With the holiday tournaments over and World Juniors players back from Sweden, we are officially in the second half of the season. The Pairwise has begun to settle and the conference hierarchy is now clear. Today we’re going to discuss the macro conference situation, specific teams of interest, and I make my early January Frozen Four prediction. Let’s get started!
In the last few years, it became clear to me that the best way to look at the Pairwise is not to look at specific teams but to look at conferences. Even as single teams move up and down, at this point in the year with conference games dominating the slate, there is generally a net neutral change in the conference. As one NCHC team gets hot and wins six straight, three other NCHC teams necessarily lost twice. Anyone following non-conference play wouldn’t be surprised by this, but a quick look at the PWR today makes it clear that Hockey East is king this season. The NCHC and Big Ten are 2A and 2B, but Hockey East is virtually guaranteed to get four but more likely five teams in the NCAA Tournament. Some good luck on a micro scale could get them six or even seven (if a lesser team won the autobid), which would rival even the NCHC’s best years. The Big Ten is on track for three or four teams, and the NCHC is in a great spot with four, with the potential for a fifth considering their short conference tournament and the strength of their top six teams. Meanwhile, the CCHA and AHA are basically guaranteed to be auto-bid only, and the ECAC appears to be in the same boat so long as Quinnipiac wins their auto-bid. In short, this is a very top heavy season: we could have three one-bid leagues and zero independents, depending on how Arizona State plays the next 8 weeks. As a Tech fan, this is all somewhat academic: unlike the last few seasons, there’s no path to an at-large, so all that matters is positioning for the CCHA postseason.
My teams of interest in January
The Old Guard. At the turn of the century, Maine, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and UNH were perennial NCAA tournament-goers and consistent Frozen Four attendees. After a decade-plus of relative down years, each of them sit within the top 11 in the Pairwise, with Maine and Wisconsin both holding 1-seeds if the tournament started today. Each team’s resurgence stems from different factors and I’ll get into them later in the year if their strong seasons continue. For now, as a fan of the legends of the sport, I’m enjoying seeing the legacy programs make a return to prominence.
Arizona State. No team has been on the bubble more since they joined the Division I ranks. In their final season as an Independent, they are again trying to fight the uphill battle to getting a bid without a conference. They sit 16th in the PWR, but almost .200 points in RPI behind the final at-large position, #14 UMass. The biggest problem is schedule: they have zero remaining games against top 16 PWR teams, and play six games against teams in the 50’s and 60’s. Like Alaska last year, they may need to virtually win out and get some luck the 22-23 Nanooks didn’t.
The State of Hockey left out? It’s still a little early to present this possibility, but I can’t help myself. In the 21st Century, there have been three Frozen Fours played in Minnesota, each won by a home state school (University of Minnesota in 2002 and Duluth in 2011 and 2018). As of this writing, the only two Minnesota schools in the top 14 of the PWR are St. Cloud State at 13 and the Gophers at 14. No one else is close – the next Minnesota team is Minnesota State at 29. Do I think both UM and SCSU fall out of the PWR, leaving us with a tournament without any Minnesota team? No, especially with the talent and experience the Gophers have and their penchant for winning Big Ten games. But the fact that it’s even a possibility is interesting and something I’ll keep a passive eye on down the stretch.
Speaking of, who will be in St. Paul in April?
Unlike last season where I felt a clear top three (Minnesota, Quinnipiac, and Michigan) had begun to establish itself early and all three made the Frozen Four, I feel much better about teams 4-15 this year. The benefit of the three top conferences having so much depth is most of the NCAA Tournament will be filled with battle-tested squads. Still, there are four teams I like better than the rest.
- Wisconsin. This is the team I’d pick to win the national championship if I had to choose today. The combination of coaching, high end talent remaining from the previous regime, and elite transfers including Mike Hastings’ hand-picked group from his former Mavericks team gives them as good a shot as any. Add in the benefit of the Frozen Four nearby with a good chance of no Minnesota teams, the Xcel Energy Center could feel like a Badger home game.
- Boston College. At the beginning of the season I compared them to last year’s BU team and I still like that comp. I like their title chances better next season, but considering BU made the 2023 Frozen Four, BC playing in the semifinal makes sense to me. No one has more talent, but their youth has cost at times (see the Denver game in October).
- North Dakota. It seemed for years in the early 2000’s that UND and BC couldn’t escape each other in the Frozen Four and I’d love a return of that rivalry in April. UND’s transfer-heavy squad has worked out this year, especially in net with former Miami netminder Ludvig Persson. Add in the fact that they could get placed in the South Dakota regional (Omaha is the host, so it’s not a guarantee), they could play their entire postseason within one state of their campus (the NCHC tournament includes campus quarterfinals and a final four in St. Paul).
- Boston University. This was my preseason pick to win it all, and besides a weird first couple weeks they’ve met expectations. They sit first in the PWR and with the strength of Hockey East, have an NCAA bid all but locked up and arguably have a 1-seed nearly locked up as well. My biggest concern is the goaltending, as Brown transfer Mathieu Caron has been fine but not great. If BU turns out to be last year’s Michigan team, where one brutal goaltending night ends their season, it wouldn’t surprise me at all. Then again, that’s standard fare for the Terriers in this tournament…
That’s all for now. I’ll check back in February with more certainty on the NCAA Tournament field and hopefully a Tech team that is solidifying home ice advantage in the CCHA playoffs. As always, enjoy the games!
Frozen Four logo via NCAA.