Men's hockey bracketology: Sizing up the field as the second half gets underway
Coming out of the winter break, not a lot has changed in terms of the rankings. We’ve only had one full weekend of games so far, but conference play is getting back into full swing after some post-holiday tournaments provided plenty of surprising results.
The story of the second half, at least at this point, may be the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. It is getting to the point now where this question can be seriously asked: “Will they lose a conference game this year?” After their first run through against Big Ten opponents, Notre Dame is 12-0. Five of those games were at home and seven were away. That’s a heck of a way to introduce yourself to your new conference. They’ll start their second run through the conference Jan. 19 at home against Wisconsin.
MORE: Full USCHO DI rankings
You have to go back to Oct. 26 for their last loss, a 6-4 defeat at home to Nebraska Omaha. They’ve only lost two other games and have a tie on their official record for an 18-3-1 mark overall. That’s been good enough to give them the No. 1 spot on moth major men’s college hockey polls.
You need a whole team to play well to enjoy this kind of success at the Division I level, but there have been two central figures so far. The first is senior captain Jake Evans, a Montreal Canadiens draft pick, who has been among the top scorers in college hockey all year. He has 28 points in 22 games.
The second, however, is the more surprising one. Many believed that Notre Dame would take a step back in net with the departure of Cal Petersen, who signed an NHL contract with the Los Angeles Kings. Notre Dame had sophomore Cale Morris, who had played all of 19 minutes last season, and true freshman Dylan St. Cyr as options. Both saw time early, but it was Morris who seized the job and now has the inside track on the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goaltender and should be generating some serious Hobey Baker buzz.
The sophomore from Larkspur, Colo., is 17-1-0 in 19 appearances and boasts a stunning .956 save percentage and 1.47 goals-against average, to go along with four shutouts. Just as a point of reference, Ryan Miller had a .950 save percentage in 40 games in 2000-01 en route to winning the Hobey. Miller probably faced stiffer competition at that point in time, but what Morris is doing is pretty crazy.
Meanwhile, there is another unbeaten in conference play this year. Apparently it’s the year of the Golden Knights. With the NHL’s team in Vegas surprising the hockey world, the original Golden Knights at Clarkson have been dominant in ECAC play so far. They’re 8-0 while outscoring opponents 34-11 in conference games and own a 16-3-1 record overall. Clarkson is also riding a 12-game winning streak and haven’t felt the sting of defeat since Oct. 28 when they lost a close game to Minnesota.
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It’s been a quartet of sophomores leading the charge in Potsdam, N.Y. Similar to Notre Dame, the Golden Knights are getting spectacular goaltending as second-year starter Jake Kielly has a lofty .948 save percentage, 1.35 goals-against average and a nation-leading six shutouts so far this year. Every minute there has been a goaltender in the crease for Clarkson, it has been Kielly.
Three other sophomores are leading the team in scoring. Sheldon Rempal has a team-best 16 goals an 25 points, Devin Brosseau leads the team with 18 assists and is second with 22 points. Nico Sturm is third on the club with 18 points. All three were contributors on last year’s team as freshmen, but helped fill the void left by some of Clarkson’s quality seniors from a season ago. Meanwhile, Clarkson’s only two NHL-drafted players, senior defensemen Terrance Amorosa (Philadelphia Flyers) and Kelly Summers (Ottawa Senators) have been the team’s top scorers from the blue line with 16 points apiece.
These two teams look like they’re in the driver’s seat for top seeds in March. So let’s see how the rest of the field looks coming out of the break.
Reminder: Here’s a brief look at how the selection committee makes its decisions. Additionally, for the purposes of this Bracketology, we’re using the teams with the best in-conference winning percentage as of today as proxies for the tournament champions receiving autobids. RPI is used as a tiebreaker for teams with similar resumes. PairWise rankings, which mimics the selection method, were used to help compile this list.
These are the 16 teams considered for this bracketology, with conference champions in parentheses.
1. St. Cloud State (NCHC)
2. Notre Dame (Big Ten)
3. Clarkson (ECAC)
5. Ohio State
7. Minnesota State (WCHA)
8. North Dakota*
10. Western Michigan
12. Penn State^
14. Nebraska Omaha
15. Boston College (Hockey East)
16. Canisius (Atlantic Hockey)
* - Wester regional host
^ - Midwest regional host
Step 1: Assigning seeds
No. 1: St. Coud State, Notre Dame, Clarkson, Cornell
No. 2: Ohio State, Denver, Minnesota State, North Dakota
No. 3: Minnesota, Western Michigan, Providence, Penn State
No. 4: Northeaster, Omaha, Boston College, Canisius
Step 2: Placing regional hosts
North Dakota must be placed in Sioux Falls, where the West regional is being held. Luckily for us, it won’t disrupt bracket integrity. Penn State is the No. 12 overall seed and must be placed in the Midwest Regional in Allentown.
Step 3: Avoid in-conference opponents
The only place where this becomes an issue in a natural 16-team bracket is in Allentown. Since Penn State’s natural opponent in a pure bracket would be Ohio State, we’re going to have to move the Buckeyes. Aside from that, there are no other issues.
Here’s how it looks as a result:
West – Sioux Falls, S.D.
1. St. Cloud State vs. 16. Canisius
8. North Dakota vs. 9. Minnesota
Rationale: The way things worked out, we were able to provide a natural No. 1 overall seed bracket. The added bonus, which shook out in our last bracketology as well, is a first-round matchup between two natural rivals in North Dakota and Minnesota. That’s a must-see game in the regular season, but with this much riding on the line? Wow.
Northeast – Worcester, Mass.
2. Notre Dame vs. 15. Boston College
7. Minnesota State vs. 11. Western Michigan
Rationale: There aren’t a lot of options for Eastern teams, but if Boston College can get into the tournament this year, it gives you some options. Last Bracketology, I had BC in Bridgeport, but upon further consideration, I think you can have them carry Worcester attendance when other teams are already in a tough geographic position. Perhaps it’s not a great prize for Notre Dame to have to fly into BC’s backyard, but it is a true 2 vs. 15 situation and there aren’t really any close regionals to Notre Dame anyway. This also allows us to keep bracket integrity for both the No. 1 and No. 2 overall seeds.
East – Bridgeport, Conn.
3. Clarkson vs. 13. Northeastern
5. Ohio State vs. 11. Providence
Rationale: Clarkson can kind of go to any of the three regionals not in Sioux Falls and have a similar driving distance. Meanwhile, we get the two remaining New England teams within a manageable distance and hope that you hope for traveling fans from two schools as opposed to sending BC here by itself. Again, that’s a change in rationale from my last bracketology, but I think it could go either way. To get this done, we flip Northeastern and Nebraska Omaha, who are tied in the Pairwise anyway, for attendance considerations in the East. Ohio State had to be moved from Allentown, so they end up in a 5-11 matchup instead of a natural 5-12.
Midwest – Allentown, Pa.
4. Cornell vs. 14. Nebraska Omaha
6. Denver vs. 12. Penn State
Rationale: Cornell is actually only a three-hour drive from Allentown. If the Big Red ends up remaining a top seed, I have a hard time seeing them end up anywhere other than the Midwest regional unless Penn State moves around to make it untenable from a bracket integrity standpoint. Meanwhile, Denver and Ohio State essentially flipped spots due to having to avoid the in-conference matchup and we already covered why Omaha moved here.