Crazy? I’ll Show Ya Crazy!
In last week’s column, I opened by saying that in the opinion of many coaches and fans, this Division III season has been “crazy.”
Well, we’re now bordering on “insane.” Cases in point:
1. Four of the top five teams in the USCHO poll lost last weekend. Combined record of the top 15 teams in the nation last week: an unremarkable 18-12-3. I can’t remember a weekend like that before.
2. Five teams got first-place votes in this week’s poll, the first time that’s ever happened.
3. Can you name the two remaining undefeated teams in Division III? Say it with me: Lake Forest. And Curry.
Teams start their holiday breaks after this weekend, so this is a good time to pause and assess the madness a bit more.
With things this wide open, who will step up in the second half and take charge? Who will fall apart? Let’s take a look at each conference and find out.
Biggest Surprise: We all knew that Curry was going to be good, but the Colonels have exceeded expectations. A nice 4-0 start in conference including a 7-4 win over Lebanon Valley was impressive, but a 4-3 win over Manhattanville in which Curry overcame allowing three power-play goals means the Colonels are for real. Next big challenge: Bowdoin in the first round of the Salem State tournament on 12/27.
Biggest Disappointment: Conversely, J&W was supposed to struggle this season due to a large turnover in players. No one expected another 11-4-1 conference record, but the Wildcats are in last place in the ECAC Northeast (0-5-1, 0-9-1) and have been getting blown out against teams they used to be able to stay with.
Most Likely to Succeed: This is going to be a two-horse race between Wentworth and Curry. Their lone game against each other on 1/24 may very well decide the regular season title.
Most Likely to Drop: Lebanon Valley and Framingham State have put together some nice wins and should hang around near the top of the standings, but a killer January schedule that has them each playing 10 games may do them in.
Biggest Surprise: St. Anselm is 6-1 at this point, off to its best start in years. I’d chalk that up to a light schedule so far, but the Hawks did beat Bowdoin on the road. I can see St. A’s sitting at about 11-2 before a tough stretch begins in late January. Win 50% of those games and the Hawks could still be near the top of the standings come playoff time.
Biggest Disappointment: Although not yet a member of the league, this one goes to Castleton State, which is playing a pseudo-conference schedule as a replacement for MCLA. The Spartans, who may join the league full-time next season, have a long way to go, currently 0-8 and being outscored 83-14 in the process. They were expected to struggle, but not this badly.
Most Likely to Succeed: Besides the obvious choice of Norwich, expect New England College to be in second place when the dust settles. I also like Skidmore to improve — the Thoroughbreds, fresh off a reprieve of their death sentence (thanks to $2.5 million in donations from alumni and fans) had a tough 0-4 stretch against arguably the top four teams in the NESCAC to open the season. Things should get easier from here, demonstrated by Skidmore’s 13-0 pasting of newcomer Castleton State. Maybe a few more mentions on ESPN (thanks to Barry Melrose’s son Adrian being on the team) will help.
Most Likely to Drop: I don’t expect a lot of surprises in the second half. Salem State could be the wild card. The Vikings have looked like world beaters one game and non-contenders the next. Which team will show up in January remains to be seen.
Biggest Surprise: The league as a whole has struggled in non-conference games, a sign that this may be a down year for what is typically one of Division III’s top conferences. After years of leading college hockey in non-conference winning percentage, the ECAC West is a lackluster 19-16-4, which is up in recent weeks thanks to Elmira’s current hot streak.
Biggest Disappointment: Each team has had its moments. It’s tough to decide between Elmira’s 2-6-1 start or 1-3 league record, or RIT’s flirtation with .500 to date.
Most Likely to Succeed: Hobart has improved each season under Mark Taylor, and this year is no exception. The Statesmen are 4-3-2 with some quality wins (Williams and Elmira) and some close losses (3-2 to Manhattanville, 4-3 to Lebanon Valley). Hobart is well positioned for a playoff berth.
Most likely to Drop: Manhattanville has looked vulnerable and needs to avoid looking past a fairly easy non-conference schedule to showdowns with league rivals in February. The Valiants could be 15-1-1 or 14-2-1 by then, but it will all be for naught if Manhattanville can’t get home ice for the ECAC West finals. The Valiants have struggled throughout their history on the road during the postseason.
Biggest Surprise: A nice mix of seniors and freshman has Wesleyan off to a 3-1 conference record. The Cardinals are 5-3 overall; they had just two wins at this point last season. Honorable mention goes to Amherst, which is off to a good start with some quality wins (Trinity, Wentworth) after a couple of off seasons. The Lord Jeffs won just seven times in 2002-2003; they already have five victories this season.
