Early on in the season, my CSTV studio partner Adam Wodon and I were asked for our teams to watch in the ECACHL, Hockey East, CCHA, and WCHA.
My four were Minnesota-Duluth in the WCHA, Michigan State in the CCHA, Cornell in ECAC, and Maine in Hockey East. Colorado College was my dark horse to make the Frozen Four.
One of my colleagues at CSTV said later that Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan State were disappointing teams that were picked to win by the so-called experts. They were disappointing this season, but as I have said many times, I’d rather start poorly and finish strong then the other way around. Need proof? Ask the Denver Pioneers how they were feeling around the end of last January.
OK, so I went one for four, that being .250. If I were a major league baseball player, that .250 average would be worth ten million dollars a season, so I don’t feel that bad.
Seriously though, I’m a loyalist to a fault, so I’ll stick with my teams, sticking with the two under the most scrutiny. Here is why Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan State will make their regular seasons an aberration in the conference tournaments.
Minnesota-Duluth was the consensus No. 1 preseason pick because they only lost two players (albeit Hobey Baker winner Junior Lessard and top defenseman Beau Geisler) from last season’s Frozen Four team. They had experience, senior leadership, and several players who could be counted on for big seasons.
However, early on it didn’t go well. Despite a split with Notre Dame, and then series sweeps against Michigan Tech and Minnesota State, Duluth went downhill. It was 3-9-2 the rest of the way in 2004, getting swept by Wisconsin, a loss and a tie at home to Vermont, swept at Anchorage, and going 1-2-1 in two big series against Denver and North Dakota. Five of those losses were by one goal. It had a pair of two-goal leads against Denver and yet came up with no wins in that series.
The goals-against-average was respectable, but timely goals were not happening, and in one instance, head coach Scott Sandelin ripped the team for not competing.
The second half went better. Despite a tie and loss at home to Anchorage, and a loss to St. Cloud State at home, the Bulldogs got moving in the right direction. They went on the road and came out of Colorado College with a win and a tie, and then salvaged a split at Minnesota after losing the first game on a bad effort all around. They split at Denver, and took a win and tie at home against Wisconsin.
Those accomplishments began to create a feeling in the dressing room that the mojo of last season was back. For a team that could not seem to string together back-to-back winning periods, the Bulldogs were starting to see things going their way. Whereas pucks would hit posts instead of net, and where a two-on-one would produce a shot that would be deflected and turned into a goal against on transition, the luck was starting to change as the work ethic picked up.
To pinpoint the struggles Duluth has had, look no further than the goal crease. Isaac Reichmuth has been good but not great. He enters the playoffs a game under .500, but has his GAA under 2.90. Despite good seasons from Evan Schwabe and Tim Stapleton, both are down in production, as is T.J. Caig, who finished with six points after a 33-point campaign last season.
The losses of Geisler and Lessard were bigger than expected. Both were menacing members of the power-play unit that was rock solid for them last season.
However, there is optimism in Duluth that the team is poised to eradicate the poor start with a good playoff run. Reichmuth has been much better lately, and that has made everyone more comfortable and confident on the ice. The Bulldogs defensemen have been solid recently, and the offense looks like it has relaxed and is going to the net with reckless abandon.
Their power play has improved also, with some small adjustments since the last time they appeared on CSTV. They are getting the puck to the net more, shooting when the chance presents itself, and being less fancy. They seem to be getting the bounces go their way as opposed to early on, and that has produced much more confidence. Their penalty kill is also doing well, as the commitment to puck pursuit, getting to loose pucks, and taking away shot lanes has really improved.
The biggest difference in Duluth is they are playing a full 60 minutes, which has been the biggest knock on them all year from their coaches and teams they have played. With Reichmuth back in form, and the team brimming with confidence, they are ready to strike. They are also back as underdogs instead of favorites, and they seem to relish that role.
The team is loaded with both talent and experience. Remember, this was team that won five of six from the defending National Champions and in-state rivals from the University of Minnesota last season. Their defense, while not as active and mobile without Geisler, is steady and dependable and can shut teams down. Up front, they are paced by Schwabe (44 pts), Stapleton (36), a breakout year from Marco Peluso with 37 points, and defenseman Tim Hambly has generated 19 points, shoring up some of the gap left by the graduation of Geisler.
The key for Duluth is their experience as they could dress 11 seniors a game. Also, it got better as the season went on, and is unbeaten in their last five. Momentum heading towards the post season is a huge key for any team. Those 15 losses look a lot further behind the Bulldogs after a 4-0-1 stretch against Denver, Bemidji State and Wisconsin.
