The Huskies split their series with Bemidji State last weekend, winning 4-3 on Friday and losing by the same score on Saturday. Truth be told, either team could have swept the series, and each game turned on small details and mistakes. Of course, Tech fans were disheartened and the Old Dog was grumbling after Them Dogs let three CCHA points slip away in the second game.

In the bigger picture, this isn’t an unusual story in college hockey right now, and the potential for a load of close games that are decided by one goal is the story of the season almost everywhere you look.

What Happened This Past Weekend Everywhere Else?

When you look at the scoreboard for this past weekend, you see there were a plenty of close series. In fact, the only games that weren’t nip and tuck were those between a relatively strong team and a relatively weak team. Even in those situations, there were plenty of games that were decided by a goal or a late flurry by one team.

So, what do we mean by “strong team” and “relatively weak team?” For the Old Dog, the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) is the final word; polls tend to favor big names, while the RPI is a strict calculation.

What Is the RPI?

We’re not going to explain all of the complexities of the RPI system here, but there are some important points that everyone who has any interest in college hockey should understand.

First, and most importantly, RPI is the standard that determines which teams get into the NCAA Tournament, the Big Skate. The way the tournament selection works is simple for Division I hockey, and not at all like the convoluted system used for the FBS playoff, or even for March Madness in basketball.

There are sixteen slots in the tournament, and six teams get automatic berths. These go to the playoff winner in each conference — not the regular season champion, but the winner of the playoffs, and each conference runs their playoff a bit differently.

The remaining ten slots are then determined by the RPI standings. Since most of the teams that win a playoff trophy are also highly rated in RPI, that causes the number of places left to vary. In most years, the Atlantic Hockey playoff winner isn’t close to being in the top twenty of the RPI, so that leaves 15 slots. Usually, four of the remaining five slots are taken by teams that are in the top dozen in the RPI and are also playoff winners which means the remaining ten teams come from the top 14 or 15 teams in the final RPI ranking.

In the RPI, all teams are compared against each other not only by what games they win and lose, but the games that their opponents have won or lost. Eventually, most of the teams have some “link” to almost every other team by some combinations of games played between the conferences. Each successive pairing counts as part of a point for each game won, games are weighted depending on whether it was played at home or on the road, and it gets pretty complicated as the year goes on. Oh, and one more thing that’s new this year — games that are won or lost in overtime or shootouts count as “almost ties,” with the winner getting 55% of a win and the loser getting the other 45%.

Early in the year, the RPI is volatile; many positions can change dramatically just by one team beating another team. Now, with about a third of the regular season complete and most non-conference games in the record book, the RPI is settling down a bit. It will certainly change, and some teams will go up and others down as the conference battles play out. Still, the current RPI is a decent indicator of where teams are headed.

What Did The Top RPI Teams Do Last Weekend?

If you look at the RPI list as it stands today and see what the top twenty teams did, you’ll see the current parity of college hockey in action. There were two sweeps within this group: #4 Western Michigan over #8 St. Cloud State, and #7 Notre Dame over #3 Michigan. The Irish-Wolverine games, though, were both overtime wins and so they are really “almost ties.”

Then there were the splits — #1 Minnesota-Duluth and #2 North Dakota, #10 Tech and #14 Bemidji, and #18 Minnesota and #22 Penn State. #9 Quinnipiac and #13 Clarkson went to a shootout on Friday and then each beat a lower ranked team Saturday. Defending National Champion #12 UMass split with #46 New Hampshire.

Most of the remaining teams (#5 Minnesota State, #6 Denver, #11 Nebraska-Omaha, #15 Bowling Green, #19 Providence and #20 Michigan State) swept squads rated far down in the RPI. #16 Ohio State was idle (blame the B1G and their 7 team league), as was #17 Harvard.

That is a huge number of very close hockey games. The only outlier was Western Michigan’s destruction of St. Cloud State (6-2 and 4-0 victories for the Broncos).

What’s the Takeaway?

There are a couple of things that the Old Dog can see in this. To begin, Tech’s performance this weekend is not out of the ordinary. Of course, anyone in Husky Nation can see how close MTU was to getting a sweep and be peeved. They might also be appreciative that Bemidji didn’t sweep the Huskies.

Next, close games are going to be the norm when two reasonably good teams play. In addition, almost every team in the top twenty in the RPI has 3 or 4 blemishes on their record already—and that comes with about 12 games played for most teams.

Finally, the most important thing is that teams with NCAA Tournament aspirations have to sweep against weaker teams. That’s part of what made Tech’s semi-splits with Northern and Lake Superior a bit more worrisome. In fact, though, in terms of RPI, they were almost-splits with the loss in each series coming in overtime. So, a high level of angst about these games is probably unwarranted as well. The Old Dog just hopes those small incongruities don’t make a difference at the end of the year when the RPI tightens up and the competition for the last couple of tournament slots are on the line.

Even more to the point, the Huskies have to show what they are made of this coming weekend when they host Ferris State. FSU, despite rebuilding from a disastrous year last season, has shown some bite. They beat Minnesota State 2-1 in the biggest upset of the year so far, they had Michigan State on the ropes in the third period and then collapsed and lost, and they were even with Northern Michigan in the third period in both of their games last weekend but again saw the roof cave-in Friday and lost in a wild OT game Saturday.

All of those contests were in Big Rapids on the screwball ice surface the Bulldogs call home. They haven’t done well on the road at all this year, and the games this weekend will be in Houghton at the JMac.

However, the Huskies have only won once at home (in four tries). And there won’t be as many fans because of the holiday break. Still, if the Huskies can do what they should be able to do and get two regulation wins, that will keep them in the hunt for both the MacNaughton Cup chase as well as the RPI and the struggle to get to the Big Skate.

Good teams will win these kinds of games. Lesser teams will walk away with lesser rewards.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great report, Mike. What you’re basically saying is each game is very important if a team is to get an at-large bid if they don’t win league playoffs. It’s better then when we went to school and there were only 4 teams at nationals, two from ECAC and two from WCHA.

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