .500 or above in conference play – the top three teams in the league and last-place Wisconsin. Third-place Notre Dame has been outscored by B1G opponents 38-32. Last-place Wisconsin is outscoring conference foes 34-33. It’s dizzying and likely will be for the remainder of the season.

Jim: The Big Ten certainly has some tight standings (even though I feel like Ohio State is ready to make a statement), but they’re hardly the only conference with jumbled-up standings.

Atlantic Hockey has a separation of four points from second place to seventh, meaning one weekend can knock you from the race for a title all the way to missing a bye and heading to a first-round playoff series. The ECAC has three teams tied for first and three points separating first from sixth. Hockey East feels like their standings are beginning to break into tiers a little bit, but that league, like the WCHA, will have the critical race to make the playoffs at the bottom of the standings.

And that leaves the NCHC, where the aforementioned St. Cloud State has hardly run away with the league title but has put itself in excellent position. An eight-point lead is a nice cushion that can’t be erased in a lost weekend and 12 points over fifth-place North Dakota makes home ice in the semifinals feel quite comfortable.

Not lost on me at the same time is that St. Cloud remains perfect at home (10-0-0) and six of their remaining 12 are at home. Winning those six and, even going 2-4-0 on the road, likely can clinch the regular-season crown.

Paula: St. Cloud is one of a handful of teams that has done everything it possibly can to take advantage of its remaining schedule and see the scenario you mention play out. If the Huskies take the regular-season championship but fail to win the playoff title, they may still be a No. 1 seed in the PWR when all is said and done.

Ohio State has the potential to make the move you reference but the Buckeyes have a better road record than home record this season and only four of their remaining 10 games are in Columbus. The Buckeyes are 5-2-3 against their remaining opponents, too.

Atlantic Hockey is positively nutty this season. You mentioned American International, and the Yellow Jackets are 12-11-1 overall and 11-7-1 in conference play, having opened up a four-point lead on the rest of the AHA pack with their sweep of Holy Cross and some help from a bit of recent inconsistency among some of the teams behind them, most notably Air Force, Army and Mercyhurst. Last season, the Yellow Jackets had 11 conference wins total. As you say, though, there are several teams that can conceivably take the regular-season Atlantic Hockey crown.

No one in Atlantic Hockey, though, is looking at making the NCAA tournament without winning the conference’s playoff championship. RIT is No. 34 in the PWR, Air Force is 37, American International is 38th.

Jim: Yes, we can definably say that the PairWise “cut line” will be no lower than 15, as there likely isn’t a way to get an AHA team above 16th. But with all the conversation we’ve had about parity in this column, the odds that a team below the cut line winning their conference tournament and moving that cut line higher is definitely possible.

I don’t think that there will be five “upsets” in the conference tournaments, but if I’m thinking about PairWise position right now, top 10 is always safe and really the only place I’d want to be. Sure, if you’re a bubble team sitting around 14-17 right now, you still have a decent shot, but can’t feel very secure unless your team wins consistently down the stretch.

Always fun to watch, for sure. And watch we will do.