The holiday break has arrived in the NCAA hockey ranks as final exams and winter vacations will keep the college product off the ice for majority of nights over the next couple of weeks. Between now and December 28, only eight games will take place, all of which are non-conference match-ups. Play will return with a bang later this month as a trio of holiday tournaments featuring the likes of No. 3 Michigan, No. 4 Western Michigan, No. 16 Providence College, No. 20 Boston College, and more will lead us into the new year. Before conference play returns in full force later in January, fans can also enjoy NCAA standouts at the World Junior Championships.
Where We Stand
The Mavericks of Mankato reign supreme atop the NCAA rankings once again. No. 1 Minnesota State has entered the portion of their season every year where they dominate their WCHA opponents in nearly every game. The team is 12-2-2 in conference play and on a five-game win streak that includes sweeps over No. 18 Michigan Tech and Bemidji State. While strength of schedule is always a question for Minnesota State, as long as they keep winning it may be tough to knock them from the top spot given their strong results in non-conference play earlier this season.
The No. 2 Quinnipiac Bobcats likely feel that they deserve the top spot however. Quinnipiac is second only to No. 9 Cornell in winning percentage and have played seven more games than the Big Red. Their record is ahead of Minnesota State’s and their scoring margin is just behind, despite arguably a more difficult schedule. The caveat here is also strength of schedule though, as the Bobcats current five-game winning streak has come against the likes of St. Lawrence, RPI, Union, and LIU and they have not beaten a ranked team since October 22.
Of course, star-studded No. 3 Michigan will remain a threat, but the Wolverines have not been as invincible as some believed. Michigan dropped a game to No. 17 Ohio State this past weekend and No. 11 Minnesota the weekend before that. With five members of their roster expected to miss the next two games, including a match-up with No. 4 Western Michigan, due to participation in the World Junior Championship, the pressure is on for the Wolverines. Of course, come tournament time there will be no greater threat, regardless of Michigan’s final ranking.
No. 4 WMU is one of the biggest surprises in college hockey this season with six wins against ranked opponents, but the Broncos have a buzz saw awaiting them in the second half with ten consecutive games against NCHC elite in No. 5 North Dakota, No. 6 Minnesota Duluth, No. 7 St. Cloud State, No. 8 Denver, and then North Dakota once more. It’s an impossible schedule, but Western Michigan hopes to prove it belongs at the top of the rankings by coming away with a winning record. Of course, all of these teams have to play each other over the remainder of the season. The NCHC is the deepest and most talented conference in the NCAA this year, but that infighting could keep any of those programs from landing a top seed in the tournament.
No. 9 Cornell could be a sneaky candidate to make a second-half run to a top spot. The Big Red already league the NCAA is winning percentage and are second in goals per game and tied for third in scoring margin. While Cornell has played fewer games than all of the top teams due to the Ivy League’s late start and their strength of schedule suffers from some of the same weaknesses as fellow ECAC standout Quinnipiac, Cornell is statistically elite and has a chance to prove themselves as a top team when they face North Dakota on the road once they return from break.
As for Hockey East, the historic conference is definitely in a down year. No. 15 UMass Lowell leads the conference standings, but just went 0-1-1 against No. 12 UMass two weeks ago. The defending champs are right behind their satellite rivals, but far from the team they were a year ago. No. 13 Northeastern quietly has the best overall winning percentage in Hockey East, but their only statement wins came against slumping No. 16 Providence College last weekend. Barring a chance in trajectory in the second half, Hockey East may only send two or three teams to the NCAA Tournament this year and may not have any upper seeds.
It’s not often that the NCAA rankings align perfectly at tournament time for all 16 teams to be assigned in exact order to their regionals while avoiding conference match-ups and accounting for geography. In fact, the odds of it happening as if by design are slim to none. However, it just so happens that the current USCHO rankings do actually fit perfectly without conflicting first-round games or illogical geographic placements (albeit taking some of the fun out of “bracketology”). Here is a look at how the NCAA Tournament would break down if the season ended today:
Loveland, CO: No. 1 Minnesota State, No. 8 Denver, No. 9 Cornell, No. 16 Bentley*
Worcester, MA: No. 2 Quinnipiac, No. 7 St. Cloud, No. 10 Notre Dame, No. 15 UMass Lowell
Allentown, PA: 3 Michigan, No. 6 Minnesota-Duluth, No. 11 Minnesota, No. 14 Omaha
Albany, NY: No. 4 Western Michigan, No. 5 North Dakota, No. 12 UMass, No. 13 Northeastern
In this scenario, the top three seeds all end up at the regional located closest to them, while host Denver lands in Loveland (as is required) and several other schools play close to home. Most importantly though, the regionals are completed balanced. Of course, this won’t stick through the rest of the year so that final rankings and regional assignments will inevitably change. Still, it is worth looking forward at some potential stellar early match-ups like in-state rivals Duluth and Minnesota or historic North Dakota and reigning champ UMass. The Frozen Four in Boston is still a ways a way, but with a number of talented programs vying for a spot this year, including many enjoying one of their best seasons in school history, the 2022 NCAA Tournament should be a good one.
The Boston Bruins are certainly keeping their recent draft classes close to home. Of the team’s 11 selections over the past two years, seven will now be playing college hockey in Massachusetts or Rhode Island next year. Several are already there: 2020 third-round forward Trevor Kuntar is skating on the top line for Boston College in his sophomore campaign, 2020 sixth-round forward Riley Duran is impressing as a freshman at Providence College with 11 points in 21 games, and 2021 seventh-round defenseman Ty Gallagher is a half point-per-game with Boston University, also exceeding expectations. Already committed are 2020 fifth-round defenseman Mason Langenbrunner, the lone non-Hockey East prospect of the group who will suit up for Harvard University, 2021 fourth-round goaltender Philip Svedeback, who will join Duran at PC, and 2021 seventh-round forward Andre Gasseau, who will follow Kuntar to BC.
The latest addition to the list will make it three members of the Eagles forward corps that will belong to the nearby Bruins. Swedish forward Oskar Jellvik has announced his intention to play for Boston College next season, joining Kuntar and Gasseau. Jellvik was a fifth-round pick by Boston this year, which could prove to be a nice value for the team. Jellvik has 11 goals and 25 points in 23 games this season for the U20 club of Djurgardens IF. That 1.09 points per game mark and a +8 rating make him one of the more dangerous players in the Swedish juniors this year. If that ability can translate to the North American game, BC and the Bruins could have a special prospect on their hands. Boston will get to keep a close eye on his development too from right down the street.