Back to Class: Where March Madness is already underway

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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 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)

Canadiens spent too much time getting tougher, not enough time getting better

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For several years now the Montreal Canadiens have been a very good, but very flawed hockey team.

Before this season their biggest issue was an overreliance on starting goaltender Carey Price, where they would be content to allow him to make as many saves as he had to make for the team to squeeze out a bunch of 2-1 or 2-0 wins. When he was healthy and on top of his game, his performance masked a lot of the flaws and the team won a lot of games (and he won a lot of awards). When he wasn’t there a year ago, the entire thing collapsed on itself and the Michel Therrien-led Canadiens were exposed for the house of cards they always were. If they were ever going to make the leap to serious Stanley Cup contender they were going to have to find a way to offer their All-Everything goalie some additional support and give him some help.

Their apparent strategy in doing that for this season only seemed to create more flaws. They were on display in their six-game first-round exit at the hands of the New York Rangers.

From the very start of the offseason the Canadiens’ plan for this season seemed to revolve around getting bigger, tougher, stronger, grittier and more difficult to play against. Before the start of the 2015-17 season they traded Lars Eller for draft picks. They traded different draft picks for Andrew Shaw and his playoff experience and “hate to lose” mentality. They traded P.K. Subban for Shea Weber in a deal that will be dissected, analyzed and second-guessed for decades.

To be fair, they also added Alexander Radulov during the offseason, and he not only proved to be the best free agent signing by any team this summer, he was almost certainly the most impactful move the Canadiens made. But even with that addition, the direction general manager Marc Bergevin and then-coach Michel Therrien wanted to take the team in was clear.

It became even clearer at the trade deadline when almost every move the Canadiens made was centered around adding size and grit to the bottom six as opposed to some much-needed offensive punch. Along with adding Jordie Benn and Brandon Davidson to their defense, they made the following changes to their forwards before the deadline.

  • They traded for noted cage-rattler Steve Ott, a fourth-line forward that has scored just six goals and recorded only 14 assists in 152 games over the past three seasons.
  • They traded for 6-4, 229-pound winger Dwight King from the Los Angeles Kings.
  • They traded for 6-3, 220-pound winger Andreas Martinsen from the Colorado Avalanche

After the deadline Bergevin talked about not being able to add offense because the price was too high, and that a lot of their goal scoring issues could be fixed by improved confidence from within and that because playoff hockey gets tougher there would not be as many goals scored anyway.

From the Montreal Gazette:

“For us, we felt we had a good start (and) we had four lines producing,” said Bergevin. “Of late, that hasn’t been the case but I feel comfortable that, as guys get more confidence as we move forward, they’ll be able to chip in. And down the road, there won’t be as many goals and there will be those one-goal hockey games 2-1, 3-2, 1-0. It’s a tight league.

“I always say you can play with a bad shoulder or a bad foot but if you have no confidence, you can’t play,” said Bergevin. “Also down the stretch, it’s hard to score. You look at Columbus last night, one of the highest scoring teams in the league. You have to grind it out to score goals down the stretch.”

In other words: We might as well just try to embrace continuing to win every game 2-1.

As for the players they did add, those three forwards (Ott, King, Martinsen) combined to score 15 goals this season. These were their big trade deadline acquisitions.

The Canadiens played two games in this series where all three of them played in the same game. They lost one 2-0. They were 18 seconds away from losing the other one if not for some late-game (and overtime) heroics from Radulov to set up the tying goal in the closing seconds then score the winner early in overtime.

When it came to the decisive Game 6, when Martinsen and Shaw were out of the lineup (and Torrey Mitchell, who had played well in his limited action in this series was, also scratched) Brian Flynn and Michael McCarron (seven combined goals between the two this season) were inserted in.

The Canadiens were basically playing as a (at best) three-line team when it came to creating offense, and that is simply not good enough, especially when the whole mindset of the team seemed to be focussed on getting bigger and tougher. It runs counter to most everything the NHL’s most successful teams have done in recent years. The Pittsburgh Penguins are 20-9 the past two seasons with one of the NHL’s smallest, least physical rosters. When the Chicago Blackhawks had their mini-dynasty they were consistently one of the smallest, least physical teams in the league. Even the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that reached the NHL’s final four in two of the past three seasons, did it with a collection of forwards that can be described as “undersized.”

It is a speed, skill league, and you can’t beat teams anymore by simply grinding them down with bigger, stronger players (you could argue there was never a time that was possible, but that’s a different argument for a different day). The Canadiens seemed to lose the plot on that one from the start, and then doubled down on it later in the season just before the playoffs began.

The Canadiens added their size and grit. But the end result was the same as we have seen from them in recent years: A flawed team that couldn’t produce anywhere near enough offense to make a deep playoff run with arguably the NHL’s best goalie playing at a high level.

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs Schedule for Sunday, April 23

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Only two series remain in the first-round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and both of them continue on Sunday.

First, the Boston Bruins look to push their first-round series to a seventh game after their double overtime win on Friday when they host the Ottawa Senators on Sunday afternoon. That game will be followed by Washington Capitals trying to, as Barry Trotz wants to see, push the Toronto Maple Leafs off the cliff.

Here is everything you for Sunday’s games, both of which will be shown on the NBC networks and streamed online.

Boston Bruins vs. Ottawa Senators

Time: 3:00 p.m. ET

Network: NBC (Stream Online Here)

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Washington Capitals

Time: 7:00 p.m. ET

Network: NBCSN (Stream Online Here)

Video: Oilers showed off depth beyond McDavid in beating Sharks

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As the Art Ross winner and Hart Trophy frontrunner, there’s no doubt that Connor McDavid is the catalyst for the Edmonton Oilers.

Still, the scary thing for opponents is that, while he created chances against the San Jose Sharks, McDavid wasn’t exactly lighting them up for points.

Nope, as Mike Rupp and Jeremy Roenick discuss in the video above, the Oilers advanced thanks as much to depth scorers – and deft goaltending from Cam Talbot – as they did because of McDavid’s blistering combination of skill and speed.

Now, the Anaheim Ducks rank as an interesting opponent. While the Sharks could slow McDavid with one of the few blueliners who could really give him trouble – relatively speaking – in Marc-Edouard Vlasic, it remains to be seen if Anaheim can accomplish the same.

(A fully healthy Hampus Lindholm would increase their odds, mind you.)

Either way, the Oilers’ “other guys” deserve some credit, and they get it in the video above.

The West’s next round is now set (and wide-open)

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Saturday was a great day for fans of brevity and revenge.

Three of a possible three series ended on this day, with the Rangers dispatching the Canadiens, the Blues eliminating the “better” Wild, and the Oilers knocking off the Sharks in six.

The Rangers await either the Bruins or Senators and the Penguins face the winner of the Leafs – Capitals series out East, but we now know how the West shakes out.

St. Louis Blues vs. Nashville Predators

Both teams provided some of the upsets of this young postseason. Each features a red-hot goalie in Jake Allen and Pekka Rinne. Interesting.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Edmonton Oilers

There will be a lot of orange. We may also see a ton of goals with Ryan Getzlaf on fire, Oscar Klefbom headlining the list of unhealthy players and Connor McDavid possibly able to really take off against a Ducks defense that is beat up in its own right.

It’s already been a strange season out West, with the Kings missing the playoffs and first-round exits for the Sharks and Blackhawks. Get ready – and giddy – for things to get even weirder as the postseason goes along.