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In Osiecki, U.S. World Junior Team has coach who ‘completely understands the tournament’

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Mark Osiecki was an assistant coach for two U.S. gold-medal teams at the World Junior Championship and one bronze-winning squad (photo: Melissa Wade).

BOSTON — With just a few days remaining before the start of the World Junior Championship, Team USA general manager Jim Johannson has a few difficult decisions to make to get his roster down to the tournament maximum of 23 players.

As difficult as those choices will be, one relatively easy decision made long ago by the 14-year USA Hockey veteran was the selection of his team’s head coach. For that, he tabbed former Ohio State coach Mark Osiecki, who is in his second season as associate head coach of the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs.

2015 World Junior Championship

United States schedule (all times Eastern; all games on NHL Network and NHL.com):

Friday, Dec. 26: vs. Finland at Montreal, 3 p.m.

Sunday, Dec. 28: vs. Germany at Montreal, 8 p.m.

Monday, Dec. 29: vs. Slovakia at Montreal, 4 p.m.

Wednesday, Dec. 31: vs. Canada at Montreal, 4 p.m.

Friday, Jan. 2: Quarterfinals at Montreal or Toronto, TBA

Sunday, Jan. 4: Semifinals at Toronto, TBA

Monday, Jan. 5: Third-place game and final at Toronto, TBA

What made the choice to tab Osiecki an easy one, according to Johannson, was the success the veteran coach has had with Team USA. Since 2010, the U.S. had medaled three times in the annual event. All three teams had one key element: Osiecki.

A three-time assistant for Team USA at this tournament, Osiecki worked under Dean Blais in 2010 and Phil Housley in 2013, each time taking home gold on foreign soil. Add a bronze medal as an assistant under Keith Allain in Buffalo in 2011 and you have one of the most decorated American coaches in IIHF history.

“In the end it was a really easy decision,” Johannson said. “Mark’s experience, he’s been to the World Juniors three times and he has two gold medals and a bronze medal. All three cases, when he came as an assistant coach the very first words out of the head coach to me was, ‘I’ve got to have Ozzie with me.’ He’s a guy who completely understands the tournament.”

Johannson and the American team hope that experience translates on the ice as Team USA looks to avenge a quarterfinals loss a year ago and return the nation to the medal platform.

For Osiecki, the chance to lead Team USA is “humbling.” But he also looks at it as a chance to further contribute to the hockey history of the country.

“All of us in the U.S. who are coaching want to have that opportunity to give back to USA Hockey,” said Osiecki. “This was a great opportunity to be able to give back and do that.”

The experience Osiecki brings is interesting. Outside of his role with past World Junior teams, he was a successful assistant at Wisconsin before his three years leading Ohio State. Now with a season and a half under his belt with the AHL team in Rockford, Osiecki has many facets of coaching experience.

How that translates in a short tournament like the World Juniors is hard to measure, which brings you back to his role in the three U.S. medal winners.

Osiecki said that all of those teams had some indelible characteristics that he hopes can be part of Team USA this year.

“A common denominator with all three of those teams was the leadership,” Osiecki said. “Unbelievable leaders, not just one player. The leadership group on those three teams was outstanding.

“The character on all three of those teams was also incredible. Not one kid on those teams needed credit. They were happy to see other people get credit and do well. This tournament is such a high level of skill that any team can win.”

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Mark Osiecki coached Ohio State for three seasons after serving as an assistant at Wisconsin (photo: Melissa Wade).

Johannson agreed and said that finding players who are versatile is a major part of his recruiting strategy for the team.

“A lot of the conversation comes down to, from a coaching standpoint, how are you going to use the player?” said Johannson. “That’s where the versatility comes from. You can’t control the injuries, so if a guy is limited to what he does well and can’t fit into other areas, that makes it more difficult for a coach to figure out how he’s going to use him.”

The 30 players who competed all week in Boston at the team’s training camp also had some on-ice characteristics that Osiecki relishes. The most obvious to this staff was the speed that was on display a number of times on Friday night as Team USA skated fluidly past the nation’s No. 1 college team, Boston University, in a 5-2 victory.

“We felt it on the ice,” Osiecki said of his team’s overall speed. “When you’re down on the ice skating with them you feel it. But the [staff] upstairs came downstairs after practice and we did a little debriefing and they said you noticed it right when they stepped on the ice.”

Osiecki also loves his team’s tenacious puck possession and its ability to control the puck once that possession occurs. “They have a gift to have the puck and maintain the puck,” Osiecki quipped.

With the Boston training camp in the rear-view mirror, cuts will be made before the team travels to Kingston, Ontario, for a second camp, where among practices the team will take on Germany and Sweden in pre-tournament exhibitions.

The tournament kicks off for Team USA in round-robin play at the Bell Centre in Montreal on Dec. 26 against Finland (3 p.m. ET, NHL Network).

It is the Kingston camp where Osiecki will really learn what type of team he has and can truly begin building the chemistry between lines, defensive pairings and throughout the locker room.

“We have a lot of room for improvement,” Osiecki said after Friday’s win. “Our expectations are high and we’re going to hold the kids accountable in terms of what our goals are, what our expectations are.

“Boston was a good first step. There are little things we’ve talked about. Our character, our identity. We can certainly pull [Friday's] film and find ways to improve on it.”

At the break, WCHA can claim three of nation’s best teams

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Minnesota State is No. 1 in the PairWise Rankings at the break (photo: Jim Rosvold).

Here are five surprises and other things to know about the first half of the WCHA season:

1. WCHA serves notice

Last summer, new league commissioner Bill Robertson talked about setting a goal of getting more than two WCHA teams into the national tournament, something that sounded like a bit of a stretch at the time.

Not so now.

If the season ended today, Minnesota State would be the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA tournament, and Michigan Tech and Bowling Green also would be in the field of 16. Of those teams’ combined 10 losses, eight have come against teams currently ranked in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll. Those games include the Mavericks’ series sweep at Tech and split at Bowling Green.

Whether you put a lot of stock into holiday-time PairWise Rankings or not, there’s no denying that the Mavericks, Huskies and Falcons legitimately belong in the conversation for best teams in the country right now, and the race between those three for the MacNaughton Cup should be a fun one in the second half.

Circle your calendars for Jan. 16-17 (Bowling Green at Michigan Tech) and Feb. 27-28 (Michigan Tech at Minnesota State).

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Alaska’s Tyler Morley (left) leads the WCHA with 19 points (photo: Jim Rosvold).

2. Forwards, march

The WCHA scoring race is tight through the first 18 games or so, with no one player running away in points.

Much has been made of Minnesota State’s depth with six of the league’s top 13 scores, including the conference’s leading goal scorer, Bryce Gervais (11). But those 13 players have 14 or more points apiece, with Alaska’s Tyler Morley leading the race with 19, one ahead of Michigan Tech’s Tanner Kero and two ahead of Gervais and his Minnesota State teammate Matt Leitner.

Bowling Green’s Kevin Dufour ranks second in goals with nine but has been stuck on that number since the “Church of Dufour” was established six games ago.

Another scan of those 13 leaders, and you see that the WCHA is indeed a veteran-driven league with 10 seniors and juniors. There are no freshmen in the group but three sophomores: Minnesota State defenseman Casey Nelson, Alaska forward Marcus Basara and Bemidji State forward Nate Arentz.

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Alaska will miss the postseason because of NCAA sanctions (photo: Jim Rosvold).

3. Alaska rule

The WCHA’s three season-long races (MacNaughton Cup, home ice for the conference tournament and final playoff positions) made the end of its first season post-realignment meaningful and exciting last year, and it’s shaping up to be the same this time around, except with a little twist.

Alaska, which was stripped of postseason play due to NCAA sanctions, likely will factor into the tournament field as a potential spoiler.

Already, the Nanooks have shown to be a good team, handing Minnesota State a home loss two weeks ago. They have to play the Mavericks again later this season, as well as Ferris State and Bowling Green right after the break.

But the other Alaska factor is for the eighth and final seed for the WCHA playoffs. The Nanooks seem unlikely to finish ninth or 10th, so a team that normally wouldn’t make it to the tournament will this year. Currently, Alaska-Anchorage and Lake Superior State are tied for eighth with six points apiece, and Alabama-Huntsville is two points behind them at four (with two games in hand on the Lakers). Those three teams just happen to be three of Alaska’s final four opponents this season.

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Alabama-Huntsville goaltender Carmine Guerriero is 11th nationally with a .934 save percentage (photo: Alabama-Huntsville Athletics).

4. Great year for goaltending

Coming into the season, everyone knew about one elite WCHA goaltender: Ferris State’s CJ Motte, a Hobey Baker Award finalist last season and this year’s preseason league player of the year.

Well, Motte’s still a great goalie — he’s played 1,000-plus minutes and is in the top 10 nationally in both save percentage and GAA — but he’s not the only WCHA backstop to turn heads. Michigan Tech goalie Jamie Phillips and Northern Michigan goalie Mathias Dahlström have also entered the conversation.

Phillips stepped in for the departed Pheonix Copley better than anyone could have hoped. He’s fifth nationally in save percentage (.939) and fourth in GAA (1.69).

Dahlström started hot — for a while his GAA was under 1.00 — but has been injured as of late and is now only at a modest 1.74 GAA. He and Motte each have four shutouts.

And don’t forget about Alabama-Huntsville’s Carmine Guerriero. He’s 11th nationally in save percentage (.934) and has kept the Chargers in games they have no business being in.

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Matt Robertson and Ferris State are tied for fourth in the WCHA (photo: Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com).

5. Stuck in the middle, again

The middle of the league standings looks, much like last season, like a jumble at the midway point.

Ferris State, the defending MacNaughton Cup champion, and Northern Michigan are tied for the fourth and final home-ice spot with 12 points each.

The Bulldogs haven’t been as dominant as they were last year — they’ve had only two conference series sweeps — but they’re still in decent position thanks to Motte and their team defense. The Wildcats also have relied on their team defense behind Dahlström but haven’t been quite as sharp since their two-week Alaska trip over the Thanksgiving break.

Coming in fast is Bemidji State, which is just three points behind that home-ice slot at nine points. The Beavers are riding a five-game unbeaten streak into the break thanks to a talented group of sophomores (including Arentz) and freshmen who have bolstered their offensive numbers compared to recent seasons.