Here’s a neat intangible; they have not been outshot in any period this season in either conference or overall play. In the playoffs, it’s about big goals at big times, and they have the snipers to score. They certainly haven’t been shy about shooting, and face a team in the opening round whose goaltending has been hot and cold. If Duluth gets through the opening round, they’ll be a very tough out as they look for redemption for a poor regular season with a very short route to the Frozen Four. Look closely, because you can see it happening. There is every reason to believe the Bulldogs will make it to the Frozen Five next weekend in Minneapolis.
Now, the Spartans. If one looks at Michigan State from afar, you don’t see much that excites you. However, if you have watched them play all year, it’s a different story. The Spartans might be the unluckiest yet hardest-working team in the NCAA. Their story has been lack of scoring, but not a lack of offense. MSU has generated great chances to score and regularly gets great looks at the net — they just can’t finish.
If we had a dollar for every time Coach Rick Comley or captain Jim Slater talked about losing a game because they could not finish chances, we could have enough money to buy bigger nets. However, having seen at least 12 of the Spartans’ games this season, that is a very valid excuse.
Comley’s team has won three in a row, and despite how bleak it looked to host a series in the CCHA’s opening round, they did it, and will host Miami. However, while Miami brings a dynamite blueliner in Andy Greene to Munn, MSU will be without their highly-touted (and drafted) defenseman A.J. Thelen, who has been dismissed from the squad due to conduct detrimental to the team. Thelen’s departure is shocking, but those in the know at MSU have quietly felt Thelen was just not the player he was last year, and that started when he showed up in training camp out of shape.
What they do have on defense is the duo of Ethan Graham and Corey Potter. Potter, a Rangers draftee, is as mean, nasty, and physical a defenseman you’ll ever see play in the NCAA. Graham also can play physical, and the two of them have clicked into perhaps the most solid pair in the CCHA.
Up front, Slater is down in point production, yet still plays the game the way it was meant to be played: hard and smart. The son of a former NFL player, he has kept positive when the ship was sinking early in the season, and has been moved through different lines to find a pair of wingers that match his intensity. That seems to be Drew Miller and Jim McKenzie.
Miller, the 10th member of Butch Miller’s clan to wear the Green and White, has had a breakout season, spending most of it on the ‘er line with Colton Fretter and Eric Mueller. That trio has been broken up, as was Slater’s line with Lalonde and Goebel, to find more offense.
Why Michigan State has a great chance to be a factor in the CCHA’s and get to “The Joe” starts in goal. While Dominic Vicari has been up and down, lately he has been very good and seems to be giving the Spartans the same boost of confidence that Reichmuth is giving the Bulldogs. Vicari finished the season with a 15-13-4 record, and a 2.30 goals against. His .920 save percentage reflects the nightly workload he endured at times this season.
The loss of David Booth recently has hurt, but he is expected back for the playoffs. A Florida draftee, Booth had a slow season with 16 points in 29 games, however, this is a player with a gold medal from last season’s World Junior Championships with Team USA, and has been a force when healthy.
He among a talented group of underclassmen that have stepped up for the Spartans, and that group also include Fretter (40 points in 35 games), Miller (30 points in 36 games), Mueller (17 in 36 as a freshman), and swingman Tyler Howells (15 in 30). Another freshman, McKenzie, has been as good as any forward on the team in the second half.
The Spartans recent resurgence can also be attributed to their special teams, which have improved as the season has gone on. They finished at just under 20 percent, and their penalty killing has been peskier and used more pressure. It sits at 81 percent. The biggest boost to the shorthanded unit has been Vicari, who has displayed good ability to make the one on one save when the power play has created an open chance against him.
Slater has told anyone and everyone that he returned to East Lansing this season to win a championship, and I’m guessing he meant more than their dramatic OT victory in the Great Lakes Invitational. That kind of motivational leader in addressing room, especially a senior on their last go around, and especially one that has meant so much to the program will be enough to help this group catch fire and pull some upsets in the playoffs.
In Closing: Seems odd to me that the NCAA played a hockey schedule that runs from October through March just to eliminate one team from the post season. That’s 57 of 58 teams that move on. Imagine how Merrimack must feel, the lone team watching from the outside. Maybe its time for an 8-9 play in game in Hockey East. What makes that unique is that there would be a bonus for finishing 8th, one more home game.
Dave Starman serves as an analyst on CSTV Friday Night Hockey and contributes weekly to CollegeSports.com. Starman has coached professionally and in the amateur ranks and is currently the head scout in the Northeast for the USHL’s defending champion Waterloo Black Hawks.