So here we are at the end of the college hockey regular season. To be honest, so much of what we've seen this year has been somewhat expected. The University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks are now actually the Fighting Hawks, and to no one's surprise, some fans were just kind of ridiculous about it. The Golden Gophers of the University of Minnesota have missed some of their best leaders. And the University of Wisconsin Badgers found new ways to define failure, as they leak fans and have allowed their game to degrade more and more.
None of this is to say that the 2015-2016 year in NCAA hockey wasn't a good one. We've seen some good, pleasant surprises all around college hockey. We saw Brock Boeser emerge as some sort of human hockey wizard, Don Lucia and his son Mario meet one last time in a collegiate rink, and the Badgers doubled their previous season's win tally on the backs of standouts like Cameron Hughes and Luke Kunin.
I'm a big fan of the structure of the NCAA men's hockey season, if only for the Friday-Saturday format. It incentivizes players to leave a mark on their opponents every Friday night, and those marks create a sense of history every Saturday night. Unfortunately, or maybe not, the NCAA tournament and its conference tourneys lack that same structure, but they make up for it by bringing an energy to the geography of the college game. One of my biggest complaints throughout the year has been the failure of Big Ten hockey to improve the quality of the game for its best teams. In fact, as I've observed many times, the Big Ten has dissolved the old rivalries of the WCHA in favor of new ones that will be slow to develop because the quality of those other programs isn't on part with those of the best teams in the Big Ten.
However, the conference tournaments do create the conditions for those rivalries to grow, in spite of the
boneheaded tactical decision of the NCAA to create a new division. Holding each tournament in one city, with each winner getting an autobid to the big show creates a sense of urgency and stakes that are never really present in some of the new conference formats. For teams like the Gophers, who have flirted with disaster all season, their Big Ten regular season crown doesn't mean much, because honestly, the Big Ten doesn't create a ton of value for the sport. Its inherent value is locked up in the first round bye it grants the Gophers en route to a Big Ten tournament championship and the ticket to the NCAA tournament later this month.
Both the NCHC and WCHA torunaments are underway and we're down to a more select few, but with the Big Ten season wrapping up this past weekend, it seemed more appropriate to wait until now to post all the brackets together.
So with that, let's look at the various conference tournaments and see who's got the best road to the NCAA tournament and who's got the longest road to travel. I'll be following up on these brackets in the days to come, so stick close with me here at the Hockey Wilderness and on twitter @Real_JackVT for more updates.
In the WCHA, where games are already underway, we've got Minnesota State and Bowling Green coming up as well as Michigan Tech and Ferris State. These are two pretty solid matchups, when you look at the alternatives the tournament could have afforded. For what it's worth, I'm more interested in the MSU - BG matchup, if only for the fact that Bowling Green freshman goaltender Chris Nell appears to be about 7 feet tall in the net. They list him at 6'1", but that seems like they probably just ran out of time and sort of guessed.
In any case, Bowling Green has flown under the radar for much of the season, but has strung together some impressive wins over the course of the year and play a solid, even-keeled game that will challenge the 2-seed Mavericks. I look forward to seeing how this tournament shakes out. Don't count 4-seed Ferris State out either. Their experience in post-season play could prove to be an issue for Michigan Tech, who only have two postseason victories in the past 4 years. It'll be an interesting comparison between experience and skill in this tournament. Look for an upset in the top half of this bracket, or don't -- I'm not your dad.
Over in the NCHC, things are a bit more cut and dry, as St. State and Denver will face off and the University of Minnesota Duluth will take on the slow-burn, steady and efficient North Dakota Fighting Hawks. It's hard to imagine a big upset coming for the Fighting Hawks, but hey, this is the same team that gave the University of Wisconsin one of its eight wins. It's possible that the Bulldogs will lay enough pressure on the neutral zone to trap North Dakota's speediest players, but I can't imagine that's a very real possibility. In any case, there's hope for the Bulldogs if Kasimir Kaskisuo continues to be as hard to score on as his name is to spell.
In the other remaining matchup, I think SCSU hasn't gotten quite enough credit throughout the season, especially from myself. They play a solid 60 minutes every night and can bring an imposing physical force to the game. Denver took its first game in more commanding fashion and outlasted a 2OT thriller against Omaha, which demonstrates both their ability to put games away early and outlast opponents in the long stretch. That could be problematic for the Huskies, and should create a lot of pause among odds-setters.
Lastly, and certainly not firstly, the Big Ten tournament will get underway this week on the Big Ten Network (clever naming, guys). The Gophers and Michigan earned their first round byes on less-than-stellar regular seasons. Nevertheless, the best teams out of a mediocre bunch earn what they earn, so they'll have the pleasure of taking on warm Ohio State and Penn State teams. At least, this is the most likely scenario out of these games. I have a hard time seeing the Badgers demoralizing a competent Penn State squad, especially when the Badgers have been hoarding demoralization for themselves all season.
The Ohio State - Michigan State game should be closer, especially with the prospect of taking on a soft-seeded Gohpers squad. They'll have an incentive to make that first step, because the second step will just be to push through a weaker Minnesota team than has been in the postseason in years past.
The Gophers might be a favorite among many, but one of their hallmarks this season has been inconsistency. If goalie Eric Schierhorn can muster a solid performance in net and manage the chaos his d-men allow, they'll have a chance to earn their NCAA bid. But outside that, I think the odds of an at-large bid are limited. But hey, if you're not watching college hockey for the fact that anything can happen, why are you watching it at all?