Mike Collins - Merrimack

Back to Class: Being at the top of the conference doesn’t guarantee anything

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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 as WCHA rivals Nebraska-Omaha and Wisconsin face off at 8:30 p.m. ET.

Until this past weekend happened, Merrimack College was feeling good and sitting atop Hockey East. With schools like Boston College, New Hampshire, UMass-Lowell, and Providence all in the mix for first as well, it would seem likely that Merrimack would be sitting well for a shot at the NCAA tournament.

Alas, that’s where the fun mathematics of the Pairwise Rankings (PWR) comes into play. Sure, Merrimack is near the top of one of the strongest conferences in the country (they’re now one point behind BC, UNH, and PC) but they sit tied for 23rd in PWR. Getting in the top 16 is what helps you stand your best chances at getting a spot in the tournament and as it stands now, unless Merrimack wins the Hockey East tournament, they’ll be sitting at home.

What’s killing them is their record against teams under consideration (TUC). They’re just 6-8-2 against schools who could wind up in the NCAAs. Compare that with their equals in the HEA standings. BC is 9-4-3 and UNH is 11-7-3. Providence finds themselves in a worse spot than Merrimack as they’re a miserable 4-8-5 against TUCs. Meanwhile, UMass-Lowell sits 11th in PWR with a 5-7-0 record against TUCs but are 18-9-2 overall this year.

What can teams like Merrimack and Providence do now to help their chances? Just win, baby. It’s the simplest of mathematics.

That’s the fun part of all this. With all the acronyms and records and varying ways of breaking things down, it just boils down to taking care of your own business and then hoping you get a little help elsewhere just in case.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… Unless your team is sitting on that PWR bubble or hoping another team doesn’t fall off/climb over the TUC cliff to royally jumble things up.

All right, don’t lose the slide rules just yet.

***

Feel-good story of the weekend: Give it up for Colgate’s Spiro Goulakos. The sophomore played in his first game back since undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Friday night and scored the game-winning goal to help the Raiders beat Union College 4-1.

Conferences wrapping up: Both the ECAC and CCHA wrap up their conference schedules this weekend. Atlantic Hockey, Hockey East, and the WCHA are done next week. Let’s look at who gets done this week.

Quinnipiac has the top seed in the ECAC wrapped up. RPI, St. Lawrence, Yale, Union, and Dartmouth are hoping to finish in the top-four to get first round byes. SLU faces Union on Friday and RPI on Saturday.

In the CCHA, Miami, Notre Dame, Western Michigan, Ferris State, and Ohio State all have first round byes in their tourney secured. Miami has the top seed to themselves, but WMU and Notre Dame are duking it out for second and FSU and OSU are battling for fourth.

The rest of the conference is a bit of a mess below that. Alaska is all but certain to face Michigan State in the opening round while Bowling Green, Lake Superior State, Michigan and Northern Michigan could all find ways to jumble their pairings.

(Photo: Hockey East Online)

The Fleury-Murray watch in Pittsburgh is on

TAMPA, FL - MAY 24:  Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with his teammate Marc-Andre Fleury #29 after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final with a score of 5 to 2 during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 24, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT…

After a spring and early summer filled with speculation, Marc-Andre Fleury is heading back to where he’s always been — Pittsburgh.

But while his city stays the same, the circumstances are more different than ever.

It’s still not 100 percent official what in capacity Fleury will report to camp next month, though logic suggests that — after watching Matt Murray backstop the club to the Stanley Cup in June — Fleury will enter the season as Murray’s No. 2.

But he wants to be the No. 1.

“I love Pittsburgh, and the Penguins are my team; I want to stay with them for the rest of my career,” Fleury said this summer, per NHL.com. “I had some good conversations with management after the season. Nothing is written in stone. I want to come to camp ready to win my job back.

“I have to get back to the same level of play and help the team, win games.”

The Fleury-Murray dynamic is complex, to say the least.

A few angles to consider:

— For as good as Murray was last year, he’s still only 22 years old with just 13 career regular season games on his resume. It’s a remarkably small body of work, and there’s always the looming specter of a sophomore slump.

— There’s also the looming specter of Fleury, who’s clearly gunning for Murray’s job.

— Next year’s expansion draft is a fly in Pittsburgh’s ointment. The way things stand now, they’d be forced to protect Fleury because of his no-movement clause, which would force them to expose Murray.

— No chance that scenario plays out, so Fleury and the remainder of his four-year, $23 million contract will (theoretically) be on the move at some point.

— Calgary reportedly made calls about Fleury’s availability earlier this summer, prior to trading for Brian Elliott at the draft. But the Elliott acquisition might not close the door completely. The former Blues netminder is heading into the final year of his contract, and there’s been no word from Flames GM Brad Treliving about an extension. Elliott could be a one-year stopgap solution, especially if he doesn’t perform.

— Pens GM Jim Rutherford has been artful in dodging queries about Fleury’s future with the team, dating all the way back to last year’s playoffs. He was at it again prior to the draft, saying he would “like to start next year with both goalies.” The key part there, obviously, is “start.” Nothing about both finishing the year as Penguins.

