NCAA Hockey 101: Top-heavy conferences sucking fun out of races


One of the weird quirks of the college hockey schedule is that you don't often play a ton of conference games in the first half of the year. And conversely, it is very rare indeed that anyone plays more than two or three non-conference games after the holiday tournaments have come to an end.

But we're now just a week or two into that back half of the season, and it's starting to look like there's very little chance that the teams current sitting at the top of their conferences end up capitulating any ground to those below them.

That's true in Atlantic Hockey, where the top two or three teams are pretty well differentiating themselves from the rest of the pack. It's true in the Big Ten, where the top three and bottom three have a nine-point gap between them. Quinnipiac has already run away with the ECAC top spot, sitting seven points ahead of second-place RPI. The top five teams in Hockey East are running everyone else out of the building almost every night. St. Cloud and North Dakota are 12 and 10 points clear of Denver, respectively, atop the NCHC. And first-in-the-WCHA Minnesota State is three points above its nearest challengers, and six north of fourth.

There is, basically, just about a month and a half left in the regular season for most of these teams and all they're doing is jockeying for position at this point. There's basically no way for anyone below them to make a run for a top spot or anything close to it short of an uncharacteristic, lengthy winning streak that might necessarily need to include multiple wins over conference giants.

For that reason, it's perhaps just a statement of fact to say you can reasonably project that most playoff races are effectively over.

Hockey East is by far the most competitive conference, though. Despite the lack of loser points in most college games, this league has the apparent parity of an idealized Gary Bettman NHL. But in some respects, this is because of some very weird games-played disparities that will be worked out over the next few weeks. For instance, conference-leading UMass Lowell has 21 points from 14 games, but has at least two more games played than the four teams behind them, including four more than Providence, which is just six points back. Lowell and Providence play this weekend so the Friars have the ability to make up plenty of ground.

Likewise, second-place Boston College has 19 points from 12 games, which is technically better than Lowell's 21 from 14. And hard-charging Notre Dame is up to 18 from 11 thanks to an unbeaten league run of five straight wins since taking just one of a possible four points at Lowell in late November.

But the gap here is huge. Fifth-place BU has 13 points from 12 games, and has a sizable lead on UConn's 10-from-13. Moreover, this isn't even really the product of anyone in the conference's bottom seven having a run of bad luck at any point this season. Most of the bottom teams just aren't that good, and have the goal differentials and (for the most part) possession numbers to back it up.

Likewise, the top half of the Big Ten versus the bottom. Michigan, Minnesota and Penn State have a combined 51 points, while Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State sit at just 15. That total would tie the third-place Nittany Lions. They might as well just start the playoffs now in that conference, because there's no point to the remainder of the season.

The ECAC is at least tight after you get past Quinnipiac. Its seven-point gap at the top is the most of any team in the nation by a wide margin, but only five points separate RPI from sixth-place Dartmouth. Not that the Big Green are going to mount any sort of assault on the Engineers, but Cornell or Harvard or even Yale very well could with little difficulty. Again, this is just a handful of bullies jockeying for position, and really only playing for seeding so that once they get through to the semifinals of the ECAC tournament, they get a favorable draw.

As far as the NCHC goes, it is jarring to see St. Cloud atop it given the play of North Dakota since the start of the season. However, that comes with the caveat that the Huskies have played three more games than the Fighting Hawks and nonetheless have a lead of just two points. Third-place Denver is, however, a distant concern for both, given that 20 is far less than 32 or 30, two games in hand on the leaders be damned.

Duluth is a point back of the Pioneers, but there's another decent-sized gap between them and Omaha, so while the Mavericks split with North Dakota this weekend, a sub-.500 conference record doesn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence that even Denver is in too much danger of getting passed by.

And when it comes to either Atlantic Hockey or the WCHA, the disparities there are always going to be fairly stark.

These are conferences made up by a handful of giants and some relative minnows that are only occasionally capable of picking up points against the big guys. Robert Morris and Minnesota State appear exceedingly comfortable atop those conferences for a number of reasons. But to put it as simply as possible: They're just the strongest of the teams in those leagues and should continue to be for the rest of the season.

None of this is to say “the season's over!” or anything like that — well, except in the NCHC and ECAC, where it is well and truly over in terms of anyone but North Dakota, St. Cloud, and Quinnipiac winning a regular-season trophy. But when you can see stratification this clearly with this much of the season remaining, it should be pretty telling.

The top 20 or so teams in college hockey have already done so much to differentiate themselves from the bottom 40, and more relatively easy wins are coming for just about all of them. All they really have to do, then, is take care of business against the teams they should beat (not always easy for BU or Lowell, among other top clubs that have dropped gimme games this season) and hope to at least wrestle those that are equal to or slightly better than them to a draw (also not always easy, because hockey is a game of randomness).

It's still very possible for teams outside the top 20 to squeak their way in of course. Hot streaks and cold streaks happen all the time in this sport and if you're on the bubble, then you're vulnerable.

But would it really surprise anyone, in these last several weeks of conference play, to see that 14 or 15 of the current top 16 teams are holding onto spots in the NCAA tournament by the time early March rolls around? It's been a very strange year in college hockey, but it's one that's lent itself to a sort of hierarchical parity that definitively separates the top one-third from the bottom two-thirds through these odd quirks of conference quality.

Something we can say definitively, though, is that Arizona State is lucky it doesn't have to deal with these headaches one way or the other.

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. Quinnipiac (idle)

2. North Dakota (split with Omaha)

3. Boston College (took three points in a home-and-home with BU)

4. St. Cloud (took three points at Minnesota-Duluth)

5. Providence College (swept at Vermont)

6. Michigan (took three points at Ohio State)

7. UMass Lowell (swept a home-and-home with UMass)

8. Nebraska-Omaha (split at North Dakota)

9. Cornell (lost at RPI, tied at Union)

10. Harvard (beat St. Lawrence, lost to Clarkson)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and also covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here.