Todd: Well, Jim, we’re on to the eighth week of the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll, and we have our fifth different team atop the rankings. And what a story it is for Merrimack, which heads the poll for the first time in school history. It’s a program that’s three years removed from a nine-win season and coming off its only winning season of its Hockey East era, which dates to 1989. What does a meteoric rise like this do for the Warriors program?
Jim: We will see what the impact can be. The most important thing for Merrimack to do at this point is not get caught up in the ranking. The Warriors have never been the team with the bull’s-eye on the jersey. Now they are. We have seen this year that No. 1 teams struggle. Merrimack has a pretty easy schedule for the next two weekends, but, in the words of Shooter from the movie “Hoosiers,” you can’t get caught watching the paint dry.
Todd: It’s no stretch to think the Warriors will go into the season’s third month undefeated — they have only a game Wednesday against winless Alabama-Huntsville left before the calendar flips. And the rest of their schedule before the holiday break consists of a home-and-home series with Providence (receiving votes in the poll) and single games against Vermont, at No. 16 Colgate and against No. 13 Union.
So I think you’re right that the biggest focus for Merrimack has to be in doing what it has done to get here and to forget about the ranking. That, as we’ve seen time and time again over the years, is easier said than done.
Jim: We can list off teams that struggle with winning after earning No. 1 rankings. Notre Dame, Boston College and Minnesota all have faced that pain.
If anything strikes me about Merrimack’s schedule it is the lack of games it plays pre-December. Despite being undefeated, Merrimack does not hold the longest unbeaten streak, due entirely to the lack of early season games. Thus, while I am happy for Merrimack achieving the top spot, I caution that this team remains untested.
Todd: Let’s switch gears to a team that has certainly been tested, and recently. Ohio State is up to ninth in the rankings after a sweep at Michigan last weekend. The last time the Buckeyes swept at Yost Arena, coach Mark Osiecki was a few weeks shy of winning a Minnesota state high school title as a defenseman for Burnsville, and Red Berenson was in just his second season with the Wolverines. That was February 1986.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Osiecki is getting the most out of his players, but I have to admit that I didn’t think it was going to happen this soon. He’s in his second season at Ohio State, after a 15-18-4 season a year ago. But he’s a proven recruiter who’s an expert at molding talent, and it looks like OSU could be in the NCAA tournament mix this season.
Jim: I’m very impressed with how well Ohio State has played thus far. The Buckeyes have beaten tough competition and have won seven in a row. The few losses that dot the Ohio State schedule aren’t overly impressive (Notre Dame split is fine; Michigan State not bad; Quinnipiac is pretty inexplicable), but they happened so early in the season that I’m happy to call Ohio State one of the hottest teams in the nation right now. If the Buckeyes can keep things going against Lake Superior and Miami, the two series before the holiday break, it’s not too far fetched to think of OSU reaching the top 3, if not No. 1.
Todd: There are three teams with 10 wins or more in Division I men’s college hockey right now, and Ohio State is one of them at 10-3-1. (Minnesota has 11 and Ferris State has 10.) On the flip side, there are three programs that have already reached the 10-loss mark: Sacred Heart (11), Alabama-Huntsville (11) and Rensselaer (10).
RPI is the standout there to me, considering that it won 20 games last season and played in the NCAA tournament. But being shut out by North Dakota in the first round seems to have carried over — in 12 games this season, the Engineers have scored more than one goal only twice, with five shutouts. This has the makings of a long season for RPI.
Jim: Every time a team that makes the NCAA tournament after a long absence, it becomes a make-or-break moment. Merrimack, obviously, used its NCAA appearance as a catapult. But then there are teams like RPI that the appearance is a pinnacle for the program. I know that RPI lost some significant players to the program and that could explain things.
Things aren’t as bad for Nebraska-Omaha, also from last year’s NCAA field, but the Mavericks will have to improve significantly if they want to reach the dance again this year.
Todd: I mentioned Alabama-Huntsville before as one of the teams that has reached double digits in losses. The Chargers are 0-11-1 and have already just about exhausted their home schedule for the season. It has been a few weeks since the school’s administration dropped the bomb on the program following the season, and it doesn’t seem like there’s any relief in sight. They play Hockey East and WCHA teams before the break, and you have to seriously wonder whether this team is going to get a win for Christmas.
Jim: I hand it to UAH for taking difficult trips before the break. Unfortunately, I think the Hockey East and WCHA schedules are disasters waiting to be had for this club. I guess there is the hope to be a spoiler, but this team dropped so far from the team that made an NCAA tournament a few years ago. It’s sad to see them go but also reality at this point.
Todd: Time to look at what’s ahead this week. New No. 2 Notre Dame continues a tough stretch with a game at No. 12 Western Michigan on Tuesday and a series at No. 13 Lake Superior State on Friday and Saturday. No. 4 Colorado College plays a series at North Dakota, which this week did not receive a vote in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll for the first time since the end of the 2001-02 season. And a resurgent Miami team plays at No. 10 Denver in the Denver Cup on Saturday. What’s up out East?
Jim: Very light schedule out East, though Saturday night will see the renewal of the great rivalry between Boston University and Cornell at Madison Square Garden in New York. The past two installments of Red Hot Hockey, played Thanksgiving weekend every other year, have produced exciting battles and should do that once again. Until next week, have a wonderful Thanksgiving and don’t eat too much turkey.