As we enter the home stretch of the college hockey season, it's time to start paying closer attention to the Pairwise Rankings, the computer rankings that choose the field for the NCAA tournament.
Here is how the grid stands, as of Monday. If you're new to the experience, here is a primer on how the Pairwise Rankings, used to the select the NCAA tournament field, work.
In our last installment of our weekly look at the Pairwise Rankings, we pointed at the series between Northern Michigan and Alaska as a pivotal one in the race for the final at large bids into the NCAA tournament. Northern Michigan came into the weekend one spot out of the final NCAA tourney spot, and Alaska was slotted one spot below them. But the Nanooks pulled off the home sweep over the Wildcats in Fairbanks, which vaulted Alaska into a tie for 11th in the Pairwise rankings. That's the good news for Alaska.
The bad news is that the Nanooks are in a unique, and somewhat precarious position. Usually the Pairwise doesn't deviate more than a spot or two from the RPI--after all, the Pairwise was designed to slightly modify straight RPI to even out some of the flaws with RPI. But Alaska sits tied for 11th in the Pairwise despite being ranked 18th in RPI. So how are the Nanooks doing that? They're currently winning five comparisons against teams that have a higher RPI than they do: St. Cloud, North Dakota, Boston University, Denver, and Notre Dame.
The key is Alaska's stellar 9-5-2 record against teams under consideration. It's a rough rule that the very best teams in the country win about two-thirds of their games against TUCs, and bubble teams win about half of their games against TUCs, so Alaska's .6250 winning percentage is much, much better than their overall RPI would indicate. Alaska's next two series are against Miami and Ohio State, both TUCs, and then a series against Lake Superior, who dropped below the TUC line last weekend. They then close the season with Michigan State and Alaska-Anchorage who have no hope of being anywhere near the TUC line, plus, whomever they play in the playoffs.
-Notre Dame was safely in the tournament and thinking about a high seed, but their recent woes have really hurt them. They started the weekend tied for 9th in the RPI, but a Friday night loss pushed them to the final at-large bid. They recovered with a win on Saturday, and now sit 14th. They have a pretty tough remaining schedule including road games at Ohio State, a home-and-home with Miami, and a road trip to Western Michigan, and they no longer look like the tourney lock they once were.
-Niagara Watch: The Purple Eagles tied and won against RIT, moving them down from 16th to 17th in the Pairwise, meaning Atlantic Hockey is still a one bid conference. Niagara only plays two games against TUCs
-Any outlying comparisons that are making me seethe this week? Alaska(18th RPI) winning the comparison over St. Cloud(9th RPI) comes the closest. Also, it's not quite exact, but Minnesota State and Notre Dame are both hanging right around the bubble, while Minnesota State(15th RPI) loses an outlying comparison to Northern Michigan(23rd). That's nearly the exact scenario that created the infamous game in 2008 in which Notre Dame made the NCAA by either winning or losing their game, but not by tying it.