Men's college hockey: Postseason begins; Hobey Baker race tight
Ah, I love the smell of postseason hockey in the air. Tournament time is here in certain parts of the college hockey world and if the end of the regular season was any indication, there’s going to be plenty of drama as the stakes raise.
For many teams, the conference tournaments are their last hope for making it to the national tournament, as they only way they get in is with an automatic bid. At this stage of the season, making up the ground necessary to vault into solid position within the Pairwise just isn’t very easy.
The teams that are in the top 11 (or so) of the Pairwise can probably start making NCAA tournament plans relatively comfortably, but others have to bear down. Among those on the bubble, defending national champion North Dakota, who sits 16th in the Pairwise and likely has to win the NCHC to get in. Then there’s Boston College, which was part of the three-way tie to win Hockey East’s regular-season crown. If they don’t win the conference tournament, they’re pretty much done as they sit 19th in the Pairwise and will be idle this weekend.
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Among the teams to watch most closely the rest of the way is Penn State. They have been a fascinating story all year, but some late-season inconsistency had given them a scare. It’s looking more and more likely they will earn their first NCAA tournament bid, however, barring a total collapse at the end. They’ll have a big series at home against Wisconsin this weekend as they jockey for position in the Big Ten standings and the Pairwise.
There are plenty of fascinating scenarios let to play out over the next few weeks, which is going to make for a lot of nervous scoreboard watching for a number of fan bases.
Conference champions crowned
As noted, the final weekend of the regular season brought plenty of drama.
Over in Atlantic Hockey, Air Force was in control of its own destiny while hosting Sacred Heart. After winning Friday night, all they had to do was complete the sweep and they were regular-season champs. Shockingly, the Falcons lost Saturday 3-2 in overtime, giving Canisius the Atlantic Hockey regular-season title. Canisius finished the regular season on a stunning 15-game unbeaten streak to snatch the title from Air Force.
In Hockey East, a number of different scenarios were possible heading into the weekend. It ended in the most surprising way of all – with a three-way tie atop the standings. UMass-Lowell, Boston University and Boston College all ended up with 29 points in the conference standings. Lowell swept BC in a home-and-home series to close out the regular season and earn a share of the title. They also helped BU grab a piece as the Terriers got the necessary two points with a 4-1 win against Notre Dame Saturday to earn a series split.
The tightness atop the ECAC standings also persisted through the final games of the regular season. After tying Cornell Saturday night, Union left the door open for Harvard to seize a share of the regular-season title. The Crimson continued rolling, picking up their 10th straight win – a 6-3 victory over St. Lawrence – to claim a share of the Cleary Cup.
Bemidji State has been enjoying their WCHA title for weeks already, but closed out the regular season with a split against Minnesota State. The Beavers finished 20-6-2 in conference play this year.
Meanwhile, the NCHC will close out the regular season this weekend, with the Big Ten playing two more weeks before their conference tournament begins.
Should Denver win Friday against Omaha on the road, the Penrose Cup belongs to the Pioneers. Minnesota Duluth still has a shot should DU stumble, but they’ll face a stiff challenge on the road at Western Michigan as they trail by four standings points.
Lastly, Minnesota remains in first place in the Big Ten, but it’s a narrow three-point lead over Wisconsin. The Gophers take on Michigan this weekend.
Hobey Baker race still too close to call
It seems generally safe to assume that a senior is going to win the Hobey Award. Who that senior will be is a lot tougher to predict.
Heading into conference tournament play, Northeastern’s Zach Aston-Reese and New Hampshire’s Tyler Kelleher are tied for the national scoring lead with 59 points. Aston-Reese is also the nation’s leading goal scorer with 29, while Kelleher leads in assists with 37. Right behind the two of them is Mike Vecchione, who has 26 goals and 58 points.
While there isn’t much separation among these three right now, I would not be surprised to see Vecchione pull ahead as the favorite here. A lot of that may have to do with his team’s success, as Union finished tied atop ECAC and will play in the national tournament.
It’s going to be very interesting to watch as there really is no clear-cut favorite this year.
Before we move on, however, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Charles Williams of Canisius deserves some sort of recognition for what he has done this season. The fifth-year senior netminder has a .944 save percentage and has been between the pipes for all of the Golden Griffins’ 15-game unbeaten streak. I don’t think he’ll end up making the Hobey Hat Trick when all is said and done, but at least toss the guy an All-American nod. This run he and the Griffins are on is just incredible.
NCAA alumni on the move at NHL trade deadline
Wednesday is trade deadline day in the NHL. There have already been a number of high-profile moves made by NHL GMs throughout the week, many of them involving former college hockey stars. Two of the biggest names to move so far at the deadline are Kevin Shattenkirk and Ben Bishop.
Shattenkirk, who starred at Boston University and was on the 2009 national championship team, was traded from the St. Louis Blues to the league-leading Washington Capitals Monday. A veteran of 471 NHL games, Shattenkirk should easily pass his previous career-high of 45 points. He has topped 40 points in each of the last six full NHL seasons he has played in.
Ben Bishop, who played three years at Maine and backstopped the team to the 2008 Men’s Frozen Four, was moved from the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Los Angeles Kings. Bishop is a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist and owns a .919 career save percentage in 263 NHL games. He’ll be sharing the net with former UMass goalie and two-time Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Quick.
Another trade of note featured University of Wisconsin defenseman Brendan Smith being moved to the New York Rangers from the Detroit Red Wings. In New York, Smith is reunited with former Badger teammates Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh.
Also, former Boston College captain and All-American Brian Boyle was sent from the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Boyle has appeared in 603 NHL games and will bring needed postseason experience to the young Leafs having participated in the playoffs in each of the last six years.