Mel Pearson didn’t hesitate when asked if he felt his team needed a win at this weekend’s WCHA Final Five in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“Absolutely,” Michigan Tech’s head coach said. “You don’t want to pin your hopes on other teams losing across the country. This conference is as good as any in the country. It’s unfortunate we all stubbed our toes outside of conference play.”
The WCHA finished 27-35-9 against other conferences, a .444 winning percentage.
Only Atlantic Hockey (15-48-3, .250) had a lower percentage. The Big Ten was .500, (39-39-11), but 12-3-1 against the AHC.
All three conferences may have trouble earning an at-large bid for next week’s 16-team NCAA Tournament. In other words, there is added significance to this weekend’s conference tournaments.
Tech (23-8-5) is the lone WCHA team ranked in the top 20 in PairWise and on the bubble at No. 15. The Huskies, 12-1-3 since Jan. 1, are riding a seven-game winning streak.
And yet, Pearson may be right. The conference’s lack of success against other conferences makes this weekend a must win for a few teams.
- In the WCHA, Minnesota State, which shared the conference title with Tech, ranks 24th in Pairwise. Only Tech has a shot at an at-large selection if it loses.
- In the Big Ten, Minnesota won its fifth consecutive conference title but is tied for 17th PairWise. Runner-up Michigan is ranked sixth and stands the best chance of surviving a bad weekend, but it would need help.
- The AHC will get only its champion into the NCAA Tournament, with Mercyhurst leading the PairWise at No. 19.
Here’s a quick look at the five top conferences and their semifinal matchups.
The NCHC will not get six teams into the NCAA like it did last year, but it will get at least three. Hockey East and the ECAC will also get multiple teams in.
A look at each conference tournament:
- Quinnipiac (27-3-7) vs. Dartmouth (18-15-1), 4 p.m. ET Friday on ASN
- Harvard (18-9-4) vs. St. Lawrence (19-13-4), 7:30 p.m. ET Friday on ASN
- Championship: 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on ASN
Quinnipiac dominated the regular season in a conference that has won two of the past three national titles, but the Bobcats have never won the conference tournament.
Last year, it was ousted in the semifinals by Harvard, which is back to defend its title.
Now the Bobcats have a semifinal matchup against the tournament Cinderella Dartmouth, a seventh-seed that stunned Yale last weekend behind goalie Charles Grant, the ASN Men’s Hockey Player of the Week, and his 94 saves.
The last time Dartmouth faced Quinnipiac the Bobcats needed to rally for six goals in the third period for a 7-5 win.
Harvard and St. Lawrence is also intriguing. While the Crimson eased past Rensselaer by a combined 13-2 margin last weekend, St. Lawrence needed an overtime on Friday and two overtimes on Saturday to sweep Clarkson. Sophomore goalie Kyle Hayton made 50 saves to preserve the win.
Should Harvard and Quinnipiac each win, the title game would be a rematch of one of the regular season’s greatest games when the Bobcats took a 4-0 lead in Madison Square Garden only for the Crimson to rally to tie before Quinnipiac eked out a 5-4 overtime win.
- Our picks: Quinnipiac 5, Dartmouth 3; Harvard 6, St. Lawrence 2
- Title game: Quinnipiac 5, Harvard 4
- Minnesota Duluth (17-14-5) vs. North Dakota (30-5-3), 5 p.m. ET Friday
- Denver (23-8-5) vs. St. Cloud State (29-8-1), 8:30 p.m. ET Friday
- Championship: 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday
With three teams ranked in the top six in the nation and in Pairwise, the NCHC should get UND, Denver and St. Cloud State into the NCAAs. Duluth may have to win at least one game and possibly two to get in.
The Bulldogs entered the season as a preseason favorite, but are just 17-14-5 and ranked 13th in PairWise. However, they are on a six-game winning streak since being swept on the road at North Dakota. Sophomore goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo posted the conference’s best goals-against average at 1.69. A win over top-ranked UND, a team it lost four close games to in the regular season, would be huge.
North Dakota hasn’t won in its first two trips to the NCHC Frozen Four, but freshman Brock Boeser is the league’s top scorer with 20 goals and 15 assists in the 24 games. He ranks seventh in the country in overall scoring with 25 goals and 23 assists while sophomore Cam Johnson finished with the top save percentage in NCHC play at .935, also a conference record.
Denver-St. Cloud may be the best semifinal of any conference, matching two high-powered offenses with solid goaltending.
- Our picks: UND 4, Duluth 3; St. Cloud 5, Denver 3
- Title game: St. Cloud 4, UND 3
- UMass Lowell (23-8-5) vs. Providence (27-5-4), 5 p.m. Friday ET
- Northeastern (20-13-5) vs. Boston College (26-6-5), 8 p.m. ET Friday
- Championship: 7 p.m. ET Saturday
It’s tough to see any of these teams not making it past this week, but the team most at risk is probably Northeastern, which is remarkable because the Huskies swept Notre Dame last weekend to move to 17-1-2 over their last 20 games.
The last time the Huskies faced top-seeded Boston was in early December when they tied the first game and the Eagles rallied from two goals down to win 4-3 in the second.
BC is coming off a hard-fought three-game series win over Vermont.
In the second semifinal, UMass Lowell is backstopped by red-hot Kevin Boyle, who stopped 57 of 59 shots in last weekend’s sweep of Boston University.
