TMQ: Dissecting the upcoming NCAA hockey tournament, predicting a champion, St. Lawrence’s COVID-19 misfortune

St. Lawrence won the ECAC Hockey tournament, but a positive COVID-19 test from coach Brent Brekke saw the Saints vacate their automatic bid to the NCAA tournament (photo: C A Hill Photo).

Each week during the season, we look at the big events and big games around Division I men’s college hockey in Tuesday Morning Quarterback.


Paula: Last week, Jimmy, I thought that when we’d finally heard from the selection committee, I’d have more answers than questions.

Yesterday, although I’m understanding a little more about how the committee selected the field, I still have questions about where teams are playing.

Let me clarify: I’m not questioning the committee. I just don’t quite understand how they arrived at certain decisions. Like everyone else in college hockey, I’ve devoured the Bracketology column that you and our old friend Jayson Moy published weekly, and I thought a lot of what each of you said about where teams would go made a lot of sense to me.

To say that what the brackets that each of you posted varied from what the selection committee decided would be an understatement.

There’s so much to discuss about the tournament field and about the last weekend’s playoff games.

First, though, the very scenario that you and I feared has come to pass. My heart breaks for St. Lawrence hockey and I imagine that head coach Brent Brekke is devastated that it’s his positive COVID-19 test that halted the Saints’ season. After winning the ECAC championship at the end of season made even stranger by having played in a four-team conference, bowing out of the NCAA tournament is kick in the gut.

Anyone who blames Brekke can kick rocks, too. No one invites this. Everyone in college hockey is beyond cautious. We may never know the number of Saints players and staff infected, but there’s a good chance he’s not the only one. All we can do is wish him and all others affected the best.

From the selection to the Saints to the upsets — there’s so much. Anything you still processing from the weekend? What, if anything, surprises you about the committee’s choices?

Jim: I don’t know if the word “surprised” is right when surmising my reaction, as I knew that predicting anything would be near impossible.

Two things, though, stand out.

Despite the flexibility to be subjective, the committee still tried to use objective criteria when selecting the bubble teams. They measured how each team performed against the other teams in their conference who had already qualified for the field. Because of that, there was a lot of imbalance on percentage of teams that were selected from each conference.

Whereas Big Ten gets four of its seven teams into the field, or 57 percent, Hockey East only gets three of its 11 teams in, or 27%. I feel like those conferences were pretty even so that feels like a disparity to me, one that could’ve easily been balanced by selecting Providence, Connecticut or UMass Lowell instead of Notre Dame.

As for how the field was bracketed, I actually liked what the committee did. They worked to maintain bracket integrity – that is 1 v. 16, 2 vs. 15, 3 vs. 14, etc. – and, to do so, moved teams around the country, that coming at a pretty significant expense to the NCAA on a year when revenues from tickets will be negligible. The fact that only two of the four regionals will allow fans – Fargo and Albany, and Fargo has sold all of their tickets – they still found a way to get Boston College and Boston University to Albany to help ticket sales.

Those two points stand out to me. And understanding the reasoning, I’m more than happy to say that the committee did their job to the best of their ability. Every team on the bubble that didn’t make the tournament can look at their schedule and easily point out one game that they lost that cost them their bid, while every team that stayed on the right side of the bubble can likely point to a game they needed to win to get in and did so.

As for St. Lawrence, it’s tremendously sad to see them having to forgo the tournament. We posturized this could happen and, no doubt given what we saw in men’s basketball with Virginia Commonwealth, we may see it happen again. We can cross our fingers all we want, but you have to figure that the massive population of the athletes, coaches and staffs of the 16 teams are not yet vaccinated and could turn a positive test at any minute.

Paula: It’s that last part that worries me, that anything could happen this week or – heaven forbid – after four teams have played their way into the Frozen Four.

All we can do about that is hope and engage in whatever luck-influencing rituals we embrace. As we are talking about the hockey community, I’m sure there are many superstitions, prayers, and talismans being employed right now.

When all was settled, I was impressed with the results of the election committee’s work, especially regarding the sites and where teams were sent. I appreciate your take on that, too, as it helps me wrap my head around a few things. For years, there have been calls for the committee to do geographically what it did this year.

It may shock you to know that I agree with you about the Big Ten vs. Hockey East in terms of number of teams in the tournament because of the imbalance in the number of teams in each league.

I know that Jeff Jackson pitched a hard argument about how the Fighting Irish had to play Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota four times each this season – his argument for strength of schedule – and as much as I like seeing teams the league I cover in the tournament and as much as I genuinely like the Notre Dame coaching staff in addition to respecting them, I do think that the competition at the top of Hockey East was tough and maybe a fourth team deserved to be included.

Then there’s the ECAC. If it weren’t for that positive test, half of this year’s current ECAC field would be in the tournament.

Half the NCHC field is in and no one is batting an eye about that. It does seem as though the collective college hockey community acknowledges the strength of that conference.

Jim: I will tell you that St. Lawrence having to withdraw actually settled what many saw as controversial.

Quinnipiac getting into the tournament despite a pretty weak schedule where their two tough out-of-conference games – two games against Bowling Green – were losses, had many people on Sunday morning clamoring to keep the Bobcats out of the tournament. Obviously, when St. Lawrence had to stay home and Quinnipiac got the autobid, the reality of that entire situation was lost. I had Quinnipiac in my field but also saw the argument to keep them out.

So that leads me down another path. The NCHC and B1G has four team, Hockey East and WCHA three, and AHA and ECAC each one. Does one of these conferences have a bigger advantage to you than the other?

To me, I’m not sure. I feel like the NCHC pounds its chest constantly – and with the last four national champions rightfully so – but Boston College and UMass are two elite teams in Hockey East and each in separate regions.

Do you see any trends heading towards a Frozen Four? Will one conference dominate once again or will there be more balance? Can one of the WCHA teams advance?

Paula: Again, I agree with you that BC and UMass are elite teams and it is conceivable that they meet in a national title game.

I don’t know that any conference has a specific advantage this season, nor am I sure that I could make a case for such, given the lack of interconference play this season. I mean, I’ve watched a lot of hockey from as many conferences as I’ve been able to see and have witnessed some great, great play. The teams that have looked consistently the best to me this season have been Boston College, Minnesota and North Dakota.

It would take a lot for any team other than North Dakota to emerge from Fargo. Not only are the Fighting Hawks outrageously stacked this year, but there will be fans in the stands and North Dakota has a distinct home advantage. Of course, just having atmosphere in the building may work well for all teams.

The field is crazy there, too. You have the two conference champions, the defending national champions, and a fourth team with so much young talent that its performance could be anything from flat to spectacular.

We are fond of saying that in a one-and-done scenario, anything can happen – and it can. But maybe this is also the year that the teams that rose to the top of their conferences did so because they are the strongest in the field, able to navigate the weird, unpredictable season because of how good they are. Because of that, I’m thinking there may be a more balanced Frozen Four field.

As for the WCHA, that seems like a long road to me. Lake Superior State is a sentimental favorite of mine, but I would be surprised to see the Lakers advance.

Any predictions from you? Do you think it’s a year when two conferences, say the NCHC and Hockey East, will dominate?

Jim: I don’t know. I look at elite talent on a number of rosters: Boston College, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Dakota. But notice the one team I leave out is two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth.

The Bulldogs always have good players but never have the most talent. They always have some, but other teams have more. What teams like UMD always have, though, is heart. My prediction is the team with a good bit of talent but a ton of heart and drive win this tournament.

Who will that be? Your guess is as good as mine.