The Frozen Four is a little less than a month away but the most exciting weekend in college hockey is coming up in just a few days: Championship weekend. The field across the country has been whittled down from 59 teams to just 26 (thanks, insipid Big Ten tournament that allows all six teams!) and for the most part, hope is alive for all 26.
And look, I'm about to say that a lot of these tournaments are anyone's to win. I hate saying this kind of thing, because that's all that most college hockey writing and analysis is. “These teams are all really good!” and so on. But I'm not really enamored of anyone this season like I was last year with Union, BC, and Minnesota; no one jumps off the page as being truly and deeply excellent from top to bottom. I have some teams left that I like more than others, but for the most part just about any goofy result this weekend would make me say, “Hmm, yeah, weird, but I can see that.” So I'm sorry in advance for sounding wishy-washy, but the fact is that no one's good enough to be the clear favorite in their conference (save for one team).
Here, then, is a quick look at all of the conference tournaments, done alphabetically so you know I don't really hate your conference:
Well, much like the entire regular season, this reads like it's is Robert Morris's to lose. The top-seeded Colonials play Mercyhurst — which upset Bentley in the second round of the conference tournament — on Friday and here's a problem: The Lakers are a much better possession team.
RMU has relied on strong goaltending all year, and while there's no reason to expect a big change in that regard in either game this weekend, let's just say they're lucky that Mercyhurst is a worse one. They'll play the winner of RIT and Canisius, which all the numbers say is probably going to be RIT, and that could pose a serious problem.
The Tigers have average goaltending, maybe a little above. But they're one of the nation's dominant possession teams (54.4 percent). There could very easily be an upset in this tournament, and if it happens I'd say it's RIT over RMU in the championship game. Anything else would be a minor surprise, but they're all playing for an autobid anyway; no one from this conference is getting in on the merits of their regular-season performance, which is as it should be.
Yup, six teams. Two of them — Michigan State and top-seeded Minnesota — have the honor of not-playing on Thursday. Meanwhile, Michigan and Wisconsin, and Penn State and Ohio State, will participate in “play-in” games to determine who gets the honor of playing the Spartans and Gophers.
The good news for Michigan and Penn State is that they are clearly the two best teams of that group of four. The bad news is that if/when they win, they have to play their archrivals and the best team in the conference, respectively. State gave the Wolverines plenty of trouble this weekend, and in fact won Saturday night's contest to lock up the No. 2 seed so they wouldn't have to play a maximum of three games in as many days.
The Gophers have some problems, sure, but they won the conference despite them, and they continue to swim in talent. The winner of Penn State and Ohio State would be in tough to get much done against them, but then again stranger things have happened.
This was a bizarre second year for the Big Ten as a whole, as no one seemed to want to win it. Call it parity if you want, but it was really a couple of teams under-peforming, and a couple over-performing. That might sort itself out this weekend, but if things go as planned for the Gophers they're probably going to walk.
The shocker here is that Harvard, healthy-again Harvard, knocked off Yale, one of the nation's corsi juggernauts. And that kind of throws everything out of whack.
Quinnipiac is still the best team in the conference by far, even if they did have more difficulty than they probably should have in dispatching Union this past weekend. But Harvard got defenseman Patrick McNally back for that Yale series, and continues to have as dominant a top line as there is in the country. And hey what do you know, Steve Michalek seems to be figuring it out again in goal. When Harvard was still rolling, it indeed rolled the Q, 5-2 back in December. Their more recent meeting, when Harvard was very banged up, netted the same scoreline the opposite way. Very tough to say what happens here.
This is a shockingly big test for the Bobcats, and if they can get past it they still have to play the winner of a pretty interesting game between a very good Colgate club, and a second-seeded St. Lawrence team with perhaps the most statistically impressive goaltender in the country. Either team would be a tough draw in the final.
This tournament is Quinnipiac's to lose, but it's shockingly not-easy for them. What happens if you actually need Michael Gartieg to be, y'know, good?
