It’s a fairly light schedule today for what is usually the first weekend of conference playoffs. These Trying Times have led to a lot of conferences moving to a single-site single-weekend single-elimination formats with more mid-week games. So instead of seeing the majority of college hockey facing off in elimination games in best-of-three series, we’ve only got a small handful of games to be played this Saturday.
But there are some intriguing ones. There are two in particular that I will be keeping a close eye on as they could have potentially big impacts on the NCAA Tournament field selection.
The first is in the NCHC where fourth seed Omaha is set to take on fifth seed Denver. Conventional wisdom, including our take on the situation, says that Omaha is probably in okay shape, perhaps even more so since Clarkson has crossed themselves off the list in the interim.
But Omaha’s situation might be a bit more precarious than it appears on initial glance. Pull up the NCHC standings and Omaha sits at 14-9-1, which is actually the third-best record in the league half a game ahead of presumed tournament lock Minnesota Duluth.
That said, four of Omaha’s 14 wins this season have come via 3-on-3 overtime, which, for exasperating reasons, only counts as 55% of a win. The committee, not as beholden to math this year, may or may not view it that way. But any hard data they do look at is going to say Omaha’s record is more like 10-9-4. Another loss day and their record is barely above .500. Now, they’re in a tough conference—though again, the committee may or may not see it that way—and didn’t play any non-conference games so that record isn’t necessarily disqualifying, but I think they’d be in a pretty dangerous position if they lose today’s game, especially if a few teams outside of the locks start winning conference tournaments.
Denver’s situation, meanwhile, is almost the reverse, though perhaps not as extreme. The Pioneers sit at 9-12-1 on the season and have largely been written off as a potential at-large team. But again, factor in the overtime games and Denver’s record is closer to 9-10-3.
Technically, the infamous ‘Wisconsin Rule’ that teams must have a record above .500 to receive an at-large bid, isn’t in effect this year, though I have a feeling the committee will be extremely loathe to do that. But if Denver wins today and in their NCHC semifinal, but loses the championship game, I think there is a very compelling case to be made for them.
They’d have the same record as Omaha with a winning season record against the Mavericks. 12 of their 25 games in such a scenario would be against surefire-NCAA tournament teams, plus another five depending on how you feel about Omaha.
The other game to keep an eye on today is Game 2 of the series between Bowling Green and Northern Michigan. The Wildcats blitzed the Falcons in the second period of last night’s series opener with four goals in the frame, and a furious third period comeback by the Falcons fell a goalpost short.
Bowling Green is one of those teams that is squarely on the bubble. With limited options this year, I’m beginning to feel more comfortable that the WCHA will get a second team into the tournament behind Minnesota State, especially if there are no conference tournament upsets. But I also doubt the WCHA gets a third team into the field. I don’t necessarily think the committee should care about conference representation when making the field, but it’s probably something that will be considered.
The battle for that next bid is a three-team race between Bowling Green, Bemidji State, and Lake Superior State. I had it as a toss-up earlier this week between Bowling Green’s stellar out-of-conference play, Bemidji State’s stellar results against Minnesota State, and Lake Superior having a coach on the advisory committee, which hey, it can’t hurt.
That said, if Bowling Green loses again this weekend, I think you can just about count Bowling Green out. Never say never because who knows what will happen in the committee meeting, but a series this weekend, combined with head-to-head struggles against the other two teams in their cohort competing for an at-large bid and I don’t see a way to argue Bowling Green into the tournament.
That would be good news for both Bemidji State and Lake Superior. It also sets up an interesting scenario, providing all of last night’s winners close out their series, in which Bemidji State and Lake Superior would meet in Mankato next weekend in the WCHA semifinals. They essentially split the season series with each team winning one game and the other two decided in overtime. A fifth game between the two may just end up being a tiebreaker for an NCAA bid.
If Bowling Green were to come back to win the series, and the other top seeds held, they’d face Lake Superior State in the semifinals and would likely need to win there to continue their season.
There are still a lot of unknowns and I don’t think the NCAA Tournament picture will be much clearer after tonight. But we will be getting some very valuable information that will go a long ways in determining the field.