January 24, 2010

Men’s Hockey Faces Tough Road to NCAA Tourney

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As Cornell students spent the last part of Winter Break trying to secure a bid to their fraternity or sorority of choice, the Cornell hockey team was making its case for a bid to the NCAA tournament. However, the NCAA selection process is not determined by likeability, social skills or Pi Phi’s dress code, but rather by the pairwise rankings (PWR).

To determine who makes the NCAA tournament, the selection committee first isolates the top 25 teams according to ratings percentage index (RPI). The RPI formula for hockey is similar to that used for basketball, and it considers factors like strength of schedule and wins against good teams. These 25 teams are known collectively as teams under consideration (TUCs).

Next, the computer calculates the winner of hypothetical, head-to-head matchups between every TUC by awarding points based on several criteria. One point is given to the team with the higher RPI. One point is given to the team with the higher record against the other TUCs (but not until both teams have played 10 games against TUCs). One point is given to the team with the better record against their common opponents. Finally, one point is awarded to the winner of each game the two teams have played against each other.

For purposes of NCAA selection, the teams are ranked in order of the number of pairwise comparisons they win against the other 24 teams under consideration. Currently, Miami (15-4-5) and Denver (14-5-3) are tied for No. 1, with each winning 23 comparisons. Cornell (9-4-3), which wins 11 comparisons, sits tied with Colorado College for 14th.

The NCAA hockey tournament has a field of 16 teams, but six automatic bids are given to the winners of conference tournaments. Since it’s safe to assume that at least a couple of those six teams would have made the tournament on their own, a team needs to be around the top 12 in PWR to make the tournament. Of course, Cornell could take matters into its own hands by winning the ECAC tournament, but it’s more likely that the team will need an at-large bid since the Red won the tournament twice in the last decade.

Once you understand how PWR functions, it’s easy to see how Cornell has squandered some big opportunities this season with regard to its non-conference schedule. If Cornell had managed to beat North Dakota on Saturday night, they would flip that comparison and slide into 13th. If they had earned a win against Colorado College down in Florida over break, they would also win that comparison and move into a tie for 11th with 13 comparisons won against the 24 TUCs. Two wins and Cornell would almost assuredly be in the NCAA tournament.

Nevertheless, now we look ahead to next Friday against St. Lawrence, which marks Cornell’s race to the finish with one game against every league opponent. Cornell secured a 7-2-2 mark in its first stretch and, given its superior strength of schedule over winter break, all signs point to an equally successful second half.

That will be crucial for Cornell because the team must finish in the top-4 of the ECAC standings to secure a first-round bye and home-ice advantage in the second-round. Considering that the top-8 teams in the league are currently only separated by four points, though Cornell has one or two games in hand on every team except Colgate, that’s easier said than done.

Cornell currently holds a 0-2-2 record against the top ranked teams in the ECAC, a statistic which does not bode well heading down the stretch. It’s one thing to pummel teams you’re supposed to beat like Dartmouth, Brown or even Harvard this season. It’s quite another to beat teams with legitimate title aspirations such as Yale, St. Lawrence, Union and Quinnipiac.

Many elements of the team’s hard fought three-points in North Country two weekends ago, as well as its split with North Dakota, will provide a great foundation the rest of the season. We specifically want to focus on the team’s play in the third period over the last four games.

Despite 17 players experiencing flu-like symptoms, Cornell surrendered only six third period shots against Clarkson and St. Lawrence combined although both games were tied going into the third. A similar script was written last Friday when Cornell scored early in the third to grab the game-winning goal over North Dakota. A stingy defense and unbelievable goaltending from Ben Scrivens preserved the 1-0 victory in classic Coach Schafer-like fashion. On Saturday, the Red dominated the Fighting Sioux late in the third, only to have the game slip away on a questionable non-call by the referees.

If the powerplay, which now hasn’t scored in six consecutive games, can find that offensive spark again, Cornell can look to improve upon its current pairwise comparison and move one step closer to yet another coveted NCAA tournament bid.

Original Author: Elie Bilmes