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Ryan Lambert

NCAA Hockey 101: Handicapping home ice

Ryan Lambert
Puck Daddy

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NCAA Hockey 101 is a weekly feature on U.S. Division I college hockey. Stick around and you just might learn a thing or two.

With only one or two weeks left in the conference regular season, the vast majority of spots are still undecided.

While Hockey East is the only conference to actually reward teams for not being bad (only eight of the league's 10 teams make the playoffs), there's still much to be decided across the nation, though many of the various conferences' top spots have been all but locked up.

Let's start with Hockey East, where league-leading UNH has a home-ice spot locked up and second-place BC is all but guaranteed one unless it seriously falters in the home stretch (the Eagles cannot finish lower than fifth). But the rest of the league? Who knows?

Maine's in third, six points back of UNH and only two behind BC with a game in hand, but they're not even guaranteed a playoff spot at this point because only six points separates third from ninth. The rest of the race is a logjam of BU and Northeastern with 24 and 23 points, both UMass and UMass Lowell with 22, Merrimack with 21 and Vermont with 20. Crazy. My guess is that Lowell pulls ahead of Northeastern (which faces UNH and BU in the remaining four games) but not the Terriers or Black Bears, to finish fifth.

What about the rest of the conferences?

In the WCHA I think Denver will clinch the McNaughton Cup this weekend by sweeping Mankato, and Wisconsin will make use of its two games in hand on St. Cloud to take the No. 2 spot. Neither Colorado College nor NoDak will catch Duluth, but the Sioux will get the fifth and final home ice spot.

The ECAC has just one weekend left, and three teams are fighting for first place. First-place Yale faces 10th place Princeton, but the intriguing part is that Cornell and Union, tied for second and two points back of Yale, play each other. If Princeton can pull out a win (not likely), and things will get really interesting. But they won't get interesting, and the top three will finish Yale, then Union, then Cornell. The fourth and final first-round bye will go to RPI, which will sweep Colgate this weekend.

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Miami has had the No. 1 CCHA seed under armed guard since sometime last August, so no worries there. But six teams are playing for three more byes, at least in theory. Michigan State has one locked up with an easy draw of Bowling Green in this final weekend. So now we're down to two. But Ferris State has Western Michigan, a sure sweep, and that leaves one spot for four teams: Alaska, Nebraska-Omaha, Michigan and Northern Michigan. But UNO and Alaska are playing non-conference teams and Michigan only has one game left, so I guess I'm picking NMU to win the final spot with a sweep of Lake Superior? Okay, sure.

Atlantic Hockey has two of its top four spots sealed up, with RIT winning the regular season (again) and Sacred Heart securing second. Given that Air Force plays Sacred Heart and Canisius has RIT, one of those spots is all but decided since Mercyhurst is going to bludgeon last-place UConn this weekend. So Air Force and Canisius, tied with 30 points, play the best two teams in the league, and I'm giving it to the Falcons since they host the second-place team and Canisius visits the first-place one.

Finally, in College Hockey America, Bemidji is waaaaaay out in front and there's one spot between Robert Morris (15 points) and Alabama-Huntsville (11). Robert Morris only plays two more games this year, but they're against Niagara, so that's two easy Ws. Huntsville has Niagara (again, four points) and Bemidji (obviously none). So that's a win for RMU.

POP QUIZ

In which I ask a blogger five questions about the team they follow. This week, Rachel Lenzi from the Portland Press Herald was nice enough to answer a few questions about the Maine Black Bears.

1) Is Maine's performance this year at all surprising given how it played the last two seasons?

It was surprising after the team opened the season 1-5 and got swept at Union in the season-opening series. But the players have taken on their roles, lines have found their niche and Maine collectively gained confidence after wins against Vermont and Boston U. early in the season.

If you look at the sophomore and junior classes (14 players, including junior captain Tanner House and junior assistant captain Jeff Dimmen), they weathered the past two years - going winless through most of last January, struggling through the second half of 2007-2008 - learned what to do in certain situations on the ice and how to prepare off the ice. Probably the biggest surprises were Robby Dee adapting so well at center and Adam Shemansky making an immediate impact as a 5-foot-5 freshman.

2) Do you think Gustav Nyquist is the best player in Hockey East? (Admission: I sure do.)

What sets Nyquist apart from other players is the sense and depth perception he has for the ice, his decision-making with and away from the puck and the chemistry he has with his linemates, House and Brian Flynn. Splitting up that line at the start of the season was done by default (House injured his knee two days before the start of the season and missed the first four games) and also by design but the best thing Maine's coaching staff did earlier this season was reunite Flynn, Nyquist and House just before Thanksgiving. There's no way to replicate the value of that line to Maine.

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3) Have you ever seen a performance like Brian Flynn's five-goal, seven-point night against Lowell on Friday?

I watched Mike Ridley's six-assist night for the Washington Capitals in the first hockey game I went to (a 6-3 win over Chicago in 1989 at the old Capital Centre in Landover, Md.) and I grew up watching Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Scott Stevens, Cam Neely ... some of the most dynamic players of that era. But nothing can match what I got to witness when Flynn scored five goals and two assists - how many hockey fans get the privilege to see something so remarkable? As a reporter, it's a feat you appreciate when it's all over and you've made deadline. And Nyquist put it in perspective when he said, "Five goals, that's probably more than most guys score in a year in college hockey."

4) What is a bigger Achilles heel for the Black Bears? Lack of depth at forward or goaltending?

While various injuries at center have caused the coaches to tinker with the lineup, Maine's forwards have responded when put in particular situations - critical in the development of freshmen like Klas Leidermark, Kyle Beattie and Joey Diamond. Maine, however, feeds off strong goaltending from Scott Darling. The Black Bears are a little more at ease when he is in goal.

5) How deep can they get in the Hockey East or NCAA tournaments?

That's a loaded question. Put it this way - Maine has four games to secure a Hockey East playoff berth and put itself in position for a potential NCAA bid. Hockey East's postseason seedings will probably go down to the final weekend of the regular season and as I write this, seven teams are playing for six spots now that New Hampshire and Boston College have clinched playoff berths. In a sense, the next two weekends already are the beginning of the Hockey East playoffs.

Ryan Lambert writes about college hockey weekly here at Puck Daddy. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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