That’s what I’ve been hearing from coaches and fans throughout the first third of the 2003-2004 season. Surprises are everywhere:
Crowded poll — A whopping 25 teams received votes in this week’s USCHO.com Division III Poll, over a third of the programs out there. The lack of a consensus on the top teams is a result of some programs exceeding expectations while other traditional powerhouses are struggling just a bit.
Exceeding expectations — All but one NCHA team got votes in the poll, the first time any league has had seven teams mentioned. Besides the perennial powers, Lake Forest (8-0-1), Wisconsin-Eau Claire (9-1) and Wisconsin-Stout (9-2) are off to their best starts ever. These three teams are a combined 26-3-1 this season; they were only 8-20-2 at this point last year.
Curry is also making its first appearance ever in the USCHO.com poll, entering in the 11th position. The Colonels have opened the season 6-0, and are coming off a big win against Manhattanville.
Disappointments — The ECAC West is off to a slow start. The league that prides itself on having the top non-conference record each season is just 14-15-4 out of league. Defending champion Elmira is only 3-6-1 overall, while RIT is 3-3-1. Manhattanville started the season 7-0 but was upset by Curry last weekend.
Out West, most MIAC teams have struggled. Only St. John’s (2-1) and St. Mary’s (3-3-1) are at or over .500 for the season. Augsburg, coming off a 17-9 season, is 0-5-1. The league is a combined 11-40-6. Ouch. The MIAC and the NCHA now get busy with their conference schedules, probably a welcome relief to both leagues.
The hot start by so many NCHA teams may be a result of their taking advantage of an off year for the MIAC. The two leagues have been squaring off against each other for the past three weeks, but now begin conference play. Fans will see if teams like Lake Forest and Wisconsin-Eau Claire can keep up their winning ways.
Wisconsin-Stout coach Terry Watkins thinks his squad can turn its hot start into a better conference record. The Blue Devils set a team record for wins with 15 in 2000-2001, and that record is within reach for this year’s squad, currently 9-2. Stout opens the NCHA schedule this weekend, hosting Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
“This will be the real test,” said Watkins. “Our goal is to go .500 in league. That means we have to split with everybody, and that’s a tall order with some of the teams in our league.”
The excellent non-conference play has set the stage for what could be one of the tightest races in NCHA history, according to Watkins.
“Our league is the dominant league in Division III right now,” he said. “I think it shows in how the teams that are traditionally at the bottom of our league are doing against the top teams in other leagues. Would teams like us be able to beat St. Thomas or St. Mary’s three out of three times? No. But we can play with them and sometimes knock them off.” Wisconsin-Stout lost to St. Mary’s 6-5, and beat St. Thomas, 7-4.
“We’re a much better team; a much better skating team,” Watkins said. “I cleaned house and we have 14 new skaters. Getting those early wins are huge when you have a young team. These 14 new players expect to win.
“Of the nine games we’ve won, I think we came from behind in seven of them. A couple of times we were behind by three or four goals. But we’re playing with confidence.”
ECAC East Players of the Week — The honor was shared this week by St. Anselm’s Brian Keeley and Southern Maine’s Jon Lounsbury. Keeley led the Hawks to the P.A.L. Stovepipe Tournament, scoring the opening goal in both games and being named MVP of the tournament. Lounsbury got the game winner in USM’s 6-5 upset of travel partner Salem State. It was the first time that the Huskies had defeated the Vikings in 13 attempts.
ECAC East Goalie of the Week — Michael Shimek, New England. The junior netminder made a combined 61 saves in a pair of road games against ranked teams. He stopped 22 shots in a 5-4 overtime win at RIT and 39 in a 2-1 loss at Oswego.
ECAC East Rookie of the Week — Josh Hechter, St. Anselm. The rookie for Winnipeg, Manitoba, had five points in the P.A.L. Stovepipe tournament, including the winning goal in the championship game.
ECAC West Player of the Week — Mike Tucciarone, RIT. The junior forward scored eight points last weekend as the Tigers split against Williams and New England.
ECAC West Goalie of the Week — The sophomore from Kingston, Ontario, was named MVP of the Babson Tournament, backstopping the Soaring Eagles to the title. He stopped 63 of 65 shots in wins over Stonehill and the host Beavers.
