Scott: Before we get to the opining, thanks to Theresa Spisak for ably filling in for me the past few weeks. It’s good to be back, and with that said, I’ve got the Maize and Blue in mind today. No. 1 Michigan has lost just twice all season, and the Wolverines have racked up eight straight wins since losing to Ohio State. If you’re looking for the reason, the obvious difference between this year and last is in net: junior Billy Sauer, who has taken more than his share of criticism the last two seasons, has been stellar — currently in the top five in the nation in both goals against average and save percentage). Jim, what’s your take on Sauer’s sudden rise?
Jim: I think that Sauer’s rise has to be stemming from maturing as a goaltender. His numbers have taken a significant turn for the better and are downright impressive at this point. There seems, when goaltenders numbers spike for the positive, to be reasons external to the crease as to why this happens. Don’t be surprised if Sauer’s getting better support this season from his defensemen. I’ve only seen one game that Sauer has played this season, a 6-0 shutout victory over Providence. Michigan’s defense allowed 50 shots in that game but, without taking anything away from Sauer or Providence, the defense did a nice job keeping those attempts to the perimeter. That always makes like easier for a goaltender.
Scott: Yeah, and most people forget that Sauer came in as a 17-year-old freshman — heck, his 20th birthday was barely a week ago — which is a far cry from most incoming players these days. Shifting geographies, the rise of Massachusetts, Mass-Lowell and Northeastern in Hockey East has been one of the stories of the year so far. That’s your neck of the woods, so what gives?
Jim: I actually think that there’s a different story behind each team. Northeastern is a team that over the past couple of seasons has continually improved. The talent is pretty deep on this club, starting from the goaltender position all the way out to the forwards. The biggest challenge the Huskies face is not taking nights off. Last Friday’s loss to Merrimack, after grabbing a 2-0 lead early on, can’t happen if the Huskies want to battle for the top spot in the league. They have to have the ability to go for the jugular when they have a team on the ropes. As for Lowell, the River Hawks seem to be all drinking from the same Kool-Aid. Coach Blaise MacDonald has his team believing that they can win and the players seem to be translating that to incredible efforts on the ice. I saw Lowell play on Saturday. They got outplayed pretty badly by Providence but came out on the winning end. Twice in the game, the River Hawks played hard to the buzzer and it paid off — once in a goal as the buzzer sounded to end the second and again in overtime when Scott Campbell scored with 1.3 seconds remaining. Speaking of buzzer-beaters, I’m anxious to hear your take on Magnessgate. Are the WCHA officials just that inept or is the video replay system that’s in place a tiny bit flawed?
Scott: Ay-yi-yi. The Magness cluster-job is just the kind of situation video replay was supposed to prevent, but in this case it managed to create the controversy instead of resolving it. For those who haven’t followed this closely, Wisconsin lost 3-2 to Denver Friday night when a goal by UW’s Matthew Ford with one second left in regulation was disallowed by referee Randy Schmidt after video review — a call that was horribly wrong. The heart of the matter appears to be that Schmidt only saw limited footage in the video booth. According to some accounts, Schmidt only looked at a still image of the puck lying in the crease after bouncing back out of the net, and never reviewed the full sequence of events starting with Ford’s shot. Other reports say there were communication problems between Schmidt and the video official, which would partially absolve Schmidt, but my take is that the ref has to take the lion’s share of the blame for not getting it right, which is his job. The WCHA issued an apology acknowledging the error, but UW is unlikely to get what it wants, which is a reversal of the call. Any way you slice it, it’s an embarrassing episode for the league and potentially lost points for Wisconsin, which can’t spare many right now.
Jim: I agree, Scott, that the referee will get and deserves the lion’s share of the blame here. Worst off, he saw the play real-time. His own instincts as a referee should have told him that the puck was in and out of the net before the horn ever sounded. The replay, regardless of what he saw, should’ve seemed strange to him and forced further examination. Alas, it did not and it leaves hacks like you and me to debate the merits of video replay, something that I believe just about every coach in the country favors. Anyway, moving past that, here’s another minor controversy. The Hobey Baker Committee launched its “Vote For Hobey” website this week with a list of candidates for this year’s award. It seems some all-star players were left off the lineup, most notably the aforementioned Billy Sauer at Michigan. It’s been tough to get a straight answer as to how these nominations were made but it seems clear to me that someone like Sauer is more deserving of a place on the ballot than half the players listed. What’s your insight on this?
Scott: The Vote for Hobey list baffles me. Not only is Sauer missing, but so are Brandon Wong of Quinnipiac, who’s tied for fifth in the nation in assists, and Joe Whitney of Boston College, who’s second in assists (first on a per-game basis) and 12th in points. But the listmakers managed to find room for 20 Atlantic Hockey nominees, versus 13 from the ECAC and a whopping three — three? — from the CHA. Yes, the CHA has half as many teams as the AHA, but half of 20 isn’t three by a long shot. And of the 20 AHA names, nine of them are from the sixth-, eighth- and ninth-place teams (Canisius, Holy Cross and AIC), whereas none are from RIT, the defending regular-season champion, and there are none from national No. 14 Quinnipiac either (the aforementioned Wong being the obvious pick). I’m at a loss to explain how this list was put together, but it’s not too late to fix it.
Jim: Well, I think what we’re seeing is the gimmick phase of the Hobey Baker Award. The committee uses this “fan vote” to garner some recognition and buzz for the award before people would typically pay attention. Thankfully, and this isn’t critical of the fans themselves, the fan vote holds little weight. As a member of the media, though, I can’t give any credence to the numerous press releases I’ve received saying so and so is a Hobey Baker candidate. As far as I’m concerned every player in the country is a Hobey Baker candidate until the 10 finalists are announced. Until next week …