Back to Class: Where March Madness is already underway


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 Maine host No. 4 New Hampshire at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Hockey East and the WCHA will wrap up their final weekend of conference action this weekend while Atlantic Hockey, CCHA, and ECAC all start their conference playoffs. It’s a veritable full weekend of playoffs for everyone if you want to look at it that way as even those who aren’t yet in their postseason are still jockeying for position.

In Hockey East, the battle for the top spot is on between UMass-Lowell, Providence, New Hampshire, and Boston College. Any of those four teams could wind up in first, while Boston University and Merrimack are just outside the top four. Landing in the top four means getting home ice in the first round of the conference playoffs.

In the race for the No. 1 seed, the series to watch is between Lowell and Providence as they’ll have two games to see if they can figure things out. Lowell, thanks to freshman standout and Winnipeg Jets prospect goalie Connor Hellebuyck, lead Hockey East but Providence sits two points back. BC and New Hampshire are each one point out and they’ve got teams from the bottom end of the conference to deal with.

Boston College faces 7th place Vermont while UNH faces a Maine team trying to solidify their spot in the conference playoffs. Only the top eight move on and Maine is trying to keep UMass out. The Minutemen have a pair of games with Merrimack to contend with. Only Northeastern won’t be making the playoffs.

In the WCHA, there’s no threat of missing the playoffs as all 12 teams make it. Figuring out who wins the MacNaughton Cup (first place in the regular season) isn’t quite so easy. St. Cloud State could’ve wrapped it up last Saturday, but were humbled by Michigan Tech. Now, any one of five teams could win the regular season title.

SCSU has a two-point lead on Minnesota and North Dakota and are four up on Minnesota State and Wisconsin. The two weekend match-ups to watch here feature St. Cloud against Wisconsin and Minnesota St. facing North Dakota. Earning the top spot at the end of the season means getting to face a bad Alaska-Anchorage team in the opening round of the conference tourney.

If that’s not enough to get you juiced up, three conferences have their playoffs getting started on Friday night. Here’s how things shape up for them:

CCHA: The top-five teams here all get byes into the quarterfinals. Only difference being that No. 4 Ohio State gets No. 5 Ferris State there. Miami, Notre Dame, and Western Michigan are the top three teams here. Your first-round best of three matchups see the winners re-seeded. Alaska hosts Michigan State, Michigan hosts Northern Michigan, and Lake Superior State gets Bowling Green.

ECAC: All 12 teams make the playoffs and the top four get byes in the first round. Quinnipiac, Rensselaer, Yale, and Union can rest easy this weekend and wait to see what carnage is unleashed with the other eight teams in their best of three series. Dartmouth hosts Harvard, St. Lawrence faces Colgate, Brown hosts Clarkson, and Princeton takes on Cornell in New Jersey. Winning teams are reseeded for the second round. RPI blog Without A Peer shows off how the second round could play out.

Atlantic Hockey: Top four teams have byes (Niagara, Air Force, Holy Cross, UConn). Winners of the first round are re-seeded. The first-round best of three pairings are: Robert Morris-Sacred Heart, Mercyhurst-Army, Canisius-Bentley, and RIT-American International. Anyone on the NCAA tournament bubble (16th in Pairwise) is rooting for Niagara to steamroll through here without issue.

If, somehow, that’s not all enough for you the Division III NCAA tournament gets underway tonight and winds up on March 16 with the national championship game. St. Norbert will be looking for their third title in a row but this writer would like to see Oswego State take it all. That’s called an “alumni plug.”

(Photo: Lowell Sun)

The Buzzer: Schwartz the hero, Gibson blanks Flames, Bruins clinch

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Players of the Night:

Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues: The Blues needed a win on Wednesday. They’ll need a few more still if they’re to push for the playoffs, but Schwartz scored a third-period equalizer and then the overtime winner 30 seconds into the extra frame to keep pace with the Anaheim Ducks (who won) for the second and final wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks: Gibson posted his third shutout in his past seven starts — and fourth of the season — saving all 29 shots that came his way in a 4-0 triumph of the Calgary Flames.

Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins: Malkin continued his pursuit of the Hart Trophy, netting a goal and adding an assist for his 41st goal (three back of Alex Ovechkin) and 91st point (three back of Nikita Kucherov).

Highlights of the Night:

Sidney Crosby did a thing – a very nice thing:

Jaden Schwartz, end-to-end to end the game:


Factoids of the Night:


Penguins 5, Canadiens 3

Coyotes 4, Buffalo 1

Blues 2, Bruins 1 (OT)

Ducks 4, Flames 0

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blues move closer to playoffs with OT win; Bruins clinch


Maybe the St. Louis Blues aren’t dead in the water after all.

In fact, despite selling off Paul Stastny at the trade deadline following two brutal loses that were part of a larger free fall at the time, the Blues have found another gear with just weeks left in the NHL season.

The Blues pulled themselves to within one point of the second and final wildcard spot in the Western Conference with a 2-1 overtime win against the depleted Boston Bruins on Wednesday Night Rivalry on the NHL on NBCSN.

The Bruins held the lead for two periods and change before Jaden Schwartz scored mid-way through the third period to tie the game and then 30 seconds into overtime to seal the win and move one-point behind the Anaheim Ducks (who were still in action against the Calgary Flames.)

