On Tuesday, Hockey East announced a major shakeup to both its regular season standings and playoff format. The final standings, which will determine seeding for the conference tournament, will no longer use total points or percentage of points earned, but will instead utilize the Hockey East Power Index, a metric similar to RPI.
Due to the pandemic, the league couldn’t play a balanced schedule where each team faces every conference member at least twice. For example, UConn has played first-place Boston College four times and third-place UMass three times during the course of the season but hasn’t faced eighth-place Maine or last-place Vermont at all.
The goal of the Hockey East Power Index is to even out that imbalance by taking factors such as “the number of games played, wins and losses in regulation, overtime, and shootouts, and a team’s home and away split” into account, along with a team’s strength of schedule. It’s a similar formula used to select the NCAA Tournament field each season.
Under the Hockey East Power Index, the Huskies are in fourth place, one spot above Providence, their next opponent.
“I think it makes sense,” UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “I’d be interested to see when it’s all said and done if it’s gonna vary much from winning percentage because right now it pretty much mirrors a winning percentage.”
The playoffs will also have a new look this season. Earlier in the year, Hockey East announced all eligible teams will make the conference tournament. Now, all 11 men’s squads will compete in a single-elimination format for the Lamoriello Trophy instead of three-game series in the initial rounds.
The entire men’s tournament will be held in on-campus rinks at the site of the higher seed, as opposed to the TD Garden in Boston where the semifinals and finals typically take place. The regular season will officially end on Sunday, Mar. 7, and the opening round will begin on Wednesday, Mar. 10 when the 6-11 seeds face-off. After the teams are re-seeded, the quarterfinals will be on Sunday, Mar. 14, the semifinals on Wednesday, Mar. 17, and the final on Saturday, Mar. 20.
The women’s tournament will also be played exclusively in home arenas, starting on Wednesday, Feb. 24, and concluding with the final on Saturday, Mar. 6.
Cavanaugh has long been a proponent of a single-elimination tournament, believing it would be better financially for the league since the opening game of best-of-three series typically don’t draw well (in normal times) because nothing is decided in that game. In a single-elimination format, every game is do-or-die.
“I’ve just always said ‘Why don’t we try single elimination?’ Just watching how successful it is in basketball for so many years, I thought it would be a kind of a cool playoff format. It’s not gonna really affect your top teams, they’re still gonna go to the national tournament. One loss won’t really hurt them. I think it will draw up a lot more fan interest,” he said. “I think we’re doing it because of the pandemic and not staying at a place for possibly three nights but I’m hoping it’s very successful and it’s something we can try when we can get fans in the building.”
While the coach has been on board with all the league’s changes and adjustments to compensate for the pandemic, he hasn’t been a fan of the NCAA’s new overtime format and the way those results are reflected on his team’s record.
“We’re all getting used to the 3-on-3 format. It’s not hockey,” Cavanaugh said. “We’re playing for actually one extra point. I wish they would do it more like the NHL does where it’s a win, a loss, or an overtime loss.”
If that was the case, UConn’s 8-7-2 would instead be 8-4-5.
“I think to our players, that’s more reflective of the team we are,” he said.
Using the extra skater
This season, UConn has almost exclusively filled its extra skater spot in the lineup with a defenseman. The Huskies have only used a forward there once this year — its second game of the season in which only six defensemen were healthy. Teams are only allowed to dress 12 forwards, six defensemen, three goaltenders, and one “extra skater” under current guidelines.
Cavanaugh has repeatedly stated his belief that his team has eight defensemen worthy of playing but only six spots on the defensive pairings. The extra skater allows UConn to get an extra d-man on the bench.
“Right now, we feel dressing an extra defenseman is more valuable to our team than dressing an extra forward,” Cavanaugh said. “Now, that can change. There might be some night where we may need an extra forward and we feel like the six defensemen would be enough. So every game is different.”
The Schneider special
Providence’s Schneider Arena is one of the more intimate rinks in Hockey East with a capacity of 3,030 — second-smallest venue for a men’s team in the conference behind Merrimack.
That won’t bother UConn, though, who has played its entire season inside the confines of Freitas Ice Forum instead of the spacious XL Center due to the pandemic.
“We play in the Freitas,” Cavanaugh quipped. “It’s pretty small, too.”
The coach provided some insight about one quirk the Huskies will need to be aware of at Schneider Arena, though.
“The only nuance with that rink is that the benches are so long and they go very, very deep into the zone,” Cavanaugh said. “So it’s something you got to watch in the second period that your forwards don’t jump offsides when they change.”
UConn is expected to be at full health this weekend with the exception of sophomore defenseman Roman Kinal, who has missed the last four games after suffering an MCL injury against Boston College. Cavanaugh didn’t have a timetable for his return but mentioned he’s “progressing well.”
How to watch
Friday’s game (4:30 p.m. puck drop) will be broadcast on NESN+ for viewers in New England and on SportsLive for those outside the region. Saturday’s game (4:00 p.m.) will air both on the CW20 and on SportsLive.