A Look At College Hockey Conference Championships


Sofia Nevala , Reporter

It is finally that time of year. Playoff hockey is upon us. Last weekend marked the start of men’s college hockey conference championship tournaments. The stakes are high with the champion of each conference punching their tickets to the NCAA Tournament and ultimately an opportunity to play in the Frozen Four, being hosted in Tampa, Florida this year. Four conferences, the Big Ten, ECAC, CCHA and AHA, all have played their quarterfinal games. That leaves the NCHC and Hockey East who will begin their tournament this coming weekend, March 10-12. Looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament, conference championships can have a great impact on the final bracket of 16 lucky teams. With critical games this weekend, part of the bracket will begin to be shaped in the next few weeks. 


As of Thursday, March 9, 2023 the PairWise standings currently look like this. Pairwise standings are the ranking system used to decide who makes the NCAA championship field for men’s ice hockey. It is based heavily on strength of schedule and winning percentage as calculated by the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and head-to-head results. 


  1. Minnesota (B1G)
  2. Quinnipiac (ECAC)
  3. Denver (NCHC)
  4. Michigan (B1G)
  5. Boston University (Hockey East)
  6. Harvard (ECAC)
  7. St. Cloud St. (NCHC)
  8. Penn State (B1G)
  9. Western Michigan (NCHC)
  10. Ohio State (B1G)
  11. Michigan Tech (CCHA)
  12. Minnesota St. (CCHA)
  13. Alaska (Indep.)
  14. Cornell (ECAC)
  15. Merrimack (Hockey East)
  16. Michigan St. (B1G)


Teams at this time of year as Selection Sunday approaches feel secure in their spot in the NCAA Tournament through either a conference automatic bid or otherwise being ranked among the top thirteen in the Pairwise to earn an at-large bid. The top thirteen, for example, are generally safe to make the tournament despite the chance of an upset in a conference championship tournament or when a team from the AHA, which does not have any teams in the top sixteen, will take a spot in the tournament through an automatic bid as the #16 overall seed. 


For the AHA, the only hope they have for a team in the NCAA tournament is their conference tournament champion. This means that if your team is sitting in the 16th spot in the rankings, they are at risk to not make it because of the AHA conference champion’s automatic bid. As of now, regular season champion RIT is the favorite to win the tournament, after sweeping their best two-of-three game quarterfinal series last weekend over Mercyhurst. They are looking good going into next week’s semifinal where they will face Holy Cross. For the past 5 years, AIC has won the AHA tourney championship, giving them the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. As a conference, the AHA usually only gets that bid into the tournament, so this year we will have a new team representing the league. In a three game series, Holy Cross was able to get the win in overtime in game three to lead them past the defending champions. 


Taking a look at other conferences that have started their respective postseasons, the Big Ten stands out as they have five of their seven teams in the top 16 right now. Minnesota, the top team in the nation, earned a pass through the quarter finals getting a week off to rest before they host their semifinal opponent, Michigan State. The Gophers seek to claim both the regular and postseason conference titles, something they were unable to do last year, despite being the top team in the Big Ten. Second seeded Michigan was able to sweep Wisconsin despite being pushed to overtime and a plethora of goals scored against them. Michigan took the OT win on Friday and backed it up with a 7-4 win Saturday with their three final goals coming in the last 2:20 of the game. Ohio St. picked up the series win on Sunday with a 3-1 win over Penn State to give them a matchup with the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. In the last series, Notre Dame fell to Michigan St. after a three-game series at Compton Family Ice Arena. The Spartans were able to pull off the upset behind graduate student Dylan St. Cyr, who returned to South Bend to face his former team. Despite the Irish winning game one, the Spartans came back to out score the Irish in games two and three giving them the series win. 


In the ECAC, the tournament was formatted differently as the league only played one game for each quarter final rather than a best-two-of-three game series. At the end of the weekend Colgate, Clarkson, Princeton and Yale advanced to make it to the quarterfinals after winning their opening round games. Only three of the eight teams left in the bracket are currently in the top 16 meaning there is a chance for an upset that would secure a team not in the top 16 of the Pairwise a spot in the NCAA tournament and while knocking a ranked team out. 


Lastly, the CCHA tournament also started last weekend. Despite the three-game series setup, all series ended after two games with sweeps all around. The higher seed in each matchup, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Ferris State, and Minnesota St., won the series. For Northern Michigan and Ferris State they currently sit outside of the top 16 meaning they are relying on a conference championship for a bid.  Despite tough competition from Minnesota State and Michigan Tech, anything could happen in the CCHA and could lead to another upset entry in the 16 team field. 


Quarterfinals and conference championships can have a major impact on the final NCAA tournament field. A loss to a lower ranked team, for example, could completely take you out of the running for a spot, while a win could secure your spot in the tournament. In the case of the Michigan State and Notre Dame series. The loss knocked Notre Dame out of the top 16, most likely ending their NCAA tournament hopes. For the Spartans, the two wins bumped them into the top 16.  A likely loss to Minnesota next weekend would knock MSU back out. With a conference win UConn or RIT could secure their spot despite being just outside the top 16. UConn would have to win out in the competitive Hockey East conference while RIT has a great opportunity in the Atlantic Hockey Association with AIC going out last weekend. Despite playoffs arriving there is still lots of hockey to be played in the coming weeks that will ultimately decide the 16 teams that get the chance to play for the NCAA championship.