The road to the NCAA Frozen Four in St. Paul begins in earnest this week, as five of the six college hockey conferences begin play in their tournaments. Only the NCHC is left finishing its regular season before beginning tournament play on March 9.
Winners of the six conference tournaments – Atlantic Hockey, Big Ten, ECAC, Hockey East, NCHC and WCHA – will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, while 10 at-large teams will be selected by the NCAA using a mathematical formula. The PairWise Ratings mimic the NCAA’s formula and have consistently been accurate in predicting the NCAA field.
With that in mind, let’s look at the current PairWise Ratings and see the likely NCAA teams from each conference.
1. St. Cloud State
2. Notre Dame
4. Minnesota State Mankato
6. Ohio State
8. Minnesota Duluth
13. Penn State
14. North Dakota
15. Nebraska Omaha
16. Boston College
Conference regular-season champion outside the top 16: No. 22 Mercyhurst of AHA.
Likely tournament teams by conference
College Hockey News has a PairWise Probability Matrix that uses 20,000 simulations of remaining game results leading up to selection day on March 18. Using this matrix, here is a look at each conference and which teams are locks make the NCAA field (90 percent probability or better) and which teams still have work to do.
Locks: Notre Dame (100 percent in the PairWise matrix), Ohio State (100), Minnesota (99), Michigan (96).
In contention: Penn State (67 pct.). The Nittany Lions vaulted themselves back into strong contention with last weekend’s sweep of the Gophers.
Outside, looking in: Wisconsin (3 pct.), Michigan State (1). Winning Big Ten tournament is the only route to NCAAs for these two.
Locks: St. Cloud State (100 pct.), Denver (100 percent), Minnesota Duluth (96).
In contention: Nebraska Omaha (48 pct.), North Dakota (42). Both the Mavericks (at Minnesota Duluth) and Fighting Hawks (vs. St. Cloud State) face tough regular-season finales before beginning NCHC tournament play.
Outside, looking in: Western Michigan (7 pct.), Colorado College (3).
Locks: MSU Mankato (100 pct.).
In contention: Northern Michigan (27 pct.), Bowling Green (24). Wildcats are No. 18, Falcons No. 18 in PairWise, so they have work to do.
Outside, looking in: Bemidji State (4 pct.).
Locks: Cornell (100 pct.), Clarkson (99.6).
Outside, looking in: Union (13 pct.), Harvard (6). Dutchmen and Crimson must make run in ECAC tournament to make NCAA field.
Locks: Northeastern (97 pct.), Providence (92).
In contention: Boston College (33 pct.). At No. 16 in PairWise, Eagles easily could be bumped if they lose.
Outside, looking in: Boston University (16 pct.).
Lock: Conference tournament champion. This league will send only one team to the NCAA tourney. Regular-season champion Mercyhurst has the inside track.
Predicting the field
With those likely teams in mind, here’s a look at what the NCAA tournament field might look like. I’ll project regular-season conference champions as tournament champions, meaning No. 22 Mercyhurst would get the AHA bid and bump out a team in the PairWise top 16.
Three items to remember:
First, there are four regionals – West in Sioux Falls (North Dakota as host), Midwest in Allentown, Pa. (Penn State as host), East in Bridgeport, Conn. (Yale and Fairfield as hosts) and Northeast in Worcester, Mass. (Holy Cross as host) – and if a host team makes the NCAA field, it must be placed in that regional. We have two, North Dakota and Penn State.
Second, the NCAA wants to avoid first-round matchups between teams in the same conference, so teams will be moved.
Third, the NCAA hopes to maintain bracket integrity, with the No. 1 overall seed vs. No. 16 and No. 8 vs. No. 9 in one region; 2-15 and 7-10 in the second; 3-14 and 6-11 in the third; and 4-13 and 5-12 in the fourth. However, avoiding intraconference first-round matchups and attendance concerns may cause the NCAA to break from balanced brackets.
Here’s a look at the projected brackets. With three weeks remaining until selection day, these undoubtedly will change:
West (Sioux Falls)
1. Minnesota State Mankato
2. Minnesota Duluth
4. North Dakota
Note: No. 1 overall seed St. Cloud State would be targeted to the West because it’s the closest regional to its campus, but because North Dakota is the host, it must be placed in Sioux Falls. But remember, North Dakota is not yet a lock to make the tournament, so if the Fighting Hawks don’t make the field, St. Cloud State likely would end up here if it is No. 1 overall. For regional flavor, this bracket could be very entertaining.
4. Penn State
Note: Penn State must be placed here. Since there are three regionals in the East, they’re somewhat interchangeable. Cornell slots in here because of proximity to campus.
1. St. Cloud State
2. Ohio State
Note: The Huskies could land here and face Mercyhurst, protecting the 1-16 matchup. Mercyhurst bumps No. 15 Nebraska Omaha from field.
1. Notre Dame
4. Boston College
Note: Northeastern and Providence are swapped for attendance purposes to have two Boston teams in Worcester.