Lake Superior State goaltender Aldridge leaves school, rejoins NAHL’s Ice Dogs

Lake Superior State announced Thursday that freshman goaltender Kevin Aldridge has decided to leave the Lakers and return to junior hockey.

Aldridge plans to rejoin the Fairbanks Ice Dogs of the North American Hockey League, where he won the Robertson Cup and was named Robertson Cup playoffs MVP last season.

“We wish Kevin the best on his return to Fairbanks and in his next steps in his career,” LSSU coach Damon Whitten said in a statement. “We thank him for his contributions to Laker hockey.”

Aldridge appeared in four games for the Lakers during the first half of the 2014-15 season, going 0-2-0 with a 4.80 GAA and a .833 save percentage.

Freshman starter Gordon Defiel and sophomores Aaron Davis and Peter Megariotis remain with the Lakers. Defiel and Megariotis are slated to travel with LSSU to Florida Dec. 28-29 for the Florida College Hockey Classic.

Defying modest expectations, Omaha qualifies as NCHC’s biggest first-half surprise

20141121 Omaha UMD 11 MBishop Defying modest expectations, Omaha qualifies as NCHCs biggest first half surprise

Omaha freshman David Pope has four goals this season (photo: Michelle Bishop).

Before the inaugural season of the NCHC some 18 months ago, the coaches of the league’s eight teams all said that the league would be highly unpredictable.

That’s exactly what it ended up being. Perhaps the ultimate case-in-point came in the form of the Miami RedHawks, who finished the first NCHC regular season dead last and yet, come playoff time, ended up one win away from earning an NCAA tournament berth.

As we approach the midway point of the NCHC’s second regular season, the league has been a little bit more predictable but by much. There have still been plenty of surprises, both good and bad.

Here are some of what I feel have been the biggest talking points thus far this season:

Biggest surprise: Omaha

Omaha coach Dean Blais tried to keep preseason expectations low, and it was easy to see why. The Mavericks said farewell last spring to arguably the best senior class in program history before welcoming in 11 freshmen for this season’s team.

So far, though, UNO is playing like its roster has all been playing together for years. Heading into their series this weekend at home against Alabma-Huntsville, the Mavericks are 10-4-2 (6-3-1-1 NCHC) and have successfully navigated what up to now has been a difficult first-half schedule.

There are areas in which UNO still has plenty of room to improve. Arguably chief among them is the Mavericks’ power play, which has been clicking at only a 15.9 percent clip, good for 32nd in the country.

Things may well get even better in Omaha, however, before the playoffs come around. UNO has a favorable remaining schedule, as it will only hit the road to face a currently ranked opponent once more when the Mavericks visit No. 8 Minnesota-Duluth Feb. 27-28.

Honorable mention: Minnesota-Duluth, which is tied with Miami for first place in the NCHC.

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Omaha’s Ryan Massa is fourth in the country with a .935 save percentage (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

Biggest surprise player: Ryan Massa, Omaha

Throughout Omaha’s program’s history, goaltending has rarely been the Mavericks’ strongest asset. Before this season, not since Dan Ellis a decade ago has UNO boasted one of the nation’s consistently best netminders.

So far this season, however, senior Ryan Massa has been making his case to be considered one of the best Mavericks goalies there’s ever been. UNO knew it needed Massa to perform well this season if the Mavericks were to get anywhere. He has, and they have.

Through his first 14 starts this season, Massa has posted a .935 save percentage, fourth-best in the country among goaltenders with as many starts as he has. Massa has also posted a 2.06 GAA and has backstopped the Mavericks to all but one of their wins in the first half of his final season with UNO.

Honorable mention: North Dakota senior forward Mark MacMillan, who relatively few would have anticipated would be leading the NCHC in scoring right now (seven goals, six assists), but here we are.

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St. Cloud State has had its share of struggles in the first half (photo: Jim Rosvold).

Biggest letdown: St. Cloud State

One or more decent teams are always going to underperform compared to their league rivals in a conference as stacked as the NCHC is, and it’s tough to predict which teams will be nearer the bottom.

St. Cloud State is one that you’d have thought would be much nearer the top than it is.

Half a year removed from winning the Penrose Cup as the NCHC’s inaugural regular season champion, the Huskies have entered the holiday break with a 6-9-1 overall record and gone only 2-5-1-0 in league play. Last weekend, SCSU fell twice on the road at No. 12 Omaha.

Coach Bob Motzko’s Huskies have had a tough first-half schedule to deal with, and it doesn’t get any easier in the new year. All but one of SCSU’s opponents from here on in, save for Western Michigan (in St. Cloud on Jan. 23-24), are currently ranked.

Dishonorable mention: Colorado College, which sits in the NCHC basement as many predicted before this season began.

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Austin Czarnik leads Miami with 17 points, all assists (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

Biggest turnaround: Miami

Coach Enrico Blasi’s Miami RedHawks came into this season keen to prove that its last-place finish last season was an aberration. So far in that regard, history has no danger of repeating itself.

Ahead of its meetings with Notre Dame and either Lake Superior State or Cornell in the Florida College Classic after Christmas, sixth-ranked Miami is sitting pretty, tied at the top of the NCHC standings. Miami (11-5, 7-3) and Minnesota-Duluth have identical NCHC records.

The RedHawks have been hot lately, too, having won six of their last eight games ahead of their abbreviated holiday break.

Honorable mention: Minnesota-Duluth, which finished last season with a .500 record in league play and only just clinched home ice in the first round of the NCHC playoffs on a fourth-place tiebreaker.

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Expect Minnesota-Duluth to be in contention for the NCHC regular season title (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

Looking ahead

Miami looks as good as anyone right now to win the NCHC regular season title, but I’m going to be interested to see how the RedHawks fare in the final month or so.

They have a favorable schedule until the middle of February when they host No. 7 Minnesota-Duluth, then go to No. 11 Denver and then host second-ranked North Dakota, all in consecutive weeks. There’s a lot of hockey yet to be played between now and mid-February, but the regular season crown very well may not be decided until the final night of play.

UMD will make a push of its own, and I think the Bulldogs’ brutal first-half schedule will help them going forward. Colorado College was UMD’s only unranked opponent in the first half of the season, and Scott Sandelin’s Duluth club has picked up plenty of firsthand knowledge of what it’s going to take to lift the Penrose Cup.

Omaha and UND will also be in the hunt for the regular season title if they can keep building on their solid starts. There’s then a seven-point gap between fourth-place UND and Denver, and each of the league’s current bottom four is going to need to pick up the pace in a hurry.

Atlantic Hockey suspends Mercyhurst’s Cook one game after head contact penalty

Atlantic Hockey announced Thursday that Mercyhurst junior forward Kyle Cook has been assessed a one-game suspension for his contact to the head penalty on Dec. 14 against Robert Morris.

On the play, Cook was assessed a five-minute major for contact to the head and a game misconduct at the 12:59 mark of the third period.

Cook will not be eligible for Mercyhurst’s next game on Jan. 2, 2015, against Ohio State.

Sisti has accomplished big things at little Mercyhurst

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2014 Mercyhurst – Clarkson- #34 Amanda Makela has played every minute of every game this season for Mercyhurst. Angelo Lisuzzo (Angelo Lisuzzo)

On Tuesday, Nov. 25, Mercyhurst defeated Colgate, 3-0. The win was the 400th in the history of the program, and the Lakers have added three more since then.

Michael Sisti has been the head coach for all of them, dating back to the first one on Oct. 30, 1999, a 5-2 victory over Findlay. He has been involved with Lakers hockey even longer.

“I was associate head coach of the men’s team,” Sisti said. “The school decided, the administration, that they were definitely going to start women’s hockey and they really wanted me. I was already here six years working with the men’s team, and they really thought I’d be a great candidate and wanted me to take the position.”

While his coaching experience to that point included three years at Canisius, his alma mater, coaching women would be something new.

“A lot of summer camps would have boys and girls in them,” Sisti said. “As far as teaching them different sports or working with younger kids, both male and female, I’d done that, and obviously, some hockey camps, but not a team, per se, in the past.”

So it made sense that there would be at least some hesitation before switching to the game of the other gender.

“Like anything, I looked at all sides of it and talked to some people,” Sisti said. “I wanted to make sure if I did take the position, it was something I was really excited about and could jump in with both feet and not look back and have no regrets. I researched it well. I wanted to make sure that the school was going to make a first-class commitment to the program. After doing all my research, I felt really good that this would be a great opportunity, and I’d have a chance to build something special. I took the position, and it’s obviously proven to be a great decision and things have gone awesome with it.”

Sisti truly has built something special. The Lakers have won CHA regular season titles in all 12 years of the league, and they’ve added the tournament championship in 10 of those years. While it’s true that the CHA is a small conference — this is just its third season of having six teams — Mercyhurst has fared well nationally.

The Lakers have advanced to the NCAA Tournament 10 straight times, the longest string for any program, and that streak is still active.

“There’s already been probably five or six times where we had what people would think should be rebuilding years,” Sisti said. “The group came in, coupled with the players that were coming back, were able to quickly come together and help us to continue to win or even move forward with a stronger season. I think that’s been pretty incredible over the years. No matter how many people we lost or who we lost or how many points, we’ve been able to find a way to mix everyone together and still be successful.”

Critics might claim that the success has been due, at least in part, to the Lakers playing in a weaker conference. There is some validity to that; no other CHA member has ever reached the national tournament.

However, once on the national stage, Mercyhurst has never failed to prove it belongs. The Lakers lost their first four NCAA tourney games, but all were by a single goal, three of them in overtime, including losses in double overtime and triple overtime.

That competitive spirit was formed with the first Lakers roster.

“When we got them together, we explained that we wanted to do something special, and even though we were a first-year program, we didn’t want to be one of those teams that people just run over for a couple of years,” Sisti said. “We wanted to instantly earn people’s respect with the way we played and handled ourselves and our work ethic. I told them, ‘I’m going to treat you like hockey players that want to be successful on and off the ice. If at any time it gets too tough or too challenging and I need to back off, let me know. If you act differently, and I got to treat you differently and less competitive, I will, but my goal is to treat you like elite athletes that want to do something special and respect the game and respect the importance of behaving properly on and off the ice.’

