Face Off: Week 7

Welcome to U.S. College Hockey Online’s roundtable discussion. We’ll be debating a college hockey topic each week in this space, where various members of our staff meet to argue. Sometimes serious, sometimes silly — but either way, watch the feathers fly: no punches will be pulled, and no quarter given, when these people face off.

With the Playoffs Fast Approaching, Which Teams Are the Most Dangerous Darkhorses?

Dave Hendrickson, Hockey East Correspondent: Any one of three Hockey East teams could knock off UNH and/or BU for the league crown. While Providence heads the list, Merrimack and Boston College also have legitimate chances.

Providence is playing like … well … Providence down the stretch. In each of coach Paul Pooley’s previous two years, the Friars made it to the championship game, winning it the last time despite middle-of-the-road results during the regular season. Combining their strong play this past month — winning six of their last seven — with the Pooley defensive stranglehold that tends to be so effective at playoff time makes PC a very strong possibility.

Merrimack goes into the final week as the hottest Hockey East team eligible for the playoffs. Only Maine has been hotter in 1997. Coach Ron Anderson has his team playing with more confidence than they ever have since entering Division I play. Perhaps their biggest problem will arise in the event that they make it to the FleetCenter. Having never gone so far, they may be at a disadvantage against other teams no longer in awe of the surroundings.

Boston College, the darkest of the darkhorses, has done little to inspire title hopes down the stretch. But if the Eagles play like they’ve played against BU all year long, they have a chance. In coach Jerry York’s words, “There’s no team in the league we can’t beat, but there’s also no team in the league that we can’t lose to.” The Eagles are the ultimate wild card.

Tim Brule, USCHO Coordinator: The most dangerous darkhorse in the WCHA is Denver. Through last weekend, they have the nation’s fifth-best record in their last 20 games. Further, they are ninth-best against the so-called “Teams Under Consideration” (teams at or above .500, those used in the Pairwise Rankings).

After struggling earlier in the year, Jim Mullin has been playing well between the pipes of late. As added motivation, the Pioneers need a strong performance in the WCHA tournament to stay on the bubble for the Big Dance.

Jayson Moy, ECAC Correspondent: If you want a darkhorse from the ECAC, you have to go deep into the standings. Why? Because I believe the top seven teams in the ECAC all have a legitimate shot at winning the crown at Lake Placid.

Therefore, we go into the lower end of the standings to find a darkhorse. How about four of them?

Harvard has a solid goaltender in J.R. Prestifilippo, and has shown spurts of playing great offense. Remember, this team has the remnants of the group that upset St. Lawrence last year and almost won the ECAC Championship.

St. Lawrence also has a good goaltender in Clint Owen, and a great offensive threat in Paul DiFrancesco. Add Ryan Cassidy to the mix plus big Joel Prpic, and St. Lawrence can make up for a disappointing regular season.

Dartmouth has two fine freshman goaltenders in Jason Wong and Eric Almon, plus senior Scott Baker. Add forwards David Whitworth, Jon Sturgis, Ryan Chaytors and Darren Wercinski, all of whom almost doubled their career totals in points this year, and you have a combination that could upset.

Yale has youth and exuberance, and Tim Taylor does a great job. Dan Choquette and Alex Westlund in goal are a good pair, and Jeff Hamilton, John Chyz, Geoff Kufta and Keith McCullough are great young forwards, and you can’t forget about Ray Giroux on the blueline.

I’ll take all these teams, even though only three of them will be in the playoffs.

Paula C. Weston, CCHA Correspondent: At the risk of sounding partisan, Ohio State is a definite dark horse going into the CCHA playoffs.

A talented mix of enthusiastic rookies and hardened veterans, this Buckeye team is peaking at the end of the season. Going into this final weekend of play, they are riding a six-game unbeaten streak (5-0-1).

It all began with a crucial two-game sweep of Notre Dame in South Bend. Following that win, the Buckeyes trounced Western Michigan, beat Bowling Green in a non-conference game, tied Bowling Green less than one week later, then pummelled Michigan State by a score of 8-3 in spite of being outshot by a margin of almost 2-1.

The Buckeyes actually took their season series with the Spartans for the first time since joining the CCHA (in 1971 — OSU last took the season series from the Spartans in 1963).

The Buckeyes have had firepower all season from freshmen Eric Meloche and Hugo Boisvert; on line with them, senior Chad Power is having a career season. Senior Pierre Dufour and junior Ryan Root are a threatening combination on the power play; Root is tied for the league lead in points on the power play among defenseman.

In their last six games, freshman goaltenders Ray Aho and Tom Connerty have given up three goals in each. And, finally, the Ohio State defense is stepping up.

Most importantly for the Buckeyes is the feeling of winning, something that the veterans — half the team — are not used to. They like that feeling, and they’d like it to continue.

Adam Wodon, host of “Around the Rinks”: If there is such a thing as an “obvious” sleeper, Union would be it. Good defense and goaltending can take you far if things break right.

But preferring to crawl out upon a more fragile limb, two other sleepers come to mind: Colgate and St. Lawrence, two teams that may not even crack the top seven in the conference standings.

Colgate has a lot of talent, but for one reason or another, has trouble putting it together consistently. The players who returned this year may never have fully recovered from the quarterfinal drubbing at the hands of Cornell last year, but of bigger concern was the loss of assistant Stan Moore to Union.

