The Best Conference?
by Ryan Lambert/Columnist
The final weeks of the regular season are shaping up to be fairly wild in just about every conference in the country.
While Boston College crushed everyone and already has the Hockey East regular season title locked up, the race for spots Nos. 2-8 or so is going to be hotly contested for the remainder of the season. In Atlantic Hockey, just six points separates first from fifth, and this is a league that's been rife with inexplicable weekend sweeps all season. The ECAC's not especially close at the top, but the six points between second and sixth say that very little is decided there. The WCHA will be a footrace for spots 1 and 2, as well as 3-8. The NCHC has the No. 5/6 teams just five points back of No. 2 North Dakota, and that same team is also just three back of St. Cloud. As for the Big Ten, well, Minnesota's really good and everyone else is kind of middling.
With that having been said, there's likely to be a lot of chest-puffing in the coming weeks about, “Our league is the best in the country.” Likely, there already has been. At the Beanpot, I had someone trying to tell me that the ECAC is as good as Hockey East top to bottom, which is an absurd claim to make.
It is not, however, as absurd as Andy Murray's recent assertion that the NCHC is the best conference in the nation.
"I may be biased," Murray told reporters on Monday. "We've got great teams. We've got great coaches. We've got great facilities. ...I have to believe it is the best league. Just the nature of the game, the pro style that our teams play, the physicality, how hard they play and compete, I believe it is the best college conference. That's not taking anything away from the other conferences."
Well, technically, yes it is. Saying that one is the best is to diminish the others, but that's not the point. The point is that this is a testable assertion which can be viewed by any number of metrics when it comes to determining how good or bad teams and entire conferences are.
For example, you could go solely by winning percentage, as this shows how good teams have generally been when it comes to beating each other, and those from other conferences. By this metric, the NCHC is third in the nation at .513, behind the two-horse race of the Big Ten (.551) and Hockey East (.547) but closer of the ECAC (.520). That, of course, includes league games, which have a combined winning percentage of .500 at the end of the day, which brings down the league's overall average if they're above that mark; so let's view straight-up non-conference winning percentage by league: Hockey East and the Big Ten are once clustered at the top, at .603 and .598, respectively. The ECAC is next at .556, then the NCHC is an appreciable ways back at .536, and the less said about the WCHA (.383) and AHA (.224), the better.
But perhaps you think winning percentage isn't the ultimate arbiter of team quality because fluky results happen all the time, even when they're largely smoothed out over several dozen out-of-conference games. Based on the underlying numbers, it looks like those winning percentages are fairly reflective of overall league quality, but the NCHC underperformed in this regard. Their shot share in non-conference games was 53.57 percent, tops in the nation, but it's also more or less neck and neck with Hockey East and the Big Ten. It should be noted, though, that one might be able to attribute these issues to score effects on some level. Hockey East and the Big Ten enjoyed by far the largest average goal differentials in the country during these games (12.7 and 8.7), while the ECAC and NCHC trailed far behind at 2.3 and 1.9.
You can also go by any other metric: PDO says the NCHC teams have been a little unlucky in these games (99), but no one besides Hockey East is standing massively above 100, and it's becoming clear that more talented leagues can maintain higher PDOs overall.
Maybe the simplest way to determine which teams are the best quality of every team, at the end of the day, is the Pairwise, since that's what the NCAA is going to use to determine who makes the tournament. So let's look at it that way too (with the acknowledgement that some of these teams might not make it if there are upsets in the respective league tournaments): Hockey East currently has six teams in the top 16, by far the most of anyone. After that, there are three each from the Big Ten, ECAC, and NCHC, and one from the WCHA.
It's one thing to say your league is the most competitive, most physical, most like the NHL, that kind of thing. Those are extremely difficult if not impossible to quantify. But the idea that the NCHC is leaving anyone in the dust, rather than remaining the second- or third-best conference in the country, is easily disproved.
It's a fine league. Just fine. It has the potential to be a lot more, too. Miami shouldn't be this bad (and that team .897 save percentage ain't helping), North Dakota started too slow, Denver's been middling in possession, and Andy Murray's Western Michigan has frankly been a little lucky so far this season. Let's give it another year or three before we go making any grand declarations, especially when the current numbers to don't back that up.
Michigan: Michigan has lost three straight, and while getting clobbered by Minnesota is often unavoidable, having players suspended for winnable games against Ohio State generally is. The Wolverines have a lot to be worried about these days, and this sure isn't helping.
