March 20, 2008 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Life on the Bubble

by Dan Myers/CHN Staff

There are four groups of teams this time of year in college hockey.

The first is teams with no chance — Alaska-Anchorage, Lake Superior State, Merrimack, and so on. There are your sure things, teams like North Dakota, Michigan and New Hampshire who have had their NCAA tournament spots locked up for weeks. The third group (we'll call them contenders) are squads like St. Cloud State, Michigan State and Minnesota, which are almost assured of getting in, but secured spots only recently.

Then ... there are the bubble teams.

It's not a great place to be this time of year; granted, there are worse. Heading into the final weekend of play before brackets are picked Sunday, three teams have found themselves squarely on the bubble: Notre Dame, Minnesota State and Wisconsin.

Notre Dame is in the enviable position of controlling its own destiny. With a come-from-behind series win over Ferris State last weekend, the Irish put themselves in the final four of the CCHA tournament and will play Miami this weekend.

Minnesota State and Wisconsin must wait and see. The Mavericks and Badgers are tied for the final tournament spot, barring any more upsets this weekend. But they won't remain tied for long. Any number of scenarios could vault either team as high as 11th or (in the Badgers case) as low as 15th.

"I don't think I have enough time to go through all the scenarios," Badgers coach Mike Eaves said. "Every day a new scenario comes up. It started out on Monday, when these things had to happen. Then Tuesday those things had to happen, then today a couple more things. So every time somebody puts in different numbers, something different happens. It would be almost a research paper to sit down and write down all the different possibilities at this point."

Here is what we do know. Heading into games that begin as early as today, the 11th-ranked team — Minnesota — likely locked up a bid by beating the Mavericks two out of three last weekend. Princeton, Harvard, Boston University and Vermont — the four teams behind MSU and UW in the Pairwise — all play this weekend, but are likely too far behind to catch them for an at-large berth, meaning they must win their conference tournaments. Should any of those schools do just that, it will be Minnesota State, Wisconsin, and/or Notre Dame that will pay the price. That is, unless, Notre Dame wins its conference tournament.

Confused yet? You're not alone.

Because the NCAA selects teams in hockey based on a wholly objective system of Pairwise Comparisons, it's possible to tell exactly which teams are in and out. But even with these few games remaining before the selections are finalized, there are a lot of combinations of possibilities, and the results can shift the rankings.

So scrambling to find out exactly who's in and who's out? Don't bother, says Mavericks coach Troy Jutting.

"All that number crunching," Jutting said, "it's just a waste of time unless you have a crystal ball and you know who is going to win this weekend. The numbers don't mean anything until the games are over."

Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson agrees, mentioning his focus is simply on Friday's game.

"I try to avoid looking at them too closely," Jackson said. "There are so many variables, that if you get too wrapped up in them ... it's impossible to tell how it's going to go."

Minnesota State and Wisconsin are both practicing this week despite not knowing whether either will play another game this season.

Wisconsin's last game action came Saturday night at St. Cloud State as the Huskies completed a two-game sweep of the Badgers to win their first round playoff series. Many Maverick players are still sore following their epic three-gamer against the Gophers, which saw a pair of games go into double-overtime and the middle game go to one extra frame. MSU was on the ice for the first time since on Wednesday and will skate one more time this week on Friday. Wisconsin practiced Tuesday and Wednesday and will go on Thursday before giving its players Friday off.

"We debated what to do with our team," Eaves said. "Our kids our on break right now. In talking to the staff our seniors and our captains, any kind of hope that exists, we want to act on that."

Notre Dame, meanwhile, enters play this weekend with a chance to lock up a bid, and would likely do so with a win Friday against Miami. Even with a loss to the Red Hawks, the Irish would likely be in good shape as long as they follow with a win in the third place game Saturday. A pair of losses this weekend would be crippling for the Irish's national tournament hopes.

"We have to win a game this weekend in order to have a chance to be in the NCAA tournament," Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson said. "We're going to have a pair of tough games no matter what happens, but at least we control our own destiny."

Making it tougher for the Irish this weekend was the loss of leading scorer Erik Condra during Sunday's 2-1 win over Ferris State in game three of that CCHA quarterfinal series. The junior wing went down with a knee injury and will miss the rest of the season.

"Anytime you lose a player of that caliber, it's definitely going to have an impact on your team," Jackson said. "But as I've said all along, good teams have the ability to overcome that."

The Irish, Mavericks and Badgers only must wait until Sunday's selection show to learn their fate. It is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. ET (ESPN2).

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