One thing we've heard all year long is that the NCHC is the best and deepest conference in the country. In a lot of ways, this is certainly true.
Perhaps the biggest, and the one that's best buoyed the conference's astonishing five teams in the top eight Pairwise spots right now, is the fact that everyone has a really great strength of schedule. North Dakota's schedule is the eighth-hardest, Minnesota Duluth's is first, Omaha's is third, Miami's is fifth, Denver's is fourth. And St. Cloud, which as of now is now out of contention for the NCAA tournament because it's below .500, is second. For an eight-team conference, this is pretty incredible. Only Western Michigan (27th in the PWR but seventh in strength of schedule) and Colorado College (49th, sixth) sit outside even remote contention.
Those SOS ratings are buoyed appreciably by the fact that no one lost more than five games out of conference all year, and the NCHC's combined record against non-conference opponents was 53-25-4 (.671), though it must be said that North Dakota, Omaha, and Denver only played a combined 11 conference games away from home. So when non-conference opponents are spotting teams that much leeway, the overall strength of schedule is going to benefit a lot.
So that got me wondering just how good these teams actually are. Winning a lot is one thing, but in such small samples you can get a pretty inaccurate picture of overall team quality. Consider that Merrimack went 9-2-1 out of conference for the third-best record in the country in such games, but once it got into Hockey East play, it lost 14 of 22. Looks can be deceiving.
Which is why you have to look beyond wins and losses. People in college hockey circles are generally loath to do this kind of thing, but it's important in terms of predicting future success. Let's take North Dakota, just for example. They're first in the country in the polls, in winning percentage, and in the Pairwise. But how good are they, really? Their numbers come in at 51.7 percent corsi for, which is good for 24th in the country. That's also only fourth in the NCHC. Now, you can say that's a consequence of them leading so much, and that's probably not inaccurate (though Miami and Duluth having four and five fewer wins but CF% of at least 55 should have a smaller but not dissimilar impact on their possession numbers).
Where North Dakota differs, and which comes as no surprise, is that they have both the highest shooting percentage and save percentage in the league. Looking at the roster, you'd have to say that maybe shooting 8.8 percent at evens is a little bit high even for a team that talented — and with Mark MacMillan potentially done for the year, even more so — but Zane McIntyre was always going to be stopping about .940 at evens. He's just that good, and given the fact that his team concedes an inordinate number of shot attempts (42.3 per game, third-most in the conference) he's utterly crucial to their ongoing success. If he was even a little worse, let's say he allowed an extra five goals in 32 games this season, we're not having a discussion about North Dakota being the top team in the country; their shot generation is decidedly middle of the pack on a national level, so the fact that they have 73 even-strength goals goes a long way.
Of course, only about 25 or 30 percent of most games is played at 5-on-5, so you have to consider special teams quality as well. Here too, North Dakota doesn't exactly impress in comparison with its conference rivals; its 20.9 percent conversion rate on power plays is fourth in the conference behind St. Cloud, Denver, and Colorado College (somehow). Its PK is, not surprisingly, the best by a decent margin, because McIntyre has an .872 save percentage when down a man. The NCHC average is .863. But North Dakota takes a lot of penalties (second-most in the conference) and draws the the third-most. Their power play opportunity differential for the season is plus-1.
This is a team that's gone out of its way to not-test itself (only three road or neutral-site games out of conference? Grow up.) and are only going to play their toughest road dates of the season this coming weekend. And the average winning percentage of their OOC opponents is currently .377, so it's not like they're playing anyone good; in fact, only Providence (21-11-2) and Bemidji (15-4-5) are over .500 from that group. North Dakota went a scintillating 2-1-1 against those teams. And Bemidji isn't actually good. And that was when Providence was playing like absolute garbage. And three of those games were in Grand Forks.
The point is that if I'm North Dakota I'm scared to death of the possibility of playing either Miami or Duluth in the conference tournament, and Denver wouldn't be a picnic either. All these teams are better fundamentally than North Dakota, which has to rely on getting world-beating goaltending every night to win a lot of games. In all, 15 of their games this season have been decided by one goal plus an empty-netter or fewer. I think this weekend's series at Miami will go a long way toward showing whether this team is actually capable of upholding the level of play people expect — rightly or wrongly — from the No. 1 team in the country.
It's all well and good to be an okay or even pretty good team with elite goaltending. You can definitely win that way, and North Dakota has. You can't knock them for logging wins no matter how they do it. But can they win a national title? Depends what happens when McIntyre, as all goalies do, has an inevitable bad game.
The playoffs begin
Meanwhile, out East, the three conferences largely based there are starting their conference tournaments this coming weekend, and boy if none of them are even a little bit interesting.
In the ECAC, Quinnipiac, St. Lawrence, Yale, and Colgate earned the actual byes, while Dartmouth earned a de facto one in a two-game series with Princeton. Harvard's probably going to club Brown, Cornell will likely smoke Union, and the only one that might be close is RPI and Clarkson (which I guess is why they're the Nos. 8 and 9 seeds). As with the regular season — and as detailed in this space last week — Quinnipiac is the best team in this conference, with third-place Yale not all that far behind them.
In Atlantic Hockey, it's Robert Morris, Canisius, RIT, Bentley, and Mercyhurst earning the byes. In the first round, Holy Cross will massacre Niagara, Air Force will casually do away with AIC, and Sacred Heart will probably beat up on Army pretty easily. If Robert Morris doesn't win this conference in a walk it would be a big surprise.
And in Hockey East, it's BU, Providence, BC, and Lowell as the top four getting byes. Notre Dame will humiliate UMass, Northeastern will steamroll Merrimack, Vermont will handle Maine, and UNH might get a series from UConn but I doubt it. Even if there wasn't much separating the byes from the non-byes in (four points separated second place from seventh), the winners here are fairly clear.
I'd be shocked if there are more than two upsets in all three of these conferences combined. This is a very stratified year for all three of the conferences.
A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)
1. North Dakota (swept St. Cloud)
2. Miami (split with Denver)
3. Minnesota State (took three points from Michigan Tech)
4. BU (won two of three against Northeastern)
5. Minnesota Duluth (tied Omaha twice)
6. Denver (split with Miami)
7. Boston College (beat Harvard, split with Notre Dame)
8. Minnesota (idle)
9. Quinnipiac (beat Harvard, lost to Dartmouth)
10. Providence (swept Maine)