The Friars, however, swept Merrimack behind Nick Ellis’ stellar goaltending. Ellis stopped 45 of 46 shots and has a 1.06 goals-against average and .958 save percentage during Providence’s 10-game winning streak.
UMass Lowell has given up 65 goals this season, Providence 67, second and third lowest in the nation.
Northeastern is just 14th PairWise, so it needs at least one win.
- Our picks: Northeastern 3, Boston College 2 (overtime); UMass Lowell 3, Providence 1
- Title game: UMass Lowell 2, Northeastern 1
- Bowling Green (22-13-6) vs. Minnesota State (20-12-7), 4 p.m. ET Friday
- Ferris State (13-11-4) vs. Michigan Tech (23-8-5), 7 p.m. ET Friday
- Championship: 6 p.m. ET Saturday
During the league’s media conference call on Tuesday several coaches took to defending the strength of the league, calling it underrated on the national radar.
It may be true, particularly for Michigan Tech.
Ranked 15th PairWise, the Huskies need at least a win over Ferris State to earn NCAA consideration if they don’t win the tournament title.
Pearson believes his team is ready for a long run.
“They’re dialed in, they’re focused,” Pearson said. “I’ve been involved with title teams, national championship teams, and I can tell you this team is as dialed in on any teams I’ve ever been with. They’re going to be focused this weekend.”
Leading the way during its current seven-game winning streak is Alex Petan, who led the league in scoring with 16 goals and 23 assists and was the WCHA Player of the Year. He’ll be facing Ferris State freshman Corey Mackin, who earned rookie of the year honors.
Minnesota State shared the McNaughton Cup with Tech and is led by defensive player of the year junior Casey Nelson.
Goals are at a premium in this league, and it’s likely only the league winner will advance. Pearson believes all four teams would represent the WCHA well in the NCAAs, and he’s not alone.
“Whoever is left standing after this weekend is going to earn it,” Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said.
- Our picks: Minnesota State 4, Bowling Green 3 (overtime); Michigan Tech 5, Ferris State 2
- Title game: Michigan Tech 3, Minnesota State 1
Thursday’s quarterfinals (5 and 8 p.m. ET)
- Penn St. (20-12-4) vs. Wisconsin (8-18-8)
- Ohio State (13-17-4) vs. Michigan State (10-22-4)
Friday’s semifinals (5 and 8 p.m. ET)
- Penn State/Wisconsin winner vs. Michigan (22-7-5)
- Ohio State/Michigan State vs. Minnesota (19-6-0)
- Championship: 8 p.m. ET
We will not know the final four until Thursday’s play-in games are over, but we do know this conference is all about offense. Michigan leads the country in scoring and Penn State is seventh.
Ohio State comes in riding a seven-game unbeaten streak that includes back-to-back overtime wins over Michigan State. Wisconsin has earned a win over top-ranked North Dakota as well as conference champion Minnesota.
This is a tournament anyone can win, but Michigan, No. 6 PairWise, is the only team that could survive a loss and move onto the NCAAs.
Minnesota won its fifth consecutive league title (first two were with the former WCHA before the Big Ten was formed), but is tied for 17th in the Pairwise.
The Gophers will need some more magic and consistency to keep their season alive.
Michigan freshman forward Kyle Connor was named Big Ten Conference ice hockey Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year and sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski was named the Defensive Player of the Year and head coach Red Berenson was named Coach of the Year.
The entire CCM Line — Connor, JT Compher and Tyler Motte, were named first-team Big 10 along with Werenski. Joining the foursome is Minnesota goalie Eric Schierhorn and Ohio State defenseman Josh Healey.
- Our picks: Penn State 7, Wisconsin 4; Ohio State 6, Michigan State 5; Michigan 8, Penn State 7; Minnesota 6, Ohio State 3
- Title game: Michigan 7, Minnesota 4
- Boston College (39-0-0) vs. Clarkson (30-4-5), 4 p.m. ET Friday
- Minnesota (33-4-1) vs. Wisconsin (35-3-1), 7 p.m. ET Friday
- Championship: 2 p.m. ET Sunday
Boston College is two wins from perfection, but they’ll be toughest two wins of their impeccable season.
The Eagles have met Clarkson the past two seasons in the NCAA Tournament and the teams have split. The Golden Knights ousted BC two years ago and went on to become the first team from the East to win the national title.
“Last season we had a target on our back and we weren’t ready for how teams came at us as the defending national champion,” said Cayley Mercer, Clarkson’s leading scorer. “This year we’ve kind of flown under the radar and done our thing.”
Clarkson was ranked behind ECAC champion Quinnipiac all season, but avenged a 1-0 conference title game loss with a 1-0 win in the NCAA quarterfinals. Now Mercer and her teammates have their sights on spoiling BC’s run at perfection.
“We’ll come out and skate with them stride for stride and be physical,” Mercer said. “That first goal is going to be big.”
Another rubber match is taking place in the other semifinal, where second-ranked Wisconsin meets third-ranked Minnesota for the sixth time this season.
The Badgers lead the season series 3-2, but Minnesota is the defending national champion.
“I think those teams probably can’t wait to get another crack at each other,” Mercer said. “It should be a really good tournament.”
- Our picks: BC 2, Clarkson 0; Minnesota 2, Wisconsin 1
- Title game: Minnesota 6, BC 5