There has been a bit of a crowd at the top in college hockey of late. Penn State, Minnesota Duluth, Denver and Boston University have all been taking turns as the top team in the major national polls in recent weeks. Right now, however, where it matters the most, it is the UMD Bulldogs ahead of the rest.

In the most recent addition of the Pairwise Rankings, which is a good proxy for combining the criteria the national tournament selection committee uses to make its decision, the Bulldogs hold the top spot. They have been one of the top teams all season long amid one of the toughest schedules in the country, but have solidified their place after overcoming a recent stumble.

Since dropping back-to-back games to Colorado College and St. Cloud State, the Bulldogs have rattled off three straight victories, which includes a decisive road sweep over nationally-ranked North Dakota just last weekend. UMD exploded for nine goals over the weekend in Grand Forks, while freshman netminder Hunter Miska stood tall in net.

By collecting a shutout in Saturday’s 4-0 win against the Fighting Hawks, Miska became the first Bulldog goalie ever to shut out North Dakota twice, having also blanked UND on Oct. 28. The Stacy, Minn., native also set the UMD freshman goalie record with his fourth shutout overall this season.

Miska wasn’t the only freshman to shine brightly over the weekend either. Dallas Stars first-round draft pick Riley Tufte is starting to heat up. He scored three goals and added an assist over the weekend against the Fighting Hawks. The big freshman forward now has six points over his last six games after having been held off the scoresheet in his first 14 collegiate games.

UMD still faces a tough road ahead in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, but with 10 games left to play in the regular season, they’re looking pretty formidable. They’ll face a big test at the North Star College Cup next weekend as the Bulldogs take on rival Minnesota Friday in St. Paul.

With Minnesota Duluth taking over the top spot in the Pairwise, they have some company with in-conference rival Denver nipping at their heels at No. 2. Penn State, which had long held the top spot in the Pairwise, has slipped to No. 3 after a tie and a loss to Ohio State at home. Hopping up to No. 4 is Boston University, which just saw its eight-game winning streak snapped at the hands of Merrimack Tuesday night. They won’t have to wait long for a rematch as Merrimack travels to Agganis Arena Friday.

With some shuffling at the top, this week’s bracketology was a little easier to put together than the last. The Pairwise set up for minimal insanity when it came to rearranging to avoid intra-conference matchups in the first round and do the best to maximize attendance at the regionals.

Here’s what I came up with this week.

If you need a refresher on how the committee places teams, go back to our first bracketology for a full rundown. As a reminder, we’re using teams with the best in-conference winning percentage as our conference tournament champions, which get automatic bids into the tournament.

First, here’s the field as of Jan. 24 (conference tournament champion proxies in parenthesis):

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

Step 1: Awarding seeds

No. 1 seeds: Minnesota Duluth, Denver, Penn State, Boston University
No. 2 seeds: Western Michigan, Union, Minnesota, Ohio State
No. 3 seeds: Vermont, UMass-Lowell, Cornell, North Dakota
No. 4 seeds: Harvard, Boston College, Air Force, Bemidji State

Step 2: Placing hosts

North Dakota must play in the West as the regional host in Fargo. That didn’t end up disrupting too much of this particular bracket.

Step 3: Placing the teams

As noted, the committee tries to avoid intra-conference matchups in the first round whenever possible. There were two potential matchups between conference foes that were easily flipped without causing much trouble and maintaining bracket integrity for the most part. In a natural bracket, NCHC foes Western Michigan would play North Dakota and ECAC opponents Union and Cornell would meet. By flipping No. 5 overall Western Michigan with No. 6 overall Union, the intra-conference matchups are avoided.

On top of all of that forced maneuvering, there are a lot of good possibilities of maximizing attendance by shifting some of the top seeds around. It knocks the bracket a little further out of its natural order, but not so far away that it causes concern.

So here is what we end up with after all that…

Midwest (Cincinnati, Ohio)

1. Minnesota Duluth vs. 16. Bemidji State
8. Ohio State vs. 9. Vermont

Rationale: With North Dakota locked into Fargo, UMD has to travel a little further because of the way the seeding works out. We are able to keep a natural bracket for this regional in terms of seeding and have the added benefit of getting Ohio State in-state to try to draw some additional interest locally.

West (Fargo, N.D.)

2. Denver vs. 15. Air Force
6. Union vs. 12. North Dakota

Rationale: North Dakota is locked in, we have to avoid the natural 5-12 matchup because Western Michigan is an in-conference opponent. Meanwhile, Denver has to travel a pretty good distance no matter what, but giving them their closest geographic regional opens up better attendance possibilities for the eastern regionals.

East (Providence, R.I.)

3. Penn State vs. 14. Boston College
7. Minnesota vs. 10. UMass-Lowell

Rationale: After the little bit of maneuvering to put Denver in the West regional, Penn State gets its closest regional remaining. The distance between State College and both Providence and Cincinnati is pretty close. Meanwhile, both Boston College and UMass-Lowell have good potential drawing power in Providence.

Northeast (Manchester, N.H.)

4. Boston University vs. 13. Harvard
5. Western Michigan vs. 11. Cornell

Rationale: The North Dakota-forced Fargo maneuvering sends Western Michigan east and gets Cornell away from Union as a potential first-round matchup. That leaves BU and Harvard get a first-round game not too far from home.

Previous Brackets:

Bracketology #1
Bracketology #2