“Then that class did an amazing job of even though they were extremely young to be very mature, to do well in school, and play with great pride and passion, and earn a lot of early victories that helped put our program on the map. If nothing else, they were always extremely competitive, and I think that clearly helped us get started on the right foot.”

In their inaugural season, the Lakers lost their first four games, but the opponents in those series were a New Hampshire team that had played in the national championship game that March and a St. Lawrence squad that would go on to play in the first NCAA title game a season later. So it was a credit to the fledgling program that the worst loss in that stretch was only by six goals.

“The first year, we had C.J. Ireland, who was a four-year captain for us, which is a pretty unusual feat,” Sisti said. “I think that first group and how prideful they were, that helped put us on the map, because we had some early success. Those players, even as we got more scholarships and maybe brought in more talented players, those players for four years were still mainstays and leaders. They got us going, and they helped us build the proper work ethic, pride level, and winning attitude.”

That first season, Mercyhurst finished 23-6-0, mainly against opponents that were a mixture of other new programs and D-III teams. In year two, the scheduled consisted entirely of D-I opposition, and the Lakers finished a respectable 14-16-3, without any blowout losses of more than three goals. By the third season, the record was back up to 24-8-1, and Mercyhurst has won more than 20 games every year since.

“In the early years, people obviously didn’t know much about us, who we were,” Sisti said. “As a matter of fact, that first recruiting class, as we were starting to recruit, it was also late in the process. The school, I think officially decided in March or April that they were going to have this team and got me on board in early April. We put the team together from April to that September. It was amazing we were able to have a team, but when we were recruiting those kids, we didn’t have a locker room yet, jerseys or uniforms, or even a schedule. They came here loving the school and loving an opportunity to play D-I hockey and just excited about what we thought we could build here with them helping us get it started. I think that was key.”

Sisti says it has been a step-by-step process. Slowly, the passion and work ethic were combined with greater talent, and the success snowballed.

“We have now had some of the best players to ever play women’s college hockey that played here,” he said. “We’ve got our Patty Kazmaier Award winner in Vicki Bendus, three-time gold medalist Meghan Agosta, and our team and our players have some individual and team awards that we’ve won along the way, too. Certainly when it comes to recruiting, the kids do know a lot more about us. They love the school when they get here and they see it, but they also are well aware of the success we’ve had over the years and the consistency we’ve been able to do it with.”

Mercyhurst finally cleared the obstacle of that NCAA quarterfinal in 2009, reaching the championship game. The Lakers have returned to the Frozen Four three more times, including each of the last two seasons.

That run of NCAA success was accomplished without a conference automatic bid, which the CHA champion will receive for the first time this season. It would be ironic if that should prove to be a curse rather than a blessing to the Lakers and bump them from a tournament field that they otherwise would have reached.

It could happen. The CHA has quickly developed into a league where anything can happen.

“The other thing that I think has been helpful is we respect all our opponents and we never count the wins until we have them,” Sisti said.

At the end of the day, however, Sisti and company almost always had those wins. Coming into the season, only two of the CHA members owned wins over the Lakers: Robert Morris and RIT.

After years of frustration, Syracuse finally got its first triumph at Mercyhurst’s expense with a 4-1 win on Nov. 8. This past weekend, Penn State swept a series from the Lakers, a result made more surprising by the fact that the Nittany Lions scored only one time in four one-sided losses a year ago.

Perhaps it is another validation of what Sisti has accomplished that we view it as a huge upset when Mercyhurst, a school with an enrollment of just over 4,000, falls to mighty Penn State, whose enrollment is over 98,000.

“Everybody wants to win hockey games, and that’s the fun part,” Sisti said. “You’ve got to go out and earn them one at a time. That’s why they say that in every sport, ‘That’s why you play the game.’ Because anything can happen on a given day.”

This isn’t Sisti’s most dominant team by any stretch, but it went into the games at Penn State with a No. 6 ranking and a 16-2-2 record.

“We’ve had all different types of teams over the years,” Sisti said. “This year’s team is more of a team where we’ve got to rely on everybody playing well and playing together and playing our systems to be successful. When we do that, we think we can play with anyone. When we don’t, we’re obviously vulnerable.”

Offense was a question coming into the year after the graduation of Christine Bestland, whose 226 career points were second only to Agosta in program history. A trio of forwards, juniors Emily Janiga and Jenna Dingeldein and newcomer Sarah Robello, has filled much of that void.

“What is nice is I know Emily has gotten some looks from USA Hockey, and I think they’re well-deserved,” Sisti said. “She’s getting better all the time, and she’s having a real nice season for us. Sarah is a freshman, is putting up points, has amazing hands, and just has to learn the game a little better, but think she’s going to really, hopefully, benefit by learning her first half and have a big second half. And obviously Dingeldein has put up points for us.”

Those three have combined for 34 goals and 78 points, but others have come through as well.

“[Junior] Hannah Bale doesn’t score a lot of goals, but usually when she does, it’s an important goal at an important time,” Sisti said.

The Lakers rank 14th in scoring offense, but that has been enough because of the strong play in goal of senior Amanda Makela.

“I thought Makela has played as good as any goalie we’ve ever had,” Sisti said. “This past weekend was kind of a lost weekend for our whole team, but 22 games is a lot to play in the first half. I thought before then, she was having and is having a remarkable season and has played really well for us, too.”

Makela ranks at or near the top in all categories. She has seven shutouts, one shy of the lead. She’s in the top six in winning percentage, save percentage, and goals-against average. The only number that is at all troubling is she leads the country in minutes played by a wide margin, having taken all of the team’s 1,322 minutes in goal.

“That’s my fault,” Sisti said. “Julia DiTondo and Jess Convery, they’re looking really good, and I probably should have gotten them some minutes somewhere along the way, but Makela was playing so good. That’s probably on me, because 22 games and all those minutes is a lot.”

Now the whole team gets a month off to rest and recharge.

“The hockey season, I think to next to maybe bowling, is the longest season out there, and it is a long stretch,” Sisti said. “There’s a lot of obstacles, there’s a lot of injuries you’ve got to battle, or illnesses and ups and downs. I think that’s one of the big challenges, navigating through that.”

Once again, the Lakers are positioned to contend and have a three-point lead in the CHA standings. If the past is any predictor of the future, they’ll find a way to increase their run of NCAA appearances to 11.

“I think the league race is definitely going to be interesting, but it’s our job to get our players in the right frame of mind and find ways to win hockey games,” Sisti said. “It’s certainly not easy. I think that’s one of the things when we’re sitting back thinking is it half-full or half-empty. We’re really proud of the longevity of our success, because we’ve done it all different ways with all different staffs, all different types of players, offensive teams, defensive teams, sometimes the star players, the no-name players. I think that’s just a credit of being prideful and trying to solve the problems and never giving up.”

In Hockey East’s first half, Eichel, Boston University stand out as top story lines

141018 20233911 In Hockey Easts first half, Eichel, Boston University stand out as top story lines

WIth 27 points, Boston University freshman Jack Eichel shares the national scoring lead (photo: Melissa Wade).

This first-half wrap-up lists the five things in Hockey East that have stood out the most for me.

First, though, a few caveats.

For Massachusetts-Lowell fans, your team didn’t make the list, but it came close. I’m surprised at how the River Hawks haven’t missed a beat — heck, they haven’t lost a league game yet — despite the attrition. And yes, your singing of the national anthem on opening night after the PA system went out was truly awesome.

Similarly, Connecticut didn’t quite make the cut, but I’m impressed at how competitive the Huskies have been. Defeating Boston College and tying Boston University in the span of just four days stunned me.

Onward, then, with the fabulous (and not-so-fabulous) five.

1. Jack Eichel

OK, I know those of you who dislike Boston University are sick already of hearing about Eichel. And those of you who hate the Terriers are well into loathing territory when it comes to the scarlet-and-white superstar.

Sorry, but the fact is that freshmen who lead the country in scoring don’t come along very often. Eichel is a special talent and it’s a pleasure to watch him play.

I’m not yet ready to call him Paul Kariya. That’s a very, very high hurdle to clear. But he looks like the best freshman I’ve seen since Maine’s No. 9.

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Danny O’Regan leads Boston University with 12 goals (photo: Melissa Wade).

2. BU’s reemergence as a power

Forgive me if this seems like Terriers double-dipping, but the focus on Commonwealth Ave. is warranted.

BU haters had a fun time last season when the Terriers finished a distant ninth in the league, posting a 5-12-3 Hockey East record and 10-21-4 overall. Some wondered whether new coach Dave Quinn was in trouble, the guy who was unlucky enough to replace a legend and, in comparison, would always be found wanting.

Well, the Terriers are back and in a big way: 7-1-2 in league play and 11-3-2 overall.

Oh yeah, they’re also first in the country.

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Stu Higgins (right) and Maine have stumbled to a 4-13-1 start (photo: Melissa Wade).

3. The struggles of three of last year’s winning teams

Ups and downs from year to year are inevitable. But three of last year’s winning teams have struggled mightily.

Perhaps mighty is overstating it a bit with Maine, but 4-13-1 overall after finishing a game above .500 last season is quite a tumble.

Last year, Northeastern finished five games over .500 overall; this year, the Huskies didn’t record their first win until Nov. 15. Ouch! Fortunately, they’ve won five games since that point so there is hope, but what a tough start.

Topping them all, however, is perennial power New Hampshire, which secured home ice last year, finishing fourth, but now sits in next-to-last place with a 1-5-1 Hockey East record and 5-10-1 overall. Can coach Dick Umile rally his troops in the second half? We’ll find out.

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Rasmus Tirronen and Merrimack’s special teams have been key in the team’s improvement (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

4. Merrimack’s bounce-back year

It got ugly last season: 3-15-2 in Hockey East and 8-22-3 overall. Longtime fans might have wondered if the bad old days of cellar-dwelling were back.

Fuhgedaboudit!

The Warriors are .500 inside Hockey East and 10-5-2 overall. There’ll be no cellar for this club; in fact, Merrimack is nationally ranked.

Freshman Brett Seney leads the scoring. Senior Rasmus Tirronen is posting unconscious numbers in the net: a 1.73 GAA and a .929 save percentage.

The special teams have been really special: the second-best penalty kill in Hockey East and the fourth-best power play.

“Goaltending and special teams” has been a common mantra in hockey locker rooms. It works in North Andover.

