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Hockey: Irish await CCHA opponent

By Sam Gans | Thursday, March 7, 2013

No. 9 Notre Dame will be comfortably at home while the best-of-three, first-round series of the CCHA tournament take place Friday through Sunday. No. 6 seed Alaska hosts No. 11 seed Michigan State, No. 10 seed Northern Michigan travels to No. 7 seed Michigan and No. 9 seed Bowling Green travels to No. 8 seed Lake Superior State.

But just because the Irish (21-12-3, 17-8-3-2 CCHA) aren’t competing doesn’t mean they won’t be interested in the results of this weekend’s matchups.

The Irish, by virtue of finishing second in the conference in the regular season, will host the second-lowest seed that advances past the best-of-three, second-round series March 15-17. This means the Irish could face the Wolverines (13-18-3, 9-15-3), Lakers (16-19-1, 11-16-1), Falcons (13-18-5, 10-15-3) or Wildcats (15-17-4, 9-15-4).

Notre Dame is most likely to play Michigan based on the seeding – should no upsets occur in the first round the Irish would play the Wolverines – which is probably the matchup Irish fans would most like to see.

The rival Wolverines always make for an entertaining and intense series and the Irish have had remarkable success against the maize and blue this season, sweeping all four regular-season games. Plus, an Irish series victory would halt the Wolverines’ run of 22 straight NCAA tournament appearances and be some nice payback after Michigan ended Notre Dame’s season in the second round of the CCHA tournament just a season ago.

If either the Wildcats upset the Wolverines or the Spartans upset the Nanooks, the Irish would play the winner of the Falcons and Lakers. Notre Dame has had success against both this year. The Irish swept both Bowling Green and Lake Superior State in the Compton Family Ice Arena, including victories over the falcons just last weekend and the Lakers before winter break. Notre Dame also split a pair of games at Bowling Green earlier in the year for a 3-1 season record against the Falcons.

However, the opponent that could potentially help Notre Dame’s NCAA tournament chances the most is the team the Irish are least likely to play: Northern Michigan. Not only would the Wildcats have to win at Michigan to face Notre Dame but the Spartans would also have to upset Alaska.

Despite being the lowest seed of the four possible Irish opponents, Northern Michigan has the best overall record and, more importantly, an RPI above .500. This makes them a “Team Under Consideration” (TUC) in the Pairwise Rankings, in which the Irish are currently tied for 14th.

The Pairwise determines the 11 at-large teams who make the NCAA tournament, along with the five conference champions. It is a complex system with too many parts to explain fully in the space provided for this article, but one of the factors in determining how well a team fares in the Pairwise is its record against TUC schools. By facing the Wildcats in the second round, Notre Dame could add two more wins to its total to bump its TUC record to 9-9-3.

To fully understand how bizarre the Pairwise can be, the 2008 Irish provide a good example. Either an Irish win or an Irish loss in the CCHA consolation game against Northern Michigan would have seen Notre Dame win enough comparisons to make the NCAA tournament. Had the Irish tied, they would have been out. No, you did not misread that.

Interestingly enough, should the Wildcats lose the series to the Wolverines, their RPI would most likely drop below .500 and they would no longer be a TUC. And because the Irish went 2-0 against the Wildcats in the regular season, Notre Dame’s TUC record would move from 7-9-3 to 5-9-3, potentially hurting its Pairwise ranking.

Ultimately, the potential series that would be the most fun would be Michigan, but the potential series that would likely help Notre Dame’s NCAA tournament chances the most, if the Irish win, would be Northern Michigan. As a result, the probable opponent will be either Bowling Green or Lake Superior. Hockey, after all, is a funny game.

Contact Sam Gans at sgans@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of
The Observer.