MAC Hockey: The CCHA's Last Stand, Conference Tournaments, and NCAA Chances

Jonathan Daniel

In the last-ever weekend of CCHA regular season play, Miami clinched the title, Western Michigan lost a hold on second place, and Bowling Green fell out of contention to host a first-round playoff series this weekend. UMass needs some help to even make the Hockey East tournament, which starts next weekend.

A look at the four MAC hockey teams and their chances in their respective conference tournaments, as well as their NCAA outlook:

Miami

Heading into last weekend’s games, third-ranked Miami needed one point to clinch a share of the last-ever CCHA regular season championship, and two to clinch it outright. After a 3-0 loss to Ohio State on Friday, they bounced back to beat the Buckeyes 4-2 on senior night, in what was a banner day for Miami athletics. (Miami’s synchronized skating team won its ninth consecutive national championship, and their women’s swimming and diving team earned its 17th MAC championship in only 33 years of competition.)

Miami took a 2-0 lead into the third period but Sean Kuraly, of gold medal fame, was given a 5-minute major and a game misconduct for butt-ending less than two minutes into the third, and 2:25 later, Garrett Kennedy took a charging penalty, giving Ohio State a 5-on-3 power play for a full two minutes. Miami, who has the nation’s sixth-best penalty kill, was able to kill both penalties and just 33 seconds after the major expired, Blake Coleman scored to send Steve Cady Arena into a frenzied celebration. Cody Murphy added a fourth for Miami with just over four minutes to play, and that's when things got a little chippy, with 27 minutes in penalties from this scrap alone:

OSU would go on to add two late goals to reach the final tally.

In the eleven-team CCHA, the top five teams have first-round byes this weekend, and teams 6-11 play a best-of-three series at the higher-seeded team’s rink. Miami will get the lowest remaining team for a best-of-three at home, limiting their potential opponents to Lake Superior State, Bowling Green, Northern Michigan, and Michigan State. Northern Michigan has frequently been a thorn in Miami’s side in recent years, and even this season, when they finished tenth in the conference, the Wildcats were able to beat Miami once and took them to a shootout two other times. I’m sure Miami would love to avoid them, but there’s no reason for Miami to fear any of those four teams, and at this point, anyone in the country. Should Miami win the series, they would advance to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit for the conference final four.

Miami currently has the second-best team defense in the country, giving up 58 goals in 36 games, just behind Quinnipiac, who has given up 54 in 34. Those two late Ohio State goals knocked Miami out of first in that category, and also raised goaltender Ryan McKay’s GAA from an absurd 1.05 to a (relatively) pedestrian 1.17. He still leads the country in that category though, as Massachusetts-Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck sits way back in second with a 1.41.

After platooning Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp for the past four years, head coach Rico Blasi has done the same thing with his two freshmen this year, with Jay Williams usually getting the start on Fridays and McKay in net on Saturdays. In tournaments past, Blasi has kept to that routine, frequently responding to reporters’ questions with, "Whoever plays the best in practice will get the start." While Williams has not played poorly by any means (1.89 GAA, .926 SV%), Blasi might want to seriously consider riding McKay for the rest of the season. If the season ended today, McKay’s 1.17 GAA and .957 SV% would both be NCAA records, besting Jimmy Howard’s 1.19/.956, which he put up with Maine in 2004. It is worth noting that McKay got the start in both games against Ohio State this weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised to see both goalies play in the second-round series, especially if it goes three games, but should Miami make it to Detroit, and the NCAA tournament, I’d expect McKay to get the nod.

As for the NCAA tournament, Miami is not only all but guaranteed to make it, they will almost certainly be a number one seed. They’re currently number three in the Pairwise rankings, and have three more comparison wins than the team in fourth. (For a primer on how the field and seeding is determined, check out Brown and Gold’s post here.) Even if Miami were swept out of their second-round series (unlikely), the teams that make it to Detroit will have suffered losses at the hands of Miami, keeping their RPI and record vs. Teams Under Consideration (TUC) afloat. Essentially, it would take some pretty uncharacteristically poor play by Miami and a string of wins by certain other teams to knock them out of the top four.

