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Picking an NCAA Women’s Tourament Field: Pre-Championship Edition

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Championship week in women’s college hockey began in earnest on Tuesday night with Playoff UConn pushing Northeastern to the brink before falling 2-1 on a late shorthanded goal and causing agita for a variety of teams on the bubble praying that Tourney lock Northeastern takes Hockey East’s automatic bid.

There are just eight games left in the season, and while the field is mostly pretty clear, there is still a lot that will need to be settled.

We’ll start with the easy stuff. The top four teams are pretty much set. Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northeastern, and Minnesota all have resumes that they should be in the tournament, no questions asked.

There is some discussion because Minnesota Duluth edged ahead of Ohio State and Minnesota in the raw WCHA league standings, but when you factor in strength of schedule with basically any type of computer ranking, Minnesota Duluth finishes a distant fourth in the WCHA.

Our other given is that College Hockey America will receive one bid. Penn State is close to at-large bid territory, but if they don’t win their league’s tournament this weekend, they almost certainly won’t get in.

That leaves potentially as many as three bids for at-large teams still out there. That number shrinks, of course, if anybody outside of the top-eight wins their conference tournament.

Right now, there are likely three teams that are potentially viable candidates to receive those at-large bids: Minnesota Duluth(should they not get an automatic bid), Colgate(should they not get an automatic bid), and Boston College(they did not get an automatic bid). Clarkson was on the cusp of being in this group, but unless they win the ECAC Tournament, they’ll have a sub-.500 record.

If everything goes according to chalk, the field is fairly simple. Colgate gets in with an automatic bid, Minnesota Duluth and Boston College are at-large bids.

If Providence upsets Northeastern in the Hockey East championship, or one of Clarkson, St. Lawrence, or Quinnipiac wins the ECAC(and all three of those teams has a win over Colgate this season), then the way in which one ranks those three teams becomes critically important because somebody is getting left at home.

Grant Salzano tried to answer that question in a way that I was hoping to until I remembered that I barely passed high school math.

The short version of what he tried to do was look at recent historical data to come up with a relative strength of each conference. The results pass the plausibility test: WCHA is the strongest, followed by a gap, ECAC and Hockey East pretty close, another gap, College Hockey America.

(As a sidenote: Once we all get vaxxed up, we really need some more games between low-tier WCHA teams and mid-tier Hockey East teams, because I suspect that would grow the conference gap.)

Compare season records with relative conference strength and Salzano’s ranking comes out like this:

5. Minnesota Duluth

6. Colgate

7. Boston College

8. Penn State

That looks as sensible as anything to me.

If there is an uneasiness about this, it’s that the WCHA has never had four teams make the eight-team tournament field before. But we’re also in a unique year where two projected tournament-caliber teams aren’t playing. Remove Cornell and Princeton from last year’s field, as they are this year, and Minnesota Duluth would have made the 2020 national tournament as the WCHA’s fourth team.

This would also seem to confirm what I said last week that Minnesota Duluth should be safe if they win their semifinal match-up against Ohio State on Saturday, regardless of what happens in the championship. But would their narrow margin be enough to hold if they lose to the Buckeyes on Saturday? I have no idea.

The same goes for Colgate. Losing in the championship likely keeps them ahead of Boston College. Losing in the semifinal and the argument becomes much tougher.

So there is a lot riding on this weekend’s final games before the tournament. In this year with little hard math to work with, the best outcome would probably be one where the committee doesn’t have to make a tough decision for the final at-large bids. But either way, it should make for a thrilling weekend of hockey.