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)

The Playoff Buzzer: Stars dump Predators; Hurricanes push Caps to Game 7

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  • The Stars eliminated the Predators from the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, thus Dallas will move on to face the Blues as the first official Round 2 matchup. It wasn’t easy for Dallas in Game 6, though.
  • A back-and-forth game ended with some controversy, but however you feel about a disallowed goal, the Hurricanes beat the Capitals, thus forcing the third and final Game 7 of Round 1.

Hurricanes 5, Capitals 2 (Series tied 3-3, Game 7 Airs on NBCSN; Stream here)

From the score, you might not believe that this was a close game, one that ended in some controversy. It was, though, as the Capitals saw a would-be 3-3 goal disallowed. Not long after that, Justin Williams scored a 4-2 insurance tally, and an empty-netter made it 5-2. This was a well-played contest overall, with Carolina fighting back from deficits of 1-0 and 2-1 to eventually win. Alex Ovechkin was prominently involved, including doing a chicken taunt, and then getting kicked out late in the contest while he was enraged about the nongoal.

Stars 2, Predators 1 [OT] (Dallas wins series 4-2, will face St. Louis Blues in Round 2.)

For much of that Round 1 series, the two teams were keeping scoring chances down, and the goalies were stopping almost everything — with a few hiccups. Game 6 was different, as this was a hectic, exciting game with plenty of scoring chances. There were plenty of near-misses, and eventually the Stars got the best of the Predators when John Klingberg scored the OT game-winner. The Central Division champion is out, and now it will be Stars vs. Blues.

By the standards of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, this really isn’t an upset … maybe it would be during a normal postseason, though?

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Ben Bishop

Both goalies were sharp in what should have been a high-scoring Game 6 between the Stars and Predators, where both netminders needed to make their fair share of point-blank saves. Bishop was tested several times in high-difficulty, high-danger situations, with only Austin Watson‘s goal getting through.

Overall, Bishop finished Game 6 stopping 47 out of 48 shots to help the Stars advance.

Bishop set a high standard for himself during the 2018-19 regular season, particularly down the stretch. Remarkably, he’s performed at that same level during most of the postseason so far, setting the stage for what could be an unexpected goalie duel against Jordan Binnington.

2. Jordan Staal

The Hurricanes needed a team effort to hang with the Capitals and force a Game 7. Justin Williams continues to be a great big-game performer, delivering big hits (including one accidental collision with his own goalie, Petr Mrazek, unfortunately), a key insurance goal, and also a would-be goal that didn’t count because he batted the puck down with a high stick. Dougie Hamilton enjoyed some retribution with an assist and an empty-net goal.

But Staal had arguably the biggest impact. He scored the game-winner on a high-effort play, and Staal also collected an assist on Williams’ important 4-2 tally to make a Capitals comeback unlikely. Staal finished the game +2 and with five hits, so it was a busy night for the underrated two-way center.

3. Pekka Rinne

It probably won’t provide much solace for Rinne, but he enjoyed a strong final performance of 2018-19.

Rinne stopped 49 out of 51 shots on goal in Game 6, giving the Predators a chance to win. Game 6 could have been a monster output for Jamie Benn, what with the power forward firing eight shots on goal, but he finished with zero points largely because of how strong Rinne was. Honestly, Nashville’s defense really failed to find answers for Dallas’ top line other than “Let Pekka make the saves,” and that worked about as well as it could have. It didn’t work well enough for the Predators to force a Game 7, however, so now they must ponder how to remain contenders after another painful playoff finish.

Factoids

  • Justin Williams cringes at “Mr. Game 7,” so maybe we should call him “The Eliminator?” With a goal in Game 6, Williams now has 27 points in 23 games where his teams have faced elimination. His 1.17 points-per-game in those situations ranks as the second-best among active players, behind Patrick Kane‘s 1.26 average.
  • Jordan Staal’s eventual game-winner ranks as the first lead change of the Hurricanes – Capitals series.
  • Hockey fans are spoiled: this is the first time we’ve had three Game 7 matchups in the first round since 2014, according to Sportsnet.

Two Game 7’s on Tuesday!

Game 7: Maple Leafs at Bruins (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live stream)
Game 7: Vegas Golden Knights at San Jose Sharks (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stars eliminate Predators in overtime thriller

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The Dallas Stars eliminated the Nashville Predators, and thus, we have the first official Round 2 match of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Stars will take on the St. Louis Blues. The Stars moved on to Round 2 by beating the Predators 2-1 in an OT thriller, winning the series 4-2.

For much of 2018-19 (heck, even much of the off-season), it seemed like the Predators and Winnipeg Jets were headed for another series. Nope. Instead, the two lower seeds in the Central Division will square off, and the remarkable thing is that both the Stars and Blues earned it.

