With the top-seed North Dakota Fighting Hawks winning the NCHC championship on Tuesday over the #2-seed St. Cloud State Huskies in a 5-3 affair – the first time a program has won the regular season and postseason titles in the same season in the NCHC – attention in the conference has now turned to the Men’s NCAA Tournament and who will and won’t make the field of 16, a conversation that hasn’t been necessary since the early 1990s when mathematical rating formulas began to assist (and eventually replaced) subjective selection criteria.
In normal years, the tournament selection process is fairly mundane. A computer spits out the top 16 teams in the country based on a mathematical formula called the Pairwise Rankings (PWR) and then a group of humans from around the men’s college hockey world use those rankings to place them into four regions around the country based on seeding (1-4 are #1 seeds, 5-8 are #2 seeds, 9-12 are #3 seeds, and 13-16 are #4 seeds). The same process is used for the women’s tournament, but with fewer teams. In normal years when every team plays 10-12 nonconference games, the PWR serves as an excellent tool to compare teams across all conferences and generate the most objective ranking possible.
This year, however, the Pairwise has been essentially cast aside as mostly irrelevant (emphasis on mostly) because the COVID-19 pandemic forced programs and conferences to play conference-only schedules, removing the one key variable the PWR needs to be relevant and useful. So, instead of the PWR, the college hockey world has, in essence, turned its selection process into what the college basketball world has always used: a group of humans getting into a room to decide which teams get the final 10 non-automatic bids (conference tournament champions make the cut automatically, regardless of record) to the tournament. This lack of objectivity in the tournament selection process has thrown the internet into a meltdown and has shaken the very foundation upon which our republic was built (look what you’ve done to us, Covid).
But looking at those 10 remaining at-large bids, most of them are spoken-for by top-10 teams who did not win their conference. These are teams like St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth. They are locks to make the tournament despite not winning the conference because of their strong regular-season performances. Normally, that group would also include the Denver Pioneers. But this year, a year where the Pioneers struggled out of the gate and took until the final stretch run of the season to recover, they’re squarely on the tournament bubble, along with the likes of Omaha, Notre Dame, Providence, and Bowling Green (although come on, Falcons, be better). At the moment, Notre Dame and Bowling Green are not listed on College Hockey News’ Power 16, which is, according to CHN, “an attempt to rank teams based on the “eye test,” with some behind-the-scenes math thrown in as well, which is basically how the NCAA Ice Hockey Committee will choose the teams for the NCAA Tournament this year.”
Denver’s position on the bubble is precarious and altogether quite unfamiliar to the Pioneers. But head coach David Carle, in his postgame press conference after his shorthanded squad beat Omaha on Saturday, showed that he understands that in this spot, it takes more than just hoping his team’s resume speaks for itself – something that college basketball fans are quite accustomed to.
Regardless of how you feel about Carle doing his job and advocating for his team, Denver does actually have a legitimate case to make the Tournament. Below, we dive into the key pros and cons of Denver’s resume that the selection committee will be looking at:
(A disclaimer for Omaha fans reading this, many of whom we are good online friends with: please don’t take any of this personally. It just so happens that it’s all coming down to Denver vs. Omaha for that last NCHC bid. We still think very highly of you all.)
Pro: 3-1-1 Head-to-head record against Omaha
The reality is, Denver’s NCAA Tournament fate likely will come down to whether the committee determines that they deserve to make it over Omaha. The NCHC probably deserves five teams in the tournament (no bias here or anything), but the odds of it actually happening are slim to none. With North Dakota, St. Cloud State, and Minnesota Duluth locks to make the tournament, the (likely) fourth and final NCHC bid comes down to Omaha and Denver, fourth and fifth place finishers, respectively. While Omaha did finally find a way to beat Denver for the first time since Barack Obama was president, Denver holds the advantage in head-to-head record. Denver lost to Omaha just once in regulation (more on that distinction later), and beat them on the road, at home, and at a neutral site (with just 16 skaters, no less). That fifth game went to overtime and was eventually won by Omaha.
Omaha has a better overall, unadjusted record than Denver but if the committee decides that Denver and Omaha essentially have the same resume, it may be Denver’s 3-1-1 head-to-head record against the Mavs that puts the Pioneers into the tournament.
Con: The losses to Miami and Colorado College
Miami and Colorado College were both Very Bad Hockey Teams™ this year but Denver lost to both of them in regulation, including a 3-0 shutout against the RedHawks at the Omaha Pod in December. The Pioneers went 1-1 against Miami and 3-1 against CC which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t terrible given that Omaha went 0-1-1 against Miami and 5-0-1 against the Tigers, but with razor-thin margins for error on the bubble, those losses could stick out as major blemishes to the committee. In Denver’s win over Miami, though, they skated circles around the RedHawks in a 5-1 regulation victory whereas Omaha needed overtime to beat the same Miami team 2-1.
Does parsing out these minute distinctions seem ridiculous? Absolutely. Is it important and does it matter? Definitely. Anyone else missing the PWR right about now?
Pro: Record against top overall seed North Dakota
With Boston College falling to the UMass-Lowell RiverHawks in the Hockey East semifinals in a crazy game that went to overtime, North Dakota is now a virtual lock to be the #1 overall seed for the NCAA Tournament. In seven games against North Dakota, Denver beat the Fighting Hawks twice in regulation, while losing three times in regulation and twice in overtime. Omaha, however, only beat North Dakota once in regulation while winning once in overtime and losing four times in regulation. That extra victory for the Pioneers, a 4-1 thrashing of the Hawks in Denver, was one of the highlights of the season for the Pioneers and was one of the few early glimpses into what this team is capable of.
