TMQ: Heading towards the college hockey finish line, predicting how 2021 NCAA tournament will look

Wisconsin’s Cole Caufield leads the Big Ten and the country in scoring with 17 goals and 33 points in 20 games (photo: Wisconsin 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: What a crazy weekend of college hockey, Paula.

I think we all knew going into it that this was one of the best weekends of top-tier matchups. What we didn’t know is how crazy some results would be.

Top-ranked Boston College lost to rival Boston University, 3-1, while BU was without all-everything defenseman David Farrance and goaltender Drew Commesso. The Terriers gave a rookie, Vinny Duplessis, his first career start, and he made the most of it. He stopped 40 or 41 shots to earn the victory over BU’s rival.

Then you had No. 2 Minnesota getting absolutely shelled by Wisconsin, 4-1 and 8-1. Cole Caufield remains the hottest player in college hockey with three goals and four assists, extending his goal scoring streak to seven games and his point streak to 12.

I guess the losses for Boston College and Minnesota shouldn’t shock me as they were battling top-notch opponents. But I guess what opened my eyes was the way each of these losses occurred.

Paula: Absolute insanity, Jimmy – but I wonder how surprised we should be, considering that we see something like this just about every season at this time, as some teams continue to improve and become increasingly competitive, building on the confidence of sustained success. We almost always see someone at or near the top experience losses or even a wake-up call, as perhaps Minnesota did at the hands of Wisconsin.

The Badgers have been on a tear since the start of the year, with two losses in 10 games – one of those to Minnesota early in January – and scoring no fewer than three goals per game in that entire span and scoring no fewer than four goals per game since that loss to Minnesota. While the Golden Gophers have certainly impressed us with their offense, the Badgers now lead the nation in goals per game.

And up front, Wisconsin is more than just Cole Caufield. Caufield is beyond extraordinary, but Wisconsin has a deep, confident, now consistent offense. He’s the spark but the whole team’s on fire right now.

It was limiting a powerful Gophers offense to one goal per night that is the real accomplishment – that and watching Minnesota cycle through three goaltenders Saturday night and the Badgers scoring on all three.

With the exception of one stumble against Bemidji State – a team that is now 5-0-1 in its last games – Minnesota State has also been on a tear since the start of the calendar year and rolling over a tough Bowling Green team was quite a statement this past weekend.

Another statement series, perhaps for both teams involved, was the Omaha’s split with Denver. This is the second time that the Mavericks and Pioneers have split a series in the last three weeks, with Denver facing Omaha in consecutive series because a scheduled tilt against Colorado College in between was postponed because of COVID. Denver never trailed in the 3-1 win Friday, and Omaha scored three unanswered goals to come from behind and win in overtime Saturday.

We’ve talked about Denver being down this season, but the Pioneers split a series with North Dakota the week before their first series with Omaha. And the Mavericks did what good teams need to do to win against a challenging opponent.

I don’t think there’s any doubt about how strong the NCHC is.

Jim: Speaking of the NCHC’s strength, we will get to see all of that on display in March in Grand Forks, N.D., when Ralph Engelstad Arena hosts this year’s NCHC playoffs. The league announced on Monday that the entire tournament will be played in one location over a six-day period and the entire event will be single elimination.

The NCHC, of course, was the only league to enter into the “pod” when back in December, all eight teams played up to 10 games in Omaha in a 21-day bubble. That was such a success that the league is going forth with it again, just this time in Grand Forks.

This is the second league to announce this playoff structure, the Big Ten being the first when the announced the entire tournament will be played at Notre Dame.

To me, this is the way to go this postseason. Having spoken with some folks, it doesn’t seem like every league is looking at a pod/bubble, nor is every league looking at single elimination. My thought, though, is the more travel, venues and games will inevitably lead to potential COVID outbreaks within teams. And the thought of any team having to withdraw from their conference or the NCAA tournament because of such an outbreak would be tragic.

What do you think?

Paula: I am thinking exactly the same things.

