A Tale Of Two Leagues
One look at the CCHA standings tells the story.
After last weekend, Northern Michigan was in second place with 19 points. Meanwhile, Alaska-Fairbanks and Western Michigan shared the basement with 12 apiece. That’s a seven-point difference — not even two weeks’ worth of wins and losses.
That’s parity if ever there were such a thing. Only No. 3 Miami, 12-3-2 in the league, appears to be immune to the creeping plague of equality, and even the RedHawks retreated toward the pack a bit last week, dropping a Tuesday decision to fifth-place Ohio State and battling for three points (a 2-2 tie and a 3-2 win) over 10th-place Notre Dame during the weekend.
USCHO.com’s CCHA correspondent, Paula C. Weston, recently observed — entertainingly — that the league’s coaches have been talking about parity so long that they’ve finally willed it into existence. The facts? There they are.
Now, the CCHA’s schedule straggles a bit, with midweek games and some off weekends in the first half. Michigan is currently “fourth,” but that’s a mirage when you consider that the Wolverines have at least two games in hand on every other team in the league.
Good money says that Michigan will finish near the top of the league when it’s all said and done, as it invariably does. The Wolverines are eight points behind Miami for first place, but with four — four — games in hand on the RedHawks. Four wins are worth eight points, which would erase Miami’s lead completely.
So there’s drama to be had in the CCHA. When the PairWise Rankings come out for the first time this week, I’ll be interested to see what they tell us. Eight of the 12 CCHA teams are above .500 overall, and the league has the best overall nonconference record (47-28-8, .614) among all six Division I leagues. That should mean something.
In the WCHA, meanwhile, Wisconsin has already started clearing space in the trophy case for the MacNaughton Cup. With all of the contenders having played 16 games, the Badgers have an eight-point lead on Denver and Minnesota — which, coincidentally, are Wisconsin’s next two opponents, both at the Kohl Center in Madison.
The Badgers, who at 18-2-2 are off to the best start in school history, can’t clinch the Cup in January, no matter what happens. (Trust me, I’ve done the math.) But they can make the race academic for what would be Wisconsin’s first WCHA regular-season championship since 2000.
That leaves the speculation in positions two through five, which are the remaining home-ice slots in the first round of the playoffs.
A first glance seems to show a clear division between North Dakota (in fifth place) and the tandem of Minnesota State and Minnesota-Duluth (tied for sixth). But only three points separate those teams, and the Mavericks are coming off a solid sweep of Alaska-Anchorage. So it’s still well within contemplation that the Fighting Sioux could end up on the road come playoff time — though I’m not betting on it.
Power Play, Indeed
Speaking of Wisconsin, the Badgers’ 9-1 throttling of CC Saturday was the shocking result I’ve seen this season. Playing at the then-No. 5 Tigers’ barn, the Badgers scored six goals in the first period?
I know, I know. Brian Salcido’s hitting-from-behind major gave Wisconsin a five-minute power play, and that kickstarted the UW rout. Understandable — but not inevitable. That same night, North Dakota was tagged for the same call, against Erik Fabian, and gave up just one goal during the five-minute man-advantage for Minnesota, the nation’s leading power play. Incidentally, the Sioux won the game, 4-2.
So Salcido’s penalty wasn’t necessarily the death knell for the Tigers’ hopes, but the Badgers sure took advantage with four goals in five minutes. So much for the mistaken idea that the nation’s No. 1 team revolves solely around its defense.
Since we’re talking about power plays, a close inspection of the Wisconsin-Colorado College box score from Saturday shows that the Badgers were officially four-for-five on the Salcido major.
That’s how the scoring works. On a five-minute major, the penalty doesn’t expire no matter how many goals you get, and the scoring rules say that a “new” power play starts every time a goal is scored.
That means that — unless you score the instant the full five minutes end — there’s always an “unsuccessful” power play tacked on at the end of the major penalty. Hence, four-for-five.
That’s a silly convention, even though it’s long-established. Once a team scores four goals in five minutes, I’d say it’s done its job, wouldn’t you? It doesn’t make much sense to penalize a team’s power-play statistics with what goes down in the record books as a blown “fifth” power play at that point.
The same logic applies when a power play is only a few seconds long, which happens when one team takes a penalty and the team on the power play reciprocates moments later. The original power play is nullified, and goes down as an 0-for-1, and that’s okay in my book. You had a chance with the man-advantage, and through your own indiscretion erased it.
But the problem is that the brief power play the second team later gets also counts toward the stats. Once the first penalty expires, if you have, say, a 15-second power play as a result, odds are pretty good that you’re not going to score.
Should that count in the scorebook as a failure? I say no.
Second’s Right After First
Looks like Niagara took maybe one game to get back on track after getting manhandled at Minnesota. The Purple Eagles lost a pair of one-sided contests in the Midwest to the Gophers Jan. 6-7 before getting back to CHA play, where they dropped a heartbreaker to Air Force Friday, 5-4, in overtime.
Against the Falcons, Niagara scored twice in the waning minutes of regulation — the second one with the goaltender pulled — but then watch Air Force’s Mike Phillipich score at 3:00 of overtime to take the win. The next night, however, the Purple Eagles drubbed AFA 7-2, leaving them tied with Bemidji State atop the CHA standings.
The top two positions — first and second — are the key ones. The only likely route to the NCAA tournament for CHA teams this season is to win the conference tournament championship, and both the first- and second-place teams earn first-round byes in the six-team playoff format.
This year, the league has split itself neatly into two pieces this season, with third-place Alabama-Huntsville six points ahead of fourth-place Air Force. That gives Bemidji, Niagara and UAH good shots at the byes, with one of those three teams eventually destined to be relegated to a first-round matchup in its quest to make the NCAAs.