For most, November signifies the start of winter weather and Thanksgiving. For college hockey fans, November means the end of non-conference weekends and a move into substantial conference play.
Most teams have finished with the bulk of their non-conference schedule, with just holiday tournaments and one-offs throughout the remaining months. I thought it would be a good time to discuss one of the few truly important stats available at this time of year: Inter-conference records. As you may know, the Pairwise is not terribly useful so early in the year and usually I don’t recommend even bothering with it until the new year. Instead, I like looking at conference-vs-conference records to give me an idea of where relative conference strength is, which helps sort teams in my mind. For this exercise, we will be using College Hockey News’ Inter-Conference Records page.
Allow me to first outline what the current records are, and then I will explain why and for what I think they are useful. The current conference standings (at the time of writing) are as follows:
- Big Ten: 30-10-2 (.738)
- Hockey East: 24-11-3 (.671)
- NCHC: 34-23-3 (.592)
- CCHA: 17-24-2 (.419)
- ECAC: 16-24-4 (.409)
- Atlantic Hockey: 13-28-4 (.333)
Let me quickly explain what you’re seeing. For example, CCHA teams are 17-24-2 in games against teams from the other five conferences. This doesn’t include games against independents like the Alaska schools, nor does it include intra-conference “non-conference” games like Michigan Tech’s game against Ferris State on October 7.
As a general matter, inter-conference games are necessary to make the Pairwise function. It demands games amongst these six disparate entities so as to rank teams against each other without having the luxury of actually seeing them play each other. After all, the entire process of making a national tournament field would be much easier if every team played 2-4 games against every other team in the country. This was on display in the 2020-2021 season when the Pairwise was abandoned because of the extreme lack of inter-conference games.
Still, the question remains: even if you understand what you are seeing, why should you care about these records? I find that every year, there are questions about why the NCHC seems to get teams barely over .500 into the national tournament. The answer is almost always because the conference dominated inter-conference games. In short, Minnesota-Duluth indirectly benefits when Denver beats an ECAC team and is likewise harmed when Western Michigan loses to a Big Ten team. Sure, nothing helps a team more than winning its own games, but the margins of the Pairwise are determined by less obvious factors like this. I tell someone every year that they should be rooting for their conference’s teams to win every inter-conference game they play, which feels backwards for a Tech fan who has been told that they should want Northern Michigan to win even a single game.
All of this brings us to this season’s results. There’s a pretty clear divide between the top three and bottom three (and frankly, that might be generous to the NCHC, which is well below the top two). The Big Ten had a noticeably exceptional October. This dominance is buoyed by a ridiculous 16-2-1 record against Atlantic Hockey and the CCHA, no doubt, but it is not as though they are an outlier in terms of the number of games against those conferences. For example, the NCHC played 23 games against the same two conferences, and were much less successful, going 15-6-2. Notably, the NCHC, Big Ten and Hockey East are all within one game of .500 against each other – a veritable round robin of equality. I could spend 1000 words dissecting the numbers on this page, but you get the point so I’ll stop here.
Looking ahead, I think fans should view this as sort of a measure of their team’s margin for error. Big Ten teams have the largest margin for error: losing half of their games in-conference will not necessarily prevent them from getting an at-large bid. For teams in those below-.500 conferences? The margin is a lot smaller because of how the inter-conference slate went. Your team will play more games against lower-ranked opponents while not having the benefit of top 5-10 matchups most weekends. This might sound straightforward, but it’ll be easy to forget later in the winter that all of those October games are the reason why a 14-12-5 Notre Dame is ahead of 20-8-3 Bemidji State in the Pairwise.
Who’s Hot and Who’s Not
Each month, I’m going to touch quickly on who’s trending up and who’s trending down.
- UConn: In last month’s column, I said I expected Hockey East to be “mostly unimpressive.” So far I’ve been wrong, and one of the biggest reasons is how good UConn has looked. They beat and tied Ohio State, allowing only one goal on the weekend, then split a road series at Boston University. They lost in overtime in the 2022 Hockey East title game, preventing them from making their first NCAA Tournament appearance. That milestone may well happen this season.
- Upperclassmen Transfer Goalies: Some of the top performers in net through the first month are goalies with a strong track record who transferred to a better situation. Cole Brady (UMass; formerly Arizona State) leads the nation in goals against and save percentage. Matthew Thiessen (Minnesota Duluth; formerly Maine) is top ten in both while operating in a timeshare with Zach Stejskal, as is St. Cloud starter Dominic Basse (formerly Colorado College). It’s one thing to see young goalies blocked by stars make a move (like freshman TJ Semptimphelter, who left Northeastern for ASU rather than sit behind Devon Levi), but it’s entirely different seeing elite teams bring in established starters rather than using an in-house developee.
North Dakota: I’ve watched most of UND’s games this month as they’ve been involved in some of the most intriguing matchups of the year. I have not been terribly impressed thus far, especially with their late game efforts. They have blown leads in five straight games, winning only one of them (an overtime win against Minnesota). They enter NCHC play at just 3-3-1, with two of those wins at home against Holy Cross. The Fighting Hawks are certainly no lock for winning enough games to make the national tournament.
Western Michigan’s Great Lakes Invitational Revenge Tour: Beginning as early as this summer, there was plenty of hype surrounding this past weekend’s series between WMU and Michigan. While it lost some of its juice with the firing of Mel Pearson, the easiest villain of the GLI cancelation saga, the revenge dream was killed by Luke Hughes in overtime on Saturday in Kalamazoo. With Michigan pulling out of the GLI, the only way these two teams face off again would be in the national tournament.
As usual, I’m going to highlight some of the upcoming non-Michigan Tech games that fans of the sport should try to watch. Boston University faces UMass Veterans’ Day weekend in an early battle of likely NCAA tournament teams. Over Thanksgiving weekend, highly-regarded Harvard will have its first real test of their season when they play two games against Michigan in Ann Arbor. Finally, the Belfast, Ireland “Friendship Four” is a fun little tournament (if you can get past its cringey title) over Thanksgiving weekend that features three good teams in UMass-Lowell, Quinnipiac, and UMass, plus Dartmouth. This tournament tends to stream for free somewhere online, so it could be a fun change of pace to an otherwise football (and World Cup, this year) dominated weekend.