If the season ended today, and games in hand were ignored, Northeastern would miss the Hockey East playoffs after finishing in ninth place.
The Huskies, however, would qualify for the NCAA tournament as an at-large team based on being 12th in the PairWise.
Of course, games in hand do matter.
The Huskies hold a game in hand over the other Huskies (Connecticut) and Boston University, and hold two games in hand over suddenly vulnerable Providence, New Hampshire and Maine.
Almost certainly, the scenario in which Northeastern is the odd man out of the Hockey East playoffs but still makes the NCAA tournament won’t come to pass, although I suspect computer modeling could come up with a case where it does happen.
In 2009-10, Vermont came close to that scenario, finishing eighth in Hockey East with a 9-11-7 league record and making the playoffs by a single point, but qualifying for the NCAA tournament because of a strong nonconference mark.
Northeastern, the unfortunate team to finish ninth that year just a point behind Vermont, was only four points out of a tie for third.
Close-to-home-ice proved to be no ice at all.
The primary point here is that the team that finishes in ninth place and gets shut out of the playoffs this season is going to be, like Northeastern 10 years ago, a very good team.
I’m no fan of the alternative format where every team makes the playoffs. Not to kick the Catamounts while they’re down, but a team that still doesn’t have a league win this late in the season doesn’t deserve to make the playoffs.
The regular season gets cheapened when every team gets a postseason berth.
I’m in favor the current format. It raises the tension to a fever pitch. I can recall the extra intensity of the games down the stretch in 2010.
But this year there is going to be an agonizing ninth-place finish for some team.
Just as soon as you think a team is hot, it blows out a tire.
Boston College was riding high, winning 13 of 14, seemingly ready to charge into the playoffs as Hockey East’s unquestioned top team.
Not so fast.
Until defeating Harvard in the Beanpot consolation game on Monday, the Eagles had won only a single contest of their last five.
Massachusetts enjoyed a nine-game stretch in which it lost only a single game. Then it lost three out of four.
Northeastern won five straight and eight of nine only to then lose three of its next four league games.
Providence lost only a single game in a nine-game stretch, but has now lost three straight.
New Hampshire started 2020 with only a single loss in its first seven games, including taking three-of-four points from first-place Massachusetts and earning other big wins over Providence and Northeastern. But then, you guessed it, the Wildcats suffered two straight 7-4 losses to UConn.
Speaking of which, the UConn Huskies went through an early-season stretch in which they won only a single game in seven before winning four straight, then lost four straight, then (with two nonconference losses sandwiched in the middle) won four straight league games.
“That speaks to the parity of college hockey,” UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh says. “With the exception of North Dakota, Minnesota State, and Cornell that only have a handful of losses, there are a lot of really good teams with eight, nine, ten losses.
“It’s not so top-heavy anymore. The days of getting a 6-1 or a 7-1 win are few and far between. Every night seems to be a one-goal game. One goal or it’s an empty net, but it’s really, really tight.”
UConn: on the bubble, but hot
With four straight league wins, UConn has moved itself into a tie for seventh place.
With only four seniors and three juniors that see significant time, the ups and downs this season have been predictable, but the upside remains considerable.
“They’re a group that’s starting to come into their own,” Cavanaugh says. “I don’t think we’re a finished product by any means, but they’re a group that’s starting to learn how to play in this league, and we’re starting to see some of that. They’re starting to be rewarded a little bit now.”
The offense has performed well, led by freshmen and sophomores as the top four scorers, but the Huskies rank as the second-worst defensive team in the league with a rock-bottom worst penalty kill that has been successful only 69.1 percent of the time.
“I don’t think our five-on-five defense has been a major problem, but the penalty kill, for sure, has been a major issue,” Cavanaugh says. “There’s no question about it. It’s an area that we 100 percent have to get better at.”
Amazingly, UConn gave up four power-play goals in just six chances to UNH last weekend while failing to score even once on its man advantages, yet still emerged with the sweep.
