With just one or two weekends left in the regular season for NCAA programs, every game counts a little more as teams are jockeying for position in their conference tournaments. The Big Ten, ECAC, WCHA, and Atlantic kick off their tournament play on March 6th, while Hockey East and the NCHC play an extra week of regular season matchups and get underway on March 13th. The winners of each tournament get an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament, while the rest of the field is selected based on the national rankings.
In the Big Ten, all seven teams make the postseason and preseason favorite Wisconsin already has the sad distinction of locking up the bottom seed and a meeting with the second seed in the first round. All other spots are still up for grabs, but the conferences only ranked teams – No. 9 Penn State, No. 10 Ohio State, and No. 18 Minnesota – are the only ones left in the running for the coveted first-round bye.
In Hockey East, only eight of eleven teams make the tournaments and Vermont and Merrimack have already been eliminated from contention. That leaves nine teams, all within a nine-point range and having two-to-four games remaining, to battle for seeding in what should be an excellent conference tournament.
The WCHA uses a similar structure as Hockey East, allowing eight of their ten teams into the tournament. It’s a good thing too, as this past weekend showed that the likes of No. 2 Minnesota State and current WCHA bottom-dweller Alabama-Huntsville do not need a playoff series to determine who is better. In fact, the balance of power in the conference is so much that a tournament win by anyone other than Minnesota State or No. 11 Bemidji State would be a major upset and would cause a shift in the NCAA Tournament landscape.
The NCHC has the same 1-8 format, except that the conference only houses eight teams. No team has locked up a specific seed yet, but the field is deep behind No. 3 North Dakota, No. 5 Minnesota Duluth, No. 6 Denver, No. 16 Western Michigan, and unranked but formidable St. Cloud State.
The ECAC also allows all 12 of its teams to compete in the conference tournament, with the top four seeds earning a bye. It is clear that No. 1 Cornell and No. 7 Clarkson will be among that top quartet, but the likes of No. 17 Quinnipiac, Harvard, and surprise Rensselaer will battle for the final two byes this week.
Finally, there is Atlantic Hockey, the spoiler conference. The tournament winner, often a surprise, is also almost always outside the top 16 seeds, causing a shakeup to the national tourney. This year, either one of No. 20 American International or previously ranked Sacred Heart could potentially hold their own on the NCAA, but they will be bumping a better team nevertheless.
There has been another shift at the top of the national rankings in recent weeks. Despite sweeping No. 6 Denver two weeks ago, North Dakota drops to No. 3 after recording a tie and a loss against St. Cloud State this past weekend. In their stead, Cornell moves back up to No. 1 with four wins over four different ECAC opponents, while Minnesota State slides into No. 2 with just two wins but a whopping 18-0 differential against Alabama Huntsville.
Boston College established itself as both a true national contender and the team to beat out of Hockey East this year with a convincing four-win stretch over Merrimack and No. 13 Northeastern. Northeastern fans may be scratching their heads a bit, as the team currently sits one spot behind No. 12 UMass Lowell, who they swept two weeks ago and who picked up just one win in their most recent home-and-home against No. 8 UMass. One way or another, these four programs seem like a lock for the national stage barring a collapse in the final weeks or the conference tournament. The real question is whether No. 15 Maine or the severely slumping No. 19 Providence College can get into the NCAA Tournament on merit or if they will have to win Hockey East to get in, like UConn and Boston University must do.
The Big Ten’s top teams finally appear to be turning things around. While a 2-1-1 record in recent weeks is not stunning, it was enough for Penn State to move up to No. 9. Meanwhile, Ohio State has climbed to No. 10 following a sweep of Michigan State. Quietly, No. 18 Minnesota has also climbed into the national conversation, but will need a strong final week and conference tourney showing to get in.
Three ranked teams that currently qualify as wild cards right now are No. 11 Bemidji State, No. 14 Arizona State, and No. 20 America International. Bemidji has been moving up the rankings for some time now, but a recent 3-0-1 run has catapulted them to right outside the top-ten. Yet, when it comes to evaluating the weak competition of the WCHA, there’s a chance that Bemidji could be a bubble team if they don’t at least reach the conference tournament final against Minnesota State. Arizona State, an independent, must get into the NCAA Tournament on merit, but a recent sweep by Wisconsin to end their regular season doesn’t help. A spoiler or two in conference tournaments seems likely to bounce ASU, as they now have to sit back and be at the mercy of other teams for the next few weeks. Finally, there’s American International, the newest addition to the national rankings. AIC has won eleven straight games and will only move up the rankings further if they close out the regular season by extending that streak. However, the team plays in the weakest conference in college hockey and are 0-6 in nonconference play this season. Barring a drop-off from several top teams over the next few weeks, AIC will very likely need to win the Atlantic to move on with their season.
Tyler Madden Out Indefinitely
When it comes to college prospects, this year’s NHL Trade Deadline was somewhat of a bust. Of all the deals made, only two current NCAA prospects were dealt and zero NCAA-bound prospects were moved. Denver defenseman Slava Demin was traded by the Vegas Golden Knights to the Chicago Blackhawks as part of the three-team Robin Lehner trade, but the sophomore blue liner is still somewhat of a raw product and his acquisition did not move the needle on the national scale. However, the Los Angeles Kings’ acquisition of Northeastern star Tyler Madden is a much bigger deal. Madden, acquired in the Tyler Toffoli deal, is one of the very best goal scorers in the NCAA. The sophomore forward has 37 points in 27 games this season, which places him in the top five of per-game producers at the college level. His 19 goals also places him in the top ten. Madden just recently helped the Huskies win their third straight Beanpot title and has a strong chance of leading the team in scoring this season.
However, his current totals will likely have to hold for the rest of the year. Madden suffered a hand injury on Friday, February 14th against UMass Lowell, just two days before his rights were traded to L.A. Head coach Jim Madigan announced last week that Madden is out indefinitely, while other sources have stated that the timeline is six-to-eight weeks. The early end of that timeline would allow Madden to return in time for the NCAA Tournament, but the latter would only allow him to play in a potential Final Four appearance. Judging by how Northeastern played against Boston College this past weekend, dropping both games and the second by a score of 10-1, the Huskies will have to fight just to get into the national tournament and a long run seems like a long shot. Fortunately, even if he misses the remainder of the campaign, Madden is expected back at Northeastern next year even after his trade to the Kings and will be looking to re-assert himself as one of the best players in college hockey and his team as a national contender.
Bids Placed For Future Frozen Fours
The bidding on hosting the Frozen Four in 2023, 2024, 2025, and 2026 closed earlier this month and featured some interesting locations. This year’s Frozen Four is set to return to Detroit for the first time since 2010, while the next two years are set for familiar cities in Pittsburgh and Boston. However, a new name seems likely to host in the coming years: Las Vegas. After hosting holiday tournaments over the past few years, the city is hoping to move up to the biggest NCAA stage by hosting the Final Four. The games would take place at T-Mobile Arena, home of the Vegas Golden Knights. Another city itching for a return to the grand stage of college hockey is St. Louis. The 2007 hosts have been frequent bidders in recent years, but now the home of the defending Stanley Cup champs and this year’s NHL All-Star Game have as good a chance as ever. Columbus would also like to get in on the action. The city last hosted in 2005, but on the campus of Ohio State. This time around, Blue Jackets’ home of Nationwide Arena would be the epicenter of the action, while college town atmosphere would still be present. Perhaps the most exciting opportunity could be the bid from Seattle, which has the support of the NCHC. Soon to be the NHL’s newest city, a Frozen Four in Seattle would only further the growth of the hockey fan base in the area. Among other bids were Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, and Tampa.