Each of the six tournament champions receive and automatic berth into the 16 team NCAA Divison I Men's Ice Hockey Tournament. Heading into the conference tournaments, each of the top 16 teams in the rankings are hoping for a spot in the tournament, but as the games are played, teams can still rise and fall in the rankings as those teams between roughly 13-20 sweat out the security of their place in the national playoffs.
With each of the now six conferences hosting tournaments, every upset threatens to knock out a higher ranked team on the bubble and, if any long shot should win a tournament, it's a guarantee to knock out a bubble team.
With just six teams in the Big Ten, all six qualified for the tournament. The first game was a perfect demonstration of what is at stake, as the upstart #51 ranked Penn State Nittany Lions defeated the Michigan Wolverines 2-1 in two overtimes. Going in to play, Michigan was ranked 11th and the loss to lowly Penn State (8-25-2), instantly dropped Michigan to the dreaded #16 spot, the first team out should a lower ranked team come through to win a tournament. Penn State goes from the frying pan to the fire, as their reward for winning today is a meeting with the #5 Wisconsin Badgers, who will no doubt enjoy a massive "home ice" advantage in St. Paul tonight.
In the second Big Ten game of the day, #37 Michigan State lost to #21 Ohio State by the same 2-1 score in another overtime game. Ohio State advances to play the #1 Minnesota Golden Gophers less than 8 miles from their home arena in Minneapolis, guaranteeing a boisterous maroon and gold clad crowd.
But just what size will that crowd be?
The Xcel Energy Center has been the long time home of the WCHA Final Five, but with the seismic realignment of the western hockey conferences this season, the Big Ten, which has not been well received by Minnesota fans used to the WCHA rivalries with North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State could stay away from St. Paul in protest.
Looking to take advantage of the demise of St. Paul's WCHA Final Five, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference also chose to base it's conference tournament in the Twin Cities, only this time across the river at the Target Center in Minneapolis in a five year agreement.
While many associate the Target Center with basketball, as it's home to the Minnesota Timberwolves of the NBA and the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx, Target Center was designed with hockey in mind, as the arena floor can be lowered to improve the sight lines for hockey, one of only two arenas with a moveable floor. Target Center actually hosted six NHL neutral site games in 1993-94 in the absence of the Minnesota North Stars after they moved to Dallas and was nearly the home of the original Winnipeg Jets before they settled in Phoenix.
Unfortunately for the NCHC, their first round playoffs at campus sites were riddled with upsets and will no doubt hurt their walkup ticket sales. Conference champions and #9 ranked St. Cloud State Huskies were upset by the #32 Miami of Ohio Redhawks, who will face #11 North Dakota. The #29 Nebraska Omaha Mavericks lost to the #26 Denver Pioneers and #21 Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs had their season end at the hands of the #19 Western Michigan Broncos.
With in-state St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth not qualifying for the NCHA Frozen Faceoff, certainly some of the energy has been lost heading into the weekend, but North Dakota travels very well and should bring a large contingent of fans as the NCHC takes on the Big Ten tournament just 10 miles down the road and who will no doubt benefit from having the University of Minnesota as their headliner, not to mention a potential final matchup with their rivals from Wisconsin.
A bit of a history lesson is in order here, as the WCHA was once 8 teams, with four advancing to it's championship tournament. Then the league expanded to ten, and with all teams allowed into the playoffs, five teams were sent to the tournament, with teams #4 and #5 playing on Thursday to face #1, necessitating a name change to Final Five. The WCHA expanded once again to 12 teams, which now meant six clubs now advanced to St. Paul. The new format now saw two Quarterfinal match ups, with the winners advancing to meet the #1 and #2 seeds, who had received byes into the Semifinals, with the winners then meeting for the championship, a format of six teams, but five games, justifying keeping the now familiar "Final Five" name.
While the league chose to keep the "Final Five" name for 2014, it sees just four teams playing three games, the #25 Alaska Anchorage Seawolves battle the favorites, the #4 Ferris State Bulldogs from just an hour up the road from Grand Rapids, which will no doubt help the WCHA at the gate. In the other game, the Bowling Green Falcons (#24) face the #12 Minnesota State Mavericks. Minnesota State is a prime example of a team who would do themselves a tremendous favor by winning at least one game to solidify their position in the top 16 and avoid a damaging loss like the one suffered by Michigan yesterday.
