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 today. 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.
-It wasn't too long ago that the Engineers of RPI were just sort of hanging around the TUC cliff as a sub-.500 team that nobody gave much thought to. But since a January 12th loss to Princeton, RPI has ripped off wins in eight of their last nine games, including wins last weekend over Brown and Yale. The wins have moved RPI into a tie for 17th in the RPI, and just outside the NCAA tournament bubble. RPI played one of the tougher non-conference schedules this year with non-conference series against Minnesota State(5th RPI), St. Cloud State(8th RPI), and single games against New Hampshire(4th RPI), and Boston University(20th RPI). They don't play any big opponents in their remaining regular season games, but because of that tough non-conference schedule, they really just need wins of any kind to pretty up their overall record in order to work into serious tournament consideration.
-Generally when so-called "bracketologists" put together what the potential NCAA-tournament field will look like, they award each conference's auto-bid to the team in first place in the conference. It's usually not a big deal because the leader of the four major conferences is comfortably within the tournament bubble regardless. But that wasn't the case this week, when Merrimack, who is as hot as anybody right now, beat Boston College to vault into first place in Hockey East, despite still only sitting at 18th in the Pairwise. That strikes me as more of a temporary quirk than anything. If Merrimack plays well enough in their final five games to win Hockey East, they'll more than likely move up in the Pairwise to where they'd get an at-large bid anyway. Same goes for if the Warriors win their way through the Hockey East tournament.
-Speaking of autobids for first place teams, Niagara split a weekend series against Robert Morris, but the loss didn't hurt them much in the PWR(In fact, Yale was hit harder by losing to RPI, so Niagara actually moved up a spot). It's still looking like the Purple Eagles are pretty comfortable for an at-large bid, even if they don't win the Atlantic Hockey tournament.
-Last week in outlying comparisons that are making me seethe, I made the (totally not a) joke that Northern Michigan will win a comparison against Minnesota State no matter what the circumstance. Over the weekend, Minnesota State swept Michigan Tech(an NMU common opponent, no less) and Northern Michigan split against a Michigan State squad currently battling it out with American International at the bottom of the RPI. Minnesota State moved to 5th in the RPI, while Northern Michigan dropped to 28th. The great computer compared each team's season and the final result: Northern Michigan wins the comparison against Minnesota State. Ultimately it has no effect on the overall tourney field, or even tournament seedings, but perhaps it is worth reflecting on just what these numbers actually mean and how they are derived.