Biggest Disappointment: It looks like its going to be a long season for Tufts, which has not looked good in any of its league games so far. Expect the Jumbos to be one of two teams on the outside looking in come playoff time.
Most Likely to Succeed: Hamilton should improve on a 2-2 start. The Continentals have a tough non-conference schedule that should help them make a run in the NESCAC after the holiday break.
Most likely to Drop: There’s no frontrunner here — I think this will be one of the closest races with as many as six teams fighting things out. At the other end of the standings, it’s going to be a battle to see who avoids joining Tufts in missing the playoffs.
Biggest Surprise: This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Plattsburgh, with the loss of three all-Americans. Oswego was supposed to dominate, and there was talk of the Cardinals finishing as low as fourth in the standings. Well, at the midway point of the SUNYAC season, Plattsburgh has a healthy five-point lead with seven games to play, the largest lead in any D-III conference. Honorable mention goes to Cortland. Picked to finish seventh in the pre-season poll, the Red Dragons are tied for fourth and just a point out of second place.
Biggest Disappointment: Oswego is off to a good start at 9-2-3, but fans have to be a bit disappointed with last weekend’s sweep of the Lakers on home ice by Potsdam and Plattsburgh. It’s all relative: a 4-2-1 conference record and a five-point deficit in the standings has to be considered a disappointment for the team picked to repeat as champions.
Most Likely to Succeed: Expect Geneseo and Potsdam to make their typical January-February run for home ice. Plattsburgh’s lead is too much to pick the Cardinals to finish any lower than first.
Most Likely to Drop: Fredonia got off to a hot start at 4-0-1 but is just 2-4 since. The Blue Devils do have Plattsburgh, Potsdam and Geneseo all at home in the second half, but I think they’ll wind up no better than fifth place.
Biggest Surprise: With each team only playing two league games so far, it’s too early to tell. St. Mary’s and Gustavus Adolphus have looked the strongest in non-league games so far, with the Cardinals putting the only blemish on Lake Forest’s near-perfect record (5-5 tie) and the Gusties taking out both Point and Eau Claire.
Biggest Disappointment: The MIAC was outclassed by the NCHA in their yearly non-conference matchups. St. Thomas was just 2-4-2 in their games, while Augsburg was a highly disappointing 0-5-1. The Auggies have yet to win a game this season after going 17-9 last season, including taking St. Thomas into overtime in the league semifinals.
Most Likely to Succeed: St. John’s has looked good, albeit with a light schedule so far. A trip East to play in a highly competitive Norwich Tournament (Norwich, Elmira, Oswego) should go a long way in showing how tough the Johnnies will be down the stretch.
Most Likely to Drop: Too early to tell, but Bethel should probably enjoy its current three-way tie for first place. The Royals’ wins over Hamline to start their MIAC season may be the only league wins they get. It gets tougher from here.
Biggest Surprise: Marian was supposed to finish at the top of the standings this season, but the Sabres have made it look easy so far: a perfect 6-0 in conference, outscoring league opponents 31-8.
Biggest Disappointment: Each season, Minnesota-Crookston (4-4) and MSOE (3-3) look like they may be able to challenge the Sabres’ dominance, but fall by the wayside. This season, the Sabres’ lead may already be too large to overcome, especially if these two split their final pair of games against each other like they did their first meeting.
Most likely to succeed: Marian again. The tough non-conference schedule, which includes at least six games against ranked opponents, should prepare the Sabres for a first-place finish.
Most Likely to Drop: Northland and Lawrence are again looking at a fourth- or fifth-place finish and a play-in game against each other at the end of the season. The winner will have to face Marian, so things don’t look promising.
Biggest Surprise: Wow. So many to choose from. Lake Forest at 11-0-1. Wisconsin-Eau Claire at 10-2 after going 1-22-2 last year. Wisconsin-Stout at 10-3 after a 6-21 record last season. Amazing.
Biggest Disappointment: Wisconsin-Superior has been less than dominant so far, at 7-4-1. The Jackets have the potential to win the league title, but have been inconsistent so far. They showed heart last weekend, coming back from a disappointing 4-0 loss to Lake Forest to defeat St. Norbert the next night.
Most Likely to Succeed: St. Norbert has been consistently good at 11-1-1, with the only loss coming to Superior, 5-4 last weekend. The title is clearly St. Norbert’s to lose.
Most Likely to Drop: Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to go but down for Lake Forest, Eau Claire and Stout. One of the most compelling stories of the second half of the season will be seeing if they can maintain their winning ways playing exclusively league games, and unseat any of the traditionally top four teams to gain home ice in the playoffs.
This will be my last column until the New Year. Look for a return of the Power Ratings and guest prognosticators next time.
Holiday blessings to D-III fans everywhere!