I know that many less-than-die-hard fans pay attention to the national polls, which rank the top 20 teams in the nation by a vote of coaches and sportswriters. Whenever I see a college hockey game, the television crews talk about rankings in the USCHO or USA Today poll when discussing a team's position on the national scene. Well, I'm here today to tell you that you should more or less never pay attention to those polls, because they mean absolutely nothing toward getting into the NCAA tournament.
What you should be paying attention to is the Pairwise Rankings, a computer-based formula that spits out its own ranking system. While it may not be the best or most accurate method of truly telling which team is truly the best team, the Pairwise (PWR for short) holds the unique distinction of being the method that the NCAA uses to select its tournament field.
A quick explanation of the Pairwise follows: the Pairwise compares one team to another in four basic criteria - RPI, record against common opponents, record against other teams under consideration (top 25 teams in the country), and head-to-head record. Each of the first three categories counts as one point, while each head-to-head win against the other team counts as a point. The team with the most points wins, and in the event of a tie the team with the higher RPI wins. Each team under consideration is compared with each other team under consideration, and the team that has won the most team-to-team comparisons against the other 25 teams is considered the "best team" and is ranked first. Take a look at the "Individual Comparisons Table" in the link above to see a little better example of what I mean. Here, you can click on any individual comparison and see exactly why one team beat out another.
So, the question is: where are the Gophers ranked, how do they improve their standing, and can they improve enough to make the field of 16 that makes the NCAA tournament?
Well, let's take a look. The Gophers are currently 22nd in the Pairwise, right ahead of Northern Michigan and right behind Alaska-Fairbanks. In order to be sufficiently comfortable, the Gophers would like to be sitting in 14th place. The NCAA field holds 16 teams, but each conference's playoff champion gets an "auto-bid" into the NCAA field, which means that the winners of Atlantic Hockey and the ECAC could very probably make the tournament via the auto-bid even though they have Pairwise rankings lower than 16th. This would kick out those teams on the cusp, so anything less than 14th is living dangerously.
In order for the Gophers to get up into 14th place, they would need to vault over eight teams. The good news for the Gophers is that they have a very tough schedule down the stretch. Beating good teams raises your RPI faster than does beating cupcakes. Games upcoming against Denver (2nd in the current Pairwise Rankings), Colorado College (T-7), Minnesota-Duluth (T-9) and Wisconsin (3) give the Gophers great chances to beat quality teams and improve their standing. Wins against such good teams will boost our RPI, which is a huge driver in the Pairwise Rankings as a whole. We are also likely to play either Wisconsin or Colorado College again in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, which gives the Gophers yet another chance to win some games against good teams.
Right now, I'm going to co on record and say that if the Gophers go at least 4-2-2 in their last eight regular season games, win two games in the first round of the WCHA playoffs to make it to the WCHA Final Five, and win at least one game at the Final Five, I think they will have done enough to make the tournament. Looking at the teams between us and 14th in the Pairwise shows me that many of these teams are from out east. We don't have many head-to-head problems to deal with because of that fact, and most of the comparisons hinge on the RPI number. A simple flipping of the RPI comparison between the Gophers and these teams should result in the Gophers winning the comparison (remember, RPI is the tiebreaker). I know this is a VERY tall order given the quality of our opponents down the stretch, but it's do or die time for this team, and I still have faith that there's something good hiding behind the poor record.
If the Gophers can somehow manage to win or tie every remaining series, they'll see their RPI jump and should start creeping up on some of the teams ahead of them in the Pairwise. If I had to wager, I'd probably still bet against the Gophs making the NCAA Tournament field. But, so long as this team can find some kind of a spark, I think they still have a chance. We'll see how they come out this weekend against Denver. This weekend is as big as it gets for the Gophers chances. A sweep will probably move us up three or four rankings, while getting swept will all but put the last nail in the coffin.
What do you think? Should we stick a fork in the Gophers' chances? Do you think they still have a shot to make the tournament? Post your thoughts in the comments below!