Top Ranking Returns to the East
It’s been so long, I hardly know you.
That may be the reaction for Boston College players who, for the first time this year, play for the number-one team in the country.
BC’s weekend sweep of then-No. 5 Vermont, coupled with Wisconsin getting swept at the hands of Denver, catapulted the Eagles into the top spot in the USCHO.com/CSTV Networks poll. It’s the first time an Eastern team has held the number-one spot since February 7, 2005. Then as now, the Eagles were No. 1, but BC would lose that very night in the Beanpot semifinal to Boston University and, in turn, lose the No. 1 ranking.
But the Eagles swayed the thinking of the voters this week. One Monday ago, all 40 voters cast their ballots for Wisconsin, a unanimous No. 1. Seven days later, 27 voters had been turned BC’s way, and for good reason.
The Eagles own the nation’s longest winning and unbeaten streaks (7-0-0 and 9-0-1, respectively). Since returning from the World Junior Championship, goaltender Cory Schneider has been virtually unbeatable. In his five games back with the Eagles, he’s allowed just two goals and has an active streak of 217:49 in which he hasn’t allowed a single goal.
Schneider tied Scott Clemmensen’s school record for consecutive shutouts — three — last Saturday night. He’s less than two periods away from topping Clemmensen’s all-time unbeaten streak of 254:23. And for those who just look at the numbers, even getting to where Schneider has at this point is quite an accomplishment.
Clemmensen’s record season came in an era when BC was a defensive juggernaut. Names like Mottau, Allen, Scuderi and Orpik — all NHLers — graced the BC blueline.
Today, BC is doing more with less, and a lot of that has to do with goaltending.
The current BC defensive corps is made up of four freshmen and one sophomore. Only Peter Harrold has experience anywhere in the same realm as Clemmensen’s crew, which is not to take anything away from Clemmensen’s accomplishment.
But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the current Eagles allow not only more shots per game, but more grade-‘A’ chances. In each of this past weekend’s games, Schneider was called on to make unheard-of breakaway stops late.
On Saturday night, this writer had all but given up on the shutout streak when Vermont’s Corey Carlson came in all alone from the blueline. Somehow, after he was deked out of his shorts, Schneider was able to dive and get a glove on Carlson’s bid for an empty net.
That’s what makes this goaltender stand out from the rest.
And right now, it’s Schneider who had brought this team to the top of the national polls. Whether they remain there depends partially on him and his team’s ability to score.
But goaltending is a good start, particularly come tournament time.
Top of One List, Missing From Other
Yes, the fact that BC is No. 1 is a nice feather in the cap of Hockey East. In fact, six Hockey East clubs were ranked this week, the most of any conference.
That said, there were two distinct lists debuting over the past weeks that had limited Hockey East presence: the USCHO.com PairWise Rankings and the NHL Central Scouting Service Midterm Rankings.
Beginning with the PairWise, when the list first appeared last week, only Boston College and Vermont were in position to make the NCAA Tournament (for anyone who might live in a bubble, the PairWise mimics the NCAA selection process and thus presents the “field” were the season to end today). Since that time, Vermont has dropped out of contention and both New Hampshire and Boston University have become bubble teams.
Should both of those bubbles burst and BC run the table in the Hockey East tournament, the league could be staring at a unique, though disturbing, possibility: only one team making the national tournament.
Hockey East is not alone. The ECACHL has only one team in the current top ten — Cornell at eight. St. Lawrence and Harvard both sit near the bubble, though both are in front of BU and UNH.
The biggest surprise in the PairWise, though, was Maine’s position. It began and currently sits at number 22, a galaxy away from NCAA tournament contention. Should the Black Bears fail to finish strong or win the Hockey East tournament, they could miss the postseason dance for the first time since 1997.
On the NHL front, don’t expect any Hockey East players heading to the podium during the first round of this year’s draft. When the CSS Midterm Rankings were released, absent from the first three rounds was any current Hockey East player. Cody Wild from Providence was the first player from Hockey East to check in, ranked 118 among North American forwards and defensemen.
The news was equally as grim for the ECACHL, with Harvard’s Jack Christian checking in at 137.
The lone eastern hope for a first-rounder seems to be Brian Strait, a current member of the U.S. National Under-18 team, who will matriculate at Boston University next year.
All that said, college hockey fared pretty well in the CSS rankings, with the top three prospects all college or college-bound players.
Erik Johnson, another national-teamer who will attend Minnesota next year, was the top-rated skater. Minnesota’s Phil Kessel is currently ranked second, followed by North Dakota’s Jonathan Toews.
The entry draft is still a ways away and there is still one more set of rankings to come out. So the Eastern leagues can still cross their fingers that things might improve.
But I wouldn’t count on it.
Who Wants Home Ice?
Home ice is always important come playoff time, but in Atlantic Hockey it’s of even greater magnitude. The fledgling league still employs a single-elimination playoff system that was put in place when it was under the control of the basketball-centric MAAC.
Translation: You need every single advantage, every single edge that you can get in the tournament’s opening round if to survive.
Any year home ice is important, but this year the teams involved in the battle for home ice magnify the emphasis.
Upstart Army currently sits in the fourth slot in the Atlantic Hockey standings. The Black Knights are 7-3-1 at home this season, but just 2-10-2 in games away from Tate Rink.
Similarly, fifth-place Bentley has found some comfort in the dark and cold confines of the John A. Ryan rink in Watertown, Mass. The Falcons are 6-3-1 at home, compared to 3-7-1 away from home, one of those wins coming on neutral ice.
So how much focus is there on this weekend’s two-game set between the clubs? Plenty. The series, which will be played at West Point, might be what both teams look back to come season’s end. The fact that Army enters as the hotter of the two (and the fact the Cadets are home) lead you to believe that they should have the edge.
ECACHL Title: Anyone Want It?
I’m the last one to claim that I’m anywhere near as in touch with the goings-on in the ECACHL as I should be, but the view from where I sit says that right now about eight different teams could win this year’s regular-season title.
the current holder of first place, Colgate, seems to have straightened this out a little bit. But a six-game winless streak that just came to an end about 10 days ago could make anyone worry as to the security of the top spot.
Travel partner Cornell seems to be making its patented second-half charge, but will need to avoid pitfalls — like losses to Princeton.
St. Lawrence and Harvard are both capable of making runs and sit third and fourth, respectively. But neither has shown consistency of late with the Larries failing to garner a point in last weekend’s Cornell/Colgate trip, and Harvard winless in its last three.
From there, though teams may seem to be contenders, I’d have to beg to differ. Though only eight points separate the top nine teams right now, I can’t see Dartmouth, Rensselaer, Yale, Clarkson or Union giving much of a run. If I had to pick one of those clubs two weeks ago, I’d have said Clarkson, but four straight league losses have taken the Golden Knights from contenders to pretenders.
There’s still a lot of hockey to play, which is probably a good thing for those who still have a pulse in the league standings. My fear, though, is that this could become a battle of attrition.