Con: Their Record
Listen, no one in their right mind is going to sit here and try to convince you that a 10-13-1 record is Actually Good. Saying that this season didn’t go the way Carle and his Pioneers wanted it to would be the understatement of the century. You’re frustrated, Carle is frustrated, the roster is frustrated, we’re all frustrated. Before this season started, the selection committee waived the decades-long rule that to earn an at-large bid, a team would have to have at least a .500 record. They waived it but probably didn’t foresee having to worry about it. Putting a 10-13-1 team in the Tournament isn’t exactly high on the committee’s wish list but that’s where Denver is right now, fighting and hoping the committee decides to actually follow through on the waiver and puts them in the Tournament. And Omaha? Denver’s rival bubble team? They went 14-9-1.
Pro: Their Record
This is where the math and the regulation wins and losses distinction and record adjustment comes into play. Denver’s record isn’t good. Omaha’s looks good. But when you strip them down and look at how those records came about, in regulation, in overtime, in shootouts, on the moon, and on Mars, DU and UNO actually have nearly identical records. The committee is looking at records in terms of regulation (5-on-5) wins, regulation losses, ties, overtime wins, and overtime losses and when you disperse Denver’s record across those parameters, they went 10-11-1-0-2 (the 5-on-5 overtime loss to North Dakota on Monday is included in the 11 regulation losses). Omaha? 10-10-1-4-0. Much more similar! Now, overtime games do count, and the committee has stated that they weigh overtime wins at 55% of a win and overtime losses as 45% of a loss, so they do take overtime success/failure into account but only the committee knows how much that will truly factor into the selection process. What we do know, however, is that Denver and Omaha are much more similar in terms of record than they seem at first glance.
As College Hockey News notes in the Power 16, that adjusted record is only strong enough to put them or Omaha in the Tournament ahead of Providence if you (the committee) believe that the NCHC is the strongest conference in the country (it is). Otherwise, this argument doesn’t hold up and Providence or even a second Atlantic Hockey team likely will make it ahead of both Denver and Omaha.
Pro & Con: Lack of Non-conference Play
The whole situation that college hockey, both men’s and women’s, is facing right now can be traced back to this point right here. We can’t use the objective PWR because there wasn’t enough non-conference play. For Denver, a team that has gone 18-1-3 in non-conference play over the last two seasons, that matters. A lot. David Carle, in his press conference after the overtime heartbreaker against North Dakota, noted that in each of those years, they dominated non-conference play, went around .500 in NCHC play, and were #2 seeds heading into the NCAA Tournament (yes, last year’s was canceled but Denver was #6 heading into the NCHC Tournament before everything stopped). So the lack of non-conference play really hurt the Pioneers this season and might, in some ways, have artificially deflated their record. Now, you can’t give a team credit for games that it did not play, but for the Pios, the lack of these games did hurt. Badly.
Pro: The Schedule
In men’s college hockey this year, only two teams played fewer home games: Maine and Air Force. Of Denver’s 24 games, just six were played at the friendly confines of Magness Arena. In the NHL, that would be a rather weak argument but in college hockey, especially this year, when teams bussed to nearly every location, that takes a toll on players. Denver’s record at home was a sterling 4-1-1 so it’s perfectly reasonable to see the Pios’ lack of home games as a huge disadvantage compared to the other bubble teams.
Providence? They played 13 out of 24 at home. Notre Dame? 17 of 29. And Omaha, the hosts of the December Pod? The Mavs played a full 17 of their 24 at home in Baxter Arena. Omaha’s hosting of the Pod was absolutely integral for the NCHC to even be able to have a season so they shouldn’t be penalized for their disproportionate amount of home games but to look at Denver’s season without taking their road warrior status into account would be leaving out a major piece of the puzzle.
The other key part of the puzzle that was DU’s season was the cancellation of the final series of the season against Colorado College due to Covid-19 issues within the Tigers’ program. The Pioneers did not even get the benefit of playing the 7th-place team in the conference for their final two games. As stated above, the committee can’t give credit to teams for games that weren’t played, but they would be remiss to not take the cancellation of those two games into account, especially when it’s entirely possible (likely? no bias here!) that Denver would have added at least one if not two more regulation victories to its record and pushed them ahead of Omaha in that category.
No one envies the situation the committee finds themselves in this weekend. These are tough decisions that are going to make huge swaths of people angry, no matter what they decide. Denver, Omaha, Providence, Notre Dame, and Bowling Green all have compelling cases to make the NCAA Tournament and it’s up to the committee now to decide whose resumes are the strongest. To make things even harder, the reality is, assuming there are no major upsets in the Hockey East (UMass-Amherst vs UMass-Lowell) or ECAC (St. Lawrence vs. Quinnipiac) championship games, there are probably four at-large bids truly up-for-grabs and the committee has to pick from among 8-10 bubble teams across all six conferences to fill those four spots. No matter who they pick, they’re going to be wrong. The best they can hope for is to pick the best possible group of 16 with the most “bracket integrity,” a phrase you will certainly hear a lot about over the coming days.
Has Denver done enough to make the NCAA Tournament? Yes. Will the committee select Denver on Sunday? No one knows. And if all else fails, at this point, just pray for that lucky bounce that has eluded Denver all year.
The NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament Selection Show will be televised on ESPNU on Sunday evening at 5 pm mountain time. We will learn of Denver’s fate at that point and if they do, in fact, earn an at-large bid, they will play in and host the Loveland Regional at the Budweiser Events Center next weekend.
Photo: AP Photo/Bruce Crummy