The champs are here -- or, they will be Saturday. It’s conference championship weekend across the country, with four neutral-site tournaments featuring four teams each and the single championship games in the Big Ten and WCHA on campus sites.
In addition to conference hardware, a number of autobids are on the line this weekend. All four teams in Atlantic Hockey and both WCHA clubs still alive must win their respective championships to get into the tournament. The same goes for Princeton and Harvard over in the ECAC. Meanwhile, North Dakota, Boston College and Boston University are bubble teams that would probably rather control their own destiny by winning the tournaments as opposed to waiting for a series of other games to decide their fate. Minnesota Duluth and Clarkson are less likely to be bounced from the NCAA tournament picture, but they’re also not guaranteed a spot this yet.
As much as a shot at the national championship matters to each participating team this weekend, none will overlook the value of a conference tournament matchup. The chance to hoist a trophy Saturday is still a special accomplishment. If you don't leave with the big prize at the end of the year, you can still leave with something.
By the end of Saturday night, we’ll pretty much know the entire tournament field... we just won’t know where they’ll go. We’ll all be able to find out during the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, which airs Sunday at noon on ESPNU.
Here’s a look ahead to the exciting conference tournament schedule:
ECAC Championship -- Lake Placid, N.Y.
Semifinals – Friday, March 16
The first semifinal of Friday offers a matchup of teams who do things a little differently. Princeton is one of the highest-scoring teams in the country, averaging 3.73 goals per game, trailing only Minnesota State and St. Cloud State. Cornell has allowed 1.45 goals per game, the lowest in the country. While the Big Red prides itself on defense and goal prevention, they’re also 10th in the country in goals scored per game. Cornell swept the season series with 5-4 and 7-1 wins over Princeton earlier in the year, but Princeton is playing for its postseason life now.
.@ECACHOCKEYMWD1 Semifinals Game 1— ElevenSportsUSA (@ElevenSportsUSA) March 15, 2018
@puhockey vs @CUBigRedHockey
Friday March 16
Live on Eleven Prime, on @Twitch #ForTheFans #GameOn #ECAC #ECACHockey #NCAA #TigerUp #Princeton #LGR #Cornell pic.twitter.com/0AXgrozw60
High-scoring juniors Max Veronneau and Ryan Kuffner will certainly draw a lot of attention from Cornell. They both are over the 50-point mark with Veronneau at 53 and Kuffner at 50. Meanwhile, Cornell boasts one of the nation’s top goaltenders in freshman standout Matthew Galajda, who owns a 1.43 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in 27 games so far this season. He is one of 10 finalists still in the running for the Hobey Baker.
A year after reaching the Frozen Four, Harvard finds itself in a situation where it must win this tournament to go to the big dance. Meanwhile Clarkson is in fairly good position to get in either way, but they’re not complete locks just yet, so they’d best not leave anything to chance. Harvard has the edge in the season series having beaten and tied the Golden Knights earlier in the season. Most recently, Harvard earned a 5-2 win over Clarkson on home ice.
The Crimson boast a Hobey Baker candidate in junior Ryan Donato, who has been a scoring machine this season with 26 goals in just 28 games. Clarkson is led by sophomore forward Sheldon Rempal who has 43 points in 36 games so far this season. Expect fireworks in this one as these two teams combined for 19 goals over their two games this season.
Saturday, March 16 – 7:30 p.m.
Hockey East Championship – Boston, Mass.
Semifinals – Friday, March 16
This game barely needs an introduction. If it’s BU and BC on the same sheet, it’s pretty much always must-see. Both teams face long odds to reach the NCAA tournament as at-large bids, so there’s an even bigger emphasis on taking home the Hockey East crown. The two clubs split the season series with the road team winning each game, so who will get the edge at the Garden?
