Todd: We’ve reached the point in the season where we start bidding teams farewell for the season. Alabama-Huntsville is done with a 2-28-1 season after a pair of exhibition losses to the U.S. Under-18 Team last weekend, but at least the Chargers will have next season, which is something they weren’t so sure about a few months ago.
Vermont is going to finish last in Hockey East, so it will miss out on the postseason. One of Northeastern, Massachusetts and Providence will also be on the outside looking in after the coming weekend. Then there’s the playoffs starting in Atlantic Hockey, the CCHA and ECAC Hockey.
I guess what stands out to me is that after this weekend, either Ohio State or Notre Dame will be all done because they meet in a CCHA first-round series in South Bend, Ind. The Irish started the season No. 1 in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll, while the Buckeyes were No. 2 less than two months ago. Is stunning the right word to use when talking about the collapses for these teams?
Jim: I think what shocks me the most is how far Notre Dame fell. There have been so many teams and races I have been watching and somehow, Notre Dame has fell under my radar. That said, I think that Ohio State, thus, faces one of the toughest first-round opponents in the Irish. But Notre Dame is hardly the lone solid team that might not be in the best playoff scenario. Clarkson was in great position all season and could have earned a first-round bye in the ECAC on the final night. Instead, the Golden Knights dropped to the seventh seed. Same goes for Maine and Merrimack in Hockey East, as it is likely one of those teams will be on the road in the opening round. Same goes for Michigan Tech, which played great hockey much of the year but now sits in seventh in the WCHA.
Todd: Michigan Tech is an interesting case. The fact that the Huskies even go into the final weekend of the season with a chance at home ice in the first round of the playoffs is a bit of an accomplishment in Mel Pearson’s first season. Sure, things looked a lot better in the first half of the season, but they control their home-ice fate in a series at Colorado College on the last weekend, and the Huskies have been in a lot worse situations in recent seasons.
While we’re talking about the WCHA, the MacNaughton Cup comes down to the final weekend, with Minnesota two points ahead of Minnesota-Duluth and needing just two points at home against Wisconsin to ensure a share of the title and three for the Cup outright. It hasn’t always been an easy season for the Gophers, but some hardware would be a big relief to that fan base, I’m sure.
Jim: Obviously, the Gophers are in the driver’s seat and if they don’t win the title, Gophers fans will be up in arms. The exact scenario exists in Hockey East where Boston College has what should be a pretty easy ride in Vermont this weekend. Is it me or are you also amazed that all five league titles will go down to the final weekend?
Todd: At the start of the season, yeah, I would have been surprised by that. But with the way things turned out this season, it was a foregone conclusion. Now, let’s look forward a little: Will this be one of those seasons with plenty of conference playoff upsets or a more predictable run? We’ve seen in the past where there’s plenty of parity in the regular season but it shuts off in the playoffs.
Jim: That is what will be the humor point of the season: We will likely have tons of parity all year and see all the home teams win in the playoffs. I know I’ve seen it far too often. That said, if I could look at a non-home team next weekend that could upset, I have a few. In Atlantic Hockey, I think Canisius is as good as any team and could upset Connecticut. Obviously, I think Ohio State is definitely good enough to knock off Notre Dame. And in the ECAC, I could see plenty of upsets, namely Brown over Quinnipiac or Dartmouth over St. Lawrence. Agree or disagree?
Todd: I think those are completely plausible upset picks, but after looking at all the matchups, I don’t know if I’d pick any of the road teams. Maybe it’s that home ice just seems to mean more at this time of the year. But I’ve probably been wrong about that a hundred times in the past, so why should this season be any different?
Jim: Good transition as, if there is anywhere I’ve been proven wrong in the past it is in the Hobey Baker Award vote. We’re days away from the vote for finalists. If I had to vote, I’d probably go for the obvious when it comes to a top three. All three are the top scorers in the nation: Spencer Abbott, Jack Connolly and Austin Smith. I know there are a number of other solid players, but there are the three who, every time I come back to them, continue to be my top three. Your thoughts?
Todd: I think those are my three right now as well. I do think, though, that Michigan goaltender Shawn Hunwick has a good chance to play himself into that group over the next few weeks. Connolly has a great combination of being one of the best in the country while being on one of the best teams in the country. Smith’s goal-per-game pace has been eye-opening, but I think Colgate needs to keep playing for a while to give him a real chance. And being in the national scoring lead will obviously help Abbott. Plenty to watch there over the next few weeks.
Jim: I think there are some interesting candidates in that bunch because of the other players who are on their lines. Abbott is the nation’s points leader but you can’t ignore Joey Diamond, who has 22 goals alongside him. Minnesota-Duluth’s Travis Oleksuk is very similar, having 21 goals alongside Connolly. All great players and I wonder how each school chooses to promote their candidates. Is it all about points? In my mind, in essence, it is. What should teams do in this situation?
Todd: A couple years ago, Wisconsin had to decide whether to make its big Hobey push behind defenseman Brendan Smith or forward Blake Geoffrion. Smith got a lot of the hype initially, and Geoffrion won it anyway with a huge stretch run. So I don’t know if it’s as much about promotion as it is about production at this point.
Moving on, we have a familiar new No. 1 this week after Ferris State tied and lost to Western Michigan. Boston College has won nine in a row and took over the top spot. Everyone expects the Eagles to take home the Hockey East regular season title after this weekend, and you have to figure that will serve as motivation for an otherwise innocuous series with 10th-place Vermont.
Jim: Even though it shouldn’t surprise me, I’m still raising eyebrows at how well this BC team his turned around. I felt pretty stupid midseason after claiming early that Boston College was head and shoulders above any other team. It seems, though, at this point the Eagles are proving me right. Forget the nine in a row. BC beat a pretty good Providence team 3-0 and 7-0 last weekend.
When BC struggled, not only was the offense not firing but the defense was surrendering goals. Now both seem to have turned around, most importantly the defense led by goaltender Parker Milner. Milner was put on the bench midway through the season but has made the most of his starts since getting a chance again in late January. I don’t see the entire country, but from what BC shows me, this is a team that knows how to win every type of game right now. This has been the stereotype of all BC’s title teams in the last 10-plus years.
Todd: Time to look a little deeper at this weekend’s action. Out West, that Notre Dame-Ohio State series really stands out to me because of the opportunity lost this season by the series loser. In the WCHA, Colorado College plays for a home-ice spot on the final weekend for the second straight season. It got what it needed last year but this year’s team has been so inconsistent that there’s no guarantee this time around.
How’s it looking in the East?
Jim: Obviously, all of the opening-round series are important in both Atlantic Hockey and the ECAC. I think teams like Yale, Quinnipiac and Clarkson all have something to prove in the ECAC, so we’ll see how each fares on home ice. In Hockey East, though, obviously BC has a chance to win yet another regular-season title against, of all teams, last-place Vermont. Plenty on the line, though, and the series that stands out is Merrimack vs. Massachusetts. The Warriors want home ice; UMass wants a playoff spot. This is a teacher (Toot Cahoon) vs. student (Mark Dennehy) series that makes everything much more interesting. I can’t wait for Saturday night to arrive.