EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 12, 2013

Breaking down the Pairwise

... but figuring out NCAA tourney chances is a tricky proposition

College Hockey
Mike McMahon

---- — Just over a month ago, if you asked me, I was certain Merrimack College would need to win the Hockey East tournament in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament.

How different a month makes.

That was before the Warriors have torn off a 6-1-1 stretch in their last eight games, not only putting themselves in a sudden battle for first place with Boston College — the Warriors face BC on Friday at Lawler Arena with first place on the line —- but they’ve climbed back into the Pairwise, and as of this writing, sit just four spots back of an NCAA tournament spot. They are ranked 19th nationally in this week’s polls.

Here are some notes about the Pairwise rankings, which the NCAA uses to select and seed teams for the NCAA tournament.

The UMass Lowell factor: An interesting thing happened on Sunday, but won’t hold much weight moving forward. By beating UMass, Merrimack actually lost the comparison with Lowell, by virtue of UML dropping below the 10-team minimum for the “Team Under Consideration” criterion, which MC wins (by beating UMass, MC dropped the Minutemen off the TUC cliff). The reason it doesn’t matter is because by the end of the season, Lowell will be over that minimum, but it was an interesting quirk that occurred on Sunday.

There have been cases in the past where teams have been better off losing late in the year from an NCAA perspective, which just illustrates that the PWR system is flawed. Back in 2005, Wisconsin beat Anchorage in Game 3 of their WCHA playoff series. By doing so, they dropped Anchorage off the TUC cliff and Wisconsin dropped dramatically in the PWR because of it. From an NCAA perspective, Wisconsin would have been better off losing that Game 3 to Anchorage.

Every game counts: Not to rub salt in the wound, but if you’re Merrimack, you have to look back at two games in particular this season as being lost opportunities, given how the season has taken shape. Losses to both UConn and Anchorage, a pair of teams which have struggled, significantly hurt Merrimack in the PWR. If you change both of those games to wins, the Warriors jump to No. 15 in the PWR, meaning that as of right now, the Warriors would be an NCAA tournament team.

What it goes to show is that, in such a short season — remember, college hockey is only 34 games — every game counts. A few years back, when the Warriors were never in the national conversation, non-conference games were glorified exhibitions. Not anymore. If you’re a team that’s in the national conversation on a yearly basis, your non-conference record becomes critical. What’s most important is to win those games. Especially in Hockey East, your conference schedule is always going to be beefy enough that it will keep you in that national conversation if you take care of business in the league. Even under the new schedule, HE teams are still guaranteed eight games against BC, BU,UNH and now Notre Dame, which will be in that conversation almost yearly.

Simply put: I get asked a lot from Merrimack fans what they need to “root for” in other games around the country. But, to keep it simple, all you need to “root for” is your team. Like I said a little earlier, it’s still too early to really determine what you want other teams to do, especially considering MC still has multiple games left with BC and Lowell as well as games with BU and Providence. What helps you now could hurt you later, depending on your own results. Winning your own games takes care of the “what ifs” with other teams.