Wednesday, March 15, 2017

PairWise Implications Abound for NCHC Frozen Faceoff

After last year's PairWise drama, it's kind of nice to see UMD sitting in the position it's in.

For probably around a month -- maybe longer -- the Bulldogs have been able to lose all remaining games and still comfortably get in the NCAA Tournament. Even last week, UMD would have remained on the No. 1 seed line (the top four PairWise teams get No. 1 regional seeds) even if swept by Miami in the first round of the NCHC playoffs.

As we get ready for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, which starts Friday at Target Center in Minneapolis, the Bulldogs appear locked into a top three overall spot in the tournament when selections are announced Sunday (11am, ESPNU). The College Hockey News Probability Matrix and Jim Dahl both believe this to be true, and I'm not smart enough to do anything but parrot what the numbers say, so we'll go with it.

It shouldn't change how UMD plays this weekend, but how can it not be different than it was last year, when everyone knew UMD needed to win one and possibly two games to get in the NCAA Tournament?

(UMD ended up beating No. 1 North Dakota 4-2 in the semifinals before falling 3-1 to St. Cloud State in the championship. Had Minnesota beaten Michigan in the Big Ten title game, the Bulldogs would have missed the NCAA Tournament.)

To a man, players and staff have admitted this. Head coach Scott Sandelin talked a couple weeks ago about the "desperation" his team had no choice but to play with down the stretch last season, and it worked to the tune of a seven-game winning streak that ultimately made the difference between an NCAA trip and early tee times.

So with Denver and UMD locked into the top three overall, what is on the line this weekend?

Western Michigan is in the tournament. The Broncos are likely to finish fourth (39 percent per CHN), fifth (30), or sixth (22). If WMU ends up fourth, look for it to head to Cincinnati as the top seed in the Midwest Regional. That probably punches UMD's plane tickets out east, as Denver is 90 percent (again, per CHN) to finish No. 1 and most of us are under the assumption they'd go to Fargo in that scenario.

Unless ...

What if North Dakota ends up 13th or 14th? CHN lists it as a 27 percent possibility (13 percent 13th, 14 percent 14th). If that happens and WMU takes the fourth No. 1 seed, it'll send Harvard to Fargo, the Broncos to the land of Skyline Chili, and both UMD and Denver would have to go east.]

A straight-chalk (every high seed wins) bracket would get UND in as a 13th seed, however it bumps Western out of the top four. However, if Minnesota doesn't get the Big Ten autobid and Boston College gets hot in the Hockey East tourney, it could lead us to this final PairWise, which would introduce Harvard to lovely Fargo and a world where no one is picking the Crimson -- who would have a 14-game winning streak if this plays out -- to win their first-round game.

North Dakota is not in the tournament, but fans can breathe at least a little. Even if UND loses both games this weekend, Dahl has it at 89 percent for the Fighting Hawks to get in. If UND wins a game, either day, it is in. Two wins can get North Dakota as high as seventh overall (3 percent), a two-seed in its regional in Fargo.

If UND doesn't win a game, fans need to root for the likes of Boston College, Wisconsin, and Ohio State to not get hot. High seeds winning in other leagues would be good for North Dakota's chances if it can't give itself enough help.

Per CHN, there are nine teams still alive for the NCAAs that can only get in via their respective league's automatic bid. Those are Wisconsin, Michigan, and Michigan State (B1G), Canisius, Army, and Robert Morris (Atlantic Hockey), both combatants in the WCHA title game (Michigan Tech and Bowling Green), and Quinnipiac (ECAC). Everyone else playing this weekend is either a lock for the tournament or is like North Dakota -- not 100 percent in but capable of getting in either via an automatic or at-large bid.

I'll update scenarios on the blog Saturday for sure, maybe Friday if the Big Ten first round Thursday changes anything significantly (Penn State losing to Michigan, for example, could make things very interesting). Will also be back with a NCHC semifinal preview, probably Thursday night, and obviously plenty of content from Target Center.

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