Another winter break is upon us and as we’re nestled all snug in our beds, we’ll have visions of Frozen Four pucks dancing in our heads. The road to St. Paul is only partially paved, but what an exciting first semester of hockey it was.

As is the case just about every year, the 2017-18 season is not shaping up the way we thought it might. Several preseason predictions have already been trash-binned and we should probably expect more surprises throughout the second half as well. It’s why we love men’s college hockey, right?

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There are certainly a few teams that particularly enjoyed the first half, most notably St. Cloud State, Notre Dame and Clarkson. All three have put together dominant showings in the early goings of the season and sit atop the Pairwise rankings in that order.

The SCSU Huskies have lost only two games and own a staggering plus-33 goal differential. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has gone undefeated in its first 10 conference games since joining the Big Ten in hockey. The Irish are 16-3-1 overall and boast the nation’s leading scorer in senior Jake Evans, who has 28 points in 20 games. Meanwhile, Clarkson has won all eight of its games in ECAC play and has been doing so in dominant fashion with a plus-23 goal differential in conference games so far this season. Clarkson's goal differential is plus-36 overall.

The second half stands to be particularly unique this year, which is why we can expect things to change a lot. With the NHL not sending its players to the Olympics, there is a good chance that some collegiate players will be called by their home nations to play in PyeongChang in February. A number of players including Evans and Northeastern’s Dylan Sikura (Canada), Denver’s Henrik Borgstrom (Finland) and Troy Terry (USA), BU’s Jordan Greenway and Harvard’s Ryan Donato (USA), among others, very well could miss a few weeks of action while representing their countries. It’s going to be a fascinating wrinkle in an already unpredictable season.

Even though the college hockey rankings and standings could change as quickly as the weather in a Midwest winter, this break gives us a chance to assess where things are at right now. It also could have a few fan bases around the country dreaming about the possibilities of a national tournament berth. Santa might be a little tied up to take any last-minute requests, but if your Frozen Four dreams aren’t enough, here’s our first official bracketology of the 2017-18 season.

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How it all works

As a refresher, here’s a look at how the committee makes its selections, which guides our bracketology picks (this is exactly the same from last year, so if you already know the deal, just scroll right on down 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 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), its opponents’ winning percentage (21 percent) and its 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.

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

These are the 16 teams considered for the first bracketology of the year, with conference champions in parentheses.

1. St. Cloud State (NCHC)
2. Notre Dame (Big Ten)
3. Clarkson (ECAC)
4. Cornell
5. Denver
6. Minnesota State (WCHA)
7. North Dakota
8. Ohio State
9. Minnesota
10. Western Michigan
11. Penn State
12. Providence
13. Northeastern
14. Boston College (HEA)
15. Nebraska Omaha
16. Canisius (AHA) (Autobid knocks out Minnesota Duluth)

Step 1: Assigning seeds

No. 1 seeds: St. Cloud State, Notre Dame, Clarkson Cornell
No. 2 seeds: Denver, Minnesota State, North Dakota, Ohio State
No. 3 seeds: Minnesota, Western Michigan, Penn State, Providence
No. 4 seeds: Northeastern, Boston College, Nebraska Omaha, Canisius

Step 2: Placing regional hosts

Both North Dakota and Penn State are hosting regionals this year. That means North Dakota must be placed in the West Regional in Sioux Falls, S.D., while Penn State must be placed in the Midwest Regional in Allentown, Pa.

Step 3: Avoid in-conference matchups

Because of where Penn State and North Dakota have to be slotted, it does create some potential in-conference matchups. The committee can avoid such matchups but it gets a little tricky. In this particular bracketology, considerations such as travel logistics for top seeds and attendance concerns influenced the way things went down. Have a look…

West – Sioux Falls, S.D. 

1. SCSU vs. 16. Canisius
7. UND vs. 9. Minnesota

Rationale: Once we have North Dakota slotted, its opponent in a pure bracket would be No. 10 Western Michigan. Since we’re trying to avoid in-conference matchups, WMU has to move. The next decision is which top seed should go here. St. Cloud State is less than four hours away. Even though it’s not a terribly great reward for a No. 1 overall seed to go into a host’s site, the ease of travel trumps all. The No. 1 should pretty much always play the No. 16, so Canisius is easy to slot. Meanwhile, with Western Michigan moved, how does anyone resist putting No. 9 Minnesota anywhere but Sioux Falls? This matchup creates a dream first-round and also gets us the closest to a natural bracket for the top overall seed as we can get under the circumstances.

East – Bridgeport, Conn.

2. Notre Dame vs. 14. Boston College
8. Ohio State vs. 10. Western Michigan

Rationale: This is arguably the toughest one to slot. I don’t think anyone would love the No. 2 vs. No. 14 matchup, even though it would be fun from a school rivalry standpoint. Notre Dame isn’t terribly close to any of the regionals and moving Boston College to Bridgeport is strictly for attendance purposes. Meanwhile, with North Dakota locked into its host site, both Ohio State and Western got bumped from their natural bracket positions and naturally fit as first-round opponents as a result.

Northeast – Worcester, Mass.

3. Clarkson vs. 13. Northeastern
6. Minnesota State vs. 12. Providence College

Rationale: There isn’t necessarily the best option for Clarkson when it comes to placing them as Potsdam isn’t terribly close to any of the regionals. Because other teams were more natural fits elsewhere, Worcester it is. So, why is Northeastern here? Usually, there isn’t a lot of separation between No. 13-15 ranked teams and I don’t think the committee will be shy about moving them as they see fit.

With BC being the most likely No. 4 seed to draw in Bridgeport, Northeastern gets to stay a little closer to home. The same goes for Providence. Meanwhile, Minnesota State is a natural bracket pairing with Clarkson as the No. 3 and No. 6 overall teams would usually land in the same bracket.

Midwest – Allentown, Pa.

4. Cornell vs. 15. Omaha
5. Denver vs. 11. Penn State

Rationale: Penn State is the host in Allentown, so it's locked in. Meanwhile, Cornell is actually the closest No. 1 seed to this site at about a three-hour drive. I think the committee makes that accommodation. Meanwhile, attendance considerations put No. 4 seeds Boston College and Northeastern to different venues, leaving UNO as the last remaining No. 4 to be slotted. Slotting the No. 2 seeds is where things got a little trickier, but Denver goes to Allentown to keep the No. 4 and No. 5 overall seeds in the same bracket to close the gap where bracket integrity is concerned.