College hockey fans in Minnesota experienced an embarrassment in riches last year, when three teams from the state – St. Cloud State, Minnesota State and Minnesota Duluth -- earned No. 1 seeds for the NCAA men’s tournament. Though only UMD would advance to the Frozen Four in Buffalo, N.Y. – and win its second consecutive national championship – the Minnesota representation atop the field was unprecedented for any state.
A year later, Minnesota likely won’t have three No. 1 NCAA seeds, but it is in line to have two. Minnesota State is No. 2 in the PairWise Ratings, the formula the NCAA uses to fill its 16-team field, while Minnesota Duluth has steadily climbed to No. 4. Both are considered locks to make the NCAA field.
But it’s not only at the top where Minnesota could have an NCAA tournament presence. Both Bemidji State and the Gophers have used second-half surges to position themselves well. On Dec. 29, the Beavers left the Mariucci Classic after falling to both Minnesota and Minnesota State. But since then, they have embarked on a 10-1-1 stretch that has them No. 12 in the PairWise and in the NCAA field, as of now. With its 5-0 and 5-1 sweep at Northern Michigan last weekend, Bemidji State (18-8-4) clinched at least second place in the WCHA and trails Minnesota State by five points. The Beavers travel to Alaska Anchorage this weekend before closing the regular season with a home series against Minnesota State.
“It’s a testament to the players and the leadership group. They’ve done an outstanding job,’’ said Beavers coach Tom Serratore, whose team has scored four or more goals in nine of the 12 games in the current hot streak. “The biggest thing is we’re playing a balanced game right now. There’s such a fine line between winning and losing, and that’s every night.’’
Leading Bemidji offensive surge have been forwards Owen Sillinger (five goals, 14 assists in the past 12 games) and Adam Brady (7-6-13) and defenseman Tommy Muck (3-7-10). Not to be outdone, goalie Zach Driscoll is 9-1-1 during the streak and has allowed two goals or fewer in nine of those 11 games, lowering his goals-against average to 1.65.
“For whatever reason,’’ Serratore said, “we’re living right right now. We’re finding a way to get it done.’’
The Gophers (14-11-5) have work to do to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017, though because they lead the Big Ten standings in points percentage, I’ll project them to win the Big Ten tournament and NCAA automatic bid -- just as I do with every other conference leader in this snapshot.
After a 5-9-4 start during a challenging first-half schedule, coach Bob Motzko’s young team has found its stride. Beginning with victories over Bemidji State and St. Cloud State to win the Mariucci Classic, the Gophers are 9-2-1 and have moved into a tie for No. 15 the PairWise with Western Michigan and UMass Lowell. In addition, this weekend’s series at No. 10 Penn State gives Minnesota a chance to move up in the PairWise if it wins and bolster its NCAA at-large case. The Gophers and Nittany Lions are tied atop the Big Ten standings, but Minnesota has two games in hand.
The Gophers finish Big Ten play the following weekend at home against Michigan, which sits in third place in the conference, three points behind the leaders but is 8-1-1 in its past 10. A 3-1 finish would clinch the Big Ten regular-season title for the Gophers and give them the coveted bye into the Big Ten tournament semifinals.
“It’s a great measuring stick to see how far we’ve come, because they whupped us early,’’ Motzko said of Penn State, 8-2 and 6-3 winners over Minnesota in November.
Here’s how the NCAA tournament field could line up if the season ended today. Remember: Winners of the six conference tournaments receive NCAA automatic bids, and the other 10 best in the PairWise earn at-large bids.
PairWise Ratings (through Tuesday)
1. North Dakota
2. Minnesota State
4. Minnesota Duluth
6. Boston College
10. Penn State
11. Arizona State
12. Bemidji State
13. Ohio State
15 (tie). Gophers (projected Big Ten tournament champ)
30. American International (projected Atlantic Hockey tournament champ)
Projected NCAA tournament field
Northeast Regional (Worcester, Mass. Host: Holy Cross)
1. North Dakota vs. 16. American International
8. Massachusetts vs. 12. Bemidji State
West Regional (Loveland, Colo. Host: Denver)
4. Minnesota Duluth vs. 13. Ohio State
5. Denver vs. 9. Northeastern
Midwest Regional (Allentown, Pa. Host: Penn State)
2. Minnesota State vs. 15. Gophers
7. Clarkson vs. 10. Penn State
East Regional (Albany, N.Y. Host: ECAC)
3. Cornell vs. 14. Maine
6. Boston College vs. 11. Arizona State
Notes: Denver (West) and Penn State (Midwest) must be placed in their host regions. … No. 9 Northeastern and No. 12 Bemidji State are swapped to avoid an all-Hockey East first-round matchup in the Northeast Regional.