After an exciting first semester, many of the teams in Division I men’s hockey are enjoying their winter breaks. While the student-athletes are resting, coaches are surely reviewing their team’s play to this point, going over what worked and what didn’t in between stops on the recruiting trail.

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As for the rest of us, we don’t have a lot of college hockey to keep us occupied as we stay warm by the fire in the coming weeks, but there is plenty of time to daydream. With that in mind, we’re going to kick things off with a little early-season Bracketology.

A lot can and will change between now and March, when the NCAA selection committee will ultimately select the 16 teams that will compete for a trip to the 2017 Frozen Four in Chicago, but why not include visions of national titles dancing along with those sugarplums in our heads?

If there’s one coach who can look back at the first half with a lot of pride, it’s Penn State’s Guy Gadowsky. In just their fourth year of conference affiliation, the Nittany Lions have the nation’s best record with a 13-1-1 mark. They also boast a top-three ranking in each of men’s college hockey’s major polls, while also collecting a first-place vote in each.

Freshman Denis Smirnov has proven to be the team’s driving force offensively. The 19-year-old Russian national has 27 points in 15 games. Meanwhile, freshman netminder Peyton Jones has been a strong addition, starting in 13 of the team’s first 15 contests. He has a .920 save percentage and 1.97 goals-against average to go with his 11-0-1 record.

The teams preventing Penn State from breaking through to the top spot are a pair of rivals over in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The consensus top team in the land is the University of Minnesota Duluth, which boasts a strong 12-3-3 record in the face of one of the nation’s toughest early-season schedules.

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Among the more challenging matchups the Bulldogs have faced, a recent weekend series against conference foe University of Denver showed just how tight a race this year is going to be to the finish. The Bulldogs and Pioneers traded wins in the Mile High City in what will be their only meetings of the regular season.

While the NCHC clubs have caught the pollsters’ eyes, Penn State is currently the No. 1 team in the country when it comes to the criteria the NCAA selection committee refers to when selecting the field for the national tournament.

With the upstart Nittany Lions impressing early, here is a look at how everything else has been shaking out so far this season as we get into the nuts and bolts of my first Backetology of the season.

HOW THE COMMITTEE DECIDES 

But first, here’s a refresher on how the committee makes its decisions (if you’re familiar, just scroll right on ahead to the results):

The tournament features 16 teams, with the tournament champions of each of the six conferences earning an automatic bid and 10 teams getting in as at-large berths.

The committee uses a computer ranking system that compares each team against each other using the selection criteria which includes: a team’s Rating Percentage Index (RPI), which combines a team’s won-lost record (25 percent), their opponents’ winning percentage (21 percent) and their opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage (54 percent), head-to-head competition, and results versus common opponents. The RPI also includes a quality wins bonus and home/away weighting.

The committee may also evaluate each team’s eligibility and availability of student-athletes for NCAA championships.

Men's Ice Hockey Rankings: USCHO.com | USA Today/ USA Hockey Magazine | RPI

It is important to note that the national polls – the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll and the USCHO.com poll – do not factor into the decisions of the committee.

Those are the basics, at least.

When it comes to seeding, here are the three steps the committee takes when building its bracket. Direct from the pre-championship manual for this year:

1. Once the six automatic qualifiers and 10 at-large teams are selected, the next step is to develop four groups from the committee’s rankings of 1-16. The top four teams are No. 1 seeds and will be placed in the bracket so that if all four teams advance to the Men’s Frozen Four, the No. 1 seed will play the No. 4 seed and the No. 2 seed will play the No. 3 seed in the semifinals. The next four are targeted as No. 2 seeds. The next four are No. 3 seeds and the last four are No. 4 seeds.

2. Step two is to place the home teams. Host institutions that qualify will be placed at home.

3. Step three is to fill in the bracket so that first-round conference matchups are avoided, unless it corrupts the integrity of the bracket. If five or more teams from one conference are selected to the championship, then the integrity of the bracket will be protected (i.e., maintaining the pairing process according to seed will take priority over avoidance of first-round conference matchups). To complete each regional, the committee assigns one team from each of the remaining seeded groups so there is a No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 seed at each regional site.

Using the same steps, with the help of PairWise Rankings as found on USCHO.com – a system that mimics the committee’s method.

For the purposes of this Bracketology, we’re using the teams with the best in-conference winning percentage as of today as proxies for the tournament champions receiving autobids. RPI is used as a tiebreaker for teams with similar resumes. 

RESULTS

Here’s a look at the first 16 teams considered for our first Bracketology. (Conference names in parenthesis denote mock conference tournament champion)

1. Penn State (Big Ten)
2. Minnesota-Duluth (NCHC)
3. Denver
4. Harvard
5. Union (ECAC)
6. Boston University
7. Massachusetts Lowell
8. Ohio State
9. North Dakota
10. Western Michigan
11. Minnesota
12. Boston College (Hockey East)
13. Notre Dame
14. Cornell
15. Bemidji State (WCHA)
16. Army West Point (Atlantic Hockey)

Step 1:

No. 1 seeds: Penn State, Minnesota-Duluth, Denver and Harvard
No. 2 seeds: Union, Boston University, Massachusetts Lowell, Ohio State
No. 3 seeds: North Dakota, Western Michigan, Minnesota, Boston College
No. 4 seeds: Notre Dame, Cornell, Bemidji State, Army West Point

Step 2:

North Dakota is hosting the West Regional in Fargo, N.D., which requires them to be placed there. To appease that requirement, North Dakota and Western Michigan have switched spots in the only move that jumbles bracket integrity.

Step 3:

No conference opponents were at risk of playing each other in the first round according to this order, which means the North Dakota-Western Michigan swap is all we needed to account for this time around. It’s not usually going to be this simple.

In determining which regionals to put these groups in, geography was a strong consideration for me. Though it will certainly be considered, it may not mean as much to the committee.

Here’s how the regionals took shape for me:

Midwest (Cincinnati, Ohio)

1. Penn State vs. 16. Army West Point

8. Ohio State vs. 10. Western Michigan

Northeast (Manchester, N.H.)

4. Harvard vs. 13 Notre Dame

5. Union vs. 12. Boston College

West (Fargo, N.D.)

2. Minnesota Duluth vs. 15. Bemidji State

7. UMass-Lowell vs. 9. North Dakota

East (Providence, R.I.)

3. Denver vs. 14. Cornell

6. Boston University vs. 11. Minnesota

There is so much hockey left to be played that the only thing you can guarantee at this point is that this bracket is going to change as we get closer to selection time. It was still fun to see where everybody is at right now. It might be even more fun to look back at the end of the season and see just how much of a difference there ends up being.

Once most of the teams get back on the ice in January, I’ll be taking a more regular look at the ever-evolving bracketology of men’s college hockey and much more.