Will the Bulldogs make the NCAA tournament in 2023? – Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — I’m midway through my ninth season covering the Minnesota Duluth hockey programs, and one question has come up more often this season than ever before.

I hear it from readers and listeners, my editors at the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live, and even my wife (who has already purchased concert tickets for the last Saturday in March). Random people I encounter in everyday life always ask this as soon as they learn what I do for a living.

With the Bulldogs women hosting the 2023 NCAA Frozen Four at Amsoil Arena and the UMD men having been to the previous seven NCAA tournaments, people want to know:

“Will the Bulldogs make the NCAA tournament this year?”

I wish I had that answer for you — and especially for my wife — however, there are still nine weeks of games until the 11-team NCAA women’s hockey bracket is announced on March 5 and 11 weeks of men’s games to be played before that 16-team field is unveiled on March 19.

College hockey uses a system known as the Pairwise rankings to select at-large teams and then seed the tournaments. It’s a formula that awards points based on head-to-head competition, record against common opponents and either the Ratings Percentage Index for the men

or NCAA Percentage Index for the women

.

It’s complex and constantly changing. Every result sets off a chain reaction that can impact your team, whether it is playing or not.

Pairwise Links

The Pairwise is still pretty volatile in January, and can continue to be through the end of February, as we saw back during the 2019-20 season when

the UMD men jumped eight spots from the bubble to a potential No. 1 seed in just one night

.

Despite the volatility, January 1 is still considered the best time to start peeking at the Pairwise on a weekly basis, because most of college hockey’s nonconference games have been completed by then. Winning nonconference games is key, as that’s how you win those “record against common opponents” comparisons against teams from other leagues.

Since it’s now Jan. 4, and both the UMD men and women are about to embark on the second half of their seasons, I’ll do my best at this point in time to answer the two questions on everyone’s mind right now:

Will the UMD women make the NCAA tournament?

Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey faces Northeastern in Frozen Four semifinal game at Pegula Ice Arena

Minnesota Duluth goaltender Emma Soderberg (30) makes a glove save against Northeastern defenseman Skylar Fontaine (22) at the end of the second period during the Women’s Frozen Four semifinal on Friday, March 18, 2022, at Pegula Ice Arena in University Park, Pennsylvania.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The Bulldogs endured a grueling first-half schedule that included four games against No. 1 Ohio State, plus series against Minnesota and Wisconsin. UMD went 2-6 against the Buckeyes, Gophers and Badgers — not ideal — but they were a perfect 6-0 in nonconference play against teams from College Hockey America and the ECAC.

At 13-6-1 overall and fourth in the WCHA at 7-6-1, the Bulldogs are No. 8 in the Pairwise, which has them sitting on the right side of an NCAA tournament bubble that is a bit tighter than a year ago.

Last year the NCAA women’s hockey tournament expanded from eight to 11 teams, however, the bubble for at-large teams shrunk this season by one because the New England Women’s Hockey Alliance (NEWHA) gained an automatic bid. Expect the NEWHA postseason champion to nab the No. 11 seed while the College Hockey America champion will get the No. 10 spot.

That means a team needs to get to No. 9 in the Pairwise this season for an at-large berth, and then hope no teams from outside the top 9 win the WCHA, ECAC or Hockey East tournaments.

womens hockey game

Minnesota Duluth forward Gabbie Hughes (17) fights for the puck against Wisconsin forward Caroline Harvey (4) at Amsoil Arena on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in Duluth.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The Bulldogs open 2023 with a road trip to Wisconsin — currently No. 7 in the Pairwise — on Saturday (1 p.m.) and Sunday (noon) at

sold-out

LaBahn Arena in Madison, having split with the Badgers in Duluth earlier this season. UMD also has one more series against the Gophers — who swept UMD in Minneapolis in November — on Jan. 27-28 at Amsoil Arena.

A couple wins against the Badgers and Gophers would help UMD climb the Pairwise, but only if the Bulldogs take care of business in the other 10 games against Bemidji State, St. Thomas, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State.

The Bulldogs can’t afford another tie to a team like St. Thomas

.

The Bulldogs are on track to make their third-straight NCAA tournament appearance — though they’ll likely have to go on the road again for the regional rounds — which gives them a shot at playing at home in the Frozen Four on March 17-19 at Amsoil Arena.

Will the Bulldogs men make the NCAA tournament?

Minnesota Duluth plays Denver in regional final game in Loveland

Minnesota Duluth forward Quinn Olson (15) skates with the puck against Denver during the NCAA regional championship game on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, Colorado.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

There are two ways a team can make the NCAA tournament: by nabbing an at-large berth or by winning their conference tournament to secure an automatic bid.

For the women, winning the WCHA Final Faceoff title in March at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis would be considered a (sweet) backup plan should things get messy.

For the men — who sit 35th out of 62 teams in the Pairwise — winning the NCHC Frozen Faceoff is likely their only plan to make an eighth-straight NCAA tournament appearance following an 8-10 start to the season overall, with a 4-4 record against nonconference foes.

The four wins came over independent Arizona State and the ECAC’s Cornell, while the four losses came to the CCHA’s Minnesota State and Big Ten’s Wisconsin. UMD has two more nonconference games remaining this weekend against the CCHA’s Bemidji State. The Beavers host the Bulldogs on Friday in Bemidji before visiting Amsoil Arena in Duluth at 6:07 p.m. on Saturday.

If the Bulldogs hope to have any sort of long shot at an at-large berth, they need two wins over the Beavers to start, followed by an epic run through a second-half NCHC schedule that includes four games against St. Cloud State, home series against Western Michigan and Miami, and long road trips to North Dakota, Omaha and Denver.

college men playing hockey

Minnesota Duluth forward Jesse Jacques (8) shoots the puck on goal against Omaha goaltender Jake Kucharski (1) and Omaha defenseman Kirby Proctor (3) at Amsoil Arena on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Duluth.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

And even that may not be enough as the NCHC has just three teams — barely with Western at No. 14 — inside the top 16 of the Pairwise to start 2023. Usually the best conference in college hockey,

the NCHC’s combined inter-conference record currently ranks second behind the Big Ten

, but the league has a losing record against the Big Ten and ECAC. A top four — or even three — finish in the NCHC may not equal an NCAA tournament berth like past seasons.

A top-four finish will still get you a home quarterfinal playoff series, however, and increase your odds of nabbing the league’s auto-bid. UMD is currently tied with Western Michigan for fifth in the NCHC. Both are two points back of fourth-place Omaha and four points back of third-place Colorado College.

Western Michigan vs. Minnesota Duluth

Minnesota Duluth players celebrate after winning the championship game of the 2022 NCHC Frozen Faceoff Saturday, March 19, 2022, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Jim Rosvold / The NCHC

Winning the NCHC Frozen Faceoff title is by no means out of reach for the Bulldogs, who won the conference tournament as the fifth seed a year ago. UMD’s three NCHC postseason titles lead the league after nine seasons (COVID-19 canceled the 2020 tournament). The Bulldogs have won two of the last three Frozen Faceoffs — including the last two played at Xcel Energy Center — and three of the last five dating back to the Target Center days.

The Pairwise may have passed the Bulldogs by this year, but as long as they stay in the thick of things in the NCHC, I’m telling you, Lloyd, there’s a chance the Bulldogs can make an eighth-straight trip to the national tournament.

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