UND looks for big WCHA weekend at DenverGRAND FORKS — Danny Kristo remembers getting a talk from three seniors before his first college hockey game.
By: Brad Schlossman, Forum News Service
GRAND FORKS — Danny Kristo remembers getting a talk from three seniors before his first college hockey game.
Chris VandeVelde, Darcy Zajac and Chay Genoway sat down the team’s 10 rookies and explained to them that the season-opening nonconference games against Merrimack could end up determining the University of North Dakota’s postseason fate five months down the line.
“I remember them telling us that these are the games that make or break you at the end of the year,” Kristo said. “It helps to go through it personally, but they drilled that into our brains right away.
“I think that’s why we’re there every year. We know how important those nonconference games are and we’ve had a good nonconference record the last couple years.”
Take a look at this week’s Pairwise Rankings — the system that will be used to select the 16-team NCAA tournament field a month from now — and it’s clear how nonconference games can significantly alter teams’ positions nationally.
The most glaring example is the University of Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is currently ranked No. 25 in the Pairwise and will likely need to win the Western Collegiate Hockey Association postseason tournament to have any hope of an NCAA tournament berth. The Badgers are in this precarious position because of their season-opening weekend against Northern Michigan.
The Wildcats swept the Badgers in that series, thanks to a pair of third-period rallies. Had Wisconsin held on to just one of the games and earned a series split, they’d be 11 spots higher in the Pairwise at No. 14, high enough to get into the NCAAs. Had they swept the Wildcats, Wisconsin would be 16 spots higher at No. 9.
There are plenty of other examples around the country, too.
First place not enough
Merrimack currently is in first place in Hockey East — ahead of Boston College, New Hampshire and Boston University — yet would not make the NCAA tournament if it started today.
To that, the Warriors can look at a collapse in an October tournament in Fairbanks. They blew a 2-0 lead against Alaska and lost 3-2 on Oct. 19. If Merrimack won that game, it would be five spots higher in the Pairwise at No. 13. If Merrimack also beat Alaska Anchorage, which only has four wins this season, it would be at No. 9.
Nebraska Omaha is just one point out of first place in the WCHA, but the Mavericks are a lot further from making the NCAA tournament, sitting at No. 21 in the Pairwise Rankings.
Omaha got swept by Quinnipiac over the holidays, causing the tumble in the rankings. If the Mavericks earned just a split against the Bobcats, they’d be six spots higher at No. 15. A sweep over the Bobcats would have landed Omaha at No. 10.
One team that did take care of business in nonconference play this season is the University of Denver. The Pioneers entered a late-December Hall of Fame Game against Boston University on an eight-game winless streak, but managed to knock off the Terriers in a one-game shot.
Denver, which currently sits in solid position at No. 11 in the Pairwise Rankings, would be nine spots lower at No. 20 if it lost to the Terriers.
UND is sitting in strong position at No. 6, thanks in large part to a Friday night win over Boston University at home. UND broke a 2-2 tie in the third period and went on to win 4-2. Had UND lost that game, it would be six spots lower at No. 12.
“The older guys who have been through it understand the ramifications of it and how the Pairwise can change in the last month and a half of the season,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “Without question, we make a very strong point coming into camp in the fall to have an understanding of how everything is put together and how important nonconference games are.”
The Pairwise Rankings compare teams against each other using four components — RPI, record against common opponents, record against teams with an RPI over .500 and head-to-head record.
Nonconference games greatly affect the record against common opponents because there aren’t many common opponents for teams in different leagues.
Next season, when UND moves to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, it will only play a 24-game league schedule (the Western Collegiate Hockey Association is currently at 28 games) to allow for more nonconference action.
UND will host Vermont, St. Lawrence and Northern Michigan, while traveling to Boston University and playing a home-and-home against Bemidji State.
“We think we have a good formula starting with 10 nonconference games, but I think we’ll evaluate it as we go through the first couple years,” Hakstol said. “At the end of the day, let’s be blunt: Whether you play 12 or 14 nonconference games or six nonconference games, you have to win them. And you have to have a good nonconference record as a league. At the end of the day, you still have to go out and win hockey games.”