Life on the edge: Northern Michigan University Wildcats hockey team might’ve been one of first few teams out of NCAA Tournament

Northern Michigan University’s Rylan Van Unen, left, works against the boards to get this puck away from Bemidji State’s Kyle Looft during their CCHA playoff game at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on March 4. (Photo courtesy Ron Mattson)

MARQUETTE — Two-and-a-half minutes at the end of regulation made all the difference for the Northern Michigan University hockey team’s fate in the NCAA Division I Tournament.

But they could also blame an opponent on this year’s schedule probably forgotten by most Wildcats’ fans — Colgate.

First, though, the 2 1/2 minutes was the amount of time left in regulation that the Wildcats still had a 2-0 lead in the CCHA playoff championship game at Minnesota State-Mankato on Saturday night before the host Mavericks mounted a two-goal comeback, then won the game barely a minute into overtime.

Like with just about every other league, the Mason Cup Playoff champion receives the CCHA’s automatic bid into the NCAA tourney.

By not winning Saturday, NMU had to wait for Sunday night’s NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Selection Show to see if they would earn an at-large berth.

Northern MIchigan University's Michael Colella, left, absorbs a punch from Michigan Tech's Parker Saretsky as the referees rush in to separate them in the first period of their CCHA hockey game played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Jan. 28. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

In effect, they had two chances to make the tourney, even if both were something of longshots — either beat out Michigan Tech for the league’s expected second berth, or see if the NCAA would give the CCHA three berths to the “big dance.”

Colgate, though, “stole” an at-large berth by winning the ECAC playoff championship on Saturday night with a 3-2 victory over defending league champion Harvard.

With a current 19-15-5 overall record, ECAC No. 5 playoff seed Colgate insured its inclusion into the NCAA tourney, even with a record nearly identical to NMU’s 21-17-0.

The Wildcats did their job in knocking down Colgate’s record, beating the Raiders 3-2 and 4-1 in Hamilton, New York, in the second weekend of the season, Oct. 7-8.

With Mankato earning the CCHA’s automatic bid, Northern vied with Tech for the probable second CCHA berth, though that isn’t a guarantee, either, as the league is down the pecking order from the Big 10 and National Collegiate Hockey Conference when it comes to league strength.

Even with their 4-0 loss to NMU in the league playoff semifinals the previous weekend, MTU had a real leg up as the Huskies were still 14 games above .500 with a 24-10-4 overall record.

Meanwhile, Northern paled in comparison at just four games over .500 despite the Wildcats’ late rush that produced a seven-game winning streak spanning the end of the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs.

What hurt NMU was a 14-16 record before the late streak began as the ‘Cats were swept by Michigan Tech and Mankato in January and had nary a sweep of their own dating back to the first weekend of November.

A third bid for the CCHA into the NCAA Tournament was also a real uphill battle.

First off, the Wildcats had to be a lock in every way, shape and form as the league’s No. 3 team just by looking at overall records and playoff performance.

NMU was one of just three league teams by the end of the league playoffs to have a winning record, with the next best overall records being Bemidji State at 14-17-5, Bowling Green State at 15-19-2 and Ferris State at 14-19-4.

And Bemidji and Bowling Green were bounced out in the first round of the CCHA playoffs.

Unfortunately, that third berth for the CCHA is going to be unusual, bordering on rare.

There are 16 spots in the NCAA hockey tourney that are spread around the six Division I conferences — the three in the West plus Hockey East, the ECAC and Atlantic Hockey.

There are also a half-dozen schools that are independents, but unlike football where Notre Dame is a major player among them (the Fighting Irish are members of the Big 10 in hockey), they aren’t really consequential in hockey. They’re Arizona State, Alaska-Anchorage, Alaska-Fairbanks, Long Island, Lindenwood and Stonehill.

But six divides into 16 at about 2 1/2, meaning in general, each conference will get either two or three NCAA berths.

As it was, the three Western leagues received nine of the 16 berths, the Big 10 getting four — Minnesota, Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State — while the NCHC got three — Denver, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan.

That left seven berths for three East Coast leagues. Colgate, Cornell, Quinnipiac and Harvard made it from the 12-member ECAC, Boston University and Merrimack made it from Hockey East, and only Canisius from Atlantic Hockey.

It was probably more likely that the Wildcats were vying with the fourth Big 10 team or the third NCHC team for an NCAA berth.

Minnesota (26-8-1) and Michigan (23-11-3) both have excellent records and played in the Big 10 playoff title game. Meanwhile, Ohio State (20-15-3) was eighth in the last USCHO.com poll, while Penn State (21-15-1) was 11th.

In the NCHC, Denver (30-8-0) was way ahead, with St. Cloud State (22-12-3) ranked seventh in the USCHO.com poll and Western Michigan (23-14-1) ninth.

In those final USCHO rankings, NMU was the third team outside the top 20, in effect, in 23rd. Two NCAA Tournament teams were also outside the top 20 — Canisius, which received the automatic berth for Atlantic Hockey, and Colgate, which got in with the ECAC automatic bid.

NMU couldn’t be assured that either of those teams kept them out of the NCAAs, as the fifth Big 10 team or fourth NCHC team might’ve also had a good argument for being included, not to mention another team or two from one of the Eastern leagues.

But it does make for good fodder for the argument of not getting into the tournament.

By the way, the NCAA tourney starts Thursday. That’s when Minnesota State faces in-state rival St. Cloud State at 5 p.m. EDT in Fargo, North Dakota, while No. 1 seed Minnesota plays Canisius at 9 p.m. EDT. Winners meet up at 6:30 p.m. EDT Saturday for the regional title.

On Friday, No. 10 overall seed Michigan Tech will be in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for a game against No. 8 Penn State at 5 p.m. That’s followed by No. 3 seed Michigan facing Colgate at 8:30 p.m., with winners advancing to the regional championship at 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

Each of the dozen regional games being held between Thursday and Sunday will be televised on ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPN News.

The NCAA Frozen Four will be held two weeks later on Thursday, April 6, and Saturday, April 8, in Tampa, Florida. Those three games are scheduled for ESPN2.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is sbrownlee@miningjournal.net.


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