Between the Lines, Weekend Wrapup: Feb. 17, 2004

What a weekend for tests. In two of them, the traditional powers prevailed, and in another, the prevailing power stumbled, giving way to the new ‘Dog in town.

First off, No. 1 Boston College put to rest whatever remote doubt there may have been as to the eventual regular-season Hockey East champ. Thanks to a pair of forfeits by Massachusetts-Lowell, Massachusetts was suddenly just a point out of first place (albeit with two more league games played). You could say that Massachusetts, without Stephen Werner and Greg Mauldin for those Lowell games, almost “deserved” a reprieve. But regardless, the Eagles showed the Minutemen are not quite ready for prime time, with two blowout wins. Still, it was very heartwarming to see the Mullins Center sold out for the first time for a hockey game Friday night. Having been in a barren Mullins at times in the mid-’90s, it was always said, “Boy, wouldn’t this place be great if there was actually people here?” Now there are.

In Michigan, the Wolverines proved, yet again, who was boss. Miami has had a nice season, even beat Michigan at home, 8-3, early in the season. The RedHawks were sitting in position for a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs, and three points up on Michigan for first place in the CCHA. Then came a large dose of reality — two losses at Yost Arena, a place Miami still hasn’t won in 10 years. 10 years! You see, in sports, you often see these old guard teams against upstarts, and it seems no matter how well the upstarts are doing, they find that getting over that one last hurdle — the old guard team — is excruciatingly difficult. And nothing can really be validated until it happens (see Red Sox-Yankees). So here we have Michigan, sticking it to Miami again. The RedHawks may get another chance in the CCHA tournament.

On the other hand, Minnesota-Duluth clearly has turned that corner. It was back early in the season, with Minnesota banged up and still in NCAA Championship hangover mode, that the Bulldogs announced their arrival on the scene with a pair of wins at Mariucci Arena. The Gophers, who had since recovered and were on a great roll, marching all the way to No. 5 in the PairWise Rankings, were looking for a little payback on Duluth’s home turf. But the Bulldogs said “Not so fast,” and put a spanking on the Gophers. Take that. With that, Duluth put to rest any remaining doubt about whether it should be considered a true national contender. The Bulldogs are in first place in the ridiculously-difficult WCHA, two points ahead of North Dakota, a team who was just No. 1 in the country for 12 straight weeks. The only thing going against Duluth is the proverbial lack of NCAA experience, and the Gophers may very well have a shot at getting the last laugh.

Bracket Projecting

Colleague Jayson Moy started his Bracketology series last week, but I did a little projecting of my own this weekend. Of course, it’s really too soon to start placing teams in brackets, but the exercise does allow us to get an idea at the kind of issues we may be facing. Every year, the committee faces some sort of issue that causes it to sweat, and gives us Monday Morning Quarterbacks a chance to assail them for.

The first thing I noticed after I started plopping teams into brackets, is that all four No. 1 seeds may wind up getting hosed in the second round.

Right now, it looks good for Maine and Boston College to get No. 1 seeds. One will be in the East and the other in the Northeast. You can make an argument either way for which team will be where, but it doesn’t matter for the sake of this discussion. Since New Hampshire is hosting the Northeast Regional, and will be a No. 2 or No. 3 seed, either Maine or BC will have to face UNH as a home team in the second round. This is also the double whammy of facing a team from the same conference.

In the past, the NCAA committee would attempt to avoid second-round intra-conference matchups. But last year, the first of the 16-team field, the committee did not bother. Instead, it focused its energy on trying to match up 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5. But the committee will have a harder time doing that this year because of the home team situation.

The issed of lower seeds getting the benefit of what are essentially home games in the NCAAs is a topic filled with much hand-wringing and argument over the years. Fact of the matter is, the NCAA hockey tournament, while very successful these days, is not quite at the point where it can send host schools to regionals other than the one they are hosting. Attendance concerns still reign supreme. That’s just a fact that fans will have to get over. As a result, if a No. 2, 3 or 4 seed is a host school, a higher seed will get the short end of the stick.

Meanwhile, in the Midwest, let’s say Minnesota-Duluth gets the fourth No. 1 seed. It may have to face Michigan, essentially a home team, in the second round. Michigan is not hosting the regional in Grand Rapids, but it is situated close by. And since no other Michigan school is likely to make the tournament, the committee may feel the need to keep Michigan there. Michigan wouldn’t have the same home ice advantage as it does when it hosts in its own building in Ann Arbor, but it would certainly be an advantage. Of course, maybe the committee will be sensitive to the fact that Michigan is often a host, and has therefore often gotten a break, defeating many a No. 1 seed in its own building; and then, as a result, ship them elsewhere.