“That’s just not sustainable over the course of a season,” Cavanaugh says. “That’s something that we’re going to continue to work on.”
The stretch drive schedule looks formidable: all the games are against four of the top five teams in the standings, starting with two at Alfond Arena where the Maine Black Bears are undefeated this season.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge,” Cavanaugh says. “They’ve got some dynamite players up front, a lot of senior experience, and [Jeremy] Swayman might be the best goaltender in the league.
“So it’s certainly going to be a really tough opponent for us this week, but you know what? Every opponent gets tough coming down the stretch. That’s just the nature of this league.
“The only thing you can do is just say, ‘Hey, let’s focus and put ourselves in the very best position to be successful Friday night.’ We can’t get focused on anything more than that.”
Denna Laing: a portrait in perseverance
Four years ago, Denna Laing suffered a tragic spinal cord injury that left her without feeling in her legs and with limited movement in her arms. A week ago, she earned her driver’s license.
If you missed this inspirational story, I encourage you to read it.
Destiny in their hands
UMass Lowell is the latest team to be in the driver’s seat with its destiny in its hands. But I’m not about to proclaim the River Hawks as the team to beat, even if their winning percentage of .647 tops the league.
As noted previously, both BC and UMass have been atop the league only to stumble. And the River Hawks’ schedule includes more than their share of tough opponents: Northeastern (2), UMass (2), UNH (2), and UConn.
This race is definitely coming down to the wire.
Beanpot quick hits
• Congratulations to Northeastern on its first-ever Beanpot three-peat! For the longest time, the Huskies were the perpetual underdog (no pun intended) with the glory years of the 1980s a very distant memory.
The Huskies aren’t yet the Bullies of the Beanpot. It’s not yet time to call the tournament (paraphrasing the gleeful phrase of some BU fans in years past) the Northeastern Invitational.
But man, the Huskies have done themselves proud.
• Northeastern had to get the job done without Jayden Struble, one of four freshmen defensemen who have dressed regularly for the Huskies, and arguably the most offensively skilled. Struble is out for the season following a lower-body injury suffered in Friday night’s game at Maine.
• Friday night was not kind for they Hockey East Beanpot schools. They all lost, Boston College to Lowell, 3-2, Northeastern at Maine, 4-2, and most surprisingly Boston University to Merrimack, 5-1.
• You do have to feel badly for BU in the championship game. I noted in a previous column that the Terriers were, in essence, the number four seed in a tournament they used to own. To score the tying goal with 1.2 seconds left in regulation and have all the momentum only to have that dubious (at best) penalty called on them in the extra overtime, was not how you wanted to see the game end.
• Speaking of the “extra” overtime, I’ll second the emotion expressed by Jim Connelly in this space last week, noting his frustration with the “second” overtime (following the mandated five-minute version) not counting in any official way according to the NCAA.
It’s hardly an improvement when an outlet like NESN, which broadcast the game, showed it as a tie in its ticker.
This is my final year with USCHO
I’ve been here since the very beginning of USCHO.
In fact, I’ve been here since before it began, at least officially. Way back then, I wrote offseason features during the summer before the site officially kicked off its coverage of college hockey.
It’s been one heck of a ride. But this year’s Frozen Four will be my swan song.
I simply need more time for the other things in my life.
I’m proud of the work I’ve done here for the last 24 years, and so very proud of what USCHO has become. I value all the friends I’ve made, and hope they all — you all — remain friends for life.
I owe a special thank you to Jim Connelly, who has shouldered more than his share of the writing load in recent years, and has always been the greatest of friends.
I, of course, owe a most special thank you to my wife, Brenda, whose patience and support have been vital, not to mention that love thing that is still alive after 43 years of marriage.
I still have one more column remaining and then all the postseason writing, so you’ll be reading my words for about another two months.
I hope to see many of you during that time and of course, in the years that follow.
Thank you for your interest and your passion.