Michigan State: It took the Spartans seven rounds, but Brent Darnell finally got them a shootout win over Penn State last Friday. They closed the next night in the third period, and three points sounds just about right for State on the road.
Minnesota: Sweep at Wisconsin aside (which really only seems to have angered them, like shooting a handgun at King Kong), to say that the Gophers are the best team in the Big Ten is like saying the sun is the biggest thing in the solar system. It's really not even that close. This is getting out of hand.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes' win Friday night over Wisconsin was their sixth game without a loss in a row, during which time they ran their record to 5-6-3 in the league. That's a big step forward from the previous 1-6-1. The question is: Is it good enough?
Penn State: Patrick Koudys scored in the game's first minute on Saturday, but nobody felt like helping him out with another in the game's remaining 59. They only had 13 shots on goal all night, and that doesn't help in the not-scoring department.
Wisconsin: Of course, the Badgers also snapped that unbeaten streak for the Buckeyes and picked up their eighth conference win of the year, but their first win against anyone away from Madison since November. These guys scream “semi-dangerous NCAA team” even if they're currently seventh in the Pairwise.
Colorado College: Here's another suspension: This one to Matt Hansen, who's out for the series against Denver (not a big deal for CC, right?) after he swung a stick at Thomas Nitsche's head at the end of a win. In general, some good advice is don't swing your stick at an opponent's head regardless of circumstance.
Denver: Evan Cowley's second career start went well: He made 33 stops on 34 shots and picked up Denver's first win since January. One wonders if his third career start can be too far away. (Just kidding.)
Minnesota-Duluth: Saturday sounds like a wild one in St. Cloud. The total number of shots in a 4-3 Duluth loss was 79. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs haven't won in St. Cloud since March 2007.
Nebraska-Omaha: That Saturday loss to Denver came without the Pioneers enjoying the presence of Joey LaLeggia and Sam Brittain. “You look over and notice they're not in the lineup, and it's almost a relief,” Josh Archibald said after that one. Doesn't always work out that way though, eh?
North Dakota: I don't know if you can call it a “record-setting win” if all those records are “things that are records starting this season.”
St. Cloud: Jonny Brozinski went off the post and in with just 109 seconds left in a tie game against Duluth, giving the Huskies a little breathing room against North Dakota and, to a lesser extent, Omaha with the season winding down. This was a big sweep.
Western Michigan: See above.
Alabama-Huntsville: Carmine Guerriero made 61 saves, but when your team gives up 65 shots and then don't score any of their own, that's a real tough way to set a modern NCAA record. Outshot 65-10, post a .938 in-game save percentage, only get second star. The homers who voted on that should be ashamed of themselves.
Alaska: The Nanooks scored 14 goals in two road games this weekend. And the previous weekend, they scored 12. Yeah, I guess 26 goals in four games is a decent amount.
Alaska-Anchorage: The Seawolves were down 2-1 at home against Bowling Green on Saturday, then scored four goals in the third period to pick up their 11th win in 16 home games this year.
Bemidji State: Huge, huge, huge W for the Beavers to knock off Ferris, and pick up their first home win since Nov. 23. Not that they made it easy on themselves; the scored twice in the first seven minutes or so, then white-knuckled the remaining 53. A win's a win, though, isn't it?
Bowling Green: I wonder if the WCHA is going to be close down the stretch. The top two teams have 34 points apiece (though Ferris has two games in hand), the third-place team has 26, and Nos. 4-6 have 24. No. 7 has 22. Nos. 8 and 9 have 21 and 20, respectively, and also enjoy a pair of games in hand. Gee whiz.
Ferris State: At least the Bulldogs got the split with a smothering three-goal third period on Friday. That seat atop the conference is looking very tenuous indeed.
Lake Superior: The Lakers swapped five-goal performances with Northern this weekend, but by virtue of having also conceded more goals in the opening game of the series, lost the Cappo Cup on differential.
Michigan Tech: That sweep by Alaska over the weekend was a pretty rough payback for the Huskies having taken four points out of Fairbanks back in November. Clearly, they upset the Nanooks.
Minnesota State: Yeah, it's nice to win, but if you don't sweep Huntsville they kick you out of college hockey forever.
Northern Michigan: The reason Northern picked up that Cappo Cup, by the way? Strength and conditioning coach seems to have really peeled the paint in the dressing room after the shoddy effort the night before.
Player of the Week
Carmine Guerriero, I believe in you even if no one else does.
The Goal of the Week
Just basically all of this. Maybe the Grimaldi goal at 1:00.