TMQ: The sprint to the end of the college hockey regular season starts now

Maine goalie Jeremy Swayman has gone 14-9-4 this season with a 2.28 GAA and a .934 save percentage for the resurgent Black Bears (photo: Maine Athletics).

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: Paula, rightfully so, we have North Dakota back into the No. 1 spot in the poll. The Fighting Hawks were close to unanimous as just one voter gave Minnesota State a vote. But right now, North Dakota feels like the nation’s best team.

This weekend, they had to win two games in very different fashion, eking out a 1-0 decision on Friday before a dominant 8-1 victory the next night over Colorado College. It is that ability to win in many different situations that gives me the confidence that North Dakota is the dominant team.

As I look at the standings of each conference, it certainly makes me feel like the Fighting Hawks are in the best position to clinch their regular-season conference title.

Paula: With just three losses and three ties this season, the Fighting Hawks have put together as perfect a record as any team could hope for in the very tough NCHC and – as you said – they’ve managed to do so by whatever means necessary.

Shane Pinto’s power-play goal in the third period against Colorado College Friday was enough to win, but then the Fighting Hawks came out with four first-period goals in that lopsided win Saturday and outshot the Tigers 35-15.

It was statement-making hockey.

Now North Dakota is leading the nation in goals per game (4.19), is sixth in goals against (2.04) and has impressive special teams as well, especially a fifth-best penalty kill in the nation, which almost seems unnecessary as the Fighting Hawks are among the most disciplined teams in the country, taking fewer than 10 penalty minutes per game.

With four weeks of NCHC conference play remaining, North Dakota is eight points ahead of second-place Minnesota-Duluth in the standings and I’d be surprised to see anyone catch the Fighting Hawks.

The NCHC, though, seems to be full of great stories. Just the fact that Minnesota-Duluth is the team trailing North Dakota is something to notice.

And, yes, North Dakota appears to be the Team Most Likely to Clinch Soon.

Jim: If we switch to the other side of the ledger, we get Hockey East where three points separate first and eighth place.

Two-win weekends like UConn and Maine has those weekend will go a long way in determining this champion, but with New Hampshire hanging close in ninth, two losses could knock a current top three team out of the playoffs. That seems crazy.

The team I can’t help but go back to in this whole jumble is Maine. The Black Bears swept the last two weekends to move from irrelevance into contenders. Moreover, on paper they have the most favorable schedule down the stretch playing Northeastern at home this weekend, UConn and Vermont twice each at home in the weekends following and then a home-and-home with Providence that will be split over two weekends.

Though I’m not about to predict it, I could envision Maine taking 10 of the 14 remaining points and … wait for it … winning the regular-season title. This is a team that a month ago wasn’t even on anyone radar and some penciled in to miss the Hockey East playoffs.

Now THAT would be crazy.

Paula: After that brutal stretch that the Black Bears went through from the start of November through the remainder of the first half of the season, it’s fascinating that they’re in striking distance of first place. Their record against teams ahead of them in Hockey East isn’t great, but – as you said – their remaining schedule is favorable while the teams ahead of the Black Bears appear to have tougher roads.

The poll voters have taken notice of how difficult Hockey East is as well, placing five Hockey East teams in the top 15. I think there is an understanding that this year’s HEA is as challenging the NCHC is, and that conference has been the most competitive in D-I since its inception.

It’s hard not to pivot to the Big Ten here, given how things are playing out in the conference with the fewest members. Ohio State and Penn State share first place with identical conference records and 29 points each. Then Michigan State, Notre Dame and Minnesota each have 28 points. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions face off this weekend, as do the Spartans and the Golden Gophers.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that Jeff Jackson told me that all it would take was a good series or two for the Irish to get back into the thick of it and he was right; Notre Dame has taken eight of their last possible 12 points from conference foes. But look at Minnesota and the league math. The Gophers would have to win seven of their remaining eight games for at least a share of the regular-season Big Ten title, and as unlikely as I think that is, it’s astonishing that Minnesota controls its own fate.

Jim: Notre Dame, to me, is all about confidence.

For some reason, the Irish lost a few games well before Christmas, and that confidence disappeared. I can’t tell if there is anything that happened in one week, but even following their Twitter account of the last week, I felt like there was a desire among those in charge to try to pump pride and confidence back into a program. This Notre Dame team is deep in players who can make major impacts. This weekend against Penn State showed that, particularly the heart the team showed finding ways to tie Friday’s game late (and win an 11-round shootout) and then scoring late on Saturday to break a 2-2 tie.

The Irish aren’t really close in the current PairWise, but close is a word we can definitely use. When you look at RPI of teams 8-15 in the current PairWise (note to readers, we wrote this before the Beanpot outcomes), it is such a razor-thin margin that it is possible for a team to climb 4-5 spots, or fall equally as much. Typically, I would say by Feb. 1, any team in the top eight is safe and will be an NCAA tournament team. This year, 1-7 seem fine, but Arizona State, even at eight, is a bubble team to me.

Paula: We’ve been talking about the bubble a lot in recent weeks and how interesting the area around it is.

I think you’re right about positions 1-7 and that everyone after that but currently in the top 14 has reason to be concerned. Look at the teams not just below eighth place but from 14-22 and how much can change within the next few weeks.

The 16th-place team in the field will be the playoff championship winner from Atlantic Hockey – a shame, too, that it’s very unlikely that AHA will have a second team represented in the NCAA tournament, given how good the competition is among the top teams in that conference.

Right now then between 8-15, we have an independent (Arizona State) that may not be able to afford to lose a single game against any of its four remaining opponents, followed by the second-place Hockey East team with a schedule that includes two more bubble opponents. Then Ohio State and Penn State are Nos. 10 and 11 in both the PWR and RPI and absolutely anything can happen in the Big Ten except for Wisconsin winning the regular-season title.

The remaining spots above No. 16 include three Hockey East teams in one of the toughest seasons that league has seen recently and Quinnipiac, who faces six opponents in its last eight games.

In the mix around the bubble are teams heading in different directions, like UMass Lowell that is floundering, Bemidji State and Minnesota that are upwardly mobile, a solid Northern Michigan.

It’s dizzying.

Just a few weeks ago, we thought we had a pretty good idea of who the No. 1 seeds for the NCAA tournament would be, and now one of the few things we’re fairly certain of is that North Dakota will emerge as the regular-season NCHC champ.

I remember seasons past at the CCHA tournament when coaches were frantic to pick my brain about the PairWise and their teams’ chances of making it into the tournament. Now the tournament criteria are public and there is little guesswork about how teams make it in, yet the picture we have this year isn’t especially clear with a month or less of regular-season play remaining for everyone.

As the old cliché goes, that’s why they play the games.