This weekend sees the debut of college hockey’s new season-opening tourney, the Ice Breaker Invitational, at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wis.
The tourney, originally announced at the NCAA championships last March, brings together one team each from the CCHA, WCHA, ECAC and Hockey East for a two-day event. This year, the invitees are national runner-up Boston University, CCHA preseason favorite Michigan State, defending ECAC regular-season champion Clarkson, and host Wisconsin.
Friday’s games pit Boston University against Michigan State in the early contest; then it’s Clarkson versus Wisconsin. On Saturday, the losers meet in a consolation game, followed by the tournament championship.
(Last season’s records in parentheses)
First game: No. 2 Boston University (26-9-6, 16-4-4 Hockey East, T-1st) vs. No. 3 Michigan State (23-13-4, 16-7-4 CCHA, 3rd)
Friday, Oct. 10, 5 p.m. CT, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, Wis.
Last Saturday, at one minute past midnight, the Terriers officially took to the ice for the first time, climaxing BU’s Midnight Madness.Later that same day, Michigan State took on Guelph, the defending Canadian university champion, and — despite outshooting them 46-9 — settled for a 3-3 overtime tie.
Clearly, the Spartans should be a more cohesive unit than BU, since they’ve been on the ice much longer than the Terriers and have some game action under their belts.
“We only have six days of practice before we play those games,” said BU coach Jack Parker, explaining the rationale behind BU opting to consider the Ice Breaker games exhibitions in terms of NCAA tournament consideration. “They’re definitely not going to count. Last year, we played Minnesota [in the Hall of Fame Game] and that didn’t count either.”
However, while most teams treat exhibitions as opportunities to give the recruits and underclassmen extra ice time to show the coaches what they can do, BU will be playing the games as if they’re for keeps.
“Actually, it wouldn’t make much difference to us whether they called it a real game or not,” said Parker.”We’ll play it like a real game because in a week we do play real games.It’s not like this is a tryout situation.
“This will be our real team.We’re not going to dress extra players or sit down a couple guys that we know are on the club just so we can take a good look at somebody else. It’s such a short time between when you start practice and get into real games, that everybody’s got to understand that we’re making a guesstimate of what the team will be early.
“If you’re not in the lineup early, it’s not because we gave you a fair look.We didn’t give you a fair look yet.We understand that, but there’s plenty of time to get into the lineup.
“So we’ll probably go more with upperclassmen and see how they go.”
This means Hobey Baker Award runner up Chris Drury, Mike Sylvia, Tommi Degerman, Albie O’Connell and Chris Heron will be the mainstays on offense. On the blue line, All-American Chris Kelleher will team with either Dan Ronan or Jeff Kealty in one pairing, and Hockey East All-Rookie team selection Tom Poti will play with the other.
“If Chris Kelleher isn’t going to be the best defenseman in college hockey, then Tom Poti might be,” said Parker in BU’s season preview. “We’re going to make sure they get plenty of ice time.”
Michel Larocque and Tom Noble, an embarrassment of riches between the Terrier pipes, will split the tournament duties.Larocque won Hockey East’s Top Goaltender award for having the league’s best goals-against average, while Noble earned All-Hockey East honors.
Meanwhile, game experience or not, the Spartans can’t be happy. Tying a Canadian university team — even the defending Canadian champion — is undoubtedly not the way Ron Mason, college hockey’s all-time leader in coaching victories with 775, envisioned the start of his season.
Making that tie even more painful is the fact that the Spartans led 3-1 with under four minutes to go before consecutive power-play goals by Guelph’s James Boyd and Mike Van Volsen knotted it up.The game-tying tallies were scored in a span of 31 seconds on Chad Alban, as the Spartan netminder, arguably the top goalie in the CCHA, made only nine saves the entire evening.
Perhaps the only bright spot in the Spartans’ performance was the play of Mike York, who scored two of the three State goals, including an unassisted shorthander early in the third period to put his team up by two. Sean Berens, York’s All-CCHA linemate, assisted on the first.