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Vermont’s Mario Puskarich and Jonathan Turk combined for 12 goals in the first half (photo: Melissa Wade).

5. Vermont has joined the elite

Last year, the Catamounts were a .500 team within the league but used a strong nonconference record to secure an NCAA berth.

This year?

Talk about making the huge step to the next level. The Cats trail only Lowell and BU. As noted in a recent blog post, Vermont ranks as the top defensive team in the country. It also has earned a No. 10 ranking nationally.

The Catamounts admittedly still have the toughest part of their league schedule remaining, so they could topple off their current lofty perch.

But so far, this team looks very much for real.

And finally, not that it has anything to do with anything, but …

My latest sports-related novel, “Offside,” is hot off the presses in ebook formats. (It won’t be available in paper until early January.)

If you liked “Cracking the Ice,” you’ll like “Offside” even though it only has a smidgen of hockey. It’s primary sport is football with a bit of baseball (and the 1967 Red Sox) mixed in.

Here’s the description:

“Rabbit” Labelle loves football, but the tiny, rural Maine town where he lives isn’t big enough to support a team. After his father moves the family to the big, bad city, Rabbit finally gets his chance to play the sport he loves the most, but he must also confront the dangers of “Lynn, Lynn, City of Sin.”

It’s 1967 and cities torn by racial turmoil, this includes his father’s greatest fear: “the Negroes.”

Rabbit, who’d been the most popular kid in Plainfield, Maine, struggles to make friends and wonders if he’ll even survive. Only football can save him.

“David H. Hendrickson is one of my favorite writers.”
– USA Today best-selling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Click here for the Kindle, NOOK, Kobo, or Smashwords.

Robert Morris’ continued success a big story line for Atlantic Hockey in first half

Wydo celebrates Robert Morris continued success a big story line for Atlantic Hockey in first half

Cody Wydo is third in the nation with 25 points for Robert Morris (photo: Robert Morris Athletics).

In recapping the first half of the season, here are five things of note:

Bobby Mo-mentum

Robert Morris finished strong last season and won the Atlantic Hockey title, so it’s not a surprise to see the Colonials picking up where they left off, considering Derek Schooley’s squad returned almost intact. But they have exceeded even high expectations, sitting at the break at 9-2-3 in conference play and 11-2-3 overall.

The Colonials are No. 19 in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll, reaching as high as No. 17 a couple of weeks ago.

Schooley has stuck with the goaltending tandem of Dalton Izyk (6-1, 2.30 GAA, .931 save percentage) and Terry Shafer (5-1-2, 2.21 GAA, .919 save percentage), and they’ve given him no reason to change course.

Senior Cody Wydo was expected to be near the national leaders in scoring again after a 31-goal season in 2013-14, and he’s third in the nation in points (11-14–25). Junior David Friedmann is on a pace for a career year (8-6–14) and freshman Brady Ferguson is off to a great start with 16 points.

The Colonials next square off against No. 20 Penn State in the first round of the Three Rivers Classic on Dec. 29. No. 17 Colgate and Western Michigan are the other participants.

DSC 3542 Robert Morris continued success a big story line for Atlantic Hockey in first half

Rochester Institute of Technology is 3-3-1 at the new Gene Polisseni Center (photo: Omar Phillips).

New homes and some home cooking

It’s been a banner year for the league in terms of new facilities. Canisius and Rochester Institute of Technology both opened new barns this season: HarborCenter and the Gene Polisseni Center, respectively.

Canisius is 2-3-4 in its new digs, while RIT is 3-3-1 in its.

Attendance is up for both: The Golden Griffins are averaging 1,314 fans through nine games at HarborCenter; last season’s average attendance was 733 in 16 games at Buffalo State.

The Tigers are up almost 1,200 fans per game. They have averaged 2,753 fans through seven games at the Polisseni Center versus 1,592 per game in the final season at Frank Ritter Arena. Both figures exclude the 10,600 RIT draws each year for its game at Blue Cross Arena.

Overall, the league has seen an increase in home conference games thanks to other leagues needing to fill more nonleague slots as well as an incentive to play more road games through changes in the NCAA tournament selection criteria.

This season, AHA teams will host 25 nonconference games compared to 18 last season. So far, the league is a decent 7-12-2 at home in nonleague games; it’s a dismal 4-22 on the road.

gladiuk Robert Morris continued success a big story line for Atlantic Hockey in first half

Andrew Gladiuk is tied for second in the nation with 27 points (photo: Melissa Wade).

Prime time guys

It’s the natural ebb and flow of college hockey, be it in leagues or on individual teams: Some years are “goalie years” and others are “scoring years.”

Atlantic Hockey has had its share of both, but recently, with some notable exceptions, goalies have led the way and the number of players able to put up 30-point seasons has decreased.

But a glance at national statistics shows Atlantic Hockey standing out in terms of offense so far. Four of the top five players in total points and points per game are from the AHA:

• Bentley’s Andrew Gladiuk (tied for second in the nation with 27 points; third in PPG with 1.42)

• Wydo (third in points with 25; second in PPG with 1.56)

• Max French from Bentley (fourth in points with 24; fifth in PPG with 1.41)

• RIT’s Matt Garbowsky (fifth in points with 23; second in PPG with 1.44).

Garbowsky and Gladiuk are tied for the national lead in goals with 14 each at the break.

Wydo and Gladiuk are no surprise — each put up big numbers last season. But French and Garbowsky are having career years so far.

French had an excellent freshman campaign last season, notching 11 goals and 12 assists. But he has already surpassed his point total from 2013-14.

Garbowsky, a senior, was out of the lineup the majority of last season with a hand injury, appearing in only 13 games and scoring just seven points. He did have 33 points his sophomore year but he’s well on the way to exceeding that this season.

DSC 5333 Robert Morris continued success a big story line for Atlantic Hockey in first half

Jordan Ruby leads Atlantic Hockey with a 1.87 GAA (photo: Omar Phillips).

Goaltending: The usual suspects and some surprises

That’s not to say this has been a really down year for goaltending. Mercyhurst’s Jimmy Sarjeant, the reigning Atlantic Hockey player of the year, has two shutouts this season and is carrying a .918 save percentage.

As mentioned earlier, Izyk and Shafer are big reasons Robert Morris is leading the pack so far this season. Matt Ginn is closing out his career at Holy Cross with his best season to date (a league-best .931 save percentage and a 2.08 GAA).

The surprise so far is RIT’s Jordan Ruby. The senior has been up and down in previous seasons for the Tigers, but since early November Ruby has strung together the most consistent stretch of his career, allowing a total of five goals in his last six outings. He leads the league in GAA (1.87) and is third in save percentage (.930).

Also turning heads is Bentley rookie goaltender Jason Argue. He’s played in just five games so far (so isn’t eligible for statistical rankings), but has a .934 save percentage and a 1.97 GAA in those contests. He’ll be near the top of the leader board if he can keep it up.

DSC 5264 Robert Morris continued success a big story line for Atlantic Hockey in first half

Matt Ginn leads Atlantic Hockey with a .931 save percentage (photo: Omar Phillips).

Midseason all-stars

Midterm grades are out, and here’s who’s on the Dean’s List, in our opinion:

Midseason all-conference
F Matt Garbowsky, sr., RIT
F Andrew Gladiuk, jr., Bentley
F Cody Wydo, sr., Robert Morris
D Steve Weinstein, sr., Bentley
D Chase Golightly, jr., Robert Morris
G Matt Ginn, sr., Holy Cross

Midseason all-rookie
F Brady Ferguson, Robert Morris
F TJ Moore, Holy Cross
F Tyler Pham, Army
D Phil Boje, Air Force
D Brady Norrish, RIT
G Jason Argue, Bentley

Midseason MVP: Matt Ginn, Holy Cross

Harvard, St. Lawrence’s Hayton emerge as first-half surprises in ECAC Hockey

141101 21424357 Harvard, St. Lawrences Hayton emerge as first half surprises in ECAC Hockey

Steve Michalek has led Harvard to become one of the big surprises from the first half in ECAC Hockey (photo: Melissa Wade).

In ECAC Hockey’s preseason coaches conference call with the media, Rensselaer’s Seth Appert jokingly said there weren’t a lot of things you could count on, but one of them was the coaches and media whiffing when picking the preseason polls.

That’s the case as ECAC Hockey heads into the semester break with Harvard (ninth in the coaches poll; 10th in the media poll) tied for first place with Quinnipiac, which was picked fifth in the coaches poll and third in the media poll.

The Bobcats have been one of the league’s best over the last few years, but this appears to be a breakout season for the Crimson. Here’s a look at that and several other notable developments over the first three months.

Biggest surprise: Harvard

It’s a familiar narrative that’s been repeated many times this fall: A Crimson team loaded with NHL draft picks has finally turned its talent into wins. What might be getting left out is just how dominant Harvard has been.

At 9-1-2, the Crimson are in the top 10 in the country in offense, defense, power play and penalty kill. They’ve also outscored their opponents by an average of 1.92 goals per game, which is the best in the nation.

The top line of Jimmy Vesey, Alexander Kerfoot and Kyle Criscuolo, as well as defenseman Patrick McNally, are each averaging a point per game. McNally and goalie Steve Michalek, both seniors, look to be fulfilling the potential each showed earlier in their career. Both missed most of their sophomore years following an alleged involvement in a school-wide academic scandal. The Crimson might slow down a bit in the second half, but there’s no reason not to expect them to contend for the regular season title.

DSC 3662 Harvard, St. Lawrences Hayton emerge as first half surprises in ECAC Hockey

St. Lawrence’s Kyle Hayton is second nationally in saves (photo: Omar Phillips).

Biggest surprise, player: Kyle Hayton

It’s always tough to project how rookies will adjust to college hockey. But St. Lawrence freshman goaltender Kyle Hayton has made an impact right away, helping turn around a Saints defense that was among the worst in Division I last year.

Hayton has a .932 save percentage and is sixth in the nation in minutes played and second in saves. He set the school record for shutouts in a season with four in his first 13 games.

St. Lawrence enters the break on a four-game losing streak to drop its record to 8-8, but that shouldn’t take away from Hayton’s first-half performance.

DSC 0025 Harvard, St. Lawrences Hayton emerge as first half surprises in ECAC Hockey

After scoring 13 goals last season, Brown’s Nick Lappin is goalless through his first nine games this season (photo: Candace Horgan).

