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Brad E. Schlossman / Forum News Service, Published February 20 2013

Nonconference big in determining hockey tournament positioning

GRAND FORKS – Danny Kristo remembers getting a talk from three seniors before his first college hockey game.

Chris VandeVelde, Darcy Zajac and Chay Genoway sat down the team’s 10 rookies and explained to them that the season-opening nonconference games against Merrimack could end up determining the University of North Dakota’s postseason fate five months down the line.

“I remember them telling us that these are the games that make or break you at the end of the year,” Kristo said. “It helps to go through it personally, but they drilled that into our brains right away.

“I think that’s why we’re there every year. We know how important those nonconference games are and we’ve had a good nonconference record the last couple years.”

Take a look at this week’s Pairwise Rankings – the system that will be used to select the 16-team NCAA tournament field a month from now – and it’s clear how nonconference games can significantly alter teams’ positions nationally.

The most glaring example is the University of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is currently ranked No. 25 in the Pairwise and will likely need to win the Western Collegiate Hockey Association postseason tournament to have any hope of an NCAA tournament berth. The Badgers are in this precarious position because of their season-opening weekend against Northern Michigan.

The Wildcats swept the Badgers in that series, thanks to a pair of third-period rallies. Had Wisconsin held on to just one of the games and earned a series split, they’d be 11 spots higher in the Pairwise at No. 14, high enough to get into the NCAAs. Had they swept the Wildcats, Wisconsin would be 16 spots higher at No. 9.

There are plenty of other examples around the country, too.

Merrimack currently is in first place in Hockey East – ahead of Boston College, New Hampshire and Boston University – yet would not make the NCAA tournament if it started today.

Nebraska-Omaha is just one point out of first place in the WCHA, but the Mavericks are a lot further from making the NCAA tournament, sitting at No. 21 in the Pairwise Rankings.

One team that did take care of business in nonconference play this season is the University of Denver. The Pioneers entered a late-December Hall of Fame Game against Boston University on an eight-game winless streak, but managed to knock off the Terriers in a one-game shot.

Schlossman writes for the Grand Forks Herald