Between the Lines: Jan. 7, 2005

Happy New Year. Let’s see how long this relatively tranquil college hockey season remains that way as we head down the stretch.

The United States finished a disappointing fourth in this year’s World Junior tournament. But it’s only disappointing in context of last year’s gold-medal performance. The U.S. team was not as strong this year up and down the lineup, despite possessing a lot of skill.

Of greater concern was the performance of goaltender Al Montoya. The Michigan junior helped lead Team USA to the gold last year, and parlayed that into being a first-round draft pick of the New York Rangers in last June’s NHL Draft.

But his performance this year was mediocre at best. With anything like last year’s performance, the U.S. could easily have won at least a silver (Canada was dominant and wasn’t going to lose to anyone).

Even more problematic — at least for Michigan fans — is that the World Junior performance was merely typical of his outings this year for the Wolverines. Montoya repeatedly let up bad goals, most specifically early in games, before righting himself as the game went along (most of the time). In addition, as (again) has been the case most of the season, he did not make the huge saves to bail out his defense. It’s true that Montoya was hung out to dry this year more often than last by a team without any true stay-at-home defensemen. But a goalie with his resume is supposed to make the huge saves, and he rarely made any.

As Montoya struggled at times this season, conventional wisdom held that he was bored at Michigan, and was biding his time until the World Juniors and playoffs to really shine again. But whether true or not, he wasn’t able to turn on the switch in Grand Forks.

None of this criticism is breaking any ground. These problems are fairly evident and Montoya would probably be the first to agree that he hasn’t played as well this season. The issue is whether this discounts last year and paints Montoya as some sort of flash in the pan, of if it’s merely some bad habit Montoya has gotten himself into this season that could be fixed with some work.

A New Home

Boston University is now officially in its new digs. By now, we all know how beautiful it is, but it’s interesting to look into the issues that surround this move.

Walter Brown has charms that will be hard to replace, and it’s not like it was falling apart. But BU felt it was “necessary” to build a new arena in order to keep up with other programs that have built new state-of-the-art facilities. And they are probably right.

Many people have questioned the coaching staff — Parker getting up there in years, the turnover in the assistants — as the reason for BU’s recruiting taking a hit over the last 5-10 years. But the real reason is the facilities — so many other schools’ are superior.

Unfortunately, for someone who loves college hockey for its history as much as anything, the thought of the rich getting richer and the smaller schools getting further squeezed out is troublesome. But that’s the way of the world these days. Which won’t stop us from lamenting it.

Boston University is willing and able to spend millions on a new facility that will attract the top players to spend their time there. So does BC, New Hampshire, Denver, North Dakota, Wisconsin, etc… Places like RPI, Clarkson, Michigan Tech, Lake Superior, and so on — traditional powerhouses of old — cannot. Some of these schools are already at a disadvantage for academic reasons. To add the facilities issue to the plate just widens the gap further. And, as I’ve pointed out many times before, once the gap widens a little, it snowballs on itself. Money creates more money.

None of which is Boston University’s fault. It’s just a fact that I find unfortunate.

Interesting, too, to hear Jack Parker talk about his lasting memory of Walter Brown Arena. Unfortunately, for all the great moments there, his most vivid memory is that of then-BU freshman Travis Roy falling into the boards and collapsing, paralyzed. That image, from the beginning of the 1995-96 season, is hard to shake, and it’s understandable that Parker could never get it completely out of his head as long as he coached in the old building.

Perhaps, for that reason alone, the ability to give some semblance of closure to that moment, we should be thankful for the new arena.

On the ice …

It was a nice split for BU against Minnesota. The Gophers are extremely tough right now for anyone to beat, and after dominating for two periods in Brown Arena finale, it looked like they would sweep the series. BU had all the emotion on its side, but it also could be a burden and distraction too, especially when you have to contend with what has become the clear-cut top team in the country.

Interesting to note, too, that in both the Pairwise Rankings and KRACH ranking system — recently unveiled for the season — BU is rated much higher than the 11th the polls have it at currently. Expect that to even itself out once pollsters realize the discrepancy.

Wisconsin knew they would miss Jeff Likens and Jake Dowell (at the World Junior tournament), but didn’t think it would be this much. They looked disinterested in tying Yale, 1-1, in the opener of the 16th annual Badger Showdown, scoring just a single goal against one of the worst defenses in Division I (Yale proved that the next night, getting pummeled by Clarkson, 8-1). Things were not much better the next night, as Wisconsin lost to Ferris State, 5-3, getting outshot 42-21. A tip of the hat, by the way, to the Bulldogs, who have come on strong after a poor start that had many people giving them up for dead. They play a big game on national television this Friday against Ohio State, which will be another proving ground.

Though the Great Lakes Invitational had the prestige, and the Florida College Classic featured four very strong-to-elite programs, one of the best games of the entire holiday tournament week was in Columbus, where Colorado College and Ohio State played to a 2-2 tie. Ohio State normally would be in Florida, but were mandated to host some kind of tournament in preparation of its hosting of the Frozen Four this year. Getting CC to come was a big coup, and the matchup couldn’t have worked out better, with both teams currently in the Top 10. It was a back and forth game, and Ohio State outshot the Tigers 15-7 in the third period in rallying for the tie. CC won the shootout and the tournament.

One thing to keep in mind as we head into the stretch drive: There seems to be a little bit of a split occuring when it comes to officiating as we get farther along into the season and various leagues adapt to the preseason mandate to cut down on obstruction. And it seems the most pronounced difference is in the WCHA, which became evident in all the holiday tournaments. Part of it is because the WCHA plays on mostly Olympic-size rinks, and the whole style is most noticably different. Also, it may be a case where the WCHA didn’t think there was a problem to begin with, considering their schools rarely have as much trouble scoring and the play a little more wide open. Whatever the case may be, we’ll have to see how much this comes into play in the postseason. In regards to simply the differences of playing on big ice, Minnesota is hosting the regional, so it has nothing to worry about until the Frozen Four. Though the Gophers have also already proven capable of adjusting to smaller surfaces.