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)

Van Riemsdyk trying to block out trade talk

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 15:  James van Riemsdyk #25 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates a goal against the Boston Bruins during an NHL game on October 15, 2016 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Remember those Dougie-Hamilton-to-Toronto trade rumors Brian Burke shot down last week? Well, in case you don’t, a refresher:

The Leafs, reportedly in the market for a defenseman, were reportedly willing to part with a winger — a position Calgary is looking to upgrade — which led many to speculate on a Hamilton-for-William Nylander swap.

Or, a Hamiton-for-James van Riemsdyk deal.

This week, JVR responded to the banter.

“You don’t really worry about it too much,” he said, per the Toronto Sun. “(Blocking it out) comes from experience.

“It tends to eat at you a little bit more (when you’re younger), but now you realize it is completely out of your control and it does not really faze you as much.”

Van Riemsdyk, who leads the Leafs with 11 goals and 20 points through 24 games this year, is fairly tantalizing as far as potential additions go. He’s on a good contract (two years left at $4.25 million per) and has been a pretty consistent scorer for the Leafs, which included a career-high 30 goals in ’13-14.

At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, he’s got solid size and has long been viewed as one of the better power forwards going.

This, of course, is the exact reason why Toronto would want to keep van Riemsdyk. It’s important to remember that he only turned 27 in May, and could easily be a part of the core group of Nylander, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri et al.

Despite winning record, Rangers ‘very aware’ they must be better

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 21: Head coach Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers leaves the ice following a 5-0 defeat against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 21, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The New York Rangers may be winning, but their head coach, Alain Vigneault, knows they need to be better.

Hmmm…this feels familiar for some reason.

Oh right, that’s because it was the same story last season, when the Rangers got off to a great start before tailing off then fizzling out in the playoffs.

The Rangers head into tonight’s game in Brooklyn with a record of 17-8-1. That’s the good news.

Here’s the bad — in five of their last six games, they’ve been held to 25 shots or fewer. On the season, their score-adjusted Corsi has fallen to 26th in the league.

“We’re very aware and very conscious of the areas we need to be better at,” Vigneault said, per the New York Post. “We’re playing a team that’s playing real solid hockey.”

Indeed, the Islanders are 3-0-1 in their last four, including wins over Pittsburgh and Washington.

To be fair to the Rangers, they’ve been without Mika Zibanejad for the past seven games, and he was a big part of their early success. Tonight, they’ll also be without Michael Grabner, who’s gone back to Austria for his grandmother’s funeral.

     Read more: The new-look Rangers are dangerous on every line

But the Rangers aren’t looking to make excuses. They’re looking instead to get back on track.

“It’s definitely a five-man thing for us and communication and just getting on the same page again,” forward Jimmy Vesey said, per the Daily News. “It’s definitely something we need to get back to, and I think that’s kind of like the recipe for being a good team down the line and in the playoffs.”

After waiving Enroth, Toronto signs Ramo to AHL deal

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Kari Ramo took another step in his return to the NHL on Tuesday, signing a PTO with the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate, the Marlies.

The deal, first reported by TSN, comes one day after Toronto placed backup netminder Jhonas Enroth on waivers.

“Obviously, wasn’t going good enough,” head coach Mike Babcock said of the decision to waive Enroth, per TSN. “We’re just in a situation where we’re making a change.”

(Enroth cleared today, FYI.)

As for Ramo, he’s an interesting figure. The 30-year-old suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Calgary this past February and, at the time of the injury, led all Flames netminders in starts, with 33.

Prior to that, he’d rebounded from a poor start to the year — which included Calgary waiving him — and, in January, then-head coach Bob Hartley called Ramo “probably one of the hottest goalies in the league.”

So it’s easy to see why Toronto would be interested.

Of course, Ramo is coming off a major knee injury and has basically been shelved for 10 months. He’s been practicing with the Leafs, but this ATO with the Marlies will give him a chance to test the knee in a game situation, and knock off some of the rust that’s surely accumulated.

Ramo is believed to be close to receiving medical clearance for a return to action.

Justin Schultz is having a pretty good season

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 20:  Justin Schultz #4 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck in the first period during the game against the San Jose Sharks at PPG PAINTS Arena on October 20, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
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It was Justin Schultz‘s kind of game last night in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins beat the Senators, 8-5, in a fun, back-and-forth affair.

Schultz was in on a pair of Pittsburgh goals, scoring one and assisting on another. The 26-year-old defenseman now has three goals and eight assists in 26 games. And on a good team that can put him in a position to succeed, he’s a plus-13.

Schultz, of course, joined the Penguins last season in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers. He won a Stanley Cup in June, then re-signed for one year and $1.4 million in July.

     Read more: Justin Schultz quietly making big impact on Penguins power play

“He deserves a lot of credit for the effort, the commitment level he’s shown,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said Friday, per the Post-Gazette.

Sullivan too deserves credit, for playing Schultz to his strengths and bringing out the best in an imperfect player. An offensive defenseman, Schultz is not being asked to do much of the heavy lifting defensively. He starts a lot of shifts in the attacking zone, and he doesn’t play very often against the opposition’s best.

Last night, Schultz displayed his offensive instincts and abilities, jumping up in the rush to take a pass from Evgeni Malkin, then burying it for the go-ahead goal.

Schultz ended up logging 19:54 of ice time, including 16:20 at even strength, the most among Penguins d-men.