College Hockey Conference Championships

John Mersits, South Bend Tribune
John Mersits, South Bend Tribune

Postseason men’s college hockey is just around the corner, meaning conference championship season is here. Beginning tonight, the six Division 1 college hockey conferences begin their tournaments to not only crown the champion of the conference but also guarantee six lucky teams an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. No matter where a team may stand in their respective conference or in the overall national rankings, a new season starts tonight.

The BIG 10 conference currently holds four of the top sixteen spots in the Pairwise rankings (used exclusively for NCAA tournament at large selections), while the three other BIG 10 teams are hoping to secure a conference tournament championship to earn an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. After Michigan State beat Wisconsin last Friday, they secured the BIG 10 regular season championship and earned a bye to the second round of the BIG 10 tournament. The other six schools will play a best of three series starting tonight. #4 seed Michigan hosts #5 seed Notre Dame, #6 seed Penn State travels to #3 seed Minnesota and #7 seed Ohio State visits #2 Wisconsin. After this weekend’s series four teams will remain and the format is switched to a one game semi-final to determine who moves on to the championship game. For Notre Dame, Penn State and Ohio State, they each are in need of a conference championship to advance to the NCAA tournament, otherwise their season will end if that is not achieved. Michigan could also run the risk of being left out of the NCAA tournament if they lose in the first round as two losses to Notre Dame would drop them too low (lower than #14 in the Pairwise rankings) to earn an at-large bid. Currently, the Wolverines are teetering on the edge of being in or out ranked #13 in the Pairwise. With upsets in the BIG 10 or other conferences, Michigan could lose their position in the tournament because of the automatic bid from a conference champion who was not already ranked in the top 16 (or their own losses). Two spots are already guaranteed to be lost in that fashion to the CCHA and AHA champions.

Hockey East schools currently hold the top two spots in the Pairwise ranking, with #1 Boston College (BC) and #2 Boston University (BU). Both teams are loaded with future NHL stars and are guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament. Leading scorers in the NCAA this season, Cutter Gauthier (BC) and Macklin Celebrini (BU), are both important pieces to their team’s success and continued success this year. BC also holds the top three spots for most points in the country with Will Smith, Cutter Gauthier and Gabe Perreault, who also combine for a lethal power play unit. The Hockey East tournament is not set up in the same way as the BIG 10 partly due to the greater number of teams (11) in that league. The tournament is set up with an opening round involving the six lowest ranked teams who will begin play Wednesday March 13. Then on Saturday March 16, the three winning teams will advance to take on the top three teams in the conference and seeds four and five facing each other. The Hockey East semifinal and final games will then be held the next weekend in Boston’s TD Garden to crown a champion. Maine and Northeastern, along with BC and BU, will be the teams to beat in this tournament. Although Northeastern is not currently in the top 16 (they are currently ranked 20 in the Pairwise) they have been an underrated team all year, something that can be seen in their Beanpot tournament wins over BC and BU. Whichever team has to play any of these four teams will surely have a challenge facing them, as they will all be playing their best hockey, considering what is at stake. 

The National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) is another powerhouse conference in college hockey and is home to the schools that hold the third and fourth spots in the overall rankings with North Dakota and Denver respectively. These two will both be favorites to win the tournament. Despite this, anything can happen as witnessed in 2023 when #7 seed Colorado College beat top seed Denver before losing to fourth ranked St. Cloud State in the championship. Within the conference this year, North Dakota holds the top spot, but all teams can beat each other on any given night. Denver, a historically strong team, has key players like Jack Devine, fourth in the nation for most goals, who will be key to helping Denver in the tournament. With eight teams in the conference the top seed does not earn a bye week into the semifinals like the BIG 10 and the first round is a best of three series starting next weekend. After that the tournament will move to Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN for the semifinal and final to be held on March 22nd and 23rd. College hockey fans are keeping a close eye on the NCHC tournament as it could have a large impact on the NCAA tournament. 

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Eastern Collegiate Athletics Conference (ECAC) Hockey is led by defending NCAA national champion Quinnipiac yet again. Second place Cornell is 10 points back in the conference standings, while Colgate is just behind the Big Red in third. Quinnipiac has seven more wins overall than Cornell. The QU Bobcats are the heavy favorite because of their dominance in the past few years, though upsets do happen. If a team were to beat Quinnipiac this would also shake up the NCAA Tournament taking away a spot from yet another top 16 team in the Pairwise.  Tough to bet against the champs here, as Quinnipiac should maintain their dominance and take home yet another ECAC championship. 

The Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) and Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA) both hold special significance that will come to affect the entirety of Division 1 hockey. Neither conference currently has a team in the top sixteen of the overall pairwise rankings. This means that whoever wins the championship in each of these two conferences will be securing an automatic spot in the NCAA tournament while taking away spots from those who are currently ranked in the top 16. As of now, Western Michigan and Cornell hold spots 15 and 16 and if nothing were to change they would, most likely, lose a spot in the tournament because of the CCHA and AHA winners. Looking at the CCHA, Bemidji State currently stands at the top of the conference, with Saint Thomas nine points behind them. The Beavers, Tommies or whomever wins the CCHA tourney gets to dance. In the AHA, RIT is favored to win the conference tournament. They are currently ranked 23 overall and they do have a respectable 22 wins this season. Holy Cross and Air Force could provide for some competition, but it seems likely that RIT will bring home the 2024 AHA championship. 

This weekend starts a series of critical games that will impact how the 2024 NCAA tournament will come together. With teams battling to save their season and others trying to prove they are still as strong as they have been all season.  One thing is for sure, conference championships will be important and cherished for every team involved.

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