Biggest disappointment: Brown

It seems hard to believe that the Bears made it to the ECAC title game just two years ago. Even though the Bears faded last year and graduated several important defenseman in the offseason, they returned forwards Matt Lorito, Nick Lappin and Mark Naclerio. That trio formed one of the better lines in the conference last season.

Add newcomers and NHL draft picks Sam Lafferty, Tyler Bird and Max Willman, and it appeared the Bears should have had enough offense to challenge for a home-ice spot. That hasn’t been the case.

Lorito has five goals in nine games, but Naclerio and Willman are the only players of the aforementioned group to have scored a goal entering the break — and they’ve combined for only three.

It’s not all the offense’s fault. Brown is allowing nearly four goals per game, thanks to a .889 team save percentage and a penalty kill that is last in Division I at 67.4 percent. That all adds up to a disappointing 3-8 record, including a 1-7 mark in league play, with the lone win coming in the Bears’ final game before the break.

It doesn’t get any easier, as Brown opens the second half playing Boston College and Denver, followed by two games each against Providence and Yale.

20141031 1493 Harvard, St. Lawrences Hayton emerge as first half surprises in ECAC Hockey

Defense has been the name of the game this season for Yale (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

A different Yale team

At 4-3-1 in the ECAC and 6-3-2 overall, Yale is off to a solid start. But this seems to be a different Bulldogs team from years past — one built around defense and goaltending.

Yale is 43rd in the country in scoring, but is sixth in goals allowed. That’s something that would have been nearly unfathomable several years ago, but credit sophomore goalie Alex Lyon and a veteran Bulldogs defense for the turnaround.

Lyon has a .927 save percentage, while backup Patrick Spano had a shutout in his only start of the season. Yale also has plenty of talent on the back end with senior Tommy Fallen and juniors Rob O’Gara and Ryan Obuchowski leading the way.

Currently in fourth place, Yale should in the running for a first-round bye come March.

20141108 1674 Harvard, St. Lawrences Hayton emerge as first half surprises in ECAC Hockey

Lineup shuffling has cost Colgate some consistency in the first half (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

Second half outlook: Union and Colgate should pick it up

It’s hard to criticize the Dutchmen or Raiders too much, given that each team enters the break with a 9-6-1 record. But it feels like the second half could have better things coming for each team.

Union endured a brutal six-game winless stretch from the end of October to mid-November. The Dutchmen are 4-1 since then, albeit the one loss was an 8-2 blowout to Western Michigan. The defending national champions have plenty of youth in the lineup but still have goalie Colin Stevens and plenty of dangerous forwards.

As for the Raiders, they’ve been steady most of the fall but dropped three straight to end the first half. Injuries played a part, as Colgate lost forward Mike Borkowski for the season in November, and Tylor Spink, last year’s second-leading scorer, saw his first action of the year Dec. 9 against Providence.

Throw in a one-game suspension for top-six forward Darcy Murphy, and head coach Don Vaughan has had to do some lineup shuffling in the first half.

Look for both the Dutchmen and Raiders to make a mark in the second half.

What does the end of Miller’s time in Duluth signal?

miller5080 What does the end of Millers time in Duluth signal?

Minnesota-Duluth coach Shannon Miller. (Brett Groehler)

With the announcement on Dec. 15 that Minnesota-Duluth will not renew the contract of head coach Shannon Miller after this season, one has to wonder what this means for women’s Division-I hockey going forward.

In the sports world, coaches come and go all the time. Miller is halfway through her 16th season running the Bulldogs’ program. Like her, Michael Sisti at Mercyhurst has been in place since the 1999-2000 season. After taking 2013-2014 off to direct the United States Olympic Team, Katey Stone is in her 20th campaign at Harvard, although she started her tenure five years earlier than Miller. Miller has seen everyone else arrive and many of them leave. In her league, Mark Johnson is second in tenure, as he took over in 2002-2003. On the other end of the league stability spectrum, Jim Scanlan is the fifth different Bemidji State coach to match wits with Miller.

The map looked far different in terms of the programs that existed when Miller started. The majority of the teams played in a 13-member ECAC Division-I league. UMD was one of seven squads that comprised the WCHA in its inaugural season, and Mercyhurst was one of three D-I independents.

Fourteen new programs that compete at D-I on a full-time basis have been added, while three others have dissolved: Findlay, Wayne State, and Niagara. Change is very much a part of the environment, and everyone realizes that.

What makes the change at Minnesota-Duluth most surprising is that not only is the length of her tenure second only to Stone, Miller has been the game’s most successful coach over it. In her first year, she guided the Bulldogs to season and playoff championships in the WCHA. The NCAA began sponsoring the national tournament the following season, and Miller and UMD won half of the first 10, including the first three. In addition to those five NCAA titles, Miller’s teams hold three WCHA regular-season crowns and five league tournament championships, and they’ve posted a composite record of 375-137-48.

However, the wins have slowed in recent years. Last year’s seniors were only the second of Miller’s recruiting classes to graduate without an NCAA championship during their careers. Nobody on her current roster has even competed in the NCAA tournament, unexpected given the Bulldogs were participants in all but one of the first 11. Two years ago, the team had its first losing season, and a .500 record last year made it two straight with fewer than 20 wins, a milestone she reached or surpassed in her first 13 campaigns. Her current squad has rebounded and heads into the break with a 12-5-3 mark and ranked in a tie for sixth in the latest poll.

Miller has long been a polarizing figure. She gets louder cheers from fans in Duluth during pregame introductions than do her players. Many of those current and former players speak of her in glowing terms, describing her as everything from the best coach they’ve ever had to the best coach in the world. She’s also had a couple of seasons end with players leaving the program while having eligibility remaining, with rumors that it was more a case of Miller cleaning house than players choosing to leave.

She’s also been a lightning rod for controversy. On two separate occasions, she’s been suspended by the WCHA for her actions resulting from disagreements with on-ice or league officials. Even when a rival coach was suspended, Miller figured prominently in the backstory. UMD would also own the 2007-2008 WCHA season title, but it was vacated as a result of the agreement reached with the NCAA after it was determined that her team used an ineligible player for a portion of that season.

In many sports, the conventional wisdom is that to keep their jobs, coaches need to continue to win in order to draw paying customers. That is seldom much of a factor in women’s hockey, because most teams don’t attract enough fans to generate a substantial amount of revenue. Minnesota-Duluth does better in that regard, and the Bulldogs have averaged over 1,000 fans per game in each of the last three seasons for the first time in their history. Factoring into that statistic is the opening of the AMSOIL Arena in December 2010. While the facility brings a few more fans to games, it also likely introduces greater costs to the budget.

The climate is also likely different in Duluth than it was when Miller was hired. No, not the lake effect and all that. Miller’s NCAA Championship in 2001 was the first for the school in any sport. Since then, the Bulldogs have won NCAA Division-II football championships in 2008 and 2010. The men’s hockey team won its first NCAA Championship in 2011, so the last two national titles won at UMD came from other teams. Former UMD chancellor Kathryn A. Martin was one of the women’s hockey team’s biggest supporters. Miller’s contract has been extended several times during her tenure, and in the wake of the Bulldogs’ success, Martin was willing to pay to retain her services. Martin retired in July 2010, and neither new chancellor Dr. Lendley C. Black, nor athletic director Josh Berlo, dates back to the Bulldogs’ last championship in women’s hockey.

The reason given by Berlo for not renewing Miller’s contract, as well as those of her assistants, was that the salaries did not fit within the current budget constraints of the university and its athletic department. That is entirely probable. She is reported to be the highest-paid NCAA women’s hockey coach in the country, and a primarily Division-II athletic department like that of UMD typically doesn’t spend at the same level that those in the power conferences do.

According to Miller, she would have been amenable to accepting a contract at a lower salary in light of the school’s budget difficulties. As quoted by Matt Wellens of the Duluth News Tribune, Berlo was not interested in pursuing that option. Instead, he and Black have decided to thank Miller for her service and move on with a new coaching regime after this season ends.

I know nothing of Berlo’s relationship with Miller, but she has been outspoken over the years in her belief that the women’s program should be funded and equipped in a manner similar to that of UMD’s men’s hockey team. Purely speculation, but perhaps cuts will need to be made in other areas of the program beyond staff salaries, and Berlo was reluctant to enter a new contract phase with Miller having fewer resources at her disposal than in the past.

How this change will alter the national picture in future seasons depends to a large extent on where Miller goes next. She has been very active in growing the international game. Miller could accept an opportunity in her home country of Canada or overseas, and it will be simply a case of subtracting her from the NCAA equation.

I don’t believe that the WCHA would have risen to prominence as rapidly as it did had someone other than Miller started the UMD program. Her international contacts gave her access to new talent pools, and her coaching ability allowed her to hone it to a championship level. Miller’s personality helped spark rivalries with league opponents. Programs like Minnesota and Wisconsin were forced to invest in their own programs to keep up or face the possibility of getting dominated.

Occasionally over the years, there would be rumors floating around that Miller was leaving UMD to move to another program. Perhaps the rumor that looked most likely to occur had her leaving Duluth in early 2008 to start the new program at Syracuse. Instead, she got a contract extension and a raise, and Paul Flanagan moved to Syracuse.

I think that the WCHA is less top-heavy than it was in 2008, so if Miller leaves the conference entirely, it is unlikely to become all Wisconsin and Minnesota. Programs like North Dakota and Bemidji State in particular are much stronger now than they were then.

How does it scramble the landscape if she moves to another program? Obviously, an opening has to exist, and right now, there aren’t any. I find it a little unseemly a week before Christmas to be speculating about what program might be interested in dumping its current coach and attempting to lure Miller to assume command. I expect that it would have to be a program that is fully committed to winning; I don’t think she would be content to making do with scraps.

If she does land in another NCAA job, I expect that it will quickly become a contender. Not as rapidly as the Bulldogs did, but depending on its current situation, quicker than with most hires. Miller told me a year ago that building a team was similar to fitting pieces in a puzzle. Of late, even in her established program at UMD, those pieces have been harder to find, because the competition for picking them has gotten more intense.

So what becomes of the Bulldogs, both in the short and long term? The future beyond the current season will depend on what current UMD players and recruits decide to do, who is hired to succeed Miller, and what resources that coach is allotted. I don’t expect that there will be a lot of recruiting happening on UMD’s behalf over the next few months. Part of the penalties imposed on the program by the NCAA back in 2009 was a two-week ban on recruiting. While programs might be targeting younger recruits now than they did then, I would still expect that several months without active recruiting would be detrimental. Some regression of the program, temporary or not, appears likely.

For the rest of this season, I expect that Miller will make every attempt to go down in a blaze of glory at Minnesota-Duluth. Her interview process for her next job effectively begins now, and this is her chance to showcase her coaching abilities. The players chose to become Bulldogs in the hope of being taught and coached by Miller. That opportunity is just shrunk down to a shorter window for most of them.

Finally, what will change for NCAA hockey fans like you and I? If this is her last coaching gig in our game, then we’re less likely to see certain things, such as shiny jackets behind the bench, impromptu refresher courses for officials, flying water bottles, and quotes that few other coaches would say. We’ll also miss out on some excellent hockey, played with speed and finesse.

Even her detractors would concede that Shannon Miller’s teams are entertaining. After nearly 16 seasons of observing her in action, I’d say that she is as well. She just has a wider repertoire of performances than most of her peers.

Wisconsin’s dreadful start leads list of first-half Big Ten notables

w21 Wisconsins dreadful start leads list of first half Big Ten notables

Grant Besse leads Wisconsin with seven points through 12 games (photo: Melissa Wade).

Here are five surprises from the first half of the season for Big Ten teams:

1. Wisconsin’s dreadful start

Wisconsin came into the season without a lot of names that were frequently seen on the score sheet during the 2013-14 season. Most notably, its top five scorers had either graduated or departed early from the program. Those five players combined for 170 points last season, which accounted for a little more than half of the Badgers’ offense.

This season, Wisconsin went to battle with 11 true freshmen, although that number dropped to 10 after Keegan Ford left the program in early December. The Badgers started off 0-8 before tying and winning their first games of the season against Ferris State. They started off the Big Ten schedule by getting swept at home by Penn State. The Nittany Lions were the first conference foe to sweep the Badgers at Kohl Center since Minnesota State did in November 2012.

Wisconsin’s leading scoring freshman is Jake Linhart, who has zero goals and five assists. He is only two points behind Grant Besse for the team lead in points. Coach Mike Eaves has said that freshmen typically turn a corner after the holiday break. Whether Wisconsin’s stable of young players can do that and help salvage the season remains to be seen.

Wisconsin’s next action will be Jan. 2-3 when it hosts Michigan Tech.

DSC 4336 Wisconsins dreadful start leads list of first half Big Ten notables

Casey Bailey has a team-high 10 goals for Penn State (photo: Omar Phillips).

2. Penn State’s solid start

In its second year in the Big Ten, Penn State has sent a message to the rest of the conference and country saying that it is a team that deserves some respect. The Nittany Lions are 9-4-2 and their 3-1 Big Ten record puts them atop the conference standings.

After starting 1-1-2, the Nittany Lions rattled off four straight wins at home. They then split with Massachusetts-Lowell and Michigan on the road and swept Wisconsin after falling to Cornell at Madison Square Garden.

Penn State has two players in the top 15 in the nation in scoring. Senior forward Taylor Holstrom and junior forward Casey Bailey both have 18 points this season. Bailey’s 10 goals put him at No. 10 in that department, and Holstrom’s 14 assists place him at No. 5 in that category. Penn State has the nation’s No. 7 offense, averaging 3.47 goals per game and has converted 16 of 60 power-play opportunities.

Penn State will play in the Three Rivers Classic at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center on Dec. 29-30.

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Andrew Copp and Michigan are just one game over .500 (photo: Melissa Wade).

3. Michigan’s ho-hum start

Had someone told me before the season started that Michigan would average nearly four goals per game in the first half, I wouldn’t have thought its record would be a shade above .500, but here we are.

The Wolverines are 8-7 after dropping their last game of the first half to Boston College. The loss snapped Michigan’s four-game winning streak.

Consistency and playing well away from Yost Ice Arena have been the two biggest problems for Michigan so far this season. An 8-4 victory over Massachusetts-Lowell is the only away win for the Wolverines. The 1-5 road record includes a loss to Ferris State, two losses at Michigan Tech and losses to Boston University and Boston College. Michigan’s No. 3 offense is also coupled with the nation’s 42nd defense, which gives up 4.07 goals per game.

The Wolverines had won six of their last seven before Boston College, but the loss to the Eagles left a sour taste in their mouth heading into the Great Lakes Invitational, which will be held in Detroit Dec. 28-29. Michigan State, Ferris State and Michigan Tech are also featured in the tournament’s field.

20141128 2046 Wisconsins dreadful start leads list of first half Big Ten notables

Michigan State’s Jake Hildebrand and his fellow Big Ten goaltenders haven’t enjoyed the success they did last season (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

4. Struggles between the pipes

Minnesota’s Adam Wilcox has a 9-4-1 record, .926 save percentage and 2.12 GAA so far this season. Those numbers, which are not as good as the junior netminder and Gophers fans are used to, put Wilcox in the middle of the pack among national goaltending leaders.

That being said, he still has the best stats in a conference where goaltending was supposed to be a strong position.

Penn State’s Matthew Skoff is just behind Wilcox and had a solid start to aid the Nittany Lions’ so far this year. He has a 6-3-2 record and 2.27 GAA.

Things fall off quite a bit after Wilcox and Skoff. Michigan State’s Jake Hildebrand is 6-9-1 with a 2.71 GAA, Michigan’s Zach Nagelvoort is 6-6 with a 2.78 GAA and Wisconsin’s Joel Rumpel is 1-8-1 with a 3.24 GAA.

While the rest of the teams have gone with one netminder for the most part, Ohio State has split starts. Matt Tomkins is 3-5-1 with a 2.80 GAA and Christian Frey is 2-4 with a 3.69 GAA.

The reason expectations were high going into the season was because Wilcox, Nagelvoort, Frey and Rumpel all finished in the top seven in save percentage last season.

RachelLewis USCHO 20141018 Miami OSUMIH 8 Wisconsins dreadful start leads list of first half Big Ten notables

Ohio State is 4-7-1 in nonconference play, including a sweep by Miami in October (photo: Rachel Lewis).

5. Non-stellar nonconference records

Minnesota (8-4) and Penn State (6-3) posted decent nonconference records in the first half, but the four other teams haven’t carried their weight.

As a whole, the league is 30-35-2 against teams outside of the Big Ten, and that’s not going to help the cause of getting multiple teams into the NCAA tournament from the six-team league.

Even if you remove the outliers (Minnesota and Wisconsin) from the equation, the four middle teams are a pedestrian 21-23-1.

The good news for the Big Ten is that there are a few opportunities to get some marquee nonconference wins after the holiday break. Minnesota plays Minnesota State in the opening game of the North Star College Cup and could possibly meet Minnesota-Duluth again in that tournament. Wisconsin plays Michigan Tech. Michigan and Michigan State will get shots at Michigan Tech and Ferris State. Penn State will play in the Three Rivers Classic, which also features Robert Morris, Colgate and Western Michigan.

Some big wins, especially by teams with poor records right now, would go a long way toward helping other teams in the conference in March. Of course, as we all know, all six teams in the Big Ten have a shot of getting the automatic bid into the tournament by winning three games the Big Ten tournament.

TMQ: Examining the first half’s balance of power in college hockey

2014120520 21 500820 TMQ: Examining the first halfs balance of power in college hockey

Minnesota State goes into break at No. 3 in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll and No. 1 in the PairWise Rankings (photo: Jim Rosvold).

Each week during the season we look at the big events and big games around Division I men’s college hockey in Tuesday Morning Quarterback.

Matthew: We’re fresh off of a somewhat light weekend in college hockey, but we still have a fair bit to talk about. For one thing, we have yet another new No. 1 team in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll in Boston University after North Dakota split on the road against, in fairness, a solid Denver team.

It still seems to me like the balance of power is slightly tilted westward, however, when we look top-to-bottom at the top 10. Is that a fair assessment to make here around the halfway point of the season?

Nate: I think that’s a valid point. Several top-10 teams were off last weekend, while No. 4 Michigan Tech and No. 9 Minnesota-Duluth split a series, in addition to North Dakota and Denver as you mentioned.

While there are some top teams out west, I’ve had Harvard at No. 1 after putting North Dakota there two weeks ago. Don’t forget about Boston University, Massachusetts-Lowell and Vermont, which is allowing a national-best 1.53 goals per game after sweeping St. Lawrence last weekend.

Matthew: And Harvard is right up your alley, of course, as you’re one of our ECAC Hockey columnists. Does anything Harvard’s been able to do here in the first half the season surprise you, and do you think Boston’s Hockey East powers have much to be worried about with the Crimson going forward?

Nate: I’ll admit I’ve been surprised by the Crimson over the first two months of its Ivy League-shortened season. For several years, Harvard always seemed to have the talent but could never put it together. Credit to colleague Brian Sullivan, who picked the Crimson third on his preseason ballot; I picked them 10th.

There’s really not much to dislike about Harvard so far. The Crimson are in the top 10 in the nation in defense, offense and both special teams. Right now, I think they are the best team in Boston and it should set up a great Beanpot in February.

Are there any teams out west that have surprised you as we head into the holiday break?

Matthew: Part of me wants to say North Dakota has surprised me considering UND has had a reputation of starting slowly under Dave Hakstol. But even with the handful of injury concerns it has had, UND has enough talent on that roster to make waves.

Omaha has really surprised me, however. It’s not very often that a team with 11 freshmen can hit the ground running quite as well as the Mavericks have, and Ryan Massa has been outstanding in the UNO net.

Minnesota State and Michigan Tech also raised a lot of eyebrows, but I’d like to think that it’s just more proof that the WCHA is better than it gets credit for. I look at Minnesota State and know that Mike Hastings has won everywhere he’s gone to coach — being from Omaha, I still remember when he did well as the USHL’s Omaha Lancers’ bench boss for what felt like a few decades — and I think teams in that league like Minnesota State and Ferris State are showing that the WCHA isn’t to be underestimated.

What about what’s going on out east? Harvard has exceeded your expectations, like you said, but has anything else caught you off guard?

