Jeremy Langlois

Back To Class: Forget the polls, Pairwise is your master now

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We’re taking you “Back To Class” for our roundup of the weekend’s action in college hockey. Look for more college hockey on NBCSN this Friday night at 8:30 p.m. ET as No. 7 North Dakota takes on No. 14 Nebraska-Omaha.

The college season is beginning to wind down and when match-ups come up, most college sports fans will judge the games based on where each team is ranked in the polls. I’m here to tell you that at this point of the year, you’re being lied to.

Watching the polls in February and March, whether it’s the USA Hockey/USA Today poll or the USCHO.com poll, is a pointless process and proof you’ve been conditioned by college football or basketball to buy into these arbitrary rankings. Since the season is winding down, it’s time for college hockey fans to put those voted-on rankings away and focus all attention on the Pairwise Rankings (PWR).

The Pairwise is what the NCAA uses to pick the at-large teams for the NCAA tournament. If your team is amongst the top 16 teams, you’ve got a chance. If they’re in the top 11, you’re virtually guaranteed a spot in the tourney. Unlike the BCS in college football, Pairwise uses all math and no polls to determine how teams shake out. Eliminating the human element, aside from the players on the ice actually winning and losing and tying games, helps makes the process virtually inarguable.

Take a look at how the Top 20 would be right now if you went by PWR according to CHN (USCHO.com also does their own):

1.    Quinnipiac
2.    Minnesota
3.    Miami
4.    Boston College
5.    New Hampshire
6.    Western Michigan
7.   Yale
8.    St. Cloud State
9.    Niagara
10.   North Dakota
11.   Boston University
12.   Denver
13.   Minnesota State
14.   Alaska-Fairbanks
15.   Dartmouth
16.   Notre Dame
17.   Colgate
18.   UMass-Lowell
19.   Union College
20.   Northern Michigan

When you compare that to how the polls look when they come out later today, you’ll likely see some big differences and that’s because people are who they are.

Polls are based on human opinions and often times those voting in the polls don’t see everyone they’re casting (or not casting) votes for. PWR, thankfully, eliminates that and focuses on whether or not teams are under consideration (TUC) and what a team’s record is against TUCs. Check out College Hockey News’ explanation of the whole thing if you’re feeling lost, it’s worth your time.

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Games to look out for this weekend: Aside from our Friday night game which shapes up to be a great WCHA battle, that conference has another killer tilt with Minnesota facing conference-leading St. Cloud State. Their weekend battle is one not to be missed. In the CCHA, Miami and Western Michigan face off for a pair in Kalamazoo to see who can take charge there.

Quinnipiac owns the ECAC: The Bobcats ran their unbeaten streak to 19 games after tying Brown and handing rival Yale their lunch on their ice to the tune of 6-2. Quinnipiac was down 2-0 right off the bat but came romping back through to turn it into a laugher. QU is now seven points up on second-place Yale and 10 up on Dartmouth and Union.

The Niagara situation: The Purple Eagles are the best team in Atlantic Hockey. At 17-4-5 they’re taking care of their business and they’ve got a heck of a goalie leading the way for them. They’re now also up to ninth in the PWR which puts the whole Pairwise situation in a different place.

In the past, teams had to try and aim for at least 15th in the PWR because a less-than great Atlantic team would get one of the spots in the tourney. If Niagara stays strong and rolls through the conference tourney on their way to an auto-bid, it’s possible that winding up 16th in PWR might just land you a spot in the NCAA tournament.

(Photo: ECAC Hockey)

With Allen struggling, Blues turn to Pheonix Copley on Saturday

ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 9: Jake Allen #34 of the St. Louis Blues makes a save against the Dallas Stars in Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scottrade Center on May 9, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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The recent struggles of St. Louis Blues goaltender Jake Allen have been well documented at this point.

In his past 11 appearances he has managed only an .867 save percentage, his coach believes he is “locked up mentally,” and he did not even make the the trip with the team to Winnipeg for their game on Saturday afternoon against the Jets after giving up four goals on 10 shots against the Washington Capitals.

With Allen at home getting a chance to “reset,” the Blues will be turning to recent call-up Pheonix Copley on Saturday afternoon as he makes his first career start.

Copley was called up from the Blues’ AHL team in Chicago following the Blues’ recent loss to Washington. In 18 appearances with the Chicago Wolves this season Copley has a .920 save percentage and an 11-4-1 record.

The 25-year-old Copley, who was acquired by the Blues two years ago as part of the T.J. Oshie for Troy Brouwer trade, has appeared in only one NHL game in his career. That was a relief appearance during the 2015-16 season when he took over for Allen in a 5-0 loss to the Nashville Predators. Copley stopped five of the six shots he faced that night.

The Blues enter Saturday’s game having lost four of their past six games and are on the playoff bubble with 51 points in 46 games. The point total ties them with Nashville for third place in the Central Division (St. Louis has the tiebreaker at the moment because it has more regulation and overtime wins) while both teams are just one point ahead of the Vancouver Canucks.

