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)

Flyers’ Robert Hagg ejected for checking Kyle Connor from behind

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The Philadelphia Flyers did not have a very pleasant start to their Sunday afternoon in Winnipeg.

Already trailing 5-1 late in the second period, defenseman Robert Hagg was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct for checking Jets forward Kyle Connor from behind into the boards.

Here is a look at the play.

Connor went straight to the Jets’ locker room for the remainder of the second period but was back on the bench for the start of the third period.

That play resulted in a little scrum after the fact that also saw Jets defender Dustin Byfuglien get a two-minute minor for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct.

Given that Hagg was ejected from the game you can be sure the NHL’s Department of Player Safety will take an extra look at it. We will likely find out later on Sunday or Monday if it is worthy of any additional discipline.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Maple Leafs’ Zach Hyman to have hearing for late hit on Bruins’ McAvoy

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Given all of the late hits that have happened around the NHL over the past couple of weeks that did not result in a disciplinary hearing, it was easy to think Toronto Maple Leafs forward Zach Hyman was going to avoid any supplemental discipline for his hit on Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy on Saturday night.

But this one may have been too late to ignore.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Sunday that Hyman will have a disciplinary hearing for interference.

Hyman was ejected from the game for the hit, while McAvoy, who just recently returned to the lineup, was injured as a result.

You can see the play in the video above.

[Related: Maple Leafs’ Hyman ejected for late hit on Bruins Charlie McAvoy]

There have been a number of controversial, late hits around the NHL in recent weeks from Ryan Reaveshit on Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson (that left Wilson concussed and still sidelined), to Tom Wilson’s hit on New Jersey Devils forward Brett Seney, to this hit by Dallas Stars forward Brett Ritchie on Pittsburgh Penguins defender Jusso Riikkola.

All were clearly late hits that were initiated long after their opponents had moved the puck.

While Reaves and Wilson were ejected for their hits, they did not rise to the level of supplemental discipline because they did not target the head or result in significant head contact. That is usually the line the NHL draws for late hits unless it is an egregiously late hit. This one did not appear to contact the head, but it was definitely late and sent McAvoy dangerously into the boards.

None of these hits are acceptable or examples of good clean hockey. They are not even examples of a player “finishing their check.” They are reckless hits on players that are not eligible to be hit, and in some cases are resulting in injuries. If those types of hits continue the NHL will have to start doing more than just ejecting and penalizing the players that distribute them.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Devan Dubnyk mired in worst slump since joining Wild

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When he joined the Minnesota Wild during the 2014-15 season Devan Dubnyk helped turn around what was quickly becoming a lost season. At the time of his acquisition the Wild were going through a brutal six-game losing streak, were under .500 for the season, and pretty much everyone around the NHL was waiting for then-coach Mike Yeo to take the fall for the struggles.

Instead of firing the coach, the Wild attempted to address what was at the time their single biggest issue — goaltending.

So they sent a draft pick to the Arizona Coyotes for Dubnyk, and in his first start with the team stopped all 18 shots he faced in a shutout win over the Buffalo Sabres.

From that point on the Wild were fine for the remainder of the season.

Dubnyk more than solidified the goaltending position, recorded a .936 save percentage in his 39 starts after the trade, finished in the top-five in Hart Trophy and Vezina Trophy voting, and even won the Masterton Trophy.

In the three full seasons that followed he has been one of the most consistent and durable goalies in the league. He played at least 60 games each season, he never had a save percentage lower than .918, while his overall mark of .920 was sixth best in the league. His even-strength number of .929 was fourth best in the league.

He has been, by pretty much every objective measurement, one of the best goalies in the league.

That is what makes his current struggles for a suddenly-slumping Wild team so surprising.

After getting benched early in Minnesota’s blowout loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Friday night (he gave up three goals on the first six shots he faced) his season save percentage is down to .907, while he is currently mired in the worst extended slump of his Minnesota tenure.

Following that game Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said it would be sitting there and lying to say he isn’t concerned about Dubnyk. He also added he was concerned about a lot of players on the team, but that his goalie is definitely one of them.