Nate: I know they are in the Big Ten, but Penn State’s success in its third season as an NCAA program is impressive. The Nittany Lions have already surpassed last year’s win total and are ranked this week in the USCHO.com poll for the first time in program history.

Elsewhere, Robert Morris is carrying over its hot second half from last season. There aren’t a ton of surprises in Hockey East, although Massachusetts-Lowell’s continued dominance despite several big losses shows how far that program has come in a few short years.

Outside of Harvard in the ECAC, the two big surprises for me are Brown and St. Lawrence, for different reasons. I thought Brown might make a push for home ice this season, but the Bears are one of the worst teams in the country. Even though the Saints were swept by Vermont last weekend, they still enter the break at 8-8, better than I expected after losing four of their top five scorers from a year ago.

BU’s Jack Eichel is getting a lot of well-deserved attention as a freshman, but Saints goalie Kyle Hayton has been outstanding in his rookie year.

Looking ahead, what do you see for the final two months? Any teams you think will fade or make a second-half push?

Matthew: In terms of western teams, I’m particularly curious to see if Michigan Tech and Omaha can continue to have the kind of success that they’ve had over the first half of the season. Tech has been an outstanding story so far but I’m not sure how much staying power it has, and UNO has a history of faltering near the end of the season and into the league playoffs.

It still floors me that the Mavericks never went to the WCHA Final Five and weren’t at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff last spring. That’s got to change eventually.

It’s as much a gut feeling as anything, I think, but I like Denver to make a big second-half push. Jim Montgomery has done an excellent job since starting with the Pioneers last year, and I think he’ll have his team ready to do some damage come tournament time.

How about in the east? Who are your picks to take of business and, conversely, get little done?

Nate: Harvard might slow down a bit, but the Crimson should be in position for the Cleary Cup in the ECAC.

I don’t have an obvious candidate for a second-half slump, but I wonder if Vermont can continue its success in Hockey East. The Catamounts face Boston University, Boston College and Massachusetts-Lowell twice in the second half. That’s certainly a daunting schedule.

Thumbs up

To North Dakota’s Bryn Chyzyk, who offered to let UND radio play-by-play commentator Tim Hennessy use Chyzyk’s own phone to interview the player at Denver last weekend after Hennessy forgot his own recorder back in Grand Forks.

 

Thumbs down

While it was the right thing to do, Saturday’s game between Princeton and Minnesota State was canceled after the Mavericks didn’t have enough players due to a flu outbreak. The game was declared a no-contest and ticket holders were reimbursed. Here’s hoping everyone is healthy for the holidays and ready to go in the second half.

Coming up

There are four games left before we wrap things up for the holidays. Massachusetts hosts Northeastern in a nonconference game on Tuesday, while No. 12 Omaha hosts Alabama-Huntsville on Saturday and Sunday.

On Friday, Boston University plays the U.S. World Junior Team in an exhibition game at the end of the Americans’ camp.

Former New Hampshire goalie DeSmith tells his side of arrest, dismissal from team

Dismissed from the New Hampshire hockey team recently, senior goaltender Casey DeSmith recently spoke to the Concord Monitor about his dismissal from the team and the events that led to the unfortunate situation.

In August, DeSmith was arrested after a domestic dispute. He was suspended from the team and then dismissed in November.

“I always dreamed of playing for the Wildcats,” DeSmith told the Monitor. “And I will always be grateful for the opportunity that I had to play for the team, and for the support I received from the fans. But I am very upset with the way my UNH career was ended, and with the way I was represented in the press. The damage to my education and to my hockey career that has resulted from the accusation made against me and the manner in which it was reported is immeasurable.”

DeSmith said be believed that both police and the media tabbed him as guilty right from the start.

“Once the accusation was made against me, the school had no choice but to fully investigate it,” DeSmith said in the article.

DeSmith admitted that he had overindulged in alcohol on the night in question and even issued apologies within hours of the incident to police, the school and his coaches and teammates. The victim in the case was reportedly an ex-girlfriend of DeSmith.

“It would have been my preference just to put this whole episode behind me and move on,” DeSmith said to the paper. “But the ongoing misrepresentations of the facts in the media have convinced me that I need to stand up for myself and attempt to set the record straight.”

DeSmith said he isn’t sure if he’ll stay at UNH or transfer. He also may try his hand at pro hockey.

“I have learned many valuable lessons from this ordeal that will help me the rest of my life, including the very real dangers of alcohol,” DeSmith said in the report. “But I also believe that the media has a responsibility to seek and print the truth, and to better protect the rights of someone who stands accused in situations like this.

“I am determined not to be bitter about this and am very much looking forward to the next chapter in my life. I know that I am a good person, a person of good character, both ethically and morally. And I am hopeful that the next school or hockey team that I am fortunate enough to be a part of will see that the Casey DeSmith they’ve been reading about in the press bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real me.”

Longtime Minnesota-Duluth women’s coach Miller out at end of ’14-15 season

shannon miller umd Longtime Minnesota Duluth womens coach Miller out at end of 14 15 season

Minnesota-Duluth women’s coach Shannon Miller’s contract will not be renewed at the end of the 2014-15 season. Miller has coached UMD the past 15 years (photo: Jim Rosvold).

Shannon Miller’s 16th season as Minnesota-Duluth’s women’s hockey coach will be her last.

The school announced late Monday that it will not renew her contract when it expires at the end of this season.

In a statement, Minnesota-Duluth cited financial considerations for the decision. Assistant coaches Laura Schuler and Gina Kingsbury and part-time director of operations Jen Banford also will not be retained.

According to TwinCities.com, Miller’s salary in 2013 was $205,800.

Miller won five national championships with the Bulldogs, in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2008 and 2010.

“I am extremely shocked and saddened by this news, as is our entire staff and team,” said Miller to the Duluth News Tribune. “But we are committed to staying here to coach these great young women for the rest of the season and to a national championship.”

“We deeply appreciate and are proud of what Shannon has built and accomplished at UMD,” added UMD athletic director Josh Berlo to the News Tribune. “She established a winning program, raised it to the highest level of competition and sustained a national championship tradition over the last 15 years. Today’s decision about Shannon’s contract was an immensely difficult and financially driven decision.

“Unfortunately, UMD athletics is not in a position to sustain the current salary levels of our women’s hockey coaching staff. However, we remain committed to supporting the Bulldog women’s hockey program.”

A national search for Miller’s replacement will start at the end of the 2014-15 season.

Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8-14

20141212 Omaha StCloudState 01 MBishop Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14

Omaha’s Austin Ortega (16) scores the game-winning goal in the third period of Friday’s game against St. Cloud State (photo: Michelle Bishop).

Here’s how the teams in the Dec. 8, 2014, USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll fared from Monday, Dec. 8 to Sunday, Dec. 14:

RANKLAST WEEK’S RESULTSRECORDTHIS WEEK’S GAMES
1und Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
North Dakota
Friday: lost at No. 11 Denver 4-1
Saturday: won at No. 11 Denver 3-1
13-4-2Off
2bu Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Boston University
Saturday: won 5-1 at Rensselaer11-3-2Friday: vs. U.S. World Junior Team
3mnst Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Minnesota State
Friday: beat Princeton 5-013-4Off
4mtu Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Michigan Tech
Friday: lost to No. 9 Minnesota-Duluth 3-1
Saturday: beat No. 9 Minnesota-Duluth 4-3
13-3Off
5hu Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Harvard
Off9-1-2Off
6mu Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Miami
Off11-5Off
7umn Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Minnesota
Off9-4-1Off
8uml Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Massachusetts-Lowell
Off10-3-3Off
9umd Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Minnesota-Duluth
Friday: won at No. 4 Michigan Tech 3-1
Saturday: lost at No. 4 Michigan Tech 4-3
12-6Off
10uvm Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Vermont
Friday: beat St. Lawrence 2-1
Saturday: won at St. Lawrence 2-0
13-3-1Off
11du Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Denver
Friday: beat No. 1 North Dakota 4-1
Saturday: lost to No. 1 North Dakota 3-1
10-5Off
12uno Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Omaha
Friday: beat St. Cloud State 3-2
Saturday: beat St. Cloud State 5-3
10-4-2Saturday-Sunday: vs. Alabama-Huntsville
13bgsu Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Bowling Green
Off11-3-2Off
14col Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Colgate
Tuesday: lost at No. 18 Providence 4-39-6-1Off
15qu Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Quinnipiac
Off10-5-1Off
16bc Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Boston College
Saturday: beat Michigan 5-19-7-1Off
17rm Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Robert Morris
Saturday: won at Mercyhurst 7-4
Sunday: lost at Mercyhurst 3-0
11-2-3Off
18pc Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Providence
Tuesday: beat Colgate 4-39-6-1Off
19mc Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Merrimack
Off10-5-2Off
20uc Rankings roundup: How ranked teams fared, Dec. 8 14
Union
Off9-6-1Off

Minnesota State cancels Saturday game against Princeton because of flu outbreak among players

Saturday’s game between Minnesota State and Princeton has been canceled because of a flu outbreak among the Mavericks players.

Minnesota State made the announcement Saturday afternoon, saying its team did not have enough healthy players to put in the lineup.

“After consulting with several stakeholders, including the NCAA, Verizon Wireless Center and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and discussing our options, it was decided to cancel the game,” Minnesota State athletic director Kevin Buisman said in a statement. “There were several complicating factors in the decision which involved facility scheduling, individual and team travel and the fact that there is no guarantee that we would have enough bodies to play tomorrow. We know that our fan base and those that follow us would have wanted to see the third-rated Mavericks play tonight and hope everyone can understand this difficult situation and the issues we faced in coming to this decision.”

The Mavericks beat the Tigers 5-0 on Friday.

Minnesota State said that Saturday’s canceled game is considered a no-contest and will not count toward either team’s record.

The school will announce plans for ticket refunds at a later date.

Miami’s Matt Joyaux bolts school for USHL’s Omaha Lancers

Miami sophomore defenseman Matt Joyaux has left school and joined the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League.

RedHawks’ coach Enrico Blasi tweeted the announcement on Friday.

Joyaux tallied two goals and seven points as a freshman in 2013-14, but had played just four games this season, registering one assist.

Joyaux’s brother, Chris, is a junior blueliner with the RedHawks and will remain with Miami.

ECAC North Atlantic to start in women’s D-III ranks for 2015-16

The ECAC announced Thursday the formation of a new Division III women’s league – the ECAC North Atlantic Hockey League – that will begin play for the 2015-16 season.

