This Week in Division III: Oct. 31, 2002

The D-III season is off to its usual slow start, with just 21 games played during the first two weeks. Things begin in earnest this coming weekend, as league play begins in the NCHA, MICA and SUNYAC.

The ECAC Northeast will begin play next week, but we’re still two full weeks away from the season openers for NESCAC and ECAC East teams.

That leaves D-III followers (including me) with a lot of time on their hands, so the Division III poll is fodder for analysis and opinion.

Change is Good?

There’s been a lot of discussion about the poll, more than any other season at this point. Some of that of is due to the changes in the format for this season. In the past, USCHO issued a Division III preseason Top 10 Poll in mid-October and didn’t start the regular weekly polls until the end of November, when all teams had played at least two or three games.

This season, to bring it in line with the Division I poll, the Division III poll expanded from a Top 10 to a Top 15, and weekly polls began the week after the preseason poll.

The response has been generally positive, but there has been a lot of discussion about “watering down” the poll by expanding by 50%, as well as the merits of starting a month before some teams begin play. There’s a concern that teams who begin play early in the season and get off to fast starts will be entrenched in the top 15 (more on this later).

These issues were enough to cause one of the coaches who has voted in the poll since its inception to resign from the panel.

Still, the poll is serving its purpose. People are talking about it, which is the main goal. It is, after all, just the aggregate opinions of 15 people. More schools get to be included, and USCHO gets to be mentioned more often in the media.

Poll Psychology

As someone who has helped compile the poll for the past several seasons, I obviously follow it closely from week to week. Based on the many comments on the USCHO message board, it’s clear that I’m not the only one.

One major topic for discussion so far has been how defending champ Wisconsin-Superior has fared through the first three polls. The Yellowjackets were a very close second to top-ranked Norwich in the preseason poll, which certainly raised some eyebrows. This is not unprecedented, however.

The 2000-2001 USCHO preseason poll had Plattsburgh at number one, even though Norwich had won the title the season before. In turn, the Cadets were at the top of the 1999-2000 preseason poll after Middlebury had won the title in 1998-1999. Interestingly enough, both teams that were picked to finish first did just that, with Norwich winning the NCAA championship in 2000 and Plattsburgh bringing home the trophy in 2001.

Wisconsin-Superior had more first-place votes than Norwich in the 2002-2003 preseason poll (seven to five) but was selected as low as fifth on some ballots. It seems clear that there were two schools of thought at work. One says that the defending champions start the next season as number one and stay that way until they lose. The other looks at what the teams have returning, incoming players, etc. The Yellowjackets lost several key players on the blueline, while the Cadets return essentially intact.

Things got even more interesting the next week, when Superior lost two first-place votes without yet playing a game. Norwich went from five to eight first-place votes and solidified its hold on first.

What’s up with that? Poll psychology 101 says that once a team is in the poll, it stays in position unless it loses. Two voters switched and put Norwich first on their ballots because that’s where it had been the week before, and the Cadets had not lost (they don’t even start NCAA play until 11/22). They changed their mind and went with the crowd.

Poll psychology kept Elmira in the Top 15, even thought the Soaring Eagles opened the season 0-2 with a pair of losses at St. Norbert, one a blowout. Potsdam is 3-0 but had yet to make the poll, getting votes for the first time last week. How can an 0-2 team be ranked higher than a 3-0 team? Elmira went into those games tied for eighth and fell four places to 12th, but it will take a loss this weekend to Oswego to drop the Soaring Eagles completely out. A loss to a good team is typically worth 2-3 places, an upset to a weaker team even more. Oswego dropped from 12th to out of the running after losing its opener at Utica.

Teams that win stay in place or move up to take the spots of teams falling due to losses. Manhattanville went from 13th to 11th without playing a game thanks to losses by Elmira and Oswego.

On the other hand, breaking into the poll in the first place requires an impressive string of wins. Potsdam is poised for that — defeat RIT at home this Saturday and I guarantee that the Bears will crack the Top 15. If the Bears lose, they will have to put another string together and hope for some losses by teams in the poll.

That was the concern voiced to me by several people, including the coach that resigned from the poll — that once teams are in the poll they tend to stay there, and its hard for other teams to get noticed. Teams from conferences like the NESCAC and ECAC East that start later may take a while to work themselves into the poll.

This is true to some degree, but there are currently four teams from these leagues in the Top 15 and another five were mentioned on at least one ballot, so it’s not like they’re being shut out for not having played any games yet.

Time will tell if having a Top 15 makes this situation better or worse. Like many D-III fans, I will be watching closely.

Not Even the 15 Second Rule Helped Here

Wisconsin-Eau Claire visited RIT for a pair of games last weekend, and folks at Ritter Arena saw less than stellar hockey. The Blugolds hung with the Tigers for the first period of game one, but then the wheels came off. RIT scored eight unanswered goals and won 9-1.

Not a great game to watch, but at last it was fairly well played and officiated. The same could not be said of the second night, an 11-2 RIT win that goes down in my books as one of the worst games I have ever seen.

I’ve seen some real winners: blowouts of epic proportions (RIT 24, Neumann 0 on 2/8/2002) and “Slap Shot” style goonfests (RIT 7, Ryerson 2 on 1/8/1994 — stopped in the third period due to excessive violence, including Ryerson players shooting pucks into the crowd with the intent to injure spectators), but this one ranks right up there due to some of the most bizarre officiating you’ll see anywhere..

The two teams were called for a total of 122 penalty minutes, even thought there was little rough stuff. Seventy of those minutes were attributed to bench minors and misconducts. Referee Joel Morawski’s calls on Wisconsin-Eau Claire bordered on vindictive — a bench minor for arriving for warm-ups too late, another for arriving for the second period too early, a third for trying to change after their five seconds was up.

Everything was called by the book and to the letter, most likely because NCAA Rules Committee member Paul Duffy was in the crowd, clipboard in hand. Other calls included the first appearance of new rule 3-5-c, which prohibits the wearing of jewelry. Jewelry? RIT’s Mike Bournazakis was given a double misconduct, one for having words with UWEC’s Matt Plummer, and a second for wearing a necklace while doing so.

Ticky-tack calls like this resulted in two hours and 28 minutes of uninspired hockey.

“Is it finally over?” asked RIT head coach Wayne Wilson in his post-game interview. “I wanted a chair.”

RIT was nine for 14 on the power play; Wisconsin-Eau Claire was one for 10.

“I support the referees,” Wilson told USCHO. “But I apologized to [Eau Claire] coach [Jean-Francois] Laforest after the game. There were better ways to end this game, instead of calling those kinds of penalties.”

Laforest didn’t return calls asking for a comment on what must have seemed a persecution. One penalty for coming out too late; another for coming out too early. One of my favorite moments was watching Blugold goalie Scott Sutton playing the hokey pokey at the rink door before the third period, repeatedly putting his left foot on the ice, then taking it off, all the while looking at the referee for approval. Sutton lasted until midway in the third before finally letting his frustrations show and getting the fourth misconduct of the game handed out by Morawski.

The final total: 26 minors, two majors, four misconducts, one game misconduct, one game disqualification. One miserable game of hockey.

One of the dumbest things I have ever heard said about officiating in any sport is that it “doesn’t affect the outcome of the game.” Of course it does. It always does. If it didn’t, why do we need officials in the first place? Play without them. This is an example of a game that would have been completely different if called a different way. Would RIT still have won? Probably. But the game would have been a better experience for players and fans if the officials had used some common sense.

Instead, it was trick or treat, a few days early.