March 14, 2008

With the postseason underway -- including 17 best-of-three playoff series as well as the Atlantic Hockey and CHA championship games -- this weekend is arguably the most exciting of the season. The CCHA and ECAC have already been through a first-round best-of-three, and the higher seeds came through each time -- though in two cases, three overtimes were needed (Yale and Nebraska-Omaha).

Because of the Pairwise Comparisons -- a process the NCAA uses to select and seed the 16-team tournament field -- we are pretty confident these eight are in the tourney: Michigan, North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Clarkson, New Hampshire, Michigan State and Boston College. That's three WCHA teams, with St. Cloud State looking like another lock. Four other teams are on the bubble, with three current qualifying if things ended today. Should one conference get seven of 16 bids?

By virtue of its strong non-league record, it's hard to argue based on numbers alone. There is merit, for sure, in the NCAA setting a five-team limit per conference, but that hasn't been done and the current chair is Minnesota's athletic director, a WCHA team.

It's difficult to fully explain the system briefly, so feel free to check out the Pairwise Primer at College Hockey News. To briefly explain, each "team under consideration" is compared to every other "team under consideration." The definition of TUC is a team in the Top 25 of the RPI rankings. The RPI is a strength of schedule adjustment familiar to college basketball fans, but used in every NCAA sport to some degree. In hockey, however, there are three other criteria: record vs. TUC, record vs. common opponents and head-to-head record vs. the team you are comparing.

Each time you win a "comparison" against another team, you get an overall point. Total up the points and you get the list. The whole thing can be found on CHN.

Though it has its flaws, the system does a pretty good job picking the field. The committee has not strayed from this, even going so far as taking the straight Pairwise list to place the teams in exact serpentine order, i.e. 1-16, 2-15, 3-14, etc. The machinations of the system is what keeps the math geeks like me up for hours on end as we approach selection Sunday on March 30. We do a Liveblog of the Pairwise fluctuations throughout that weekend, over at CHN.

Meanwhile, let's take a look at what else is going on around college hockey:

Union College. It's not every week that a team loses at Brown and still gets honored as Team of the Week. But call this an homage for a season of hard work, one in which Union earned a first-round bye in the ECACs. To put that in context, not only is the little school in Schenectady, N.Y. a non-scholarship school, but it's a Division III school. It doesn't even have the cachet of an Ivy League team. And it was just four years ago when then-president Roger Hull made his now-infamous declaration that he was "proud" when the program finished .400. With those kind of expectations set for the program, and with little financial support, the program was doomed to fail.

Good coaches came and went. But here is Nate Leaman, seeing it through. In his time there, he has seen a new president, some new assistance from the admissions department and at least some optimism.

And in that context, Union -- which has never made the ECAC tournament's final weekend since joining the league in 1991 -- was able to take advantage of a relatively mediocre ECAC season, and place fourth. Yeah, so what the Dutchmen actually lost its last game, when a win or tie would've clinched a spot. Cornell's loss last Saturday -- a team Union has beaten twice -- put the Dutchmen into the final spot.

"It's a season-long accomplishment, so we're OK with that," Leaman said.

"You've got to understand, this program -- this is not a Boston College, it's not even a UMass. We have to take steps, baby steps.

We're working up the ladder here ... with that said, this is a step we need to take and we have to do something in the playoffs now."

This is a tie between RIT's Matt Smith and Cornell's Ray Sawada. Smith had TWO hat tricks in RIT's two-game series sweep of Holy Cross. RIT won both games in OT, 5-4. It was the first postseason games ever for RIT as a Division I team and now it gets to host the Atlantic Hockey Final Five this weekend as the No. 2 seed. Smith has 27 goals on the season and leads the nation in power-play goals.

Sawada, meanwhile, was a third-round draft pick of the Dallas Stars in 2004 before coming to Cornell, but has never quite lived up to that promise. This season, as a senior captain, he had just four goals coming into the best-of-three first-round series against Dartmouth last weekend. But Sawada scored in each of the three games -- five all together -- as Cornell advanced to play Union this weekend.

Wayne State's program will be in the penalty box forever after this weekend. The team was informed before the season started that it was being disbanded. Last weekend it played its final home game in front of about 300 friends and family at the Michigan State Fairgrounds Coliseum. Wayne State won Friday against first-place Niagara, but got blown out, 7-3, on Saturday.

"It was senior night and we knew it would be the end of the program, so I think emotionally we were a little spent. And it showed," said coach Bill Wilkinson. "The first 10 minutes we were in a fog. But we got through it. I know the kids have had this on their mind all year. But it (became) a reality. This is it, the final games we'll be playing at home forever."

It was a far cry from 1999, when the program's first home game was played in front of thousands at the Fairgrounds and the future looked bright. A new building was on the horizon and the school had a chance to compete in the state of Michigan against long-time hockey powers with a coach that had taken teams to the NCAA tournament before.

That arena never came.

WSU gets one more crack, starting with a play-in game at the CHA tournament this weekend in Buffalo against Alabama-Huntsville.

"A lot of times, I think we feel we're the lone wolf in the pack, we're alone by ourselves and playing for each other basically,"

Wilkinson said. "But Wayne State does not support the program, so in the end, we have to rally around ourselves and do the best we can."

There are 17 best-of-three series to choose from, and two conference title games. Take your pick. The ones with the most implications for the NCAAs are Harvard-Quinnipiac; Wisconsin-St. Cloud State; Minnesota-Minnesota State; Boston University-Mass.-Lowell; and Providence-Boston College. Grab the popcorn.

Adam Wodon is the Managing Editor for College Hockey News.He has covered college hockey as a writer and broadcaster for 19 years.

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