The same is true in the West, where Denver will probably be a No. 3 seed. The Pioneers are situated 68 miles from Colorado Springs. Again, Denver doesn’t have to be here, but probably will be, with North Dakota as the top seed.

Meanwhile, Boston College would be left with Minnesota by default, in the East Regional. So BC, probably No. 1 or 2 in the Pairwise, would get the overall No. 5 seed, instead of No. 7 or 8, and it would be the two-time defending champs. This is reminiscent of the 1997 NCAA tournament, when Minnesota, the No. 5 team in the country, was given a No. 4 seed in the West and forced to play juggernaut Michigan in the second round. This led to calls from Gopher-land to behead then-Committee Chair Joe Marsh. This time around, BC would not be alone, however, in feeling picked on, as we have seen.

Throwing a potential glorious monkey wrench into this whole thing is if Colorado College sneaks into the tournament as the seventh WCHA entry. (Think about that — seven WCHA teams in a 16-team field! Wow, but that’s another issue.) If that happens, they have to stay home in Colorado Springs as a No. 4 seed. That means North Dakota, a fellow WCHA team, would not be allowed to be the No. 1 seed there. North Dakota would have to be shipped East, with either Maine or BC forced to play in Colorado Springs. Crazy.

On the other hand, because of the nature of Michigan’s schedule compared to Duluth and Minnesota, the Wolverines could sneak into the No. 1 seed. And then, in a wonderful case of irony, they could be forced to play CC in Colorado Springs, with North Dakota going to Grand Rapids.

This is why we love this stuff.

ECAC Tomorrow

There seems to be a groundswell of support inside the ECAC to keep the league at 11 teams. That may disappoint the likes of Holy Cross, Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac, all of which are hopeful of getting an invitation. It’s been said that Holy Cross fits best academically and geographically, sliding in as a travel partner to Dartmouth. Quinnipiac, however, is not that far behind academically, if at all, and has the geography as well. Plus, it’s building a new hockey arena — akin to Clarkson’s Cheel Arena — and is devoted to one day giving a full slate of 18 hockey scholarships. Holy Cross does not have the same kind of commitment to hockey, even though currently, the Crusaders are having a fine season.

If the league stays at 11 teams, it could eliminate the travel partner system. Then, teams would play two games per weekend at one place. Each team would play five opponents twice at their place, and the other five twice at home, for a total of 20 league games. The next year, the home-road location would flip-flop. This would cause a situation where rivals such as Cornell and Harvard would be without a home game against each other in every other season. In that case, because each team will have two more dates to fill, it’s been suggested that they could play one or two nonleague games in the other building.

Early Departures

Let’s see. The movie “Miracle,” about the 1980 U.S. Olympic gold medal team, features a number of former college hockey players. Among them, Mike Mantenuto played for Maine and Massachusetts-Boston, but has now left school to pursue acting. Similarly, Eric Peter-Kaiser has dropped out of Potsdam State and moved to Los Angeles. “I just couldn’t pass up an opportunity to do what I wanted to do,” he said. And that’s great for them. When an opportunity arises to fulfill a dream, they should take advantage. School can wait, right? So where is the outrage from all the false moralists about leaving school early? If these guys had left school to sign pro hockey contracts, a sizable portion of hockey fans would’ve been crying about the kids’ twisted values, and claim that it shows what’s wrong with college athletics.

Big Men on (ECAC) Campus

Dartmouth’s 6-foot-5 forward Hugh Jessiman was an unknown product last season as a freshman, coming out of a lesser-known prep school. But he had a great season and was selected in the first round of last June’s NHL Draft, the highest-ever selection of an ECAC player.

Problem is, having seen him play five times now, Jessiman has been a complete non-factor every time. Granted, four of the games were against Cornell, which can make a lot of forwards look like non-factors. But he’s not even been close to the best forward on his team in those games. He was all but invisible in three of them. Additionally, he has a propensity for undiciplined play — bad penalties, cheap shots. Perhaps the NHL will call it “attitude.” It’s not helping him at Dartmouth, though.

All of which is too bad, because the ECAC needs as many great players as it can get. And there’s absolutely no question he has talent. His wrist shot is lightning quick and hard. He skates fairly well. From all accounts, he’s a fine kid too. But he shouldn’t be thinking about leaving early. Especially to the black hole known as the Rangers organization.

