It won’t just be fans of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Arizona State University hockey teams with an eye on this evening’s game in Tempe, Arizona.
Already billed on the Sun Devils’ website as the “Grudge Match at Mullett Arena,” the independents’ rivalry will have a few extra eyeballs coming from the members of NCAA Tournament selection committee.
With an 18-10-2 record and a No. 17 ranking in the Pairwise standings — designed to replicate the formula the committee uses in choosing and seeding the 16 teams invited to play for a national title — the Nanooks hope four wins in their final four games will extend their season.
”They’re a good team, they’re in a good spot for the tournament with hopes to get in,” Arizona State defenseman Ty Murchison said.”We want to be known as the only independent that gets into the tournament, so it’s a big weekend for us and for them. They should be good games.”
History lessons aside — the Nanooks entered the field in 2010 before ASU secured a bid in 2019 — the fledgling rivalry means more to each side than it has in recent years. It’s a “meaningful game” according to UAF coach Erik Largen as his team eyes a tournament spot; it’s an opportunity for the Sun Devils to play spoiler.
The Nanooks’ resume, entering today’s 5 p.m. puck drop in Tempe, Arizona is a solid one:
- Wins over No. 4 Denver, No. 13 Omaha and No. 14 Notre Dame.
- Seven of their 10 losses to teams projected to be in the field — one each on the road against the Pioneers, Mavericks and Fighting Irish along with two at No. 7 Penn State and two vs. No. 11 Michigan Tech.
- An 8-2 record over its last 10, including a win at Denver, demonstrating the team is playing well entering the tournament. It most assuredly would need to be a 12-2 record (adding two wins at No. 35 Arizona State and two at home vs. No. 61 Lindenwood) to still be in the conversation when the field is picked.
College hockey writer Jim Connelly took note of UAF’s situation in this week’s Monday’s Top 10.
“Independent Alaska rallied on back-to-back nights, including overcoming a 3-0 deficit on Saturday against LIU to earn a weekend sweep and keep alive the team’s hopes for an at-large NCAA tournament bid,” he wrote. “The Nanooks ... have four games remaining ... with a legitimate hope of an NCAA bid.”
But that’s where even the most optimistic observer takes pause.
“Currently, the odds of earning that bid are less than 20 percent,” he continues. “But a perfect finish ... makes things possible.”
That 20 percent figure stems in part from what one observer calls an “anti-Alaska, anti-independent” sentiment of the committee. Indeed, the Nanooks face both negative perceptions pertaining to their schedule strength and the reality of economics in the committee’s collective minds.
Quite simply, should the decision come down to the four teams currently ranked 14th through 17th — Northeastern, Cornell, Notre Dame and UAF — the committee would likely opt to send Northeastern from Boston to the Bridgeport, Connecticut regional as opposed to bring the Nanooks across the continent to play in Fargo, North Dakota.
Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Manchester, New Hampshire, are the other regional sites this spring.
The first edition of U.S. College Hockey Online’s Bracketology includes Northeastern and Cornell in its field of 16, with Notre Dame being bumped for automatic-qualifier Rochester Institute of Technology.
RIT, currently No. 22 in the Pairwise, is the highest-ranked team in the Atlantic Hockey Association.
Contact sports editor Jeff Olsen at 907-459-7530 or email@example.com.