College hockey preview: Conference tournaments packed with intriguing series
This really is the best time of year for college hockey fans, and this weekend is one of the most exciting weekends on the schedule. This weekend often brings the drama that can only be produced by a series and this time all of the nation’s top teams are involved in some way.
As thrilling as single elimination can be in the upcoming tournaments, there’s something to be said for a good playoff series. These are where rivalries new and old can be taken to a higher level. It’s already pretty high, with a large number of teams essentially playing for their postseason lives this weekend.
That is especially true of bubble teams like North Dakota, Notre Dame, Boston College, Providence, Vermont and Air Force, among a few others who are even longer shots. This weekend could be the end of the road for a few of them.
This is the time of year coaches want to see their teams starting to peak. It makes weekends like these pretty valuable in terms of seeing which teams are fully into the postseason mindset and which have reasons for concern in high-pressure situations.
With so many series having such high stakes beyond what they mean for the conference tournament, here’s a rundown of the full postseason slate (plus what’s going on with the Big Ten’s final regular-season weekend) with some thoughts on the particularly big matchups:
- Quinnipiac at St. Lawrence
- Clarkson at Cornell
- Princeton at Union
- Yale at Harvard
Of the three teams already in position to reach the national tournament, only Cornell can’t definitively say they’re in, though they’re darn close. This weekend, they’re playing a team they have not beaten yet, having tied Clarkson twice earlier in the season. While it will be difficult to unseat them from a national tournament spot, it’s not off the table, so it’s a big weekend for the Big Red.
ECAC co-champion Harvard also could have its hands full this weekend as they’ll play archrival Yale. The two clubs tied once, and Harvard won the second meeting. But these are the types of matchups that should give higher seeds pause. The Crimson are essentially already in the national tournament, but after winning the Beanpot and a share of the Cleary Cup, you’d expect them to be feeling a little greedy.
Hockey East Quarterfinals
— Notre Dame Hockey (@NDHockey) March 9, 2017
- Vermont at Boston College
- Northeastern at Boston University
- New Hampshire at UMass-Lowell
- Providence at Notre Dame
TD Garden in Boston awaits the winners of these four series and are there ever some doozies in the mix. That Vermont-Boston College pairing essentially puts both teams’ seasons on the line in a way that the other series don’t. Vermont is currently 15th in the Pairwise, which won’t cut it if they want to get into the tournament. Meanwhile, the Eagles basically have to win the tournament to get in at this point after a late-season swoon. In their only two meetings this season, Vermont and BC tied both games.
The Providence-Notre Dame series is pretty close in similarities, though. The Friars are 11th in the Pairwise and Notre Dame is 13th. The loser of this series is at real risk of getting bounced from the national tournament. The Irish had the edge in the regular-season series, beating and tying the Friars just a few weeks ago.
Meanwhile, the other two series feature some interesting underdogs against teams pretty much already in the tournament. Northeastern has scored more goals than all but one team in the country this year and boasts three players with more than 50 points on their roster. If BU gets a little leaky on the back end, this could be a real series.
Atlantic Hockey Quarterfinals
- Holy Cross at Robert Morris
- Mercyhurst at Army West Point
- Niagara at Canisius
- Bentley at Air Force
Another league where it’s a win-to-get-in scenario as far as the national tournament goes, there is no shortage of intrigue in the Atlantic tournament. Canisius comes into the tournament on a 15-game unbeaten streak and has a genuine Hobey Baker candidate in goalie Charles Williams. Air Force, meanwhile, is ranked 16th in the Pairwise after narrowly missing out on a AHA regular-season title. Then there’s the incredible Mercyhurst-Army series that pits West Point head coach Brian Riley against sons Jack and Brendan, both forwards for the Lakers.
This is a pretty decent shot. pic.twitter.com/IB8ggbevpR— North Dakota MHockey (@UNDmhockey) March 5, 2017
- Omaha at Western Michigan
- Miami at Minnesota Duluth
- St. Cloud State at North Dakota
- Colorado College at Denver
A trip to Minneapolis is on the line this weekend, but the NCHC tournament could have a lot of national tournament implications as well. North Dakota has spent the last few weeks on the bubble to defend their national title. St. Cloud State and Omaha are just on the outside, facing must-win scenarios this weekend. Meanwhile, Denver, Minnesota Duluth and Western Michigan have all but clinched national tournament spots, but just because they're safe doesn’t mean they won’t be pushing for that conference hardware. Other potential at-large entries will be rooting for that trio of NCHC teams as well, just to be safe.
- Minnesota State at Michigan Tech
- Bowling Green at Bemidji State
The WCHA is down to its final four teams as the conference goes through its new playoff format. The winners of the best-of-three semifinals this weekend will meet in a winner-take-all championship game March 18 at the home arena of the highest remaining seed.
All four of these teams have no choice but to win the conference to earn a national tournament berth. Bemidji State ran away with the league in the regular season and boast the conference’s best goaltender in Michael Bitzer, but it seems as though the Broadmoor Trophy is very much up for grabs.
Big Ten Regular-Season Finale
- Michigan State at Minnesota
- Penn State at Michigan
- Ohio State at Wisconsin
Drawing the last-place team in the final weekend of the regular season is fortuitous for Minnesota as they’ll look to clinch an unprecedented sixth consecutive regular-season conference title. That streak dates back to the old WCHA and includes each season in the Big Ten so far. All they need is one win for at least a share of the title.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s title aspirations are still alive. They’ll be rooting for Michigan State to take at least one game at Minnesota. A Badgers sweep gives them a chance and helps them move further from the bubble. Unfortunately for them, they’ll be playing a pretty desperate Ohio State club who has seen its national tournament hopes begin slipping away. On top of that, Penn State could conceivably catch the Badgers and snatch the first-round bye at the Big Ten tournament too.
There are a lot of things that could happen in the Big Ten this weekend, but the slate gets wiped clean next weekend as all six teams head to Detroit for college hockey’s farewell to Joe Louis Arena.