The Playoff Picture: East
Somehow March seems to sneak up on us. Even though ice hockey plays the longest season of any college sport, this year’s regular season is over for one of the Eastern conferences and is one weekend away from done in the remaining two.
That means it’s time to look at both the way the playoffs will shake out for each of the three Eastern conferences and what impact this might have on the national picture.
The East’s only 12-team conference wrapped up regular-season play last weekend with a fight to the finish for everything from home ice to first-round byes to the league title.
The regular-season title became a reality for two schools as Dartmouth and Colgate shared the moniker of co-champions. Each school pulled off a sweep in the final weekend of play to leapfrog Cornell, which lost on Friday at Rensselaer, and earn the championship. Dartmouth, which had never won an ECACHL title, will be the playoffs’ number-one seed by virtue of a tiebreaker.
Proving that a regular-season title doesn’t necessarily mean much on the national landscape, both Dartmouth and Colgate sit on the outside looking in when it comes to the NCAA tournament. Dartmouth could move up in the PairWise Rankings with a decent showing (i.e. win its quarterfinal series and earn at least one win in Albany), while Colgate’s only chance to dance will come with a postseason championship.
That, though, can sit on the back burner, at least for one week. Dartmouth, Colgate, Cornell and Harvard all received first-round byes in the league playoffs and will host best-of-three quarterfinals series next week. Harvard and Cornell, ironically, look like locks for the national tournament.
This week, the bottom of the league gets to face off, with St. Lawrence, Union, RPI and Clarkson all hosting their own best-of-three first-round series. Few series should have impact on teams moving up in the PairWise (St. Lawrence is the only active club that is ranked — currently 22nd), but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any impact.
Clarkson, Union and Rensselaer are all bubble teams — not for the national tournament itself, but for the list of Teams Under Consideration. It is this bubble that brings volatility to the PWR. If any of these three teams’ RPI increases just a bit (Clarkson is currently .4978, Union is .4889, and Rensselaer is .4888), it could crack the .5000 barrier and become a Team Under Consideration, affecting that criterion for any and all of their opponents this season.
All of that said, looking at this weekend’s series, I see St. Lawrence advancing past Brown with ease and Union doing the same with Yale. Even though the No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup should be the most intriguing, I think that Clarkson shouldn’t have much trouble with Princeton. If you’re looking for an upset, Quinnipiac is playing well and could easily sneak by Rensselaer, despite being winless (0-1-1) against the Engineers in the regular season.
One week remaining and the Hockey East standings look more jammed up than Boston’s Southeast Expressway at rush hour (or downtown Chicago traffic, for you Midwest readers). At this point, the league that has never in its history had a three-way tie for any position is looking at the possibility of a four-way tie for first place.
Though Boston College, Boston University, Maine and New Hampshire all still have NCAA tournament hopes, the most realistic dreams are those of the Eagles, Terriers and Black Bears.
A month ago it seemed like BC had everything sewn up atop Hockey East, but sluggish play in the month of February combined with BU and Maine going on red-hot tears (BU is 12-1-2 in its last 15; Maine is 9-1-1 in its last 11) leaves this trio separated by just two points with two games remaining.
BC still is in the driver’s seat and controls its own destiny. With 35 points, it sits two points ahead of BU and Maine and could clinch a share of the title with a win over New Hampshire at home on Thursday night. A loss, though, combined with BU and Maine victories would create a three-way tie heading to Saturday’s final games.
The league office was kind enough to take all of the tiebreaker guessing out of the equation. Should BC, BU and Maine all be deadlocked come season’s end, BU would get the tournament’s top seed, followed by Maine in second and BC in third.
How, if at all, does this affect the national picture?
One thing that jumps out right away is that BC is currently on thin ice in the PWR. Once considered a lock, the Eagles’ stock has fallen and a couple more losses could throw BC off the playoff bus. The fact that the Eagles face UNH this weekend, a team with a high RPI and currently 14th in the PWR, is critical, but not just to the Eagles. A sweep by either team could put the opposition on the outside looking in. More importantly for the Eagles, a sweep could lock up not only the Hockey East title, but also an NCAA berth.
BU’s national standing appears solid at this point and only a four-game losing streak could really do any damage. Maine is still on somewhat thin ice, but the nine-wins-in-11 games have helped steady the ship. The Black Bears are likely a tournament semifinal appearance away from punching their ticket to the national dance.
The one team not mentioned here is Providence. The once-streaking Friars have been struck by reality lately and will need to make some noise in the closing weeks for their NCAA tourney hopes to remain alive. I won’t go as far as to say that they’d need to win the Hockey East championship, but two wins this weekend over Merrimack, along with a quarterfinal series win (and possibly a semifinal win, as well) might be good enough.
The fact that the Friars appear destined for either the fourth or fifth seed in the playoffs could actually be a good thing if they can advance. Their opponent would automatically be a team that would make a major positive impact on both RPI and record vs. Teams Under Consideration, but only if the Friars can win and advance.
My thoughts here: BU, BC and Maine share the title with the Eagles splitting their series with UNH this weekend and BU (vs. Northeastern) and Maine (vs. UMass) each sweeping. Providence will sweep Merrimack to earn home ice over UNH (by virtue of a tiebreaker), while Vermont will land in the sixth spot, UMass-Lowell in seventh and UMass in eighth.
Anyone who follows my weekly Atlantic Hockey column knows that I’m ready to tear my hair out of my head.
It seems that no team wants the regular-season championship.
Two weekends ago, Mercyhurst seemed to be in the driver’s seat, only to drop three of four points on the road at Holy Cross. Last weekend, Holy Cross had the chance to all but lock things up but instead got swept by Sacred Heart.
That sweep should’ve reopened the door for the Lakers, but a loss to Army at home (the first-ever win for the Black Knights in Erie), leaves Mercyhurst one point behind both Holy Cross and Sacred Heart for first place.
Right now, I’m left not knowing what the heck to think.
This weekend, each of the three teams will play a home-and-home series with local counterparts — Mercyhurst with Canisius, Holy Cross with Bentley and Sacred Heart with Connecticut.
A quick breakdown of the three series makes it even more difficult to coronate a champion.
Mercyhurst swept the first two games against Canisius this year by a narrow margin, but will be shorthanded on Friday night in Buffalo after a fight against Army last Saturday resulted in a handful of suspensions.
Holy Cross swept Bentley in a two-game set four weeks ago, but both teams have headed in opposite directions (Bentley up and Holy Cross down) since then.
Sacred Heart has lost back-to-back games just once this season, but it happened to be against Connecticut.
Aside from the conference title, there’s still plenty of jockeying for position that will go on right to the last buzzer. The most important of that will come in the four/five positions.
Army sits three points behind Bentley but has a much easier opponent this weekend (AIC) than do the Falcons (Holy Cross). The fact that Bentley holds the head-to-head tiebreaker (1-0-3) over Army means that the Black Knights will need a sweep of the Yellow Jackets — with Bentley losing two to the ‘Cross — if they’re to leapfrog to fourth.
If you’re asking me to guess which team ends up where, my dartboard says: Sacred Heart wins the title outright. Holy Cross and Mercyhurst tie for second (yes, that means Bentley earns a point vs. Holy Cross) with the Crusaders taking the higher playoff seed. Bentley’s tie earns it home ice, followed by Army, Canisius, UConn and AIC.