If Miami makes it to Detroit and wins at least one of their games there, they should lock up the number one seed in Toledo. As Brown and Gold mentioned, Miami’s past regional placements have been rough, and non-Northeast/East regionals have been very good to Miami:

2012: Bridgeport, CT (lost to UMass-Lowell in first round)

2011: Manchester, NH as a one seed (lost to host UNH in first round)

2010: Fort Wayne, IN (okay that one wasn’t so bad - although this was the phantom no-goal call against Michigan that enabled Miami to advance to the Frozen Four)

2009: Minneapolis, MN (advanced to Frozen Four)

2008: Worcester, MA (lost to Boston College in second round)

2007: Manchester, NH (lost to Boston College in second round)

2006: Worcester, MA (lost to Boston College in first round)

Granted, there haven’t really been many opportunities to play close to home, as there are almost always regionals in the New England area and in the upstate New York/New Hampshire area, and the two "western" regionals are usually in WCHA territory, Minnesota/North Dakota/Colorado, with the occasional Michigan regional thrown in. This year, with both a Grand Rapids and Toledo regional, Miami is almost certain to play close to home. The NCAA takes attendance into account when placing teams, so even if Miami falls out of the top four, they will likely be kept out west for attendance reasons. (Also of note: next season, Miami is hosting a regional in Cincinnati. So if they make the tournament, as they have every year since 2006, they will be guaranteed to play there, regardless of their seed. Part of me secretly hopes they sneak in as a four-seed and get a Hockey East school as their one-seed.)

NCAA TOURNAMENT CHANCES: LEAD PIPE LOCK

Western Michigan

The Broncos (National rank: 9, Pairwise rank: 11) find themselves in a precarious situation after last weekend. Heading to last-place Michigan State for two games, they easily handled the Spartans, 5-2, on Friday night, but couldn’t score a goal on Saturday and lost 1-0. It is a problem that has plagued the Broncos all year, as they scored the second-fewest goals of any team in the conference this year with 83; the Spartans only scored 75. That goes to show you how much goaltender Frank Slubowski has meant to the Broncos, as they gave up the second-fewest goals in the conference at 69, behind Miami’s 58.

The loss dropped the Broncos into third place in the conference behind Notre Dame, meaning they get the highest remaining team of the 6-11 group. (Ohio State finished fourth and Ferris State fifth, so while they have byes, they already know that they’ll be playing each other in the second round.) Unless Michigan State can ride whatever momentum was gained from the 1-0 win and go to Alaska and beat the Nanooks in two out of three, Alaska will be Western Michigan’s opponent. The Broncos played them twice this year in Fairbanks back in November, and lost on Friday 6-1, but bounced back to win the Saturday game 3-2, when they scored three goals in the third. Traveling to Alaska is never easy though, and it was pretty early on in the season so it’s tough to glean too much from that series. Alaska currently sits in 16th in the Pairwise, making them the last team in the NCAAs for the moment, but any tournament wins by teams out of the top 16 would knock them out of the tournament field. They’ll be a team desperate for any wins they can get to try to improve their standing, and could be very dangerous.

On the off chance that the Spartans beat Alaska, Western Michigan could be facing Michigan, who they were 3-1 against this year, but the Wolverines have been hot lately, unbeaten in four straight and knowing they need a CCHA tournament win to keep their record 22-year streak of making the NCAAs alive. Western could also face the winner of the Lake Superior State/Bowling Green series, but that would require both Michigan State beating Alaska and Northern Michigan knocking off Michigan, and while I can maybe see one of those things happening, I don’t see them both happening.

Slubowksi has given the Broncos a chance to win in just about every game this season, and with a best-of-three series at home, there’s no reason to think the Broncos won’t make it to Detroit. And since they’re currently sitting in 11th in the Pairwise, they’ll need a strong run to solidify their NCAA tournament standing. Losing in the second round would put them in serious danger of not making the tournament, but a trip to Detroit should guarantee them a spot in the field of 16. They’ll be hungry to defend their Mason Cup victory from last season, but to do it they’ll have to beat Notre Dame and Miami on back-to-back days, if the seeding holds. At this point though, the Broncos should just focus on making it to Detroit.