Another tournament that's fairly wide open. BU is one of the best teams in the country but is prone to the occasional bad game (contingent on Jack Eichel being able to create goals at will, as he so often does).
The No. 1 Terriers open with UNH — advancing after upsetting Providence) on Friday, and that's an underdog that's charging up the standings (winning 10 of their last 12 games, albeit against mostly easy opponents). But one of those wins, and one of the two losses, were against BU. The good news for the Terriers is that they lit up Danny Tirone for eight goals in the weekend. The bad news is that UNH lit up Matt O'Connor for six in a game and a half. It's a real point of concern that it could happen again.
And on the other side of the bracket there's a rematch from last year's quarterfinal series: Lowell versus Vermont. Lowell finished fourth in Hockey East, and Vermont seventh. The latter advanced by beating No. 3 Boston College in three games over the weekend. The River Hawks took three of four points from Vermont in Lowell to close out the regular season, and in fact they're now 8-3-2 against them in the last four years. So it's an uphill climb for the Catamounts against these reigning consecutive league champion, but if Brody Hoffman plays like he did this past weekend (.989 in 154:49 of work), then it won't matter. Lowell is also prone to the occasional “What's wrong with these guys?” night, so that doesn't help.
And in the title game, well, just about any matchup could be problematic. Lowell hasn't faced UNH with Tirone (but smoked them a combined 10-2 in two games in the regular season). BU swept Lowell but had its hands full in the first one, which it won in overtime. Vermont lost both to BU as well, but both games were effectively decided by a single goal and came down to the wire. Finally, UNH and Vermont split their regular-season series.
Literally anything could happen here and it would be no great surprise. But by far the most likely outcome is BU rolls behind the Eichel line.
This isn't as cut-and-dry as most people would have you believe. I've talked before about my skepticism of North Dakota's overall quality and the fact that they crumpled Colorado College this past weekend doesn't really bolster their credentials.
Are they better than St. Cloud? Sure they are. They should win that game with ease too (but they might not, because they're not great themselves!). This side of the bracket is of no real interest to me.
However, Miami/Denver? Yes please. Two teams with solid players throughout the lineup, both pretty strong in goal, and both dominant possession teams (the RedHawks have a slight edge, at 54.5 percent to the Pioneers' 53.5 percent). I hope this game lasts forever.
And whoever advances out of it will indeed probably have to play North Dakota in the final, and both had success of a sort. Denver took just three of a possible eight points, but that's better than most teams did this year (boy is it tough to win at North Dakota). Miami split the season series, winning and losing in both venues. These games not being played in Grand Forks probably helps these putative underdogs a lot.
Again, the most likely result is that North Dakota wins, but it's also more up for grabs than some other conferences I could mention.
Minnesota State is the best team in this conference by a mile so the Mavericks are probably going to win this tournament with ease.
Jamie Phillips make Michigan Tech look pretty good, sure. And Bowling Green was good for a while there. But Minnesota State outscored the other three teams in this bracket 31-15 in the regular season.
Tech had a really good season and lost 10-6 on aggregate in four games (0-3-1). Ferris was outscored 15-4 and went 0-4. Bowling Green was fortunate to only play them twice, and in fact earned a split when things were going exceptionally well for them, but still lost the goals battle 6-5.
Mankato is the best possession team in the country. Their record wouldn't be 27-7-3 if they weren't in the WCHA, but they'd probably do very well in almost any conference in the country. Anything that doesn't end with them hoisting a trophy this weekend would be shocking.
(Also they call this tournament the Final Five but there are only four teams in it, so that's dumb.)
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 Colorado College)
2. Miami (beat Western in three)
3. BU (swept Merrimack)
4. Minnesota State (swept LSSU)
5. Denver (swept Minnesota-Duluth)
6. Quinnipiac (beat Union in three)
7. UMass Lowell (beat Notre Dame in three)
8. Minnesota (swept Penn State)
9. Colgate (swept Dartmouth)
10. Yale (lost to Harvard in three)