Nonetheless, the greatest good that can come out of the embarrassing Michigan State performance is perhaps a renewed sense of pressure on the Spartans, the CCHA’s preseason favorites according to both coaches and media, who have at times failed to live up to their potential. BU’s concern must be that MSU is out to avenge itself on the Terriers Friday.
Pick: Despite the Spartans’ weak turnout in their opener, look for the team that’s been on the ice almost twice as long to play like it. It’s almost a shame these two teams aren’t playing at midseason instead, with all pistons firing.With both picked to finish first in their respective league polls, this could be a preview of a Final Four matchup. Michigan State 3, Boston University 2
Second game: Wisconsin 15-21-2, 15-15-2 WCHA (7th) vs. Clarkson 27-10-0, 17-5-0 ECAC (1st)
Friday, Oct. 10, 8:00 p.m. CT, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, Wis.
The host Badgers are probably the least-heralded team in this tournament — which could make them dangerous, especially before a partisan crowd at the Dane.Head coach Jeff Sauer probably danced a jig around his office when he learned that the powers that be hadmoved the Ice Breaker from its original venue, the Rosemont Horizon in suburban Chicago.
That move alone stands to give the Badgers a good shot at Clarkson, the defending ECAC regular-season champions. Although UW lost steady goalie Kirk Daubenspeck at the end of last season, the Badgers still have a lot to be optimistic about — starting with seniors Brad Englehart (17-19–36 last season) and Joe Bianchi (16-17–33), the team’s leading scorers of a year ago, and returning team captain Eric Raygor (13-17–30 in 1996-96), who missed virtually the whole 1996-97 season with a knee injury.
“You look to your older players for strength and leadership,” Sauer told the Badger hockey website. “We have a lot of guys up front who have experience and we obviously will look to those guys to score goals and lead the team offensively.”
WCHA coaches seem to like this Badger squad — Wisconsin is picked fourth after the triumvirate of North Dakota, Colorado College and Minnesota in the conference’s preseason poll. But the closest parallel to what Wisconsin faces Friday and Saturday might have been last year’s Badger Hockey Showdown in Milwaukee, another tournament hosted by UW in which the Badgers squared off against higher-ranked opponents. At that one, Wisconsin lost a frantic 9-7 battle against New Hampshire in the first round, then bowed out of the consolation match with a 5-2 loss to Vermont.
Clarkson, for its part, has something to prove as well. Although the Golden Knights won the ECAC title handily in the regular season, they were stifled by Cornell in the tournament championship, and then dropped a shocker to Colorado College in the first round of the NCAAs.
A lot of the front-line players are gone from last year’s team — including Hobey Baker finalist Todd White — but the ones that remain remember, you can be sure. That list includes captain Chris Clark, the sparkplug up front.
“His aggressive style is invaluable to the success of our club,” said head coach Mark Morris in Clarkson’s season preview. “But the other guys we are counting on are Guillaume Besse, Ben Maidment, Dana Mulvihill and Buddy Wallace.” Wallace is moving up to a forward position after playing at the blue line last season. Also back is Dan Murphy, one of the top goaltenders in all of college hockey.
For that group, what better way to start a new year than by winning a brand-new tourney title?
But Morris is keeping a level head.”It’ll be an interesting tournament for college hockey. It’s something we’d like to be associated with,” he said. “It’ll be an interesting test for our team.
“It’s a nice bonus for a small school like ours to be there with the big [ones],” he added.
And it’s not just the veteran Knights who might benefit, according to the coach.
“Our newcomers will have an eye-opener,” Morris noted.”With the place full of rabid fans, it’s quite the way to get an intro to college hockey.”
Pick: The Badger fans at the Dane will be sure to give Morris’ freshman a good introduction, but Clarkson’s all-around strength should still overpower the hosts. Clarkson 4, Wisconsin 2
Consolation/Championship Saturday, Oct. 11, 5/8 p.m. CT, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, Wis.
Consolation pick: Boston U.’s going to be upset after losing to the Spartans. The Terriers take out their righteous indignation on Wisconsin. Boston University 5, Wisconsin 3
Championship pick: The Spartans complete their vengeance, winning the inaugural Ice Breaker Invitational thanks to York, Berens and Alban. Michigan State 3, Clarkson 1