It's Duluth, Denver and Everyone Else
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
There's no major shame in losing a regular-season game to a last-place team. It'll happen. Perfect seasons are essentially impossible in college hockey. The slipups come.
So, when Minnesota-Duluth lost to Colorado College on January 7, one night after tying the Tigers, it wasn't something that required much in the way of an explanation. The Bulldogs were the better team, but shots didn't fall and CC did what it could to make it difficult. A week later, UMD dropped another tough decision, losing, 2-1, to St. Cloud State. That game was also in Duluth.
In September, UMD looked like a clear favorite in the NCHC and a team with a very realistic chance of claiming a national title. Its recent slide, while frustrating, hasn't damaged any of those expectations. Last weekend's win of the final North Star College Cup was the first of what the Bulldogs know could be several trophies this season.
Denver is in the same position. The Pioneers entered the year with league and national titles in mind. Like the Bulldogs, they had a tough stretch of results, getting outplayed during a winless two-game visit to Providence and losing a few tough NCHC games to St. Cloud State and Western Michigan.
Despite those tough results, Denver is level on points with UMD in the NCHC and essentially tied with the Bulldogs atop the Pairwise. At the moment, UMD edges in front of DU on a tiebreaker by virtue of having a marginally better RPI. They are the nation's two best teams. Everyone else, even mighty Boston University, is a step behind.
Based on talent, Boston University began the 2016-17 season as the consensus favorites nationally. However, BU's struggles have been considerably different from both UMD's and DU's. The Terriers bounced back from a difficult pair of losses to Merrimack with a 4-2 win over Hockey East title rival Massachusetts-Lowell Saturday night. BU's talent is unquestioned. However, the Terriers are often the makers of their own demise. They take too many penalties. They make too many passes. As the season advances, BU often looks like a true juggernaut. Other times, the Terriers resemble an NHL all-star team screwing around during a practice.
Denver and Duluth may have dropped some tough points. It's clear, though, as February approaches, that these two are the class of the nation and the best candidates to play for a national championship in Chicago two months from now.
Behind DU and UMD, of course, sit BU and a host of other teams in a decided third tier, all of which have significant flaws.
Western Michigan doesn't score quite enough and relies too heavily on its power play to generate offense. The Broncos are tough to play against, defend incredibly well and force teams to play precisely as Andy Murray wants. However, their fourth spot in the Pairwise has as much to do with playing in the NCHC as it does its own merit. They are, without question, deserving of an NCAA tournament spot, with or without a run in the NCHC tournament. They are, however, not the fourth best team in the country.
Penn State sits just below WMU, propped up by an admittedly weak non-conference schedule. Now, the Nittany Lions did precisely what good teams should do to bad ones. They annihilated them. Since they moved into league play, however, their fortunes have changed a bit. Moreover, some of their shooting luck has faded, inevitably.
Union, North Dakota, Minnesota, Harvard and a few others all have legitimate opportunities to move into the No. 4 spot in the Pairwise and claim the final No. 1 seed just like WMU and PSU.
They're largely all in contention for their league's regular-season titles — excepting the NCHC teams — and all certainly good enough to win their conference tournaments. Ultimately, though, it comes back to the largest goal of any team during a college hockey season. The reason people look at the Pairwise, the reason every college hockey blog discusses bracketology is because the Frozen Four and national championship are what the nation's top teams want.
So often in recent years, the field has given us an open tournament. Seeding suggested some favorites, of course, and any number of variables can change an outcome on a given night. However, both Denver and Minnesota-Duluth have proven they are capable of overcoming these variables and recovering quickly. Moreover, their play will assure them the least difficult paths through the NCAA tournament.
Each club has eight NCHC games remaining before the postseason begins. Whichever claims more points will be the NCHC's regular-season champion and enter the playoffs with a chance to lock up a No. 1 overall seed, booking the most favorable NCAA tournament trip and a matchup with the Atlantic Hockey champion.
The reward for the winner of this battle is quite obvious. None of the trophies either team can win will be achieved easily. They're competing directly with each other — and some pretty good other opponents — for each one.
Upsets may happen, of course, but whether it's a regular-season title, the NCHC playoffs or the NCAA tournament, Denver and UMD are about to begin a memorable race that ends on April 8 at the United Center in Chicago.