Much like other series in this surprising summer of playoff series, the underdogs didn’t win based on goaltending alone. The Stars were impressive in most facets of the game in Round 1, and the stage is set for what could be quite the fascinating bout with the Blues.

But first, the clincher

Game 6 was a low-scoring affair, and while some of that came down to sharp work from Ben Bishop and Pekka Rinne, this wasn’t the slow, plodding contest. The Stars and Predators came so close on plenty of chances, whether it was Kyle Turris barely missing the net on a 2-on-1 opportunity, or Esa Lindell‘s attempt catching a post.

Bishop finished with 47 saves, and Rinne made 49. John Klingberg ended up scoring the overtime-winner as the Stars pressed their territorial advantage in OT.

Just about every team that loses a playoff series faces “What if?” questions, and soul-searching about what to fix. For Nashville, the power play is the elephant in the room, and it came trudging in during a pivotal moment of what would be their final game of 2018-19.

In a moment that almost seemed to be scripted out of Hollywood, the pathetically putrid Predators power play received an opportunity to win Game 6 with a man advantage opportunity with 1:53 remaining in regulation. The Predators failed to convert, pushing Nashville to 0-for-4 in Game 6, and 0-for-15 during this series. They wouldn’t end up getting another chance, and you’d have to think the Predators will enter the off-season hoping to address these issues — whether it means changing coaches, personnel, or both.

The Stars and Predators put on a show, but ultimately Dallas came out on top. Hockey fans will have to settle for three Game 7’s to close out Round 1, rather than four.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Controversy swirls as Hurricanes force Game 7 vs. Capitals

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After Game 5, people wondered what Dougie Hamilton was thinking. Game 6 involved a similar question, but this time the hockey world questioned what the officials were thinking.

The Carolina Hurricanes did a tremendous job battling back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in Game 6, ultimately winning 5-2. But, no doubt about it, a disallowed 3-3 goal for the Washington Capitals will hover over this game.

Moments after a 3-3 tie instead moved back to a 3-2 lead for the Hurricanes, Justin Williams put the contest out of reach with a 4-2 goal, then Dougie Hamilton got the next laugh with an empty-netter. The two teams will meet in a Game 7 to decide which team will move on to face the New York Islanders.

Judge that call for yourself, even if it ultimately didn’t stand:

One interesting element is the league’s explanation for the non-goal. Many wondered if this was an “intent to blow” the whistle situation where an official lost sight of the puck, yet the NHL’s Situation Room explained that it was determined that Alex Ovechkin interfered with Petr Mrazek‘s attempt to make a stop.

Ovechkin went from mocking Hamilton with a “chicken” gesture to being tossed from Game 6 after losing his cool (and giving it to the officials) late in the contest.

However you feel about the debated would-be 3-3 goal, it’s possible that the Hurricanes might have forced a Game 7, anyway. Overall, it was an exciting, well-played Game 6, with the teams following scripts we expected going into Round 1. Carolina generally dominated “quantity” in scoring chances and shot attempts, yet the Capitals sometimes had the edge from a “quality” standpoint.

Carolina kept fighting back in Game 6, as the Hurricanes have during this series, and Jordan Staal‘s eventual game-winner captured that scrappy spirit.

While this series has been a mix of nail-biters and blowouts, it just feels right that this one’s going to Game 7, even if the Capitals probably aren’t happy with how it got there.

Hurricanes – Capitals Game 7 takes place at Capital One Arena on Wednesday. (Stream here)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ovechkin mocks Hamilton, Hurricanes with chicken gesture

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Did Dougie Hamilton “bail out” on a would-be Alex Ovechkin check, thus letting Ovechkin retrieve the puck for a dagger 3-0 goal in Game 5? Was it a mental mistake by Hamilton, which would still be a gaffe, but not bring into questions of “toughness?”

Whatever the true answer might be, that moment reverberated through the Capitals – Hurricanes Round 1 series, and was referenced early in Game 6 on Monday (currently airing on NBCSN; Stream here). After Ovechkin missed a check on Hamilton, Ovechkin did a “chicken flapping its wings” motion at Hamilton and/or the Hurricanes bench.

You can watch the mocking gesture in the video above this post’s headline, and judge for yourself on that 3-0 goal from the Capitals’ eventual 6-0 win in Game 5 in this clip. Jeremy Roenick provided his take, too.

(Personally, I think Hamilton was confused, not frightened, but perhaps we’ll never truly know.)

Ovechkin’s not shy about trash talk, including in the playoffs – you may remember him jawing at Henrik Lundqvist in 2015 – and the Hurricanes must respond on the scoreboard. Alex Ovechkin let his play do some talking along with that taunting, as he scored a 2-1 goal for a Capitals lead moments after Petr Mrazek was bumped hard in an accidental collision by his own teammate, Justin Williams.

Tune into Game 6 on NBCSN and/or stream it here to see the taunting, heavy-hitting, and tense action.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.