The league will be comprised of eight institutions that either currently compete independently or are starting a women’s program next year.

Becker, Canton, Daniel Webster, Endicott, Johnson and Wales, Morrisville, Salem State and Stevenson will be the founding members of the league.

“It is with great excitement and anticipation that the ECAC announces the formation of the North Atlantic Hockey League,” said ECAC president and CEO Dr. Kevin McGinniss in a statement. “The sport of women’s ice hockey is rapidly growing in the United States and we are extremely proud to be a part of it. These eight institutions are further blazing the path for future programs to start women’s ice hockey and to bolster the student-athlete experience.”

The eight schools will play each other twice during the regular season and an ECAC North Atlantic champion will be crowned following a postseason conference tournament.

Germany, Finland, Sweden have college hockey players on World Juniors preliminary rosters

2014112919 28 540230 Germany, Finland, Sweden have college hockey players on World Juniors preliminary rosters

Minnesota’s Leon Bristedt is on Sweden’s preliminary roster for the World Junior Championship (photo: Jim Rosvold).

Three teams besides the United States have college hockey players on their preliminary rosters for the World Junior Championship.

Ohio State defensemen Yanik Moser and Western Michigan forward Frederik Tiffels are on Germany’s roster, where they’re joined by Minnesota State recruits Parker Tuomie and Marc Michaelis, both forwards playing in the USHL.

Defensemen Erik Autio of Penn State and Mika Ilvonen of St. Cloud State are on Finland’s roster, and Minnesota forward Leon Bristedt is listed on Sweden’s group.

The World Junior Championship runs Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Montreal and Toronto.

The United States preliminary roster includes 18 current college players, two recruits and uncommitted forward Auston Matthews.

Motzko says St. Cloud State has earned its wins — and some of its losses, too

27857November 07 2014 Motzko says St. Cloud State has earned its wins    and some of its losses, too

St. Cloud State is 6-7-1 entering its final series of the first half against Omaha (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

One year after claiming the inaugural Penrose Cup, awarded to the NCHC’s regular season champion, St. Cloud State has struggled to establish consistency. The team sits just under .500 at 6-7-1.

While the Huskies have played a difficult schedule, coach Bob Motzko isn’t leaning on that as a crutch to explain his squad’s record.

“We’ve earned our wins. The unfortunate part for us is we’ve earned a couple of our losses, too,” he said. “There are things we’ve done in those games we’ve been in where we’re on the wrong side of play and we need to work on that and be better, and that’s what we are trying to do. We’ve earned and deserve everything we’ve got right now. There have been some real bright spots in the first half; there’s also been a handful of mistakes, and they are all correctable.”

It doesn’t get any easier for the Huskies, who close their first half on the road this weekend against a high-powered Omaha team.

The Huskies’ offensive production is significantly off what it was last season; they average 2.5 goals per game. They also don’t have a single player in the top 50 in scoring nationally.

The sixth-ranked power-play unit has been a bright spot, clicking at a 24.14 percent success rate, but five-on-five goals have been more difficult to come by.

“I think it’s just one five-on-five goal per game,” said Motzko. “I think that’s something we can overcome. Sometimes it’s important when you are playing well and doing the right things, you need to score a goal to put the game in a better light for your team. One night a week it comes our way.”

One bright spot offensively has been the play of junior Joey Benik, who is tied for the team lead in scoring with Jonny Brodzinski with 13 points.

“Joe is just at a whole new level right now, in two things,” said Motzko. “One, you couldn’t have asked for things to go more wrong for him early in his career when he broke his leg in the first practice of the year and he missed nearly half the year, and then we got to see him in spurts, and he showed that a year ago.

“He showed many times that he was on the verge of breaking out, but nagging injuries continued to hamper him. He had a terrific offseason, one of the better ones I’ve seen, which really paid off. He’s as strong as he’s ever been, he’s in the best shape he’s ever been in, his confidence is at a new level, and he’s playing outstanding for us. All the tools were there; he’s shown that at every level, but it’s peaking and it’s great to see, him being rewarded for a lot of hard work.”

The Huskies have also been getting good production from freshman Patrick Russell, who is fourth on the team in scoring. Motzko is expecting bigger things from Russell in the second half.

“I really think in the last month, he’s starting to get to the level we need him to be at,” said Motzko. “It was a little adjustment period, like all guys, but he’s making the step right now and we really expect big things out of him in the second half because he’s comfortable now and has adjusted to the pace and is picking the pace up.”

While the 6-7-1 record isn’t going to win the Huskies another Penrose Cup or a place in the NCAA tournament, Motzko is happy overall with how his team has progressed.

“I like a lot of the things we are doing; nothing is getting away from us,” said Motzko. “We’re just having a hard time stringing things together, and we are just going to continue to concentrate on our own game and what we have to do to get better at it.”

DSC 0029 Motzko says St. Cloud State has earned its wins    and some of its losses, too

Cody Bradley leads Colorado College with five goals (photo: Candace Horgan).

Colorado College looks to improve on road

As the Colorado College Tigers prepare for their final series of the first half, a two-game set on the road at Western Michigan, CC coach Mike Haviland is hoping his players can learn from last Friday’s heartbreaking 3-2 overtime loss at No. 8 Minnesota-Duluth.

“I thought we played a real good hockey game, probably our best of the year against a very good team in their building,” Haviland said. “We’re a team that needs to find a way to finish the job. When it got down to the last five minutes there, they were really coming and pressing. We have to play with confidence and finish the job, and they found a way to tie it late and get one in overtime.”

The Bulldogs built on that late win by shellacking the Tigers the next night 7-2.

“My thing is, we gave up goals at the start of the second and the start of the third, and you can’t give up goals in the first minute and half of those periods,” Haviland said of Saturday. “They’re big momentum swings for the team. I like our character. We battled back to make it 4-2, and then the back breaker was the fifth.

“They’re a really good hockey team, and they’re where they’re at for a reason. As much as I liked our Friday night and a little bit of Saturday, we have to learn what it takes to win hockey games on the road and not get off of the game plan for any of the 60 minutes.”

CC is one of five teams nationally that is winless on the road in the first half, although aside from Maine, none of the other four has played close to CC’s number of road games, eight. Maine has played six, and the other three have played between two and four.

At home, things are brighter, as CC has gone 3-2. For now, Haviland said his team needs to simplify things on the road.

“I think it’s difficult to win on the road; I don’t care what level you’re at,” he said. “You’re going into a place where they’re sleeping in their beds, they’re comfortable, they feel good to be at home; every team does. We sometimes have lapses of a couple minutes where we turn pucks over and try to do a little too much instead of playing a simple game on the road, and when you turn things over and try to beat guys, you give other teams chances, and teams have been putting them behind us.

“The message is that you have to play consistent for 60 minutes, a simple road hockey game and not give up the odd-man breaks or the second and third chances in our end.”

CC has had its issues on defense. Though the Tigers are playing two young goaltenders in Chase Perry and Tyler Marble, CC has struggled as a team on defense, ranking 58th out of 59 teams nationally with an average of 4.46 goals allowed. Only Massachusetts has a worse average.

“That’s a whole team concept; it’s a commitment that everybody needs to make,” said Haviland. “I think we’ve changed a couple of things in the last couple of weeks, and except for Saturday night, the three prior games hadn’t really given up that many goals. We really need to bear down and make that commitment. It’s everybody; you can’t cheat in the defensive end. Right now, there are some things we need to clean up.”

One thing that might help CC’s road results is an improvement on special teams. The Tigers are 44th nationally on the power play with a 12.28 percent success rate, and 54th on the penalty kill at 76.4 percent.

However, Haviland said he believes there has been improvement on those numbers in recent weeks.

“I look at it the last four games we are 15 out of 16 on the kill, and our power play has jumped up and had goals in the last four games,” he said. “I think those numbers, a lot of it had to do with the beginning of the year, and sometimes they are tough to move. We feel that we are getting better in those areas, especially in the last four games, so we have to continue to move forward.

“I think that our attention to detail in those areas, especially on the PK side, has really gone up, and I think on the power play side we talk about simplifying things and putting pucks at the net and not trying to make the second and third pass and being on the same page. It’s starting to work.”

CC has a lot of its second half at home, including a five-week stretch starting on Jan. 30 save for one road game against Denver. So if the numbers continue to move forward, CC should be well-positioned for its extended stay in the friendly confines of World Arena.

Players of the week

Offensive player of the week — Cody Murphy, Miami: Murphy, who had only one goal entering the weekend, scored four in Miami’s split with Omaha. On Friday, he notched a natural hat trick in an 8-2 win, breaking the game open for his team from a 1-1 first-period tie to make it 4-1 in the second while finishing the game plus-3. On Saturday, he scored a power-play goal in the third to pull Miami to within one in a 5-2 loss. He finished plus-2 on the weekend.

Defensive player of the week — Jordan Schmaltz, North Dakota: Schmaltz led the way defensively and offensively in UND’s sweep of Lake Superior State, notching five points on the weekend, four on power-play chances. In Friday’s come-from-behind win, he assisted on North Dakota’s second goal, which helped spark a rally from 4-1 down, and also assisted on the sixth and seventh goals in a 7-4 win. On Saturday, he scored a power-play goal and an assist in a 3-1 win, and helped UND kill all nine Lake Superior power-play chances on the weekend.

Rookie of the week — Tucker Poolman, North Dakota: Poolman was versatile last weekend, playing forward one night and defense the next. He notched three points in UND’s sweep of Lake Superior State. On Friday, he moved to forward after two North Dakota forwards went out of the game due to injury and quickly scored two power-play goals to help spark his team’s rally to a 7-4 win. On Saturday, he played defense and notched an assist while blocking two shots and helping his team kill all nine Lake Superior power-play attempts on the weekend.

Goaltender of the week — Zane McIntyre, North Dakota: McIntyre claimed goaltender of the week honors for the second consecutive week for his performance in North Dakota’s sweep of Lake Superior State, where he posted a 1.21 GAA and .933 save percentage. He entered the game in relief Friday for Cam Johnson with North Dakota trailing 3-0 and made 12 saves as UND rallied for a 7-4 win. On Saturday, he made 16 saves on 17 shots in a 3-1 win. He also helped kill all nine Lake Superior power plays he faced.

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