Tuesday Morning Quarterback: January 8

Jim Connelly: Happy New Year, everyone. We’re back with another installment of TMQ and I’m once again joined by the lovely Theresa Spisak. Theresa, a lot has happened in the last couple of weeks, including Michigan rising back to the top of the USCHO.com poll. The Wolverines seem to be playing well having taken home the GLI Championship a couple of weekends ago. The one thing while watching that tournament that struck me was the play of goaltender Billy Sauer. Not sure how much you’ve seen of him but he certainly seems to be the real deal. Now the question is whether the team in front of him follows that “real deal” moniker. Your thoughts?

Theresa Spisak: Hey Jim, Happy New Year to everyone too. I actually haven’t gotten the chance to watch Michigan yet this year – last time I saw the Wolverines was at the West Regional last year. That being said, I do think that at least a few of the players in front of him are the real deal. Senior forward Kevin Porter is near the top of the point leaders and he’s got a good supporting cast with players such as Chad Kolarik and freshmen Carl Hagelin, returning from World Juniors with a silver medal. That being said, it has been proven that the Wolverines can be beaten (and Michigan Tech nearly did so at the GLI). They also haven’t played Miami or Michigan State yet, the other two teams that share the top of the CCHA standings yet.

Jim: You make a good point that the Wolverines haven’t had to face the meat of the CCHA lineup just yet, so maybe we should hold judgment until after these powers play (Michigan vs. Michigan State at the end of the month and Michigan vs. Miami in early February). On another note, things looks quite gloom and doom for some of the schools out East before the break. But Hockey East and the ECAC made an impressive run through the holiday tournaments. There’s still a little bit of culture shock in Hockey East as Massachusetts and Northeastern rank ahead of the rest of the league in the USCHO.com poll. But the fact that both leagues seem to be performing well of late certainly makes this East Coast-based writer feel a little better.

Theresa: In terms of the two Eastern leagues you mention, I think that Hockey East in general is the stronger conference … as it typically is. Northeastern and Massachusetts, as you say, both had impressive showings in their holiday tournaments, as did Mass.-Lowell. However, New Hampshire and Boston College also show signs of possible second-half runs. In terms of the ECAC, Clarkson will probably stay up top, but if you look at the standings, a number of other teams could make a surge at the end of the season – part of what makes the second half of the year so fun. I know I’m looking forward to what will most likely be a wild and crazy finish to the WCHA.

Jim: I agree about Clarkson. They did a nice job of really slowing a team that was on a massive roll in Boston College Saturday night. Quinnipiac also has played well of late, but watching them on TV Friday night against Harvard, they didn’t show me anything that made me say “wow”. It could’ve been an off night, certainly, and I try not to judge a team based on one TV game. Moving away from the East, I have to ask what your take was on the anemic showing for the WCHA in the holiday tournaments. Seriously, the league hosts the majority of the holiday activity in their backyards, but Denver was the only team to come out on top (and they did so by beating Sacred Heart and Dartmouth, not exactly a powerhouse road to the title). What gives?

Theresa: In general, the WCHA is having a down year, with the exception of the two Colorado-based teams. The vast majority of the league, at face value, looks to be mired in mediocrity. Luckily for the member teams, pretty much everyone is still ranked and a Team Under Consideration as of now, which will help things out later in the season. That being said, a few WCHA teams did well in their tournaments besides Denver. It took the Wolverines two overtimes to finally defeat Michigan Tech, a middle-of-the-pack WCHA squad, and it took Massachusetts overtime to beat a depleted Colorado College team. North Dakota split with New Hampshire which might not seem impressive, but it holds true with the Sioux’s pattern of splits all year. The Badgers only came in third in their tournament, but they were a shootout away from being in the final. Therefore, while only one WCHA team came out victorious, several others came extremely close.

Jim: Wow, I feel like I’m talking with Scott Brown with all of the “WCHA was this close” excuses. But you’re a rookie, so I won’t pick on you too hard. Onto another topic. The U.S. dominated the round-robin play at last week’s World Junior Championship but when the chips were on the table, they laid a goose egg against Canada and Russia and failed to medal. Am I the only American hockey fan frustrated with the U.S.’s inability to win when it counts in this tournament?

Theresa: What can I say, I drank the league Kool-Aid. As for the World Juniors, it’s weird to see the U-20 team that’s picked for the event continually fail to medal – even losing to Belarus back in 2004, if memory serves correctly (she remembers correctly. It was a 5-3 loss to Belarus at the 2005 U-20 Championships held in Grand Forks and Thief River Falls. It was Belarus’ only win of Pool play. — ed.) – when the U-18 team continually brings home either the gold or silver medal – and has for the last four years. How can the talent level be that much different up one level? I think that confusing fact might be one reason why people are so frustrated, especially given that the team played well this year up until when it mattered.

Jim: I agree that the U.S. collapse in World Juniors is somewhat befuddling based on the success of the under-18 team in recent years. Obviously, the U.S. had an above average squad, marching through the qualifying round with a perfect record and having New Hampshire James vanRiemsdyk at the top of the overall scoring list for the tournament. But when it comes to the medal round, you have to wonder does Canada have some sort of BU-Beanpotesque spell on the rest of the tournament field. It may be a somber note, but with that we’ll wrap things up for another week.