Friday, March 20, 2015

NCAA Conference Championship Weekend

The six men's NCAA hockey conferences will be holding their playoff championships this weekend with all the winners earning an automatic NCAA National Championship invite.

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Atlantic Hockey has #1 Robert Morris taking on #5 Mercyhurst with the winner talking on the survivor of the #2 Canisius vs. #3 Rochester Institute of Technology at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, New York.

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The Big Ten sees all six teams invading the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. Yesterday, #3 Michigan defeated #6 Wisconsin 5-1 and will now face #2 Michigan State, while #5 Ohio State defeated upstart #4 Penn State 3-1 to advance to face #1 Minnesota tonight with the winners meeting tomorrow.

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The four surviving ECAC schools are holding their playoff at the Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, New York. There, #4 Colgate faces #2 St. Lawrence while #6 Harvard faces a tough test in #1 Quinnipiac.

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Upsets have already been the order of business in the first two rounds of the Hockey East playoffs, which now see #7 Vermont paired with #4 UMass-Lowell and #8 New Hampshire battling #1 Boston University at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts, as second and third seeds Providence and Boston College were knocked out in the Quarterfinals. Boston College should be safe for the NCAA field with their current #9 slot in the PairWise rankings, but Providence in on the bubble with a #14 PairWise position.

To clarify for those not up to speed on the US college hockey (or "cawlidgehawkey" for those of you twitter users), the NCAA field is made up of the top 16 teams in the PairWise rankings minus any invitations taken by conference tournament winners outside the top 16, one of which will certainly be the winner of Atlantic Hockey's tournament, as their current #1 Robert Morris is #22 in the PairWise.

Therefore, any teams ranked roughly 12th or lower in the PairWise are at risk of missing out on an NCAA berth depending on how many upset champions emerge over the course of the weekend.

It is at this point that all eyes turn to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, which will be the center of the college hockey universe this weekend with no less than three important playoff tournaments.

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First up is the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Frozen Faceoff at the Target Center in Minneapolis, normally home to the Minnesota Timberwolves of the NBA. Hockey has been played at the Target Center over the years though, including some high school playoff games, the WCHA Final Five and even some NHL neutral site games along the way. One unique feature of the Target Center is that the floor of the arena raises up higher hydraulically for hockey to improve the sight lines.

#4 Denver is paired with #2 Miami in one semifinal, while #6 St. Cloud State will be hoping for some home ice advantage against #1 North Dakota.

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Meanwhile, across the Mississippi River, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's  Final Five returns to it's long-time home, the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, home of the Minnesota Wild of the NHL. There, #3 Bowling Green will battle #2 Michigan Tech for the right to face the winner of #5 Ferris State taking on #1 Minnesota State.

While various wins and losses over the course of the weekend will affect the PairWise rankings, teams like #16 Colgate are all but certain to be out of the NCAA's since we know the winner of the Atlantic Hockey championship will knock one Top 16 team out. Any other upset winner is likely to cause #15 Harvard their place in the national championship tournament. Likewise, #14 Providence will be hoping all six favorites come through with championship titles since they will not be playing this weekend thanks to their 2 games to 1 loss to New Hampshire in last weekend's Hockey East Quarterfinals, with all three games finishing with 2-1 scores with both of New Hampshire's wins coming in overtime in what could not have been a closer series.

Ironically, the team with the most on the line in the dual tournaments in Minnesota may be… Minnesota - who won't even be in Minnesota, as they will be in Detroit at the Big Ten desperately looking to win two games to claim an automatic berth in the NCAA's and not leave their fate in the hands of PairWise rankings, as any loss could damage their already shaky position.

Teams looking solid for NCAA berths are (in order of their PairWise rankings) North Dakota, Minnesota State, Denver, Boston University, Michigan Tech, Minnesota-Duluth, Miami, Nebraska-Omaha, Boston College, Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State and  Bowling Green. who comprise the top 12, with Minnesota, Providence and Harvard on the bubble, with Minnesota and Harvard in a position to do something about it, as they play this weekend, while Providence can only watch and wait while they pull for all the favorites.

But what about the third tournament in the Twin Cities this weekend, you ask?

Halfway in between the WCHA Final Five and the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Ridder Arena on the University of Minnesota campus will be the NCAA Women's Frozen Four to crown a national champion.

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The first Semifinal sees the two eastern teams, #4 Harvard facing an uphill battle vs. #1 Boston College, while #3 Wisconsin tires to defeat the hosts and #2 rated Minnesota, who will be playing in front of a sold out home crowd of 3,400 with the winners to meet on Sunday.

To date, Wisconsin and Minnesota have won 8 of the last 11 titles, with Minnesota-Duluth taking the other two after winning the first three back in 2001-2003. Will Minnesota or Wisconsin be able to tie Duluth's five national championships, or will the tide have truly shifted east in favor of Harvard or Boston College, as Clarkson became the first eastern team in 14 years to win the national title last year with their upset win over the Gophers.

Certainly if you live within driving distance of the Twin Cities, you'd be doing yourself a favor to take in what is certain to be some dramatic playoff action, as many teams know any loss will end their season. True fanatics can hop on the Green Line Train and spend Friday in St. Paul with the WCHA, Saturday in Minneapolis with the NCHC and Sunday at the University of Minnesota to see the women's championship final.

Three arenas, five games, three champions!

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