While this situation doesn’t figure to derail Pittsburgh’s championship defense — as Rutherford pointed out this summer, having two good goalies is a good problem to have — it will be a constant source of speculation and banter until a solution is found.

So yeah, the Fleury-Murray watch is on. The question now is how long it’ll last.

Poll: Are the Pens poised to repeat?

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT…

By now you know the statistic, but here’s a refresher anyway.

The NHL hasn’t had a back-to-back Stanley Cup winner since Detroit turned the trick in ’97-98, and hasn’t seen a reigning champ return to the Final since Detroit turned the trick in ’08-09.

Doing it once is tough. Doing it twice has become nearly impossible.

In fact, winning the Stanley Cup in recent years has, more often that not, paved the way for an extremely difficult encore. Chicago won it all in 2015, and was bounced in the opening round last year. L.A. hoisted Lord Stanley’s mug in ’14, and missed the postseason entirely in ’15.

Which brings us to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

On paper, this year’s Pens are a virtual carbon copy of the club that won the Cup in June. Their most noteworthy departures were defenseman Ben Lovejoy (off to join former Pens GM Ray Shero in New Jersey) and third-string netminder Jeff Zatkoff, who signed in L.A.

And that’s it.

Everyone else is back.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are back. The HBK line is back. Both goalies, Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, are back. Even the depth guys that some weren’t sure the Pens could afford — Justin Schultz and Matt Cullen — are back.

Head coach Mike Sullivan and his staff are back, and reigning GM of the Year Jim Rutherford is back.

At first glance, this would make Pittsburgh a likely candidate to “do the Detroit” (as outlined above, in either scenario). But the NHL is fickle, and a grind — and it’ll be curious to see what that does to a Pens team coming off an extremely long season, with six players set to participate in the World Cup of Hockey.

Anyway, go have a vote:

It’s Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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It’s been a summer of celebration for the Pittsburgh Penguins. They enter the upcoming season as the defending Stanley Cup champs.

The Stanley Cup made its way to the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children in a heart-warming visit from Phil Kessel. Bryan Rust was photographed cuddling with hockey’s silver chalice, because, why not? Jim Rutherford was named the GM of the year when the end-of-season awards were handed out.

All of it a reward for a Penguins team that was struggling in the Eastern Conference before a mid-season coaching change. And shortly after Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench, the Penguins took over the conference, rolling to a championship.

This summer, the Penguins made their pitch to land coveted college free agent Jimmy Vesey, with Sidney Crosby reportedly reaching out to the 2016 Hobey Baker Award winner. Pittsburgh, like many other teams, was ultimately unsuccessful in its quest, as Vesey signed with the Rangers.

The Penguins did sign another college free agent, forward Thomas DiPauli, on a two-year entry-level contract.

They also re-signed forward Matt Cullen to a one-year, $1 million deal. Defenseman Tim Erixon re-signed to a one-year, two-way contract worth $575,000 in the NHL. Justin Schultz, who initially didn’t receive a qualifying offer from the Penguins, making him an unrestricted free agent, eventually re-signed in Pittsburgh and that could give Derrick Pouliot, another young blue liner, some stiff competition when the season opens up.

A Stanley Cup victory did not come easy. The Penguins came out of the playoffs with injuries to several players, including Kessel, who underwent hand surgery.

But Rutherford is confident all the injured players — The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review listed Trevor Daley (ankle), Kris Letang (foot), Nick Bonino (elbow infection), Rust (hand), Patric Hornqvist (hand) and Evgeni Malkin (elbow) as those on the road to recovery this offseason — should be ready for the opening of training camp.

The Penguins could also have a competition in the crease.

Matt Murray, who turned 22 years old in May, backstopped the Penguins to their championship. But Marc-Andre Fleury, 31, would like the opportunity to regain his old No. 1 spot.

Capitals have big plans for Dmitry Orlov, but there is just one problem . . .

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 25: Dmitry Orlov #9 of the Washington Capitals celebrates after scoring a goal in the second period against the Winnipeg Jets at Verizon Center on November 25, 2015 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Dmitry Orlov is still without a contract for the upcoming season.

A restricted free agent, the 25-year-old defenseman had eight goals and 29 points last season, while making $2.25 million in salary for the season, as per General Fanager. His previous two-year contract had an annual cap hit of $2 million. But with training camps approaching, he remains unsigned for right now.

As noted before, there is a cap crunch for the Capitals heading into the new season. Orlov is the only RFA left for the Capitals to re-sign.

From the Washington Post:

According to generalfanager.com, Washington has $3.4 million in salary cap space left, but to allow for in-season roster flexibility or a 14th forward, the Capitals have around $2.6 million to devote to re-signing Orlov.

Still, despite that fact, the Capitals coaching staff has big plans for Orlov for the upcoming season.

“I envision him playing with a [Matt] Niskanen or a [John] Carlson, probably more prime minutes as we try even out our defense a little bit in terms of [workload],” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz, as per CSN Mid-Atlantic.

“It’s a great opportunity for him. He’s at the right age where he can really contribute. We’ll look for his contributions on the power play, the penalty kill, playing in that top-4 on a pretty regular basis. I just think it’s right for him.”