Now they wait.
Swept out of the Big Ten quarterfinals by Penn State in 5-3 and 6-5 losses over the weekend, the Gophers must wait – and sweat it out as other conference tournament scores roll in -- until March 18, when the NCAA men’s hockey tournament field is announced.
Will the Gophers, losers of four consecutive games at Happy Valley by a combined 21-11 score the past two weekends, even make the NCAA tournament?
It’s still highly likely, though the past four losses have moved Minnesota (19-17-2) from a potential No. 2 regional seed to a likely No. 4 seed. A series of conference tournament upsets, however, could bump the Gophers out of the 16-team field entirely.
In the PairWise Ratings, the formula that mimics what the NCAA uses to select its tournament field, the Gophers are No. 13. That translates as the first No. 4 seed should they stay in that spot. College Hockey News has a PairWise Probability Matrix, which runs simulations of the remaining games before Selection Sunday. That matrix lists the Gophers as having a 98 percent chance of making the NCAA field as an at-large entrant.
Here is the top 16 of the PairWise, plus the remaining conference regular-season champions outside of the top 16 that I’ll project as tournament champions.
1. St. Cloud State
2. Notre Dame
4. Ohio State
5. Minnesota State Mankato
9. Minnesota Duluth
11. Penn State
14. Nebraska Omaha
15. North Dakota
16. Bowling Green
17. Boston College (Hockey East)
22. Mercyhurst (Atlantic Hockey)
Where things get tricky is in the conference tournaments. Each champion of the six Division I conferences – Atlantic Hockey, Big Ten, ECAC, Hockey East, NCHC and WCHA – receives an automatic NCAA bid. As usual, Atlantic Hockey won’t have a team in the PairWise top 16, so its tournament champion will get an automatic spot, leaving 15 spots available. If the Gophers remain at No. 13, it would take three more teams from outside the top 16 winning their conference tournament to bump Minnesota. If the Gophers drop to No. 14 – College Hockey News has tweeted that it’s very unlikely they would drop past No. 14 – then it would take two non-top 16 tourney champs to bump Minnesota.
With that in mind, here are the key threats to the Gophers:
NCHC: The winner of the quarterfinal series between No. 14 Nebraska Omaha and No. 15 North Dakota in Grand Forks could move ahead of Minnesota, while the loser likely is eliminated from NCAA contention. St. Cloud State, Denver and Minnesota Duluth are safely in the NCAA field. Colorado College, at No. 23, would become a bigger threat if it upset Denver.
WCHA: No. 5 MSU Mankato is the only WCHA team in the top 16, so if the Mavericks don’t win the conference tournament, the league would have a second team in the NCAA field. No. 16 Bowling Green and No. 17 Northern Michigan meet in a semifinal series, while the Mavericks face Michigan Tech. Both Bowling Green and Northern Michigan went 2-2 against MSU Mankato this season.
Hockey East: Should No. 10 Providence or No. 12 Northeastern win this tournament, that would help the Gophers, because they’re safely in the field. Either one of them winning the title likely would deny No. 17 Boston College and No. 19 Boston University a bid.
ECAC: Cornell and Clarkson are the only ECAC teams safely in the field. Lurking to bump a team are No. 20 Union, No. 26 Harvard and No. 27 Princeton.
Projected NCAA field
Here’s a look at a projected NCAA tournament field based on games played through Sunday. For simplicity's sake, I projected two conference regular-season champions outside the top 16 – Boston College and Mercyhurst -- as tourney champs:
No. 1 seeds: No. 1 St. Cloud State, No. 2 Notre Dame, No. 3 Cornell, No. 4 Ohio State.
No. 2 seeds: No. 5 MSU Mankato, No. 6 Denver, No. 7 Michigan, No. 8 Clarkson.
No. 3 seeds: No. 9 Minnesota Duluth, No. 10 Northeastern, No. 11 Penn State, No. 12 Providence.
No. 4 seeds: No. 13 Gophers, No. 14 Nebraska Omaha, No. 17 Boston College (bumps North Dakota), No. 22 Mercyhurst (bumps Bowling Green).
The NCAA will try to preserve balance in seedings, with one regional having 1 vs. 16 and 8 vs. 9; a second having 2 vs. 15 and 7 vs. 10; a third with 3 vs. 14 and 6 vs. 11; and the fourth having 4 vs. 13 and 5 vs. 12. Also, the NCAA will avoid intraconference first-round matchups. Attendance concerns also could impact the matchups.
West Regional (Sioux Falls)
1. St. Cloud State vs. 16. Mercyhurst
8. Clarkson vs. 9. Minnesota Duluth
Note: Host team North Dakota doesn’t make it in this projection. Would the NCAA put the Gophers here instead of Mercyhurst? If it did, it would break up the bracket integrity of a 1 vs. 16 matchup. Also, MSU Mankato replacing Clarkson could be considered.
Northeast Regional (Worcester, Mass.)
2. Notre Dame vs. 15. Boston College
7. Michigan vs. 10. Northeastern
Midwest Regional (Allentown, Pa.)
3. Cornell vs. 13. Gophers
6. Denver vs. 11. Penn State
Note: Gophers would be targeted to East vs. Ohio State as a 4-13 pairing, but they are swapped with Nebraska Omaha to avoid an intraconference matchup.
East Regional (Bridgeport, Conn.)
4. Ohio State vs. 14. Nebraska Omaha
5. MSU Mankato vs. 12. Providence
Note: Would the NCAA move MSU Mankato to the West to face Minnesota Duluth and Clarkson to the East to face Providence? It could help attendance in Bridgeport at the expense of bracket integrity.