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Analysis: NMU hockey team on track to reach NCAA tourney

December 26, 2011
By MATT WELLENS - Journal Sports Editor ( , The Mining Journal

The Northern Michigan University hockey team is set to host the Wisconsin Badgers at the Resch Center in Green Bay next season, however, the Wildcats may be playing in Titletown much sooner.

If regular season ended today, NMU would be bound for the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years after falling in double overtime to St. Cloud State in the regional semifinals of the 2009-10 West Regional in St. Paul.

Northern currently sits ninth in the PairWise rankings - the system used to mimic what the NCAA tournament selection committee uses to select and seed the Division I field - and would square off with No. 8 Merrimack of Hockey East at the Resch with No. 1 Ohio State and No. 16 Air Force of Atlantic Hockey meeting on the other half of the Midwest Regional.

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The Wildcats can claim a good chunk of credit for putting themselves in a position to extend their season beyond the CCHA playoffs, however, they also must give a nod to their first-half opponents for having an equal, if not better, first half.

Here is the breakdown of how the Wildcats got to where they are and what must be done over the final two months leading up to the CCHA playoffs.

PairWise Breakdown

Fact Box

2011-12 Projected NCAA

Division I Tournament Field

(If the season ended today)

Midwest Regional (Green Bay)

1. Ohio State* vs. 16. Air Force*

8. Merrimack vs. 9 Northern Michigan

East Regional (Bridgeport, Conn.)

2. Minnesota-Duluth vs. 15. Cornell*

7. Western Michigan vs. 12. UMass-Lowell

West Regional (St. Paul)

3. Boston College* vs. 14. Lake Superior State

6. Minnesota* vs. 11. Ferris State

Northeast Regional (Worchester, Mass.)

4. Notre Dame vs. 13. Colgate

5. Boston University vs. 10. Michigan State

Notes: To avoid an intraconference matchup, UMass-Lowell and Michigan State swapped spots. ... Because Minnesota hosts the West Regional, the Gophers are guaranteed to play in St. Paul.

Last at-large team in: Lake Superior State. Last at-large team out: Colorado College.

* - denotes current conference leader

Tournament field projected by Mining Journal Sports Editor Matt Wellens, using the USCHO,com PairWise rankings. For a complete look at the PairWise rankings, visit

The PairWise rankings compares teams based on record against common opponents, head-to-head competition, record against teams under consideration (TUC) and a team's ratings percentage index RPI.

A team's RPI is calculated based on a team's winning percentage, the average winning percentage of opponents and the average winning percentage of the opponents' opponents.

To be a TUC, teams must have a RPI of .5000 or more.

Northern sits tied for No. 9 in the PairWise with Michigan State with both teams having won 23 comparisons against the current 33 teams eligible. Because NMU wins its comparison with State, the Wildcats would get the No. 9 spot in the NCAA tourney while Sparty slips to No. 10.

Northern's strength in the rankings comes not from it's overall record of 9-7-3 - which is good for 21st in the country - but from it's RPI of .5563, which ranks No. 9. The Wildcats' RPI is so strong because no one in the country has played a tougher schedule than the 'Cats.

NMU is currently losing comparisons with Boston College, Boston University, Merrimack, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Western Michigan and LSSU. Of those nine, the Wildcats have the potential to overturn five of those comparisons, with the simplest being two wins or a win and a tie against LSSU.

If NMU can boost its RPI or improve its record of 6-6-3 against TUCs via wins or Wisconsin and St. Cloud State climbing above .5000 in the RPI - NMU is 3-1-0 versus the Badgers and Huskies - then BU, Merrimack, Minnesota and Western could be caught.

As of today, 13 of the Wildcats' final 15 regular-season games are against TUCs, with only a trip to Bowling Green State being under .5000 in the RPI. However, Tech and Alaska are on the bubble and could slip out of TUC status with poor second halves.

CCHA dominance out of conference

The Wildcats No. 1 ranking in strength of schedule has a little to do with Walt Kyle's ability not to schedule cream puffs, the luck of the rotation in CCHA scheduling and a lot to do with the success of those on the 'Cats slate in 2011-12.

The CCHA - which will cease to exist come 2013-14 - holds a Division-I best 39-12-5 (.741) record against the rest of college hockey this season, followed by Hockey East at 24-15-5 (.602) and the WCHA at 29-19-5 (.594.)

Hockey East is the lone league to hold a winning record against the CCHA at 4-2. The WCHA is 5-10-1 against the CCHA, the ECAC is 3-9-2, Atlantic Hockey is 0-11-2 and the lone independent, Alabama-Huntsville, is 0-8-0.

Because CCHA teams have done so well out of conference, - NMU is 4-1-0 in nonconference play with another game against Tech to be played - the league holds seven of the 10 toughest schedules to date and all 11 teams' strength of schedule rank in the top 20.

Second-half outlook

The Wildcats' have a better record at the halfway point of 2011-12 than they did the last time they reached the NCAA tournament in 2009-10 (7-8-4), however, the schedule doesn't set up as nicely.

In 09-10, NMU went 10-3-4 after Jan. 1 with eight of the final 17 regular season games taking place at the Berry Events Center. NMU capped CCHA play with three more wins and a loss in the CCHA championship game to Michigan.

This year the Wildcats will close the regular season with six games in Marquette and nine on the road.

Of the Wildcats' eight opponents, five have already gone head-to-head with Northern this season. The 'Cats are 6-2-1 against those teams thus far, but only one loss and one win came on the road.

NMU is 7-1-3 at the BEC and 2-6-0 on the road. After beating the Badgers 3-2 in overtime in Madison to start 2011-12, NMU lost five straight away from Marquette before beating LSSU on a Friday and losing on Saturday.

The PairWise doesn't care where wins, losses and ties come from - home, road or neutral - however, the Wildcats will need to solve their road woes if they hope to secure a bid to the NCAA tournament.

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.



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