There’s no way to say this without sounding biased, but I believe Cornell’s Shane Hynes is a better player, and will be a better pro, barring unforseen disasters such as injuries. Hynes was picked in the third round of the draft by Anaheim. He’s a physical player, you notice him out there on every shift, and he can’t be moved from the front of the net. Cornell coach Mike Schafer said he’s one of the best players he’s ever seen at tracking down loose pucks during power plays, enabling his team to stay in the zone. He’s in a system where his numbers are not going to look spectacular, but his impact on the game is unmistakeable.

Last year, Kyle Woodlief, who writes the scouting guide known as Red Line Report, and is a well-known junior hockey booster, said this about Hynes: “Okay, he’s big and strong, likes initiating physical contact, and owns the front of the net. But we’ve actually counted the number of seconds per game he possesses the puck, and it almost never hits double digits.”

I’ve written to this guy a couple times, offering to do a point-counterpoint with him on the merits of college vs. junior, and he’s never answered. So I’ll just throw down the gauntlet here: Professional scout or not, that comment is lame. I’d love to know how much time Todd Bertuzzi spends with the puck each game.

Players like Hynes don’t fall off trees in the ECAC. You have to go years between players with his size and skill. Though there have been more talented and productive players in the ECAC over the last 15 years, I’m hard pressed to remember ones of his type. When was the last one? Scott Thomas? John LeClair?

You know what? There might be an even better player out there, although he is also apparently less disciplined than Jessiman, and it’s also too bad.

Clarkson’s Matt Nickerson is an awesome talent. I’ve seen him a couple times, and he’s been tremendous. He might be the best overall defenseman in the ECAC right now, as a freshman. Problem is, he can’t control himself. He’s been suspended for running someone after a game, he’s been sat by his coach for disciplinary reasons, and he’s constantly yapping, cheap-shotting, and lord knows what else.

This is the kind of guy who, at year’s end, will say, “Forget this, I’m going to junior where I can fight and be a pain in the neck, and everyone will love me.” It would be easy to say, “See ya, don’t let the door hit you …” But, again, the ECAC needs talents like this. Better than that, let’s just say, hey Matt, calm down, play great hockey, hone your skills, and you’ll become a revered star in this league.

Conference Musings

Atlantic Hockey … It’s nice to see Mercyhurt and Quinnipiac battling near the top again. The two schools account for all of the league’s postseason championships. I like both schools, and I like both coaches, so rooting for them is easy. However, I go back and forth on whether it’s good for only two schools to dominate. Is it better for Atlantic Hockey to have two dominant schools that, by matter repetition, ingratiate themselves on the national scene to the benefit of all? Or is it better to spread things around and get other schools some recognition. I’m not sure. Holy Cross is certainly playing well though. Winning their conference tournament could help the school’s ECAC hopes, if it has any, ironically enough. … CCHA … It’s Michigan’s to lose, again. Miami, Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame still seem stuck, trying to chase the carrot. … CHA … Bemidji State stormed into first place in the league with five straight wins, then played four nonleague road games at WCHA powers St. Cloud State and Minnesota, and lost them all. There is no shame in that, and the Beavers were competitive. But they have to hope it didn’t do anything for their psyche at the wrong time of the year as they head into a final stretch battle with Niagara. … ECAC … Brown continues to excel, and shows no signs of slowing down. Roger Grillo has done a tremendous job coaching that team with limited talent. It relies on a tremendous special teams, and its Hobey candidate goaltender, Yann Danis. The Bears struggle to score at even strength, but they usually don’t need it. Whether the team is built for NCAA success remains to be seen, but Brown would be thrilled to get there for the first time in 10 years. Meanwhile, what can be said about Harvard that hasn’t been said? A drastic disappointment. Something is amiss there, but it’s hard to say exactly what. But a couple of people in the league have noted how little fun the players seem to be having. … Hockey East … Jerry York and Tim Whitehead, at Boston College and Maine, respectively, should be two top candidates for national Coach of the Year. Sure, BC was expected to be good, but to be this good considering all the injuries, is amazing. Meanwhile, Maine has been in the Top 5 nationally all season, despite expecting a rebuilding year. Top to bottom, the league remains strong, but there are fewer dominant teams at the top, after BC. UNH is having an off year, relatively (50 schools would love their off year), and BU continues to struggle mightily. … WCHA … When your eighth-place team (Denver) has an 18-10-4 overall record, you know it’s a good league. Denver is 10-0 out of conference. Minnesota is 11-10-1 in conference, 7-1-2 outside. Minnesota-Duluth, though, is the team on the mission, after just missing the NCAAs last year. I wasn’t sure what to expect out of Scott Sandelin’s reign after he replaced Mike Sertich, but he has proven to be just the right coach for this team. And all the hand-wringing about goal scoring in hockey — the message certainly hasn’t reached this conference.