ECAC West Rookie of the Week — Chad Van Diemen, Manhattanville. Scored his fifth power play goal of the season and sixth overall in a 4-3 loss to Curry.
ECAC Northeast Player of the Week — Rob Pascale, Stonehill. The senior forward became Stonehill’s all-time leading scorer with five points last weekend.
ECAC Northeast Goalie of the Week — Lenny Mosca, Curry. The sophomore stopped 35 shots in a 4-3 upset of previously undefeated Manhattanville.
ECAC Rookie of the Week — George Cademartori, Curry — Got the game-winner against Manhattanville with 4:48 to play.
MCHA Player of the Week — Brock Anundson, Minnesota-Crookston. He wins the award for the third time in five weeks, making him the clear favorite for POTY honors. This time, Anundson had a goal and three assists in the Wisconsin-Stout tournament, and won the individual skills competition.
MCHA Defensive Player of the Week — Ryan Potts, Northland. The defenseman from Fort Wayne, IN scored twice in a loss to St. Olaf.
MCHA Rookie of the Week — Lee Baldwin, Minnesota-Crookston. The freshman goalie stopped 33 of 36 shots in a loss to Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
MIAC Player of the Week – Zach Sikich, St. Thomas — The junior netminder stopped 88 of 91 shots in a pair of ties against Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Wisconsin-Superior.
NESCAC Player of the Week — Beau Kretzman, Amherst. The junior forward led the Lord Jeffs to the Ben McCabe Invitational Tournament title. He scored two goals and had two assists in wins over Cortland and Trinity.
NCHA Player of the Week — Jeff Dotson, Wisconsin-Stout. A Blue Devil wins the award for the second week in a row. Dotson, a senior goaltender, recorded a 4-0 shutout against MSOE and 4-3 win over St. John’s.
SUNYAC Player of the Week — Jocelyn Dubord, Oswego. The sophomore winger wins the award for the second week in a row. This time, Dubord scored four of the Laker’s seven goals last weekend in a 5-5 tie against Williams and a 2-1 victory over New England.
SUNYAC Goalie of the Week — Craig Nelson, Plattsburgh. The sophomore made 68 saves in the Primelink Tournament. Nelson shut out Norwich 2-0, making 33 saves, and then made another 35 in a 5-2 loss to Middlebury.
SUNYAC Rookie of the Week — Scott Lengyel, Cortland. The frosh forward had six points in three games last week.
We’ve Got the Power
Power Rankings, that is. Teams have finally played enough games to issue these. For your consideration, here’s my Top 15. Your mileage may vary, especially in this “crazy” season.
1. Middlebury — The Panthers looked impressive in wins over Potsdam and Plattsburgh in the PrimeLink Tournament.
2. St. Norbert — Nice 10-0-1 record, big game with Wisconsin-Superior this weekend.
3. Oswego — The Lakers are big and fast, but have tended to play to the level of their competition so far. They have a huge game against Plattsburgh this weekend.
4. Norwich — Lost for the first time since Feb. 21 last weekend.
5. Wisconsin-River Falls — Just keeps rolling along at 8-0-1.
6. Plattsburgh — Big win against Norwich, but a letdown against Middlebury.
7. Lake Forest — Here’s where things start to get tricky. The next five or six spots are almost interchangeable. But you can’t argue with 8-0-1.
8. St. John’s — The Johnnies are hard to gauge at this point. They had a pair of easy wins over Lawrence, but then dropped a game to Stout.
9. Manhattanville — good record (7-1) but a soft schedule so far. Hosts RIT this weekend.
10. Wisconsin-Superior — The Jackets have looked very good and very not-so-good. Which team will show up against Lake Forest and St. Norbert?
11. RIT — May be better than its 3-3-1 record. Big game at Manhattanville this weekend.
12. Amherst — A couple of nice wins so far. Let’s see how it goes against Norwich this weekend.
13. New England — Looked impressive at RIT and Oswego last weekend.
14. Wisconsin-Stout — Feasted on the MIAC.
15. Curry — Has a tough schedule ahead.