College hockey’s conference championships are the de facto round-of-64 and round-of-32 stages of the NCAA Tournament, whittling the field down to 16 teams. But there are notable exceptions that are often forgotten during this week prior to the conference championship game, teams floating in temporary NCAA purgatory. Consider the case of current No. 11 Providence.
A trip to the NCAA Tournament seemed like a fait accompli last Saturday night around 9 p.m., when the Friars were ranked seventh and five minutes away from sweeping Boston College. Then they stumbled, losing a pair of games in excruciating fashion, and now find themselves 14th in the Pairwise, on the thinnest ice imaginable, hoping against hope that the favorites win their respective conference tournaments to secure their place in the NCAA Tournament. Their season now floats in the middle of the River Styx, somewhere between life and death of a promising season, events entirely out of their control.
Immediately after eliminating Providence from the Hockey East tournament, BC’s veteran coach Jerry York felt for his colleague Nate Leaman. “Hopefully Providence has still got enough in their bank, or their RPI, that they’ll make the tournament,” said York. “Crazy things happen with upsets, but that’s a tournament team. They should be in the tournament.”
This week, Leaman’s challenge has been to motivate his troops for an unnamed opponent, in a tournament they may or may not participate in. They are floating in the NCAA netherworld. Leaman did not like his prospects after their stunning loss on Sunday. “I think we’re going to have to really catch a break to get into the NCAA Tournament. If we get in, we’re going to have to be lucky.” Leaman and his Friars are now bedfellows with the least savory character in sports—uncertainty.
College Hockey, Inc. provided recent history of teams in Leaman’s position: stuck on the sidelines during conference championship weekend.
Teams who sat for the final weekend before inclusion into the NCAA Tournament, last five seasons (source College Hockey Inc.):
2018 – Penn State, Michigan, Minnesota State (1-2 in the first round)
2017 – Providence (0-1)
2016 – Yale, Boston University, Notre Dame (0-3)
2015 – Yale, Boston College, Providence, Minnesota Duluth, Omaha (3-2)
2014 – Boston College, Vermont, St. Cloud State (2-1)
Combined NCAA first-round record for teams that spent conference championship week in practicing and not playing: 6-9 (1-6 the last three years).
The chart above shows that Leaman’s Friars have been through NCAA “purgatory” twice before, with starkly different results: first round elimination in 2017; national championship in 2015. A year prior to the data provided by C.H.I. is the case of Yale in 2013. In terms of the NCAAs, the Elis were clearly on the outside looking in—having lost ignominiously in the ECAC consolation game—before being granted a reprieve. They secured the 16th and final NCAA slot through a series of near-miraculous events. Yale went on to win the 2013 NCAA title.
So all is not lost for Friars fans, though they might need to jack up their streaming fees to follow their NCAA fortunes in real time.
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.