Tuesday Morning Quarterback: East

We’re baaaaaaack!

With a little more than a month to go in the college hockey regular season, we here at USCHO.com decided that what is missing is a little bit of debate. East vs. West debate, that is.

What better way to restore that ping-pong like game of “I’m better than you” to our readers than by bringing back Tuesday Morning Quarterback (or for you well-indoctrinated readers, TMQ)?

Last year, TMQ became a staple on the pages of USCHO Extra and allowed me to banter back and forth with my executive editor, Scott Brown. Brownie, as some may know, is a Twin Cities resident and a Michigan State grad, so as far as he’s concerned Ohio State is an “eastern” school in college hockey.

Now, it hasn’t been determined whether or not Brownie will be back to keep my repartee honest, but as week one of TMQ debuts, that doesn’t matter. What matter is one thing and one thing only: the East.

We’re Number One

The timing for this column’s 2007 debut couldn’t be better. Less than 24 hours ago, the East regained supremacy in the national polls, with New Hampshire jumping into the top spot following Minnesota’s collapse at home this weekend against North Dakota. It’s the first time UNH has been ranked No. 1 in the USCHO.com/CSTV poll since October 20, 2003, and the first time the Wildcats have occupied the top spot in both national polls since October 28, 2002.

The Wildcats have to be considered one of college hockey’s hottest teams right now. They’ve held the lead in Hockey East pretty much since the puck first dropped on the season, and save a hiccup a couple of weeks ago against Massachusetts (a 3-0 loss), UNH has been rolling comfortably along all season.

What’s impressive is the fact that the Wildcats have posted their success without some key players, the most noteworthy of which is junior forward Mike Radja. Radja, who scored 22 points, including 14 goals, in his first 18 games this season, is known for a physical presence that complements his nose for the net. UNH has been without Radja for the last six games, and still has mustered a 5-1-0 record in that time.

Part of the reason for UNH’s ascent to the top of the rankings has been the play of goaltender Kevin Regan, who seems to have returned to the form of his rookie season, in which he posted a 15-4-2 record. Regan’s 17-3-1 record is second-best only to Minnesota’s Jeff Frazee (10-1-1) nationally, but what’s impressive is that Regan is seeing plenty of rubber night in and night out.

Against Providence on Saturday night, Regan stopped 32 shots. Against Dartmouth two weeks ago he made 43 saves. This certainly isn’t a goaltender whose defense makes him who he is — rather a team whose goaltender is the backbone of the defense.

Having only seen UNH live twice, it’s difficult for me to say whether or not the Wildcats are the best team in the country right now. There seems to be no question, though, that UNH will be present come March and possibly even April.

Noise from the North

A quick look at the current PairWise Rankings shows New Hampshire is the top team, a surprise to no one. And there are several other teams from the East that, if the season ended today, would be NCAA tournament-bound.

Maine and Boston College are both in decent shape — Maine is currently ranked seventh, BC 12th. Vermont and BU are hovering around the tournament bubble as well.

But one team that hasn’t been part of the NCAA tournament buzz in a quite a while is Clarkson. The Golden Knights are an impressive 16-6-4 overall and occupy the sixth spot in the PWR.

Clarkson still sits two points behind league leader St. Lawrence in the ECACHL standings. Ironically, the Saints’ 4-7-1 non-league record threatens its NCAA berth as St. Lawrence is currently 21st in the PWR.

Back to the Golden Knights, though, what we’re seeing is an impressive rebirth. Just half a decade ago, the school was embroiled in a scandal that included the firing of longtime head coach Mark Morris. When current head coach George Roll took over the program in 2003, he had his hands full trying to rebuild.

Ninth-place finishes in 2003-04 and 2004-05 were followed by a slight improvement to eighth last season. Now, though, Clarkson seems poised for its first NCAA tournament bid since 1999, when Morris’ club made its last of five straight NCAA appearances.

Lame Duck Dominance

For many Frozen Fours past, I listened to Chris Lerch, a Division III and current Atlantic Hockey columnist for USCHO.com, talk about the fact that he believed RIT was as good as any team in Atlantic Hockey. The Tigers were a dominant team at the Division II/III level for many years and had discussed many times moving to the Division I level.

When RIT finally pulled the trigger and announced it would escalate to Division I, this writer was watching with eyes wide open to see just how competitive RIT could be.

Last season, I thought I had my answer, as the Tigers posted a 6-22-2 record in their first season playing a Division I schedule. I expected to hear Lerch shy away from his prediction that RIT belonged at the D-I level. Instead, last season in Milwaukee he touted the Tigers even more, saying he believed that they were still a very good team and that they just needed to get over the hump.

Well, as much as I never like to admit it, Lerch was right. RIT is probably college hockey’s biggest surprise this season, posting a 16-8-2 record overall and a 15-4-1 record in Atlantic Hockey play, good for first place.

The only problem? Seeing as this is only RIT’s second year at the Division I level, the school is considered a “transition” program in the NCAA’s eyes. Thus, RIT is not eligible for the NCAA tournament and, in turn, Atlantic Hockey voted before the season began to keep the Tigers from the league tournament as well (just in case they won and couldn’t take the NCAA autobid).

Still, lame duck or not, RIT deserves recognition for building a program that could immediately be competitive at college hockey’s top level. Hopefully it will serve as an example for other successful Division II/III programs considering a move to Division I.

For the Record

• Quinnipiac’s new TD Banknorth Sports Complex, a state-of-the-art hockey rink/basketball facility that will serve as the Bobcats new home, opened on Sunday to plenty of fanfare. A 7-0 win over Holy Cross in front of a packed crowd of 3,286 made the grand opening even more special.

• BC’s Brian Boyle continued his dominance of Massachusetts-Lowell on Saturday night, burying two goals, including the game winner with 43 seconds remaining. In nine career games versus the River Hawks, Boyle has scored 13 goals.

• Merrimack and Vermont skated to back-to-back 1-1 ties this past weekend in Andover . In the series, Merrimack goaltender Jim Healey proved a bright light for the Warriors, stopping 77 of 79 shots.

• The ECACHL deserves props for winning the third straight Commissioner’s Cup with a 5-3-3 record in series games. The ECACHL was a point better than Hockey East at 5-4-2. The alleged power that is the WCHA finished 5-6-0, just a point ahead of last-place Atlantic Hockey.