At this point in the college hockey season, we can start to cross off teams who will not make the tournament, and therefore make the “bubble” smaller every week.
In this case, we’ve crossed a number of teams off (Vermont, St. Cloud State, Omaha, St. Lawrence, and Northeastern have all seen their path to the tournament disappear over the weekend), but I’m not sure the bubble really shrank.
With some big weekend sweeps, some at the expense of real contenders, teams that thought their place was assured are suddenly nervous, and teams who had been on the outside looking in can now see a path to where they need to be.
Conference tournaments will wrap up this coming weekend. There are still six teams that either need to win to ensure their place or stand in a position to upset the apple cart. If Canisius takes the Atlantic in the end, it messes up the rankings considerably (any team outside the top 16 of the PairWise that makes the tournament changes things). If Ohio State or Penn State lose their Big Ten opening-round games both schools could find themselves sweating out selections. An upset of a major conference champion like Quinnipiac would cause chaos in the 16 team selections.
With that in mind let’s look at three critical moments from last weekend:
1. Top Four to Hockey East semis
Coming into the weekend, there were three quarterfinal matchups across Hockey East that were looked at as potential upsets, or at least close series. It was the other series that actually went three games.
Boston College snapped out of its late-season funk in a big way, sweeping Vermont at Conte Forum by a combined score of 14-4. It was a shocking turn of events for an Eagles team that had been reeling before their bye week and a Vermont team that was firing on all cylinders coming in. It started on Friday night when BC scored just eight seconds into the game. It might be a month late, but it’s Trophy Season again for the Eagles.
Boston University will be BC’s opponent in the semifinal, as the Terriers overcame two 2-0 deficits to defeat Northeastern 3-2 on both Friday night and Saturday night. In both games, Boston University rode a strong third period to victory. Critically, David Quinn’s BU squad did not give the potent NU power play many chances, and the Terriers spent less time in the penalty box than their opponents. BU is on to the Garden, and Northeastern can only wait and see how Zach Aston-Reese does in the Hobey Baker voting as the nation’s leading goal-scorer who tied for the regular season lead in points.
Notre Dame used their last two home games in Hockey East wisely, dispatching a strong Providence team to punch their ticket to Causeway Street with 5-0 and 5-2 wins. On Friday night it was all about Fighting Irish goaltender Cal Peterson, who stopped all 45 shots Providence sent his way to shut out the Friars. On Saturday night, Providence netminder Hayden Hawkey, who leads the country in Name Appropriateness, stopped 33 shots in a strong performance, but Notre Dame took the 5-2 win.
The series that went three games, surprisingly, was UMass-Lowell hosting New Hampshire. The Wildcats, written off in their quarterfinal matchup by most, took Friday night’s game at Tsongas by a score of 3-1. New Hampshire showed on Friday night that they are more than Tyler Kelleher, as Kelleher did not score in the victory. Lowell evened matters on Saturday with a 3-1 win of their own in a game where the two teams combined for just six shots in the first period. The River Hawks ran away with the rubber match, winning 8-2. They go on to play Notre Dame this weekend at the Hockey East semifinals. With a win Norm Bazin’s squad would return to the conference final for the fifth straight season. The record for consecutive Hockey East final appearances belongs to Maine, which had seven in a row between the late '80s and early '90s.
2. Big Ten, Big Crash
Last week on my podcast Puck University, Dave Dondoneau and I penciled in teams that we thought had already earned their way to the NCAA Tournament, and suggested that not a whole lot could take those teams out. Among the penciled-in: Pennsylvania State University.
Penn State now needs to perform well in the Big Ten tournament to lock up their NCAA spot, as a shock sweep at the hands of Michigan sent them tumbling down to a tie for 12th in the PairWise. Losses of 3-2 and 4-0 could not have come at a worse time, though Michigan is a better team than their place in the standings indicates.
If Penn State thinks their finish is rough, Wisconsin had it harder. Two losses to Ohio State have sent the Badgers to 18th in the PairWise, meaning they either have to win the Big Ten or make the final and hope for help in the other tournaments. Meanwhile, an Ohio State team that had been on the outside looking in is back to 14th, and therefore back into a position to make the tournament. The Buckeyes looked dominant at times, not trailing for a second of the weekend series at the Kohl Center.
Ohio State plays Michigan State in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, while Penn State gets a rematch with Michigan.
3. North Dakota Punches Their NCAA Ticket
If Boston College’s remarkable turnaround this past weekend seems familiar, it’s because North Dakota has done something similar in recent weeks. The Fighting Hawks are on fire as they enter the NCHC semifinals, and according to the PairWise they’ve all but booked their trip to the NCAA Tournament.
A playoff sweep of a tough St. Cloud State team sealed it for the defending champions. Five different players scored Friday night in a routine 5-2 victory over the Huskies. Saturday night’s game was much more wild, with 10 players lighting the lamp between the two teams in a high-scoring game that went to OT. North Dakota scored the overtime goal to take the game 6-5 and set up a semifinal against top ranked Denver.