These two clubs met in a home-and-home series in late January that saw both games go to overtime. They tied the first game and Providence won the second after managing to hold the Huskies’ vaunted offensive attack in check. They’ll have to find a way to do that again, but it won’t be easy with Hobey Baker finalists Dylan Sikura and Adam Gaudette -- also the nation’s leading scorer -- looking at nabbing a second Hockey East tournament title in the last three years. Both teams are pretty well set to make the NCAA tournament, but both are sure to battle aggressively for the conference crown.
Hockey East Final
Saturday, March 17, 7 p.m. (NESN, ESPN3)
Atlantic Hockey Championship – Rochester, N.Y.
Semifinals – Friday, March 16
Over a weekend in mid-December, Robert Morris swept Mercyhurst in a home-and-home series. It was the last time the Lakers would lose back-to-back games the rest of the year. Mercyhurst ended the season on an incredible 13-1-2 run to win the Atlantic Hockey regular-season title and cruise into the semis. That streak of success included a tight series sweep over the Colonials, including one overtime win. With both teams well into survive-and-advance mode, this should be a good one.
Air Force just got put through the ringer at Army West Point last week, but managed to survive with a 1-0 overtime win in Game 3 to put themselves in position for a second straight Atlantic Hockey title. The Falcons have seemingly saved their best hockey for late in the season, which could be bad news for Canisius. The Golden Griffins went 1-3 against Air Force in the season series. The good news, however, is that Canisius is nice and close to home, which certainly won’t hurt, especially not after going through a tough three-game series of their own against AIC last weekend.
Atlantic Hockey Final
Saturday, March 17, 7:35 p.m.
NCHC Frozen Faceoff – St. Paul, Minn.
All four games between these two clubs this season have been tight with three of them going to overtime. St. Cloud State secured an overtime and regulation victory while the other games officially went down as ties. North Dakota earned extra conference standings points in those games with 3-on-3 OT and shootout wins. Based on the previous games, this is obviously going to be a great matchup. It’s only been two weeks since the Fighting Hawks and Huskies squared off in the regular season finale. You’ve got two deep hockey teams with a lot of talent throughout the lineup, highlighted by SCSU defenseman and Hobey Baker finalist Jimmy Schuldt. Meanwhile, North Dakota will be looking to make sure their NCAA tournament bubble doesn’t burst this weekend.
At this point in the postseason, it doesn’t get much juicier than this. It’s a 2017 national championship game rematch with a chance to play for a conference title on the line. Several core players from last year’s final are back, but even if the Bulldogs have long memories, there’s a little more important business to tend to. Denver is essentially a lock to make the tournament, but UMD isn’t 100 percent locked in yet. They’re probably safe, but a win here certainly wouldn’t hurt. The Bulldogs, however, have yet to beat the Pioneers this season. Denver has won all four games between the two clubs in what have mostly been low-scoring affairs.
Saturday, March 17, 8:38 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
WCHA Championship – Saturday, March 17
It’s a win-and-you’re-in situation for both Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan in this all-Upper Peninsula WCHA final. The Tech Huskies shocked regular-season champion Minnesota State in a three-game series last weekend to earn a trip to Marquette, while Northern Michigan survived a tense series against Bowling Green by also winning a Game 3 in overtime. The Wildcats have enjoyed their best season in decades under first-year head coach Grant Potulny, while Michigan Tech is trending up after some inconsistency this year. These two clubs actually split the season series an even 2-2. Both teams won one home game and one road game. There should be a great atmosphere in Marquette for this big conference title game.
Big Ten Championship – Saturday, March 17
This championship game is merely about adding some hardware to the trophy case for both teams. Neither needs to win to receive a bid to the NCAA tournament, but neither has won a Big Ten title before either. That should up the ante quite a bit. Both teams also want to be at their best heading into the national tournament. The Irish won the season series 3-1 as they dominated their way to the Big Ten regular-season championship. Ohio State finished second and has enjoyed one of its best seasons to date. They haven’t won a conference tournament championship since 2004, so you know the Buckeyes will be getting up for this one. They may have some added confidence heading into South Bend as they avoided the season sweep with a 5-1 win at Compton Family Ice Arena.