That’s three straight OT wins for the Blues, who were without Vladimir Tarasenko due to injury.

The point for the Bruins was important, despite the loss, as they have now clinched a playoff spot, moving four points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Atlantic Division lead.

The Bruins were still missing Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and Rick Nash on Wednesday, yet still figured out a way to obtain something despite a stacked infirmary.

And part of that help is coming from a surprising place.

Last week at this time, Ryan Donato was a Harvard student, fresh off a five-goal performance at the Olympics for Team USA.

By Sunday, he was still a Harvard student but had signed an entry-level NHL contract with the Boston Bruins. On Monday, still a Havard student and now an NHLer for 24 hours, Donato scored his first NHL goal and added two assists in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

On Tuesday, Donato was back in class — you guessed it — as a Harvard student, an NHL player who had been excused from practice by the team that signed him two days earlier and scored his first NHL goal a night before.

On Wednesday, Donato scored again.

Meanwhile, the NHL could take a deeper look at a second-period hit to the head Brayden Schenn by on David Krejci.

Schenn was handed a two-minute charging penalty on the play, and Krejci stayed in the game, but judging by the above video, there was definite contact to the head and it appears Krejci was fortunate to be able to get up and skate away.

NBCSN’s Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones talked about if Schenn deserves to be suspended for the hit.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Sidney Crosby scores incredible goal, again (video)

AT&T Sportsnet

Oh, Sidney.

Just when you thought you’ve seen everything from Crosby, he has this uncanny knack and making sure you haven’t forgotten who he is and makes sure, once again, that you never will.

Crosby did Crosby things one again on Wednesday night against the Montreal Canadiens. I can save you the explanation of the second-period goal, since it’s pretty incredible and, as a consequence, tough to explain in words.

Let’s roll some of the footage here, shall we?

And another angle:

Carey Price didn’t have a chance.

Crosby has grown pretty good at batting pucks out of mid-air. Poor Antti Niemi:

Remember this from John Tavares?

It was pretty special too and done in similar fashion:

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Panthers hold keys to playoff fate

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Few teams have been hotter than the Florida Panthers down the stretch, something that had to be the case for the Cats to be in the spot they are currently in.

No, they’re not in a playoff spot at the moment — as a Wednesday they sit one point back of the New Jersey Devils for the second and final wildcard spot into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But a massive game awaits them on Thursday against one of the few teams that have been hotter than them in the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have strung together nine straight wins.

The Panthers hold two games in hand over the Devils, who squandered an opportunity to increase their slim lead in a 6-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. New Jersey has struggled as of late, going 4-6-0 in their past 10, including back-to-back losses now. The Panthers, meanwhile, eviscerated the Ottawa Senators 7-2 to pull within a point of them. Florida is five points back of the Philadelphia Flyers and six points behind their opponents on Thursday in Ohio. To thicken the plot, Florida holds three games in hand on Philly and Columbus.

Since the All-Star break, the Panthers have gone 18-5-1, have scored more 5-on-5 goals than any other team with 35 and are third in expected goals percentage during that time. The Florida Sun-Sentinel also points out that the Panthers have more points since the ASG out of any Eastern Conference team and the great goal differential (plus-27).

With 11 games to go, the Panthers sit in the driver’s seat when it comes to their own playoff fate.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner slightly downplayed the Columbus game in a conference call with the media on Wednesday.

“This time of year, it’s easy for these guys to get up for games, obviously how important they are,” he said. “It’s not going to be nothing over-the-top, extra special than what we normally do to prepare for a team. Obviously, it is an important game, but we have 10 more important games coming in.”

Despite losing key pieces in Jonathan Marchesseault and Reilly Smith over the summer — both are having career years with the Vegas Golden Knights — the current crop for the Panthers appear to have bought into Boughner’s message. And with Roberto Luongo healthy after missing two-and-a-half months with a groin injury, Florida is peaking at the right time.

“I think if you ask the guys, they’re having the time of their lives, having lots of fun,” Boughner said. “Let’s face it, we’ve been playing playoff hockey here for the last couple of months, just trying to dig in and scrape for points every night.”

Coming into Tuesday’s game, Luongo had gone 8-2-1 with a 2.51 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage with two shutouts in his past 11 starts — vintage Luongo, who’s been down this road before.

“Lu means everything to our team, obviously,” Boughner said, adding that Luongo will be in the driver’s seat in Florida’s last 11 games.

“He’s going to play a lot of hockey,” he said, saying it will be in the realm of an 80/20 split between Luongo and backup James Reimer.

Boughner said Aleksander Barkov — who has eight goals and 26 points in his past 19 games — is his vote for the Selke Trophy and that Keith Yandle is the glue that helps keep the room together. Evgenii Dadonov, who has 12 goals and 13 assists in his past 19 games, shouldn’t be forgotten.

Boughner said when the team was struggling earlier this season, consistency was the most frustrating part — noting that the team couldn’t string together more than two wins in a row.

“There was too much individual work going on,” he said. “It took us a long time to sort of get the team convinced with sticking with the process and playing as a team… less selfishness and more about the team.”

That changed with a five-game winning streak in the last half of December.

“That’s probably where the light went on,” Boughner said.

It’s burned brightly ever since.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck