Michael Mersch

Back to Class: Bad time to be a bubble team

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We’re taking you “Back To Class” for our roundup of the weekend’s action in college hockey. The NCAA tournament field of 16 will be settled this Sunday. 

Part of the fun of conference tournament time is seeing which bubble teams can master their destiny and which others see their chances dissolve away. The last two weekends saw things go very poorly for the likes of Alaska, Western Michigan, Rensselaer, and Robert Morris. Meanwhile, schools like Providence, Union, and Wisconsin saw things get much better.

Alaska was knocked out of the first round of the CCHA tournament by last-place Michigan St. while Western Michigan bowed out to Michigan last weekend. Rensselaer was upset in three games by seeming perpetual playoff nemesis Brown. In Atlantic Hockey,  Robert Morris was bumped off by Connecticut.

Out of these teams, the one still sitting well in the Pairwise is Western Michigan. Their run through the CCHA regular season and strong out of conference schedule hasn’t totally ruined their hope of making the NCAAs. The Broncos are 14th in PWR while Union is up to 15th after deposing Dartmouth and Wisconsin is in a logjam at 16th with Boston University, Providence, Rensselaer, and Alaska. Ties are broken by the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and that would put Wisconsin at 16th with the final spot in the tournament.

Jayson Moy of USCHO.com does a great job breaking down the “bracketology” of how things stand right now. That said, if you’re rooting for a bubble team this weekend you’re rooting for all favorites to win every game, even the consolation games. Above all, however, you’re rooting for Niagara to win Atlantic Hockey.

If the Purple Eagles take home their tourney and that means the top 16 in Pairwise all make the big dance. Should any other team bump them off, however, we could be looking at two Atlantic Hockey teams making NCAAs and therefore bumping out whoever is sitting in 16th. For those schools all vying to get in, that’s bad and for WMU, Rensselaer, and Alaska who aren’t playing another game to help themselves out, it’d be a virtual death blow.

If you’re looking for ways to find out if your school can still make the tournament, both College Hockey News and USCHO.com have ways for you to be the committee and find the right combination of wins and losses to finagle your team into the field of 16.

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Here are your conference match-ups going into the final weekend before the NCAAs. All games from here on out are single-elimination.

WCHA: St. Cloud State faces the winner of Colorado College vs. North Dakota while Minnesota gets the winner of Minnesota St. vs. Wisconsin. The Final Six Five starts tomorrow in St. Paul, MN.

CCHA: Top-seeded Miami faces tournament Cinderella and seventh-seeded Michigan while Ohio St. and Notre Dame square off in a game that would be great for football purposes. The semis start on Saturday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

Hockey East: It’s a loaded foursome in Boston as the top four teams in the conference all advanced. Top-seeded UMass-Lowell draws Providence while the No. 2 team, Boston College, draws their archrivals from Boston University. There’s nothing BC would want more than to put a bullet in BU’s season. Can they do it without Jerry York behind the bench?

ECAC: The top four seeds almost all made it to Atlantic City but second seeded Rensselaer was upset by Brown. The Bears’ reward? They get top seeded Quinnipiac. Union and Yale meet in the other semifinal match-up.

Atlantic Hockey: Niagara cruised to the semifinals and they’ll get the seventh seeded Canisius Golden Griffins in the semifinals. Mercyhurst and their Hartford Whalers-lookalike uniforms will face Connecticut in the other semifinal.

(Photo: The Scouting Report)

Video: Hagelin goes top shelf to give Penguins the lead in Game 2

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In their quest to even the series, the Pittsburgh Penguins had done a nice job through two periods of suffocating the Washington Capitals, while gaining the lead on a beautiful goal.

Carl Hagelin took advantage of a vast amount of space that opened up in front of the Washington net, finishing off a nice pass from Nick Bonino, burying his shot just under the cross bar on the glove side of Braden Holtby.

Through two periods, the Penguins were outshooting Washington 28-10. Only four Capitals players — Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Matt Niskanen — had registered shots on goal.

Video: Orpik penalized after catching Maatta with late, high hit

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The Pittsburgh Penguins were without defenseman Olli Maatta for most of the first period of Game 2 after he was on the receiving end of a high, late hit from Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik.

The hit occurred early in the first period, well after Maatta had gotten rid of the puck on a rush into the Washington zone.

Maatta, who nearly fell over as he tried to stand back up, was in obvious distress as he went to the dressing room. Orpik was given a minor penalty for interference on the play.

Shanahan: Leafs earned No. 1 pick ‘the hard way’

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It’s been 31 years since the Toronto Maple Leafs had the No. 1 overall pick at the draft.

And, to hear team president Brendan Shanahan explain it, getting back to that top spot wasn’t easy — on anybody.

“We earned this the hard way,” Shanahan told Sportsnet on Saturday, moments after winning the draft lottery. “It wasn’t a whole lot of fun this year, but our guys and our coaching staff and our management staff did a lot of really good things here in Toronto.

“This [the No. 1 overall pick] will certainly help.”

It’s easy to see why optimism is high within the organization.

The last time Toronto had the No. 1 pick it selected Wendel Clark, who went on to become a revered player. He played for the Leafs on three separate occasions, served as team captain and now works for the organization in a public relations and community ambassador role.

This year, the opportunity to make a similar impact is there.

Auston Matthews, viewed as the odds-on favorite to go first overall, possesses the elite-level talent that could turn a franchise around. And there are few teams in more need of a turn than Toronto — as Shanahan alluded to, this was a very difficult year, as the Leafs finished dead last in the standings and were the only NHL club not to crack the 30-win plateau.

Part of that was by design. The Leafs dealt away Phil Kessel prior to the season, Dion Phaneuf during it and jettisoned a host of other productive players: James Reimer, Roman Polak, Nick Spaling, Daniel Winnik and Shawn Matthias, to name a few.

By the end of the year, the Leafs were a mishmash of AHLers, spare parts and a few future pieces.

Speaking of the future…

Assuming the Leafs go the Matthews route, it’s expected he’ll make an immediate impact on the lineup. TSN already has him penciled in as the No. 2 center — playing the middle on a line with the club’s other top prospect, William Nylander — and Matthews’ head coach in Switzerland this season, Marc Crawford, used L.A. Kings star Anze Kopitar as a potential comparison.

Of course, there is a chance Matthews isn’t the pick.

Finnish sensation Patrick Laine has been making waves recently, thanks in large part to capturing SM-liiga playoff MVP honors this week. Laine has the kind of goalscoring ability and booming shot that would translate well — and, immediately — to the NHL level, though he is a winger.

Not a center, like Matthews.

Regardless of who the Leafs pick, this much is clear — they bottomed out this season with the intention of getting a high draft pick and, while the process was very painful at times, everything worked out in the end.

“When you have an opportunity to pick first overall, it’s an important moment for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it’s an important moment for our fans,” Shanahan explained. “Our ownership group has given us the support to do this build the right way.”

Tank you very much: Leafs win NHL Draft Lottery, retain No. 1 overall pick

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The Toronto Maple Leafs have gone from worst to first.

The Leafs finished dead last in the NHL’s overall standings, giving them the best odds of winning Saturday’s draft lottery. And when the big show ended, Toronto had landed that top pick for the draft on June 24.

Outside of Toronto, the biggest winner Saturday had to be the Winnipeg Jets. They entered the day with the sixth best odds of getting the top pick at just 7.5 per cent. They were able to move all the way up to the second overall pick, which could certainly land them a franchise player and one that could definitely be ready to make the jump into the NHL next season.

The biggest loser? You could definitely argue it was the Vancouver Canucks. They finished 28th in the overall standings, giving them an 11.5 per cent chance of winning the No. 1 pick. But they fell all the way to fifth.

The Edmonton Oilers? Well, they didn’t win. Had they won the lottery, it would’ve given them the first overall pick for the fifth time in seven years.

Here is the 2016 draft order:

  1. Toronto Maple Leafs
  2. Winnipeg Jets
  3. Columbus Blue Jackets
  4. Edmonton Oilers
  5. Vancouver Canucks
  6. Calgary Flames
  7. Arizona Coyotes
  8. Buffalo Sabres
  9. Montreal Canadiens
  10. Colorado Avalanche
  11. New Jersey Devils
  12. Ottawa Senators
  13. Carolina Hurricanes
  14. Boston Bruins

Now that the order is set, who will go No. 1, 2 and 3 in that opening round?

Auston Matthews has long held the title as the top-ranked player heading into this draft. But there’s been increasing chatter that Finnish winger Patrik Laine has at least closed the gap between him and Matthews for that first overall selection, according to Bob McKenzie of TSN.

Meanwhile, fellow Finnish forward Jesse Puljujärvi likely rounds out the top three, following a sensational showing at the 2016 World Junior Championships.