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2021 NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament Watch: Who Is In The Tournament?

Boston University v Massachusetts-Amherst Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

Well, all the games have been played, and now it is decision time. In a normal year, we would know for certain which 16 teams will be playing in this year’s NCAA Tournament and even have a pretty good idea of who would be playing where. But this year has been anything but normal. With the final decision being made by a tournament committee this year instead of being based purely on a mathematical computer ranking, there is still a lot to debate.

We can say for absolute certain that these six teams will be in the field when the bracket is announced on Sunday evening, as they won their respective conference autobids:

Atlantic Hockey: American International

Big Ten: Minnesota

ECAC: St. Lawrence

Hockey East: UMass

NCHC: North Dakota

WCHA: Lake Superior State

We can also take a pretty reasonable guess at teams that are almost guaranteed, based on their tournament resumes, to be selected as at-large bids. My list of those teams would include, in no particular order:

Boston College, Wisconsin, Minnesota State, Michigan, Boston University, St. Cloud State, Minnesota Duluth

That accounts for 13 of the 16 spots available in the tournament. The big question is which three teams will claim the three remaining at-large bids to fill out the tournament field?

There are likely 9 teams vying for those three spots. They include:

Notre Dame from the Big Ten, Quinnipiac from the ECAC, Providence, UConn, and UMass Lowell from Hockey East, Denver and Omaha from the NCHC, Bemidji State and Bowling Green from the WCHA

How do you even begin to separate these teams? I honestly have no clue and don’t envy the task of the group of the people that have to do it. The silver lining, if you want to call it that, is that, frankly, none of these teams made a particularly strong case for their inclusion in the tournament, so it will be hard for whomever is left out to be too aggrieved by the process.

If I had to sort through them and pick out three, here is how I would go...

One important note before we get into this: ANY GAME THAT WENT INTO OVERTIME IS BASICALLY A TIE. There is bound to be a lot of confusion over this, because it is kind of a dumb rule. But the rules committee, at the behest of the coaches, voted this summer that any game “won” in a 3-on-3 overtime would count as 55% of a win for the winning team, and 45% of a win for the losing team. This can lead to some big disparities between what a team’s record looks like, and what it will look like for the committee.

First off, I think Quinnipiac is probably safe. Some people would probably have them in the above category among “safe” at-large bids. I’m not as convinced. Their only two quality wins were against American International, who might have been a fringe-ish team had they not won AHA. But, I think their conference affiliation might work in Quinnipiac’s favor. I don’t personally believe the number of teams selected from each conference should play a role in the decision making. The NCAA Tournament manual backs me up on this. But I do think it is kind of human nature to consider it, and I have a feeling the committee might lean that way. Taking a second team from the ECAC—even if they ended the year with only three teams still standing, two of which were not good—will likely be a lot more palatable than reaching down to the fourth or fifth team from some of the other conferences, especially when those teams are relatively uninspiring.

If Quinnipiac is in, that leaves two more spots. I think the best way to go from here is to rank the teams within each conference, since there is at least data to do so. And again, I think evenness is going to be a key. Nothing is impossible, but with so much unknown, I’d be very surprised if the last two toss-ups both went in favor of the same conference.

So let’s eliminate some teams that way:

Hockey East: Providence, UConn, UMass Lowell

All three finished jam-packed together in the RPI, so there’s not much there. It’s close enough that I’d look at head-to-head to decide.

You can probably start by crossing off UConn. The Huskies went 1-4 in the 3-on-3 OT, so their record is actually a lot better than it looks. But they split their season series with Providence, including the last one, which unfortunately and incorrectly, could play an out-sized role, and lost once in regulation and once in OT to UMass Lowell.

There was only one meeting between Providence and UMass Lowell this season, and it came early. Providence beat Lowell 4-2 in mid-December. It’s thin to go on, but with neither team distinguishing themselves with more quality wins than the other, it may be what we have to use.

I’ll take Providence out of the three.

NCHC: Denver or Omaha

This is where there is potential for the most controversy. Check the standings and you’ll see Omaha’s record at 14-10-1 and Denver’s at 10-13-1. Should be an easy decision. But remember what I said about 3-on-3 OT wins counting as pretty much ties. Removes regular season OT games from the equation and Omaha’s record becomes 10-10-1 while Denver’s record becomes 10-11-1. Much closer.

The computer rankings squidged Omaha back ahead of Denver with Denver’s loss to North Dakota in the NCHC semifinal. But it’s a razor thin margin, and with less data than usual to go on, it’s close enough that I’d defer to head-to-head.

Denver and Omaha met five times during the season with Denver winning three, Omaha winning one, and Omaha getting one basically-a-tie in OT.

If it were up to me, I’d take Denver. But I’m not sure that is the direction the committee will actually go. Right or wrong, the optics of taking a team with a sub-.500 record, even if the rule prohibiting that was put on pause for this year, aren’t great. Also, UNO’s associate athletic director and long-time coach Mike Kemp is chairing the committee, which, despite what everyone says, all evidence points to that not hurting a team’s chances.

WCHA: Bemidji State or Bowling Green

RPI loves Bowling Green because they were actually able to play some out-of-conference games and swept Robert Morris, who had a good record in AHA, and Quinnipiac who had a great record in the zombie-ECAC.

Bemidji State’s argument is that they won the head-to-head series with two regulation wins, an OT win, and one loss, and that they have some really quality wins over Minnesota State. The committee doesn’t necessarily look at it, but the KRACH computer rankings love Bemidji State.

Again, I’ve got to defer to head-to-head as well as the overwhelming sense that recency bias will play a role here. I’ll take Bemidji State.

All that leaves us with Notre Dame, Providence, Omaha, and Bemidji State fighting for the final two spots with no real way to compare them besides your own personal feelings about the strength of each conference.

My first pick out of that group would be Omaha. The NCHC doesn’t place four teams in the national tournament every year, but they do so on a pretty regular basis. Granted, there is an argument to be made that this isn’t a normal year and you can only judge based on what a team has done, not what you assume they would have done if they had played non-conference games. But I can’t think of a better way to do it.

That leaves the final spot. If I’m going by how I think the committee will decide it, we currently have nine western teams and six eastern teams in our field so far. There has been east/west geographic rivalry in college hockey going back to the very first NCAA Tournament ever played, and with no way to mathematically settle it this year, I think the committee will try to balance it as much as possible. That means Providence gets the last bid to make it a 9/7 split.

So that’s our projected field:

American International(AQ), Boston College, Boston University, Lake Superior State(AQ), Massachusetts(AQ), Michigan, Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State, North Dakota(AQ), Omaha, Providence, Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State, St. Lawrence(AQ), Wisconsin

Next up, we’ll try to take a stab at seeding and where each team might end up.