NCAA TOURNAMENT CHANCES: GOOD, BUT TEETERING

Bowling Green

The Falcons, in their third year under former Miami assistant Chris Bergeron, have had an up and down season to say the least. After finishing in last place last year, the Falcons won two straight best-of-threes at Northern Michigan and regular season conference champion Ferris State to make it to Detroit, only to fall to Michigan in double overtime and then to Miami in the third-place game.

Hoping to ride the momentum from that tournament run, the Falcons had high hopes for this season. However, they only won four games in the first three months of the season, leaving them looking at another last place finish. But in January, they opened with a tie at non-conference opponent Canisius and followed that with four straight wins, including Notre Dame and Western Michigan. After that, it was hard for them to find much consistency the rest of the season, but there is a silver lining for the Falcons: their first-round opponent, Lake Superior State, is the only conference foe they had a winning record against, as they beat the Lakers 4-1 and 7-3 at the beginning of February. Those games were at home, and the Falcons are traveling to the Upper Peninsula this weekend, but knowing how much they dominated the Lakers just over a month ago should give them some confidence heading into the series. Also to potentially give them confidence: they were (rather inexplicably) named USCHO writer Paula Weston’s CCHA team of the year, presumably for not finishing in last place again. Although after being bestowed with that honor, they promptly got swept at Notre Dame.

If they do manage to get past Lake Superior State, they could end up playing Miami, Notre Dame, or Western Michigan, depending on how the other two series go. The Falcons have the aforementioned wins over Notre Dame and Western Michigan, but those were both at home, and they lost both of their matchups against Miami this year. Still count on Bergeron using last year’s run as proof that they know how to win when it counts. Plus, the team returned a number of players from last season, including goaltender Andrew Hammond. If he gets hot, as he did last year, the Falcons have the talent to steal some games.

However, Bergeron still hasn't committed to Hammond playing all of the first-round series. After getting injured in early February, Hammond played for the first time last weekend, in relief of freshman Tommy Burke on Friday, and getting the start on Saturday. The Falcons gave up a combined eight goals, and Bergeron wasn't happy with the play from either one:

"We need to be better in goal, and I think both those guys know it. Andrew's the one who's more proven in this situation, for sure, but if he starts Friday and doesn't do well, we're not predetermining anything. If Tommy Burke starts Friday and does well, you kinda go with the hot hand, so to speak."

Bergeron's full press conference from Tuesday can be seen here.

That being said, Bowling Green knows that their only ticket to the NCAA tournament is through a CCHA tournament win, and it’s going to take a lot of bounces going the Falcons' way for them to get there. Making it to Detroit again would be a monumental success for this team, and another big step for a program trying to get back on the right track.

NCAA TOURNAMENT CHANCES: VERY WEAK

UMass

In ten-team Hockey East, only the top eight qualify for the conference tournament. With one weekend left to play, UMass sits in ninth, one point behind Maine and three behind Vermont. UMass has a home-and-home with sixth-place Merrimack, who have been very streaky of late. Back in late January/early February they had a 7-1-1 run, culminating in an overtime win over Boston College to take possession of first place in Hockey East on February 15th. Since then, however, they've gone 0-4-1, and if that play continues, UMass has an opportunity to get some points this weekend. Maine travels to play a New Hampshire team that is on a five-game unbeaten streak and sits only one point out of first. UMass should have the opportunity to move up to at least eighth, and with a sweep, potentially seventh, as Vermont travels to Boston College for two games, which is never an easy trip.

Should UMass qualify for the tournament, it’s impossible to say who they’ll play, as the top four teams are separated by two points. Massachusetts-Lowell, the current first place team, is 3-0 against UMass this season, outscoring them by a combined 17-7 in those three games. They’ve played their other three possible opponents in the first round (New Hampshire, Boston College, and Providence) more evenly over the season and have recorded a win against all of them. Regardless, UMass needs to play well this weekend and get some help to even make the conference tournament, where it would need to go on a magical run to even get a shot at making the NCAAs.

NCAA TOURNAMENT CHANCES: UNLESS THE MAJORITY OF HOCKEY EAST COLLAPSES, ZERO

*Note: This article formerly claimed that a trip to Detroit for any of the CCHA teams would result in a guaranteed two more games. This is not true, as the CCHA eliminated the third-place game for this season.

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