Lightning place Erik Condra on waivers

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 16: Erik Condra #22 of the Tampa Bay Lightning takes a shot on goal during a game against the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center on November 16, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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For the second time this season the Tampa Bay Lightning have placed veteran forward Erik Condra on waivers.

The latest move came after he was a healthy scratch for Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks. Condra, 30, is currently in the second year of a three-year, $3.75 million contract he signed in free agency to join the team a year ago. So far his time with the Lightning has been a bit of a disappointment.

He has played in just 10 games for the Lightning this season and has yet to record a point.

The Lightning placed him on waivers just before the start of the 2016-17 season. He has spent most of this season playing for the Syracuse Crunch in the American Hockey League where he has recorded 23 points (seven goals, 16 assists) in 24 games.

In 363 career games at the NHL level Condra has 39 goals and 59 assists. Only six of those goals have come as a member of the Lightning over the past two seasons since signing his contract in free agency.

Sam Bennett on healthy scratch: ‘I don’t want to be in that position again’

CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 18: Sam Bennett #93 of the Calgary Flames in action against the Buffalo Sabres during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 18, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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With four of their top-five scorers this season age 23 or younger, the Calgary Flames have a solid foundation of young core players in place when it comes to building a playoff contending team (and right now, they would be in the playoffs). Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk and Dougie Hamilton, all part of that young core, and have all been significant contributors to their playoff push this season.

One of their young players that has struggled a bit this season, and especially recently, has been 20-year-old forward Sam Bennett.

On Thursday night he even found himself as a healthy scratch for the team’s 4-3 loss to the Nashville Predators as a result of those recent struggles.

With only 18 points (nine goals, nine assists), a 46 percent Corsi percentage, and only 1.6 shots on goal per game this season it has been a bit of a disappointing season for the 2014 No. 4 overall pick. Especially after he showed so much promise during the 2015 playoffs and a year ago in what was his first full season in the league.

On Friday, Bennett talked about the experience of having to watch from the press box, calling it “really tough.”

“Watching wasn’t fun,” Bennett said, via Kristen Odland of the Calgary Herald. “Everything about (Thursday) wasn’t fun. I don’t want to be in that position again. I want to do everything I can to stay in the lineup.”

The decision to sit Bennett came after a particularly difficult stretch for him that saw him go 10 consecutive games without recording a single point and only 13 shots on goals while playing less than 15 minutes in three of the games. He is expected to draw back into the lineup for Saturday’s Battle of Alberta game against the Edmonton Oilers.

As tough as the experience likely was for Bennett it’s still something that can be beneficial for a young player going through the type of slump he has gone through because it gives a perspective they might not get from being on the ice.

The Flames enter Saturday’s game against Edmonton occupying the second wild card spot in the Western Conference, one point ahead of the Vancouver Canucks.

Scott Darling may have earned himself some extra playing time

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 05: Scott Darling #33 of the Chicago Blackhawks follows the action against the Arizona Coyotes at the United Center on April 5, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Coyotes 6-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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When the Chicago Blackhawks’ run of three Stanley Cups in six seasons started back in the 2009-10 season, goaltending was pretty consistently their biggest question mark over the first three or four years of that run. Today, as the Blackhawks continue to sit near the top of the Western Conference standings, it might be one of their greatest strengths.

At this point it is not just because of Corey Crawford‘s development into one of the league’s best, most consistent starters.

They are also getting excellent play from his backup, Scott Darling, and it continued on Friday night when he received the start against the Boston Bruins — only his second start in January — and responded with a 30-save shutout.

Darling’s play has improved significantly this season in the Blackhawks’ net, and after Friday’s game he is carrying a .928 save percentage in his 21 appearances this season, including a pair of shutouts.

Together the duo has the fourth best overall save percentage in the NHL (.920) and the second best even-strength save percentage (.937), trailing only the Washington Capitals.

It is a positive development for both the Blackhawks and Darling himself.

From a Blackhawks perspective, his play has given them a reliable backup that was not only able to successfully fill in for Crawford when he missed nearly a month due to an appendectomy earlier this season, but it has also made it so they can potentially manage his minutes a little more and keep him fresh for the playoffs without having to run him into the ground during the regular season. With Crawford going through a bit of a slump recently, allowing it least three goals in eight of his past 11 starts, it might even leave the door open for Darling to get another start on Saturday night against the Vancouver Canucks.

When asked about that possibility after Friday’s game coach Joel Quenneville would only say, “Their play a lot of time makes our decision for us.”

Of course, we probably should not make too much of this. Crawford is still going to be the guy in Chicago, and even though he has hit a bit of a rough patch lately he is still one of the top goalies in the league and you have to think he will eventually work his way out this recent funk. It’s just that Darling might be worthy of getting an additional start or two at the moment until that happens.

For Darling, it has been a big season as he plays through the final year of his contract and will be eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. Looking at the UFA market for goalies, you have Ryan Miller, who will be 36 years old and not really represent much of a long-term solution for anybody, and Ben Bishop and Steve Mason, who are both going through disappointing seasons. After that it is a bunch of a question marks. If Darling can continue to take advantage of the opportunities he gets in Chicago the way he has so far this season, he might end up earning himself an even bigger one in the summer.