The discontinuance of Moore’s infamous plastic puck-blocking drills may have come as a relief to Colgate captain Mike Harder, but that kind of toughness helped the Red Raiders in recent years.

Still, Colgate will likely finish over .500, even if it doesn’t place in the top half of the league. And any team with 20-goal scorer Harder, Dave Debusschere and Tim Loftsgard on it is going to be dangerous.

The problem has been defense — more specifically, goaltending. Frankly, Dan Brenzavich is overrated, and his second team All-ECAC status last year (and overlooking of Clarkson’s Dan Murphy) can be chalked up to a strange aligning of the stars when league coaches made their selections.

But last weekend, Shep Harder (no relation to Mike) got the start and earned ECAC Rookie of the Week honors in the process, as Colgate picked up three points. If coach Don Vaughn goes with this hot hand, I like the Red Raiders’ chances.

The book is out on Brenzavich (go top shelf). To be fair, he was more than adequate last year, but he may be the prime example of not recovering from last year’s Lynah Rink shellshock.

Now, it’s always hard to overlook a Joe Marsh team, and so St. Lawrence is definitely in the mix. The Saints’ troubles this year remain a mystery, the graduation of leading scorer Burke Murphy notwithstanding.

Between draftees like Troy Creuer, Derek Ladouceur, Derek McLaughlin, Paul DiFrancesco and Joel Prpic, and goalie Clint Owen, the Saints have too much talent to be where they are.

But, there they are, struggling for ninth place. Still, you have to like the Saints’ chances against Harvard (most likely) in a preliminary game (avenging last year’s quarterfinal upset by the Crimson), which would set up a potential quarterfinal series with North Country neighbor Clarkson.

And in that scenario, it’s anyone’s game.

Lee Urton, Media Relations: The term “darkhorse” implies a team that surprises, that comes from nowhere to upset a favorite.

In the WCHA this season, there are no darkhorses. There are three teams that are significantly worse than the others, yes. But the other seven teams — North Dakota, Minnesota, St. Cloud, Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin — are all so evenly matched, that if they played another ten games against each other, one would expect them to go 5-5-0. Or maybe 4-4-2.

These seven teams will be placed in some order, ranked one through seven, but only because they have to be. If one of them beats another in the postseason, it will be neither “expected” nor an “upset.” What it will be is some good hockey between very even teams.

Don’t expect to see a one-two North Dakota-Minnesota final. It could happen, but is only as likely as any other outcome. To think that a Duluth can’t beat a Denver, or that a St. Cloud won’t beat a Minnesota, or a Colorado College has to lose to a North Dakota is just asking for surprises. Anything can happen.

Scott Brown, Features Editor: Michigan is the commanding favorite to win the CCHA tourney, and with good reason. No one really needs a reminder why, but here goes: a 29-2-4 overall record, including 20-2-3 in-conference. Winning streaks of nine, six and six games. A 2-0 record at the College Hockey Showcase, and yet another Great Lakes Invitational championship. 5-0-1 (pending the outcome of Saturday’s game) against CCHA and national powers Lake Superior and Miami.

The point is this. Every team in the CCHA is playing David to Michigan’s Goliath; if you’re going to challenge for the CCHA tourney title, the road goes directly through the Wolverines. So to have a shot at taking the whole enchilada, you have to be able to beat Michigan.

With this in mind, the number-one contender to Michigan’s title becomes arch-rival Michigan State. Case in point: not only are the Spartans the only team to beat Michigan this year, they did it twice. And as any devotee of this rivalry will attest, the rankings and numbers and seedings go right out the window when UM and MSU hook up.

Now, that doesn’t mean the Spartans will win, or even that they’re likely to. But if anyone’s going to run the Wolverine train off the rails, it’s almost got to be Michigan State.

Deron Treadwell, News Editor: I suspect that Mike Machnik may step up and pick Merrimack as a darkhorse for the Hockey East Tournament, and rightly so. Merrimack has a good chance to finish with home ice for the quarterfinal round, but won’t be expected to challenge Boston University or New Hampshire.

Let’s not forget that Merrimack is the only Hockey East team to beat Maine, which has the best record in Hockey East since Christmas. The Warriors did it twice, once in Orono — where Maine has only lost three times this season (Northeastern and Lowell being the other two).

But the real darkhorse is Providence College. Look at Paul Pooley’s track record: in his first year, 1994-95, he took the sixth-seeded Friars to the title game after mauling number-one seed Maine in the semis. PC just fell short, losing to Boston University, 3-2.

Then last year Providence, the fourth seed, made it to the FleetCenter and jumped top seed seed BU in the semis before finishing on the money end of a 3-2 win over Maine in the title game — their first Hockey East title since 1985 — and an NCAA tourney apperance.

Once again Paul Pooley’s postseason pals are up to their old tricks. A sweep over Lowell last weekend (Friday night, short seven starters due to suspension) gave them home ice for the quarterfinals when it looked weeks before like the Friars were destined for a road trip next week. Now they are a virtual lock for the number-three seed in the tournament, their best since the Pooley era started.

Each year, the experts have bet against Providence, and the Friars have proved them wrong. Clearly, PC cannot be considered a favorite, but recent history says not to bet against those Providence College Friars.