Just how bad has it been for Dubnyk lately?

In his past nine appearances he has managed only an .857 save percentage, a level of play that has been unheard of for Dubnyk in Minnesota. It is not only his worst nine-game stretch since joining the Wild, it is rare for him to have a stretch of play where his save percentage dips under .900.

If you break the past four seasons down to nine-game stretches he has only been under .900 over nine games just 10 percent of the time.

He has been under .910 just 20 percent of the time.

That performance has played a big role in the team’s recent struggles.

The question is how much of a concern this should really be for the Wild?

On one hand, his recent track record is what it is. He’s been outstanding for more than three full years with the Wild, and he was probably a lot better than he got credit for when he was getting crushed behind some abysmal Edmonton teams.

But he’s also 32 years old, and there are a lot of miles on those tires, especially since becoming the starter in Minnesota.

Since Jan. 14, 2015 (when he was acquired) Dubnyk’s 253 games played are 14 more than any other goalie in the league, while only four others have appeared in more than 230. He has played more than 800 more minutes than any other goalie in the league and is one of only three goalies to face more than 6,800 shots (Cam Talbot and Henrik Lundqvist are the other two).

He’s faced 7,137.

That is a huge workload.

Given how good he’s been for so long it’s probably more than a little premature to suggest he is starting to break down. Especially when goalies are just like any other position in the league where players are prone to hot streaks and cold streaks. The NHL season isn’t about consistency for anyone; it’s about peaks and valleys where even the best players go through extended slumps. This is just one of the first times we have seen this extended level of play from Dubnyk in a few years.

But he is also not getting any younger and the Wild are still leaning on him pretty heavily.

If nothing else it is something to watch for the Wild as the season progresses because when he is at his best he is going to give them a chance every night. Lately, though, he hasn’t been at that level and it’s been one of the problems plaguing the Wild.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Stamkos, Giroux post four-point nights; Holtby blanks Blue Jackets

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Three stars

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

Two goals and two assists for Stamkos, who helped the Lightning crush the Colorado Avalanche 7-1 and win their sixth straight game.

Stamkos scored the first two goals of the game 10:10 apart in the first period and they proved to be all the Lightning needed in the win.

Stamkos has been his steady self all season and has 12 goals and 30 points in 31 games now.

2. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers needed a win. They had just two wins in their previous nine games coming into Saturday.

With Sean Couturier out of the lineup due to injury, ‘G’ made the move back to center and thrived, scoring and adding three helpers as the Flyers picked on the Buffalo Sabres in a 6-2 win. The Flyers scored all six of their goals after the Sabres took a 2-0 lead. Giroux scored the winner in the third.

Giroux now has three goals and four assists in a three-game point streak.

3. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

Holtby needed that one after giving up 10 goals over his previous two starts — both losses.

On Saturday, there were no goals given up in a 28-save shutout against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets must be sick of seeing Holtby this year. In the spring, Holtby owned Columbus and he did so again on Saturday.

Holtby has two shutouts on the season now.

Other notable performances:

  • Alex Ovechkin had a goal and an assist to push his point streak to 11 games.
  • Jonathan Huberdeau had a goal and two assists in a 5-4 shootout loss to the New York Rangers.
  • The Kings, as a whole, deserve mention. Drew Doughty‘s ‘pathetic’ comment seemed to spark his team. Jonathan Quick made 29 saves in a 5-1 win against the surging Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Craig Anderson stopped 35-of-36 in a 2-1 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • Louie Domingue had another solid outing, stopping 29 shots against the Avalanche.

Highlights of the night

Bob was pulled on the night, but not before making this ridiculous save:

Yikes:

Making dreams come true:

Patience is a virtue:

Factoids

Scores

Flyers 6, Sabres 2

Kings 5, Golden Knights 1

Bruins 6, Maple Leafs 3

Senators 2, Penguins 1 (OT)

Islanders 3, Red Wings 2

Lightning 7, Avalanche 1

Rangers 5, Panthers 4 (SO)

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 0

Sharks 5, Coyotes 3

Flames 5, Predators 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck