Sixteen teams will play in the NCAA hockey tournament. Five of them will be teams that win conference tournaments this weekend. The other 11 will be teams that receive at-large bids. A look at the PairWise rankings, which mimic how the NCAA picks those teams, offers clues to who they will be.
Let's begin with WCHA's Final Five, which starts first, on Thursday and has six teams in it
Defending NCAA champion UMD is in the NCAA. The Bulldogs finished second in the conference race and, more importantly, are No. 3 in the PairWise ratings. So right now, they would get one of the four No. 1 seeds for the regionals.
Also a lock for the NCAA are the Gophers, the regular-season champions. They are No. 8 in the PairWise ratings and, even if they lost in the Final Five semifinals or final, would not fall enough to not get an at-large bid.
Two teams are almost in: North Dakota and Denver. There are scenarios, although unlikely, in which they could miss the NCAAs. North Dakota finished fourth in the WCHA and is No. 11 in the PairWise. Denver finished third and is No. 12.
But a loss by either in Thursday's quarterfinals could put them on the NCAA bubble. Here's why: There are only 15 spots open in the NCAA field for the top PairWise teams, not 16 because the Atlantic Hockey champion, whoever it is, will take one spot. The highest team in the Atlantic Hockey semifinals is Air Force, No. 28 in the PairWise.
And if underdogs -- low PairWise teams, or teams with an RPI under .500 not in the PairWise ratings at all -- win other conference tournaments, then there will be even fewer spots open for the top PairWise teams.
If St. Cloud State won the Final Five, Providence won Hockey East, Harvard won the ECAC, and Bowling Green won the CCHA, only the top 11 teams in the PairWise ratings would be assured of getting NCAA bids.
Chances of all those underdogs winning conference titles are remote, but one or two might. So the best thing for North Dakota and Denver to do is win on Thursday.
St. Cloud State and Michigan Tech are in a different situation. Both have to win the Final Five to make the NCAA field.
The Huskies from Minnesota finished sixth in the WCHA and are No. 19 in the PairWise; the Huskies from Michigan finished eighth and are not in the PairWise; their RPI is No. 34.
Here is a quicker look at what is happening in the other conferences:
CHAOS IN CCHA
The most interesting conference in the playoffs so far. Three of its teams are already in: Michigan, Miami and Ferris State.
The Wolverines tied for second in the conference race and are No. 2 in the PairWise.
Miami finished only fourth in the CCHA, but is also No. 4 in the PairWise.
Then there is Ferris State, the CCHA champion, which was knocked off by upstart Bowling Green in the conference quarterfinals. The Bulldogs are No. 7 in the PairWise.
Three CCHA teams are on the bubble: Western Michigan, which is the conference semifinals, and Michigan State and Northern Michigan, which lost in earlier rounds and now just have to wait.
The seventh CCHA team with a shot at the NCAA is 11th-place Bowling Green. The Falcons beat Northern Michigan in the first round of the CCHA playoffs and Ferris State in the quarterfinals. They are not even in the PairWise ratings -- they are No. 42 in the RPI -- and have to win the CCHA to advance to the national tournament.
The CCHA semifinals Friday: Bowling Green vs. Michigan, Western Michigan vs. Miami.
Two Hockey East teams are in: Boston College, the regular-season conference champion and No. 1 team in the PairWise, and Boston University, which tied for second and is No. 5 in the PairWise.
On the bubble are UMass-Lowell, Maine and Merrimack.
UMass-Lowell tied for second in Hockey East and is No. 9 in the PairWise. Maine was fourth in Hockey East and is No. 10 in the Pairwise and Merrimack was fifth in Hockey East and is No. 17 in the PairWise. Only Maine is still alive in the conference playoffs.
Providence, seventh in Hockey East, can advance by winning the Hockey East tournament. Providence is not in the PairWise ratings; it's is No. 36 in the RPI.
The Hockey East semifinals Friday: Providence vs. Boston College, Maine vs. Boston University.
This conference has two bubble teams in Union and Cornell, which finished first and second in the conference and are No. 6 and 13 in the PairWise, respectively.
Of course, the two other ECAC teams in the semifinals also could advance to the NCAA by winning the conference tournament. They are Harvard and Colgate, third and fourth in the confernce and No. 23 and 24 in the PairWise.
The ECAC semifinals: Harvard vs. Cornell, Colgate vs. Union.
Only the winner of this conference will make the NCAA tournament.
Air Force won the conference, Niagara finished second and RIT and Mercyhurst tied for third. All are in the semifinals. Their PairWise ratings are Nos. 28 for Air Force, 29 for Niagara and 31 for RIT. Mercyhurst is not in the PairWise; it's RPI is No. 37.
To sum up:
Seven teams are in the NCAA, including the Gophers and UMD ... and Ferris State which lost in its conference tournament
10 are on the bubble, including North Dakota and Denver ... four of them have already lost in their conference tournaments
10 have to win their conference tournament for an NCAA spot, including St. Cloud State and Michigan Tech
UND COACH, PLAYER HONORED
INCH (Inside College Hockey) recently named Dave Hakstol of North Dakota its WCHA Coach of the Year and sophomore forward Brock Nelson its Breakthrough Player of the Year.
Going into the playoffs, UND had eight players miss 82 games this season. Yet North Dakota still finished fourth in the WCHA and is in the Final Five this week at the Xcel Energy Center.
UND has a 22-12-3 overall record. Nelson has 23 goals and 17 assists for 40 points in all games, which ties him for 11th in conference scoring.
NAT'L TEAM WANTS LOOK AT 7 FROM MINNY
Seven Minnesotans have been invited to the U.S. national evaluation camp on March 20-22 in Ann Arbor, Mich. From the 53 players there, the under-17 national team for next season will be selected.
Among those invited are two defensemen from Class 2A state champion Benilde-St. Margaret's, Ryan Collins of Bloomington and Jack Glover of Golden Valley, two players from Edina, which also played in the state tournament, forward Tyler Nanne and defenseman Jack Walker.
The other invitees from Minnesota are forward Paul Bittner of Crookston, forward Shane Gersich of Chaska who plays for Holy Family, and goalie Chase Perry of Andover.
BURN THE TAPE
Hopefully, the Gophers opponent on Friday in the Final Five does not see the tape of the first half of the Alaska Anchorage game last Saturday.
The Gophers were zero for six on the power play and looking brutal at times. Here are my notes on their sixth power play:
UAA iced the puck. UAA blocked a shot and then iced it. Iced it. Blocked shot. Blocked shots. No shots on net. Nick Bjugstad of the Gophers scored on the seventh power play after getting a nice backdoor pass from Erik Haula.
* The Gophers scored four goals in 4 minutes, 34 seconds of the third period on Saturday as the Gophers broke open a 3-3 game to beat UAA 7-3. Haula got goals 18 seconds apart. Then Seth Helgeson scored 1:13 after Haula's second goal. And finally Sam Warning scored 3:03 after Helgeson.
* Minnesota State University Moorhead recently decided it would not pursue adding a Division I hockey program. The school had hoped to raise $37-million for an endowment to help support the program, but could not raise enough money in the present economic climate.