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)

Measure of revenge: Kings delay clinching efforts for Flames, Blues

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Deep down, the Los Angeles Kings probably realize that their season will end on game 82. Still, they kept their slim playoff hopes alive on Wednesday night … and managed to spite a team they’re growing to hate.

OK, maybe the hate is almost totally focused upon Matthew Tkachuk, yet the disdain for that talented-but-tormenting rookie was palpable.

It didn’t feel like the Kings exacted physical revenge on Tkachuk, but beating his team 4-1 ranked as classic scoreboard vengeance. With that, the Calgary Flames (and by extension the St. Louis Blues) will need to wait to clinch a playoff berth.

Now, as much as tonight was about Tkachuk, the focus was also on a pugnacious player who once dazzled for the Flames: Jarome Iginla.

In what might be Iginla’s final visit to Calgary – at least as an active NHL player – he was one of the best players on the ice. His fitting curtain call included a “Gordie Howe hat trick” with a spirited fight, an assist and a goal.

Seriously, that fight with Deryk Engelland:

That goal included a bit of luck, but hey …

Iginla was named the first star of the contest, and cameras captured his big smile in enjoying a special night. For all the nastiness of that game, it was refreshing to see such a heartwarming moment.

For more on the violence, check out this post on the early stuff and this one on Tkachuk’s missed missile launch on Drew Doughty.

Kings and Canucks will square off in first NHL exhibition games in China

graphic via NHL
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It’s official: the NHL will hold preseason games in China before next season.

The league made the announcement on Wednesday night: the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks will play two exhibitions: one on Sept. 21 (Shanghai) and Sept. 23 (Beijing). How cool is that?

“It is a privilege and an honor for the L.A. Kings to represent the National Hockey League in China as part of these two games against the Vancouver Canucks,” Kings president Luc Robitaille said. “Growing the game of hockey is something we take great pride in and it is a big priority for our hockey club and AEG as a whole. This will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our players and our staff, and we are looking forward to the games taking place in two tremendous facilities in two remarkable cities.”

The press conference inspired some jokes tonight.

Some of the best bits came in roping in … Kobe Bryant and David Beckham?

Alrighty then.

Click here for more details.

 

Video: Drew Doughty (mostly) avoids massive Matthew Tkachuk hit

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Hockey is such a fast sport that it’s probably not so easy to make someone your “target.” Instead, a big hit often comes down to the right combination of circumstance and timing.

Still, there’s no denying that Matthew Tkachuk is gunning for Drew Doughty (and the Kings are gunning for Tkachuk) on Wednesday.

Doughty isn’t oblivious to that notion, either, as you can see him avoid what looked like a pretty terrifying hit above.

We’ve already covered the early violence in this game, and it’s quite possible that there will be more carnage going forward. Stay tuned.

Blackhawks bolster Central lead, shine harsh light on Penguins’ struggles

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Blame it on injuries if you want, or emphasize the Chicago Blackhawks’ overall hot finish to the season. Either way, Chicago scorched the Pittsburgh Penguins by a score of 5-1, a contest that felt more or less over by the time the first period ended 4-0 in the Blackhawks’ favor.

The Blackhawks scored by committee on Wednesday, with Artemi Panarin (goal, assist) and Patrick Kane (two assists) being the headliners. Meanwhile, former Penguin Marian Hossa has quietly climbed to 25 goals on the season.

Meanwhile, the Penguins limped through this one and have now lost four consecutive games.

With this result, the Blackhawks look like close to a lock to win the Central Division title. Meanwhile, the Metro crown is virtually unthinkable for Pittsburgh, and the Penguins might also need to accept the likelihood that they may not enjoy home-ice advantage in the first round.

They’d probably accept that more easily if they can get healthier and get back on track. Wednesday was a little worrisome in those regards.