The 2022-23 season has been an undeniable success for the University of Alaska Fairbanks hockey team.
But over the last 10 days, the Nanooks have gone from ferociously checking their opponents to frequently checking their phones. UAF wrapped up its regular season on March 4, posting a 22-10-2 record. The mark puts the Nanooks, who have no conference affiliation, as a contender for an at-large berth in the 16-team field for the NCAA tournament.
Conference tournaments wrap up this weekend, leaving the Nanooks, “on pins and needles,” according to UAF head coach Erik Largen, as they await Sunday’s tournament selection show.
“You’re checking your phone constantly and watching bits and pieces of highlights and scrolling through social media trying to decipher what teams you need to win and whatnot,” Largen said.
The object of their checking and scrolling has not only been other teams’ scores but the men’s Division I PairWise Rankings. The PairWise is a system which mimics the process for determining the teams in the NCAA men’s tournament.
As of Tuesday, the Nanooks were ranked No. 15 in the PairWise. Six champions of conference tournaments are offered automatic berths in the tournament, leaving 10 at-large spots.
While that ostensibly puts UAF inside the top 16, the two teams playing for the title in the Atlantic Hockey tournament — Canisius and Holy Cross — are both rated much lower than UAF. That bumps the Nanooks down to No. 16 and right on the cutting edge for the national tournament.
UAF must now cheer for the favorites to run the table in conference tournaments since more lower ranked teams winning could push them further down in the PairWise.
“Everyone’s been an expert in the PairWise,” Largen joked. “I think we’re all getting a crash course in it. ... I do think all the players and coaches, we’ve been looking at it. You can’t ignore the sum of the scenarios now that need to play themselves out. So, you know, we’re just cheering for different teams come Friday and Saturday and hopefully, the ball bounces in our favor.”
A berth in the NCAAs would be the first for the Nanooks since 2010 and represent a pinnacle for what has been a remarkable turnaround for the program.
The Nanooks have forged the reversal of fortune with excellent goaltending, solid defense and opportunistic scoring.
Senior Matt Radomsky, a transfer from Holy Cross, is sixth in the nation in goals-against average at 2.047. Largen believes the team’s three defensive pairings are among the best in the nation. They include T.J. Lloyd, Garrett Pyke, Arils Bergmanis, Markuss Komuls, A.J. Macaulay and Karl Falk.
“The forward groups have kind of been by committee, so that’s given us some different heroes on different nights,” Largen said.
Largen said more than anything, the team has come together as a unit, a detail not ignored by UAF hockey fans.
“The team really represents a community,” he said. “They’re great people and great representation of the community and the campus as well. I do think it’s just nice to have some positivity for Alaska hockey, and I would extend that to Anchorage as well. Anchorage having a good year and coming back and us having the year that we’ve had, it’s just good for the state of hockey.”
The lack of a conference has allowed the Nanooks some level of flexibility. They’ve played teams from a number of the top conferences over the past two seasons. But late in the season while other programs make runs through their conference tourneys, UAF has been stuck on the sideline.
”We don’t have an opportunity to earn our way into the national tournament by playing really good hockey at the end of the year,” Largen said. “Obviously, we did everything we could in the second half of the year. But that may not be enough. And that’s the drawback of not being in the conference.”
The team has been practicing since the end of the regular season in anticipation of continuing into the postseason. Largen said some extended breaks during the regular season have provided a template for how the team has handled the nearly three-week gap between the end of the regular season and the start of the national tournament.
“We’ve just got to make sure that we’re prepared and ready,” Largen said. “We’ve still gotta practice hard, because if we do get our name called, we’ve got to ramp it up pretty quickly against one of the best teams in the country, whoever that may be.”
The NCAA Ice Hockey Selection Show will be broadcast on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Alaska time on ESPNU.
(An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported records for UAF in 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons)