Opinion corner: Hockey at the halfway markAny way you look at it, this will be a historic college hockey season. Whether you’re in favor of or against the conference realignment that is going to take place next season, there’s no denying that the second half of this year will be special.
By: Mark Schuttenhelm For The Sun, The Jamestown Sun
Any way you look at it, this will be a historic college hockey season.
Whether you’re in favor of or against the conference realignment that is going to take place next season, there’s no denying that the second half of this year will be special.
With the CCHA disbanding after this season, and eight powerhouse programs leaving the WCHA to form a pair of new conferences, there will be a lot of emphasis placed of the history and traditions of these two great leagues. The interviews I’ve seen with coaches and players from the teams leaving the WCHA leave no doubt that they want to take home some hardware this season, their last in the league. Same goes for the CCHA.
I expect to see great battles for the regular season championships, and even more intensity than usual in the conference tournaments. And we will lay out exactly what the college hockey landscape will look like next season in the coming months. Right now, we’ll take a look back at the first half, starting with the play of 10-5-3 UND, fresh off its first sweep of the season at Michigan Tech.
There were a lot of concerns surrounding the play of North Dakota early in the year. The team was allowing too many shots on goal, playing poorly on Saturdays, the power play was not producing, and the team’s offensive production was concentrated on just a few players.
There’s been improvement on all fronts, and while the power play is still only converting at 16 percent, it has shown signs of coming to life. North Dakota is 6-2-2 since our quarter season review, including a 4-1 record on Saturdays. Over the last six games, UND has allowed an average of just 26 shots on goal, versus 36.5 allowed over the previous seven game stretch.
Early in the season, the pressure to score was placed squarely on the backs of Danny Kristo, Corban Knight, and whoever was skating with them. The scoring distribution has improved in recent weeks, and while Kristo and Knight are leading the way with eight goals each, Rocco Grimaldi, Mark MacMillan, Carter Rowney, and freshman Drake Caggiula are contributing nicely from the forward position, while Derek Forbort, Dillon Simpson, and Nick Mattson are chipping in from the blue line.
Clarke Saunders has continued his fine play in goal, posting two shutouts, a 2.19 goals against average, and a .925 save percentage in his first half season with UND. The 4-1 Saturday record includes two huge wins.
On Nov. 17 against Minnesota-Duluth at the Ralph, Danny Kristo put the team on his back and led the way to an overtime 4-3 gut-check win. After settling for a tie on Friday, UND came out flat and was trailing 3-1 after one period on Saturday. Faced with the possibility of grabbing only one point on the weekend against a struggling Duluth team and staring at Notre Dame, Colorado College, and Denver on the schedule, this would prove to be a huge comeback for North Dakota.
The second-half schedule is even more challenging than the first for UND, with 9-4-2 Holy Cross out of the Atlantic Hockey Conference, Colorado College, Minnesota, St. Cloud State, Wisconsin, Nebraska-Omaha, Denver, Bemidji, and Minnesota State on the docket. And here’s one other note on North Dakota hockey. … with the NHL out of commission, UND has become the most attended hockey team in North America, college or professional, with an average of about 11,700 fans per game visiting the wonderful facility we fondly call The Ralph. And that includes the AHL, USHL, and the three Major Junior Leagues in Canada. Strictly on the college level, five of the top six teams, in attendance per game, play out of the WCHA. It’s fair to say we love our hockey up here.
Elsewhere around the country, the WCHA currently has six teams ranked in the top 20. The two Colorado teams are slumping, but to be fair, Colorado College is coming off a brutal 10-game stretch on the schedule.
The revival down in Mankato, under new coach Mike Hastings, is quite a story. Duluth and Wisconsin are playing better after rough starts. And we’ll find out what the Gophers are made of in the second half, as the level of competition ramps up considerably. We’ll have a complete WCHA report next week along with my updated WCHA Power Rankings.
The emergence of ECAC Hockey as a power conference is one of the big stories at the halfway point. With seven teams (Quinnipiac, Dartmouth, Cornell, Union, Yale, Colgate, Harvard) currently ranked in the top 21, the ECAC should not be taken lightly as we head towards NCAA Tournament time. ECAC also places five teams in the top 16 of the PairWise Rankings. You tournament junkies out there know the PairWise is what the NCAA selection committee uses to fill out the field of 16. ECAC teams also have a 31-17-11 record in non-conference play, and a winning record against all four other leagues. In other words, this appears to be the real deal.
Hockey East landscape
Hockey East boasts three of the top six teams in the country with Boston College, New Hampshire, and Boston University. In addition, Providence, Merrimack, and UMass Lowell are all capable of making a second-half run. Boston University might turn out to be the best of the bunch. With a 10-5 record, BU has already played UNH three times, Boston College three times, and North Dakota twice.
CCHA so far
The CCHA brings four teams to the top 20, including Notre Dame, Miami, and Western Michigan in the top eight. Ohio State, at 7-6-5, is one CCHA team capable of making a move in the second half. Senior goalie Brady Hjelle is leading the way with a 1.46 goals against average and .951 save percentage. Preseason top three pick Michigan and rival Michigan State both continue to struggle.
Busy holiday weekend
We’ve got holiday tournament action all over the country this weekend.
The Mariucci Classic in Minneapolis features Minnesota, Air Force, Boston College, and Alabama-Huntsville. Sunday evening’s game between Boston College and Minnesota has been much anticipated around the college hockey world.
The Florida College Classic will spotlight Ferris State, Cornell, Minnesota-Duluth, and Maine. In Pittsburgh, the Three Rivers Classic features two Ohio rivals, Miami and Ohio St., and two Pennsylvania rivals, Penn State and Robert Morris.
Our neighbors in Bemidji will travel to New Hampshire and join Dartmouth, UNH, and Massachusetts at the Ledyard Bank Classic. Finally, the all Michigan lineup of WMU, Michigan St., Michigan, and Michigan Tech fills out the card at the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit.
In non-tournament action, Nebraska-Omaha travels to Connecticut for a pair with 9th-ranked Quinnipiac, and Boston U plays a single at slumping Denver. We’ll review all the notable action next week.
Mark Schuttenhelm is a frequent contributor to the Opinion Corner