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The Boston College Eagles defeated the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish 6-4 (EN) on Saturday, January 28, 2017, at Kelley Rink in Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Boston College could potentially win the Hockey East regular-season title and not make the NCAA tournament (photo: Melissa Wade).

The Boston College Eagles are a team on the brink.

Two brinks actually.

They’re on the brink of winning their 14th Hockey East regular season championship. They’ll get at least a share of the title if they split with UMass Lowell this weekend, since they hold a two-point lead on their closest challenger, Boston University. (BU would win on tiebreak in terms of playoff seeding, but they’d share the title.)

So the Eagles are this close to sealing that deal.

Notre Dame and Lowell also have a shot at a share of the title, standing three and four points back, respectively, but BC remains in the driver’s seat. And if the Eagles pull it off, it’ll be a wire-to-wire title they can be proud of since they opened the season 8-0-1 in league play.

Unfortunately, they’re also on the brink of not qualifying for the NCAA tournament. At this point, they’re tied for 17th in the PairWise (with Vermont), and will need to be at least in the top 15 to qualify, if not better.

(Of the 16 berths, six go to the tournament winners in the six leagues. The 10 at-large berths go to the top remaining teams in the PairWise. Presently, the WCHA does not have a team that would earn an at-large invitation, meaning that the cutoff line is at 15, but could go higher if there are upsets in league tournaments that give autobids to teams that would otherwise be below the cut.)

Usually, this potential predicament of winning a regular season championship while missing out on the NCAA tournament is something only the “weaker” leagues have to deal with. (See the WCHA this year or Atlantic Hockey if Air Force falters.)

A Hockey East team that has excelled all year long to the point of winning the regular-season championship has almost always built up a huge lead in the at-large race for berths. This writer can’t recall a single Hockey East exception to this, at least not since the expansion of the tournament.

Not so this year. Boston College has posted a stellar 13-4-3 mark in Hockey East play but in a bizarre and potentially disastrous twist, is a shocking 5-8-1 outside the league, one of only three Hockey East teams with losing nonconference records. (Yes, the strength of that nonconference schedule tops every other league team, based on the Strength of Schedule shown in the latest RPI rankings. LINK: http://www.uscho.com/rankings/rpi/d-i-men/

But it’s still a stunning dichotomy. And a head-shaking reality that the Eagles must face.

“We’re out of nonconference opponents, so now it’s, ‘Can we win a regular-season trophy?” BC coach Jerry York says. “That’s our only priority. The PairWise will all come out in the wash if we’re successful and win some playoff games against top teams.

“But we haven’t really talked about that as a team. We’ve just said, ‘Let’s concentrate on what we can concentrate on, and that’s Thursday night’s game with an opportunity to play for a trophy.'”

As for why the Eagles haven’t been more successful in their nonconference games, a reminder is in order of how decimated the team was by not only the normal graduation of seniors that all schools face (five), but more importantly, early defections to the pros (seven!).

Those losses prompted the league coaches to predict BC would finish sixth in their preseason poll. Arguably then, this year’s Eagles have not been nonconference disappointments but rather Hockey East overachievers.

“Going into the season, we were very, very concerned,” York says. “If you looked at the makeup of our club, you would have thought that this was going to be a really hard year for the Eagles to be involved in national tournaments or regular season [title races]. The reality that faced us was that we hadn’t turned over just ordinary players but a lot of our top-end guys.

“So faced with that, we knew it never was going to be a linear path from October through to a really successful season. There were going to be ups and downs, and certainly that’s been the case for our club this year.

“But when you look at it, I’m so proud our guys formed a team that’s got a chance to win it. I like our club. I like how we’re playing. I like our ability and our teamwork. We’ve put ourselves in a position we only could have wished and hoped for in July.

“If someone said then that we could go into the last weekend of the season with not only a chance to win the trophy, but a lead, we’d have taken that in a heartbeat.”

Can they close the deal and win the regular season title? Can they go on from there to win the Hockey East tournament or if not win it, at least go far enough to earn an NCAA berth?

“In any hockey game, there are certain key things that separate the winner from the loser,” York says. “In our case, it’s a very, very small margin.

“Certainly special teams, both ways. Can we kill Lowell’s power play which is operating at 25 percent [actually 28.6]? Can we cut down our penalty minutes [a league-worst 14.9 minutes per game] and not give Lowell a lot of opportunities? Then we have to be effective on our power play against them. And goaltending is a big factor in these games.

“But the difference this year for our team between winning and losing is such a small [margin]. Did you win a key faceoff? Did you make a good breakout? We’re not going to beat teams 8-0 and 7-0. The league is just way too strong for that.”

Should the regular season champion get an NCAA autobid?

This note in the Monday Morning blog raised the ire of a few fans:

And no, if Boston College wins the regular season title, that earns them nothing in terms of an automatic berth. That goes to the winner of the Hockey East tournament (as it should).

Representative of the opposing view was this sentiment:

“I travel long distances during the season to see HE games. You bet they should count. A team’s effort over five months tells me much more than what a team does in a three-week tournament. Additionally, regular season games continue to need to get their tires pumped up if they want continue to charge the high admission prices. We want the student athletes to play in front of full houses. Right?”

Some good points here. And of course, we all want full houses throughout the regular season.

But let’s look a little more closely.

If we’re interested in the best teams being rewarded with an NCAA tournament invitation, then we don’t want an autobid for both the regular season champion and the tournament champion. That would mean there’d be twelve autobid berths and only four based for at-large teams. In effect, that would push out more teams from the stronger conferences–teams that would otherwise gain at-large berths–at the expense of weak conferences potentially getting two teams in when none is worthy based on the PairWise.

Take the WCHA, for example. (Paraphrasing Henny Youngman, “Take the WCHA. Please, take it.”)

Not to kick the remnants of a once-proud conference when it’s down, but its top team in the PairWise is Bemidji State, clocking in at number 24, not even close to the bubble. If another team wins the WCHA tournament, do we really want to have two weak sisters in the tournament at the expense of a team like North Dakota, which would then be bounced as of today’s PairWise.

The same point, to a somewhat lesser degree, holds true for Atlantic Hockey, where it’s top-ranked team in the PairWise, Air Force (tied for 15th), would have a legitimate claim for the berth, but not so for Canisius (26th in the PairWise, but actually a point ahead of Air Force in the standings).

I hope we can agree that such double-dipping isn’t the direction we want to go.

So it comes down to whether the one autobid goes to the regular season champion or the tournament champion. This isn’t dictated to the leagues; the NCAA gives them their choice and they unanimously choose a tournament champion.

Why? It certainly makes the tournament a lot more interesting. At this point in the season, most teams have no chance at an at-large berth.

None.

But the tournament champion autobid gives hope to even the most downtrodden team. And for those teams that do play well in the tournament and advance to the semifinals, the games double and triple in significance and excitement. Just look at Northeastern last year, a team on the bubble going into its Hockey East title game with Lowell despite an amazing 20-1-2 run to close out the season after an awful start.

Does anyone think Northeastern didn’t deserve its tournament berth if it hadn’t made it in as an at-large team?

And think of all the times that title games have held the hope of a team making the NCAAs only if they win. What fans get out of that extra level of excitement is priceless.

But what about the “five months of games should count” argument? Those five months of games do count. All of them, both conference and nonconference contests.

In the case of Boston College, if it were just those 20 leagues games that counted (with two more to go), then its 13-4-3 record in those 20 would make the Eagles shoo-ins in the PairWise. The problem is that they went 5-8-1 in nonconference games and those count too, as they should.

The fact is that this situation is happening to Hockey East for the first time since the NCAA tournament expansion to 16 teams, perhaps ever. It’s a total fluke based on BC’s bizarre in-conference and non-conference results.

Far better to risk this rarest of flukes than deny all those other tournament teams the one legitimate shot at playing for a national championship.

A free college hockey story

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  • Rich Neal

    The system to pick NCAA teams is seriously flawed. A committee should take 10 guaranteed spots then pick the other 6 using a combination of guidance with the PW and some common sense. Nobody wants to say it, but if the best team in a conference is 24 in the pairwise, they shouldn’t make the tournament.

    • Vinnie Vega

      …and 24th is not actually that bad considering how low some teams from the old CHA were and still made the tournament. Not a fan of auto bids for this reason.

  • Rich Neal

    The system to pick NCAA teams is seriously flawed. A committee should take 10 guaranteed spots then pick the other 6 using a combination of guidance with the PW and some common sense. Nobody wants to say it, but if the best team in a conference is 24 in the pairwise, they shouldn’t make the tournament.

    • Vinnie Vega

      …and 24th is not actually that bad considering how low some teams from the old CHA were and still made the tournament. Not a fan of auto bids for this reason.

  • Vinnie Vega

    So much for all that focus! Focus on #5 in blue!
    That sound you’re hearing is the River Hawks punching their ticket to the National Tournament.

    • JCN

      Is this the year?

      • Vinnie Vega

        I’d be ecstatic if they made the Frozen Four. Anything beyond would be gravy.

  • Vinnie Vega

    So much for all that focus! Focus on #5 in blue!
    That sound you’re hearing is the River Hawks punching their ticket to the National Tournament.

    • JCN

      Is this the year?

      • Vinnie Vega

        I’d be ecstatic if they made the Frozen Four. Anything beyond would be gravy.

  • JCN

    The argument about how to pick the NCAA Men’s Hockey tournament is getting old. Very old. In the day and age where we are developing self driving cars, refrigerators that can order groceries for you when you are low on milk, a personal assistant “siri” lives in your cell phone, where you can also “facetime” phone calls, can’t somebody develop an algorithim to pick the top 16 college hockey teams, seed them, predict how to maximize attendance, and sell cold beer at a reasonable price at the NCAA Men’s hockey tourney regional and Frozen Four sites? Seems doable, eh?

    • Vinnie Vega

      Seems like they have it pretty close, the only caveat is the auto-bid piece, throwing a wrench in the works. IMO, they could tweak the PWR to include points for # of weeks in the top 16, and tweak NC wins and losses and SOS so that those playing cupcakes are penalized for doing so.

  • JCN

    The argument about how to pick the NCAA Men’s Hockey tournament is getting old. Very old. In the day and age where we are developing self driving cars, refrigerators that can order groceries for you when you are low on milk, a personal assistant “siri” lives in your cell phone, where you can also “facetime” phone calls, can’t somebody develop an algorithim to pick the top 16 college hockey teams, seed them, predict how to maximize attendance, and sell cold beer at a reasonable price at the NCAA Men’s hockey tourney regional and Frozen Four sites? Seems doable, eh?

    • Vinnie Vega

      Seems like they have it pretty close, the only caveat is the auto-bid piece, throwing a wrench in the works. IMO, they could tweak the PWR to include points for # of weeks in the top 16, and tweak NC wins and losses and SOS so that those playing cupcakes are penalized for doing so.