Happy March everyone! It’s the best month of the year, with conference tournaments starting up and the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament only a few weeks away. Considering we’re only a few weeks from Selection Sunday, let’s chat about the current state of the tournament field and Michigan Tech’s wants and needs.
12 of the 16 slots are taken: the top ten in the Pairwise have secured a bid – Harvard and Western Michigan have locked in spots this month – along with the AHA and CCHA tournament champions. The remaining four will be some combination of at-large and automatic bids. The teams with any at-large hopes are Michigan Tech, Cornell, Alaska (!!), Minnesota State, Omaha, Notre Dame, Merrimack, Michigan State, Northeastern, and UConn. Autobid thieves could come from any of the four conferences with teams already locked into the top ten.
What does this mean for Tech fans? Based on a cursory review of the Pairwise predictor on CHN, Tech is going to make the tournament with any series win against St. Thomas. Even one loss is recoverable, as Tech has a sizeable RPI lead over Alaska at 12 and Cornell at 13. This does presume that there aren’t four bid stealers in the conference tournaments. One or two is likely, but four is not and I don’t see it happening this year. The only conference with huge bid stealing risk is Hockey East: only BU is locked in, and their chances of winning the HE tournament is 34%. The other three conferences give bid stealers less than a 20% of winning their conference tournament. I’m no math guy unlike most of you engineers, so you can figure out the odds of three 1-in-5 events plus a two-in-three event all happening.
With that said, what should Tech fans actually care about, presuming they are going to make the NCAA tournament? I had this conversation with my brother (a Tech grad) this weekend, and I noted that even with the surprise success this season, it’s time to do away with the idea that “we’re just happy to be here.” Besides the 2017 loss to Denver, Tech could have beat all of St. Cloud, Notre Dame, and Duluth in their other three appearances in the Pearson/Shawhan era. They need to win one, even if they’re an underdog. So Tech fans should root for a couple things to boost their odds of winning an NCAA tournament game. First, a sweep of St. Thomas is key to keeping their PWR above the 4-seed range. Avoiding the top tier of Minnesota/Quinnipiac/Denver in the first round would be huge. Second, you’re rooting against teams in the same range, in the hopes of hopping either into a 2-seed or into a better matchup as a 3-seed. You want to see Ohio State, Alaska, and Western Michigan lose twice this weekend. That drops Alaska out of the tournament, helps Tech avoid Western (more on this in a second), and opens up the 2- to 3-seed range of 7-10 to Tech.
In the end, Tech is the kind of team that can win a very specific game against specific teams. They need to score first, benefit from facing lesser goaltending, and cannot get into a track meet. That means some teams are just really bad matchups: Michigan, Western Michigan, and Penn State stand out as particular bad potential first round matchups. Michigan and Western are pretty similar offensively: high octane, relying on their top line for scoring, and not depending on power play goals. Michigan is probably the fastest team in the country, which I don’t think is ideal for Tech. I don’t love either team’s goaltending, though WMU’s Cameron Rowe has played very well of late. Penn State runs Guy Gadowsky’s offense as usual, generating shots and rebounds while suffocating teams on the forecheck. The biggest difference this year is that they finally play solid defense. These teams do have legitimate flaws, but I don’t think Tech is equipped to fully take advantage. I wouldn’t pick Tech against any of these three.
The possible good matchups include BU, Ohio State, and St. Cloud State. Don’t get me wrong, BU is quite good, but Tech knows they can beat BU, and confidence can do wonders for a team. Ohio State has found success taking advantage of mistakes by the young superstars in the Big Ten and by having an electric penalty kill that scores tons of shorthanded goals. Tech doesn’t create mistakes to the level Michigan and Penn State do, and they don’t rely on power play goals to win games, which neuters OSU’s advantages. St. Cloud is sort of the best case of the worst case scenarios. Tech would be much better off finishing in the 7-10 range and facing a good-but-flawed team rather than one of those teams that could end up in the 4-6 range (Michigan, PSU, St. Cloud, Denver, Harvard). Of all of those, St. Cloud is the best option. They have struggled at times against teams with lesser talent: they lost at home to Colorado College, tied twice at home against Miami, and were swept by Duluth. They are the lowest scoring of those five teams I mentioned, still haven’t picked a starting goalie, and are super reliant on their powerplay.
I’m sure myself and others at THG will talk more about specific matchups when the tournament field comes more into focus, but for now I wanted to provide fans with ideas for rooting interests in non-CCHA games.
Biggest Series of the Weekend
- Wisconsin at Michigan. The first step to avoiding a Big Ten bid steal is Wisconsin being knocked out. Since Notre Dame is hosting Michigan State, the semifinal is guaranteed to have at least one potential thief. Michigan beating Wisconsin prevents two.
- Lindenwood at Alaska. This one affects every team in the country. The 1-seeds probably want to see Alaska win both, as this can’t be viewed as anything but a prime first round matchup. Wouldn’t you rather play Alaska than, say, Notre Dame, Omaha, or Minnesota State? The bubble teams want to see Alaska lose at least once, eliminating the Nanooks and opening up a spot for someone else.
- Lake State at Minnesota State. This is the most vulnerable top seed in any conference tournament. MSU only faced LSSU twice this year and although MSU swept the series, both games were tight: the first went to OT, the second required an empty net goal. MSU has struggled scoring at home and netminder Keenan Rancier has raised serious questions about his game, both of which were on display last weekend against MTU. Lake State hasn’t allowed more than two goals in a game since January. This has all the makings of a tight series.