I was relieved when the Big Ten announced that its tournament will be held in South Bend. The Compton Center is a beautiful facility, centrally located in terms of the Big Ten footprint, and consolidating the playoffs in one place is the best way for the league to reduce as much as possible the risks associated with COVID.

That the NCHC announced its plans for a six-day tournament at The Ralph doesn’t surprise me, given as you said their earlier work with the pod. It is a relief to see the decision made, though, as I’m sure that it is for all involved.

We are at a point in this pandemic when we’ve learned so much, which includes enough to know that we’re all still vulnerable and that there is a lot that cannot be predicted. All of the logistics about delivering vaccines aside, the virus itself has much potential to surprise us. All it takes is one person infected with a highly contagious strain to turn any event – any single game, really — into a catastrophe.

Look at the last two weeks with the University of Michigan. Look at what’s happening now at UMass. I cannot imagine how heartbreaking it would be for any team to have to withdraw from its conference tournament or the NCAA tourney because of a COVID outbreak. Consolidating teams together for conference tournaments seems to be the best way to mitigate spread and attempt to prevent this.

As much as I’m enjoying college hockey this season, I will be relieved when a national champion has been crowned. I’m still grieving the loss of the end of last season and there are things about this season that sadden me – like not being able to see Cole Caufield’s performance in a rink live or cover this incredible Michigan rookie class in person.

I’m happy for my colleagues who have been able to cover in person and who have remained healthy throughout. I’m not trying to rush things, but I am nearly always waiting for the other shoe to drop. We’re so close to the end. I want to see these student-athletes, coaches, and all involved with programs rewarded for completing an impossible season.

Jim: And I think you made a point there that is easy to be lost on many.

I will put on flame-resistant clothing before this next statement, but I think what has been accomplished by 51 college hockey teams, players, coaches, administrators and all others involved is remarkable, but more importantly needed.

For me, college sports has been the biggest relief of this entire pandemic. I have been able to work a total of eight college sporting events in both football and hockey. And it hasn’t just been an enjoyable escape. Though it has felt different, it has also felt so incredibly safe. To me, that’s the biggest key.

But I agree with you. Getting to the finish line will be a big sigh of relief.

Speaking of the finish line, I’ll tee you up with an easy question to close. Who is your current favorite to be raising the trophy in Pittsburgh this April.

Okay, maybe that’s not simple, but I look forward to your response.

Paula: So, Jimmy, this is an answer that seems motivated by homerism to anyone who doesn’t appreciate fully how cynical I can be: Minnesota.

Yes, I know that the Gophers just lost hard to Wisconsin and that the Badgers are legit contenders. I also know that Minnesota is more capable than perhaps any other team to use what is no doubt a humiliating experience to roar back in a way that should make everyone the Gophers are scheduled to play between now and April very, very nervous.

That’s not why I’m picking Minnesota to win it all, though. I’m picking Minnesota because I won’t be there in Pittsburgh. That would be just my luck.

I’ve covered every Frozen Four in person from 1996 to 2019. In that time, I saw two CCHA teams win it – Michigan in 1996 (pre-USCHO) and 1998 and Michigan State in 2007. There were stretches that I covered during which there were no teams from either the CCHA or Big Ten in the Frozen Four.

Then look at last year. Little Caesars Arena is practically in my own backyard. What happened? Cancelled.

This will be the first tournament since I became a hockey reporter that I cannot attend in person, so – naturally – a Big Ten team will win it without me there. I think it will be Minnesota.

I will be watching from my living room and perhaps writing something up remotely after Zooming postgame with the winning team.

I’d be lucky to be covering, even remotely, regardless of who wins the tournament. As you say, Jimmy, we’ll all be a little luckier, our lives a little richer, when this season is allowed to play out until its scheduled end.

When that happens, I’ll celebrate with anyone who wins. I’ll celebrate the losers. I’ll celebrate everyone who’s been involved.

2328 COMMENTS

  1. Obviously the teams should be ranked by the number of OOC wins they have!!! ;) Just thought I would add to the controversy regardless of the irrationality of my statement……