Studs and Duds of the First half
It is hard to believe, but we are already halfway through the college hockey season. Some teams have met expectations so far (for example, my thinking that Minnesota would be a top-two team this season), but as always, there have been some surprises and disappointments. Here’s a few of the notable ones that you might have missed if you focus mostly on what Michigan Tech is doing.
This list really starts and ends with the most surprising team in the country. A perennial bottom-feeder in a top-heavy conference, Merrimack has found ways to keep nearly every game close and seems to win most of them. The third-ranked Warriors have to survive a post-Christmas slate against some of the worst teams in the country, but after that, they play six of their final thirteen games against top fifteen teams. Merrimack is a near lock for the NCAA Tournament, with the bigger question being whether they can hang onto a 1-seed. This is a stunning success for the tiny Massachusetts school.
The Spartans hired Adam Nightingale with the hopes he could turn around the fortunes of a proud program that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2012. Even the most optimistic MSU boosters couldn’t have expected he would turn it around in mere months. Michigan State has beat every top ten team they’ve faced besides the Gophers, and can lay a solid claim to being the best team in the state right now. I’m not sure they have been able to say that since Torey Krug wore the green and white.
Penn State was expected to finished sixth out of seven teams in the Big Ten, and yet they are in second in the conference and fifth in the Pairwise. They are the first truly complete Nittany Lion team: they defend well for the first time in the Guy Gadowsky era while continuing their trademark style of “shoot from everywhere” offense. This is a good team that could make their first Frozen Four.
RIT is leading the pack of an underrated group of Atlantic Hockey teams, and should not be underestimated if they win the AHA tournament. UConn is having their best season in school history, though many of us who follow the sport expected them to be in contention this year. Alaska has zero structural or systematic benefits, and yet they enter the holidays above .500 and could have been be a surprise tournament team if they were able to get an automatic bid.
Where to start with the Bulldogs… They can’t score, take too many penalties and are only getting average goaltending. They showed something two weeks ago when they lost both games to Denver in overtime, but OT losses won’t turn around a season that already looks lost. They are 42nd in the Pairwise, in a conference that won’t offer the catch-up opportunities it usually does (more on that in a second). They’re going to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.
I said in my season preview article that I expected Northeastern to win Hockey East. At this point, they are not going to win Hockey East. World-class goaltender Devon Levi is playing solid hockey, but the team has put itself in a really bad position with some awful results (losses to Union and Sacred Heart, two overtime wins against Long Island, and a tie against Maine). They have some opportunities to make a late run for an at-large bid even while sitting at 25 in the Pairwise, but this is a far cry from the team I thought would finish in the top ten nationally.
North Dakota / NCHC in general
North Dakota has struggled this year, to the extent that anywhere below the top 15 is a massive disappointment for those fans. But, their position is a symptom of the larger struggles of the NCHC. This time of year, there is usually a conversation about how a .500 NCHC team is sitting in the top 15. This year, 7-8-4 North Dakota is 21st. In a conference accustomed to getting 4-6 teams in the NCAA tournament annually, there are currently only two teams in position, meaning three bids might be the best case scenario. So far, this is probably the worst collective year the NCHC has had since its inception.
Conference Deep Dive: the CCHA
The CCHA is by no means having an exceptional year. Still, they are deeper than many recent seasons insofar as the bottom of the league is less of a nightmare. Compare the CCHA to their closest competition these days, the ECAC. The ECAC continues to be what they have been for many years: extremely top heavy. Looking at the Pairwise, the top three ECAC teams are better than any CCHA team, including Quinnipiac sitting at number two overall. If you only care to look at the best teams, the ECAC certainly looks stronger. And yet, when you compare the median team in each conference, the CCHA comes out ahead. When push comes to shove, I’d rather be the ECAC since two teams are sitting in the tournament as of today, but the extreme weakness of the bottom of that league not only depresses the national stature of the league, it also creates significant roadblocks for the ECAC’s “good” teams to make their way into March still holding those Pairwise positions.
This brings me to the second point: what does the CCHA need to do to get two teams in the NCAA Tournament? Frankly, the odds are not good. As it stands, only three teams have a shot at an at-large considering their standing in the PWR: Bemidji State (22nd), Michigan Tech (23rd), and Minnesota State (24th).
Tech entered the holidays with the best shot, but with only two-thirds of a win in the GLI, their chances dropped greatly. My initial look at the path took place before the GLI, and my belief was they needed to win that tournament to have a real chance at an at-large. Now, the only real way for the CCHA to get two teams in is for one of these three to nearly run the table in the second half, then lose in the CCHA playoffs. Tech still has the most room for error, especially if they can win the Desert Classic next week while facing 7th-ranked Boston University in the championship. If they did that, they would still need to lose at most two additional games and probably would require road sweeps of both BSU and MSU in February. Not impossible, but not terribly likely.
Bemidji and Minnesota State have similar paths to an at-large: basically, they have to win every single game left. Bemidji has the benefit of facing top-ranked Minnesota on New Years Eve, so a win there would push them into the top twenty. But after that, they face no other teams currently in the top 15 in the Pairwise. Minnesota State plays zero teams in the top 15. Minnesota State could go 14-0-0 the rest of the way and still end up a bubble team, just based on the low ranking of most of the teams they face. One or two slips would eliminate them from at-large contention, as it would for Bemidji.
All in all, I just don’t like the outlook for the CCHA. It’s easy to say, “all you have to do is win out.” But there’s a reason these teams aren’t in Pairwise position in late December. Had Tech put together the GLI performance that Western Michigan did, then fans could reasonably look for a path to an at-large, as Broncos fans are surely doing now. In reality, the realistic path to the tournament for Tech is getting healthy and winning the Mason Cup in March.
Upcoming Viewing Guide
I will certainly tune into ESPN2 on Friday the 30th to watch Harvard and BU – this is exactly the type of game Harvard needs to win if the ECAC is going to get two teams into the NCAA Tournament. The most under-the-radar series this weekend is a top-20 home-and-home between RIT and Penn State. RIT is easily the best team in Atlantic Hockey. Currently at 18 in the Pairwise, a sweep against fifth-ranked PSU would push them into at-large contention. Finally, the best upcoming series will be the home-and-home between Minnesota and St. Cloud State on January 7-8. A sweep in that series would go a long way to deciding 1-seeds in the tournament, and perhaps even the top overall seed come March.