Comment Corner: College hockey at the quarter poleWith about a quarter of the college hockey season in the books, it’s a good time to take a look at what’s transpired so far and check out what’s on the horizon.
By: Mark Schuttenhelm, For the Sun, The Jamestown Sun
With about a quarter of the college hockey season in the books, it’s a good time to take a look at what’s transpired so far and check out what’s on the horizon.
We’ll start off as always with the happenings up in Grand Forks. It’s been a pretty strange start to the season for No. 6 UND. Playing pretty well on Fridays and racking up a 4-0 record, then leaving quite a bit to be desired on Saturdays for a disappointing 0-3-1 mark.
Part of this anomaly is a result of one simple fact — it’s just not easy to sweep quality teams in Division I college hockey. In fact, so far this season only 33 percent of weekend series have resulted in sweeps. And when a sweep has happened, it’s usually a top team taking two wins against a weak sister. You knew Boston U was not going to leave the Ralph empty handed without a fight, just as you knew St. Cloud State wasn’t going to go down easily at home last Saturday.
Being at both St. Cloud games, I can vouch for the fact that the crowd was in full throat, especially so on Saturday. It’s so loud in there you can’t hear yourself think. I can only compare it to the Ted Nugent show my wife and I recently took in. It’s no secret that the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud is one of the most hostile buildings for visiting teams in the WCHA, and there’s a good reason for that.
All that being said, there’s no excuse for some of the Saturday play we’ve seen from the Fighting North Dakotans. Going back three weekends, after a convincing Friday win over Alaska-Anchorage, UND came out and got outplayed on Saturday, settling for a home tie thanks mostly to the play of Clarke Saunders in goal.
The following week brought a similar scenario. Beating Boston U on Friday and holding a one-goal lead with five minutes left on Saturday, a poor play by Joe Gleason led to a defensive zone faceoff, which resulted in BU tying it up. If you’re a UND fan, at this point you’re saying to yourself, let’s just tighten things up and play it close to the vest for five minutes, and five more minutes of OT, at least walk away with three points on the weekend.
A win and a tie against a quality team like BU, even at home, is not a bad thing. But it wasn’t to be, as defensive lapses resulted in two more BU goals, sending the Terriers back east with a split. At St. Cloud last weekend, Friday’s 3-0 North Dakota win was really an evenly played game, with the difference being, as I saw it, Clarke Saunders outplaying Ryan Faragher in goal. And yes, it’s the same Ryan Faragher who stymied UND numerous times last season. St. Cloud State definitely had the better of the play on Saturday in a 5-2 win. UND was outshot 37-24 on Saturday and 69-50 for the weekend.
The power play, which showed some signs of life in St. Cloud, is only converting at 17 percent, another area of concern. UND is now heading into the toughest part of its’ schedule, with Minnesota-Duluth at home, Notre Dame and Colorado College on the road, Denver at home, and a trip up to Houghton, Michigan to face Michigan Tech.
A few more thoughts on North Dakota before we look at the rest of the WCHA.
Clarke Saunders, who really has played well between the pipes, appears to have secured the starting goalie job. I fully expected that to be the case as I’d been watching Saunders last season down at Alabama-Huntsville. He’s an outstanding goalie who had been saddled with a bad team. And how about Rocco Grimaldi? Now that he’s healthy we can see what all the hype was about. This kid is dynamic!
Elsewhere in the WCHA, a few teams have surprised to the upside, including No. 2 Denver at 7-1, 14th-ranked Colorado College at 7-3, 15th ranked St. Cloud State at 6-4, and No. 18 Nebraska-Omaha at 6-3-1.
Did I forget about the third-ranked ranked Gophers? Nope, but to be honest, even at 6-2-1, I think Minnesota has left a little something on the table. After beating up on a struggling Michigan State team, the Gophers have managed only splits with Michigan Tech and Minnesota State, a win and tie vs. Alaska-Anchorage, and escaped with a 1-0 victory against a weak Canisius team. Considering the pre-season hype, and the fact that they returned the entire Frozen Four team from last year except for goalie Kent Patterson, I would call it a fair start to the season for Minnesota, no better.
Who in the WCHA is struggling at this early stage? How about the national champions of two years ago, Minnesota-Duluth at 2-5-1? Preseason top 20 pick Wisconsin has started the campaign with a 1-4-1 record, while last years’ turnaround in the conference, Michigan Tech, is struggling with a 2-6-0 record.
Let’s take a trip around the country, starting with the Hockey East Conference and the reigning national champions, No. 1 in the country, Boston College. I wrote in last seasons’ Frozen Four preview that, essentially, Boston College was playing at such a high level, there was nothing negative to say about them. Ditto. Here’s a team that finished last season on a 19-game winning streak, proceeded to go out and lose on opening night to Northeastern, and have now ripped off another eight wins in a row, including victories over Notre Dame and Boston University last weekend.
With one of the best goalies in the country in Parker Milner, perhaps the most exciting forward in Johnny Gaudreau, a power play clicking at about 30 percent and a penalty kill performing at 90 percent, all is well again in Beantown. With only three teams currently ranked in the national poll, it’s looking like it might be an off year for Hockey East.
The only real positive surprise has to be the play of fifth-ranked New Hampshire, with a 6-1-1 record. Two NCAA tournament teams from last season are struggling, with Mass-Lowell at 2-4-1 and Maine leaking oil at 2-9. Merrimack, who around this time last season was the last undefeated Division I team and ranked No. 1 in the country, is also limping along at 4-5-1.
In the CCHA, mediocrity seems to be the rule this year, with fourth-ranked Miami at 6-2-2, No. 8 Notre Dame at 6-3, and ninth-ranked Western Michigan at 5-2-1 being the only standouts. One big disappointment has to be unranked Michigan. Predicted to be a top five team in the preseason, Red Berensons’ Wolverines have managed only a 4-4-1 record, despite playing a pretty easy early season schedule.
ECAC Hockey, a conference that doesn’t always get the respect it deserves, is making quite a comeback so far this year. Two tournament teams from last season, No. 7 Union and 10th-ranked Cornell continue to carry the banner for the ECAC. But unlike recent seasons, three more ECAC teams are ranked, with undefeated Dartmouth at number 12, overrated Harvard at No. 17, and tiny St. Lawrence, out of Canton, New York, currently ranked 16th.
The fledgling Penn State men’s hockey program also deserves some credit. Playing this year as an independent and preparing to join the new Big 10 Hockey Conference next season, PSU has put together a 6-3 record while playing a decent schedule. They have Union, Holy Cross, and Robert Morris in their near future so we’ll see if their solid play continues.
Finally, for those who get the NBC and CBS Sports Networks, their college hockey telecasts are about to begin. CBS kicks off on Nov. 15 with Notre Dame vs. Michigan and NBC starts their coverage with Harvard vs. Cornell on Nov 16.
Both networks have overloaded their schedules with teams from the northeast again, but still, there’s enough good action from across the country to keep most college hockey fans happy. Keep an eye out during the Christmas break for my mid-season update.
Mark Schuttenhelm is a frequent contributor to the Opinion Corner