Murphy: NCAA hockey conference tournament races heating up
Ryan Murphy | Friday, February 24, 2023
For four of the six college hockey conferences, this is the final weekend of regular season action. There is still much to be decided in terms of home ice and tournament seeds, and even more to be decided when it comes to the NCAA Tournament picture. Let’s take a quick look at where things stand in each conference.
RIT has clinched Atlantic Hockey’s regular season title. The Tigers are the first team not named AIC to take the league crown since 2017-18. AIC had won the last four regular season titles, and the last three tournament titles.
No AHA teams are currently in position to make the NCAA Tournament at large. This year’s tournament champion will likely be the only team from the conference to make the NCAAs. The Atlantic Hockey tournament begins with a quarterfinal round next weekend at campus sites.
Our Tyler Reidy did an excellent deep-dive earlier this week into the possible outcomes in the incredibly tight Big Ten standings. You can bet on the fact that Minnesota will finish first, and Wisconsin will finish last. The rest of the possibilities? Well, you’ll have to read his article to find out.
The race for the CCHA regular season title unequivocally comes down to this weekend’s series between Michigan Tech and Minnesota State, which will take place in Mankato. Minnesota State comes into the weekend as the league’s leader with 49 points. Michigan Tech is in second place with 47 points. The series will also have national implications — the Huskies and Mavericks are PairWise neighbors, ranked 11th and 12th, respectively.
The CCHA tournament begins with the quarterfinal round next weekend. The conference semifinals take place on March 11, and the championship will be March 18. All games will be played at the home of the higher seed.
Quinnipiac clinched their third straight Cleary Cup (regular season championship) with wins over Yale and Brown last weekend. The top four schools in the twelve-team ECAC get a bye from the dangerous single-elimination first round of the conference tournament, which is slated to begin next weekend. Harvard and Cornell have also clinched first-round byes.
Colgate and St. Lawrence are both gunning for the final bye, and both have 34 points. The Saints split their games last week, falling to the Raiders in overtime and upsetting Cornell 1-0. Yet, the road ahead for St. Lawrence is more difficult. They play second-place Harvard on Friday and last-place Dartmouth on Saturday. Colgate, on the other hand, plays Yale and Brown, both of whom are in the league’s bottom three.
Cornell might be the most interesting case of all the ECAC teams. While assured a first-round bye in the conference tournament, their NCAA Tournament hopes hit a snag last weekend with home losses to Clarkson and St. Lawrence. The Big Red entered the weekend ranked 10th in the PairWise, but dropped to 14th after the losses.
Hockey East still has two weeks remaining in its regular season. Therefore, nothing is set in stone yet. Northeastern, Boston University and Merrimack are all within two points of the league lead. Northeastern especially has come on strong as of late. The Huskies are 7-1-2 in their last ten games after a topsy-turvy early season run. The Hockey East tournament is entirely single elimination, with the top-five teams receiving first-round byes. The tournament begins on Mar. 8 and culminates with the championship game at the TD Garden in Boston on March 18.
The NCHC also has two weeks remaining in its regular season. Both Denver (the current league leader) and Western Michigan control their own destiny in the quest for the Penrose Cup. Denver can secure the title by winning three of their final four games, while Western Michigan could clinch by winning each of the last four. To make matters more interesting, the Pioneers and Broncos are set to meet this weekend in Kalamazoo. Western Michigan has never won a Penrose Cup.
Sitting third in the conference standings (only one point behind Western Michigan) is Omaha, who is 9-1-1 in their last 11 games. The hot streak has propelled the Mavericks into NCAA Tournament contention, and they have moved up to 13th in the PairWise. They face St. Cloud State and North Dakota down the stretch. They are still very much alive in the Penrose Cup chase.
The first round of the NCHC tournament quarterfinals begins March 10, with the league’s top four teams hosting the bottom four. The semifinals and finals will be played at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Loose Pucks: Alaska still vying for tournament bid
One of the best stories of the season has been Alaska Fairbanks, who is sitting on the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Nanooks are 17th in the PairWise and, because of their independent status, essentially need to win out to even have a chance. Alaska has only made the big tournament once, back in 2010.
Heading into the weekend, Notre Dame is No. 1 in strength of schedule, according to College Hockey News’ KRACH rankings. The top seven teams in strength of schedule are the seven Big Ten teams, which gives you an idea of just how good the conference has been this year.
Quinnipiac, ranked No. 2 in the PairWise, is 42nd in strength of schedule. Their strength of schedule is the lowest among top-20 teams, including Alaska Fairbanks. An outdoor game between the ACHA club teams of NC State and North Carolina was a swinging success last weekend. With free admission, the game drew 24,000 fans to NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium, which was also the site of an NHL Stadium Series game the night before.
Speaking of outdoor games, Michigan and Ohio State drew 45,000 fans to First Energy Field in Cleveland last Saturday. It’s the highest-attended college hockey game of the season, although the ice was a bit suspect. Augustana, a small college of less than 2,000 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, will make the jump to Division One hockey next year. Earlier in the week, they unveiled designs for an on-campus rink, which looks gorgeous. The new Midco Arena features box seats and luxury suites. Wednesday was the 43rd anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice” game in Lake Placid. Never forget.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.