In Hockey East, the #9 Providence Friars are paired with the desperate #17 New Hampshire Wildcats are in a must-win situation. They simply have to defeat Providence to have any hopes of making the NCAA tournament. In the other Hockey East Championship game to be held in Boston's TD Garden, the #6 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who defeated #2 Boston College last week, faces the #8 UMass Lowell River Hawks, with both teams being a lock to make the NCAA's.
The Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference Men's Championship being held at the Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, New York is highlighted by the #3 Union Dutchmen who meet another bubble team, the #15 Cornell Big Red, who benefitted from Michigan's loss yesterday, as they were the very precarious #16 team one day earlier. Even by rising to #15, Cornell is a team very much on the bubble, as yesterday's upset clearly proved, and they too must win to keep their hopes alive. The other ECAC semifinal sees the #7 Qunnipiac Bobcats looking to damage the hopes of the #14 Colgate Raiders.
Saving the best for last, the Atlantic Hockey Association suffers from a weak strength of schedule when it comes to the national rankings, and the NCAA situation was further thrown into chaos with a number of first round upsets, as Bentley, Air Force and Connecticut, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th place teams in the conference were all eliminated in the first round.
Who is left standing are the regular season AHA champions Mercyhurst Lakers, ranked just 30th nationally, who will face the #48 Canisius Golden Griffins, with the winner to meet either the #47 Robert Morris Colonials or the #49 Niagara Purple Eagles at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, New York.
What this means for the top 16 teams is quite clear - no matter which of these four teams, ranked no higher than 30th, they will claim an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, leaving just 15 spots remaining for the national championship playoffs, which currently leaves Michigan on the outside looking in, and #15 Cornell, #14 Colgate and #12 Minnesota State desperate to win tonight, while #13 Vermont, who lost in the Hockey East playoffs last week to #8 UMass Lowell, must sit by and hope all the favorites win to protect their place in the rankings.
For many teams ranked lower than #15, they simply must win their conference tournament to claim a automatic place in the NCAA tournament. For those teams #9 to #15, they will be looking to win as many games as possible to rise up into the top 8 in order to gain not only a more favorable matchup in the NCAA, but also to be placed in a regional closer to home, while for teams specifically #12 to #15, it's also a battle to just stay alive with the added stress of knowing any upset champion could cost them their spot anyway.
There will be plenty of games to tune in to, most of them televised nationwide, including games on the Big Ten Network (Big Ten), CBS Sports Network (NCHC), Fox College Sports (ECAC), NBC Sports Network and NESN+ (Hockey East) and regional coverage on Fox Sports North (WCHA) and Time Warner Cable Sports (Atlantic Hockey).
Also, check each network for their various apps or websites which may allow you to watch live streaming of the TV broadcasts of the games, such as BTN2GO.com and their companion app for smartphones, which we personally used yesterday to watch the Big Ten games while we were out and about.
We also recommend the coverage on USCHO.com and CollegeHockeyNews.com, both of whom also have apps for your smart phones to follow the action no matter where you are at.
The games begin at 2 PM Eastern with Bowling Green vs Minnesota State in the WCHA and continue with seemingly a new game starting every hour, with Penn State vs. Wisconsin at 3 PM, Canisius vs. Mercyhurst and Cornell vs. Union at 4 PM, Notre Dame vs. UMass Lowell and Denver vs Western Michigan at 5 PM, Alaska Anchorage vs. Ferris State at 7 PM, Niagara vs. Robert Morris and Qunnipiac vs Colgate at 7:30 PM, New Hampshire vs. Providence and Ohio State vs. Minnesota at 8 PM and finally Miami vs. North Dakota at 8:30 PM to end the orgy of one dozen games all in the same day, making the Olympics four games a day look like child's play!
Also, be sure to join the fun on twitter while using the hashtag #CawlidgeHawkey, as coined by the Pied Piper of hockey, ESPN's John Buccigross., who penned this ode to the NCAA college hockey tournament.
Today's featured jersey is a 2002-03 University of Minnesota Golden Gophers Thomas Vanek jersey from the #1 ranked Gophers most recent national championship. Vanek led Minnesota to their second consecutive championship with 26 goals and 51 points in 38 games that season as well as scoring the game winning goal in the national championship final.
Minnesota first used this jersey style in 1998-99 by Nike before the branding was changed to Mission in 2002-03 for three seasons.