Tuesday Morning Quarterback: Nov. 24, 2009

Todd: Well, Jim, we’ve reached roughly the quarter pole in the college hockey season, and I’m starting to wonder whether some programs are beginning to move into higher levels of the Division I ranks, while others are slipping, at least temporarily. Quinnipiac and Bemidji State both already have 10 wins this season, and in the Bobcats’ case, the most recent came at No. 5 Cornell — there are plenty who will tell you that winning against a good Cornell team at Lynah is no easy task. On the other hand, looking at Boston University (3-7-1) and Michigan (5-7), you might start to wonder whether these teams are going to be able to turn it around in time to have a decent season. Are we looking at a major shift in college hockey’s power structure here?

Jim: We touched upon this a little bit last week, but as each week wears on, you have to begin to believe that this power shift could be a reality. Out in the WCHA, you had Minnesota-Duluth sweeping Minnesota, to send the Gophers to 4-7-1 on the season. New Hampshire might sit atop the Hockey East standings, but the Wildcats are 4-6-3 on the season, and that’s after taking three of four points from BU last weekend. On the other side, you mentioned Bemidji State and Quinnipiac, but you also have names like Massachusetts (8-2-0), Massachusetts-Lowell (8-2-1), Alaska (8-3-1) and RIT (8-5-0), all of which aren’t associated with the top tier of Division I hockey but quick out of the gates this season. I think some of these programs might drop off and other traditional powerhouses might rebound. But right now, our major storyline of this season continues to be the Davids overtaking the Goliaths.

Todd: I think a lot of people are expecting what might be considered a natural settling of things — that the traditional powers will come around and the less-heralded programs will fall off. I’m not so sure. I’m not saying that Bemidji, Quinnipiac, UMass, Lowell, Alaska and RIT are all going to make the NCAA tournament, but I think over the last couple of seasons we’ve started to chip away at the old facade that they’re not capable of making a run. Quinnipiac continues to be an interesting story early this season. The Bobcats are 10-1, and they’re leading the nation in offense, averaging more than four goals per game so far. This is a program that hasn’t had a losing season since moving to Division I in 1999, and I’m thinking the start to this season has done quite a bit for the program’s national reputation.

Jim: I agree that Quinnipiac is very interesting. I’ve kept watching them throughout this early season wondering how legitimate they are. I sometimes have a tough time putting ECAC teams into perspective, and Quinnpiac isn’t an exception to that. Thus far, they’ve faced Ohio State and Robert Morris out of conference, not exactly powerhouses this season. But ECAC teams define themselves through their league schedule and thus far, the Bobcats are perfect in league. This weekend might be the biggest test of the year as QU plays Princeton (which had high preseason expectations) and a white-hot UMass team that continues to climb the poll. I think that Bemidji State is in a similar position and this weekend’s tournament in North Dakota will be a huge test. Unfortunately, the tournament uses pre-determined pairings and the host Sioux won’t face the Beavers. But Bemidji will lock horns with Miami, which should be a fantastic game.

Todd: I’m glad to see that tournament is taking place now instead of after Christmas. Sure, the post-Thanksgiving crowds may not be great, but many of the crowds for post-Christmas tournaments aren’t stellar, either. And now, teams are in the middle of their seasons rather than trying to pick things up after the holiday break. And there’s no crossover with the World Juniors, so the best players should still be around. North Dakota couldn’t have picked a much better field with which to bring back its tournament, either. Speaking of the Sioux, they left Denver with a pair of one-goal losses last weekend in what turned out to be a correctly hyped series. Pioneers goaltender Marc Cheverie was impressive again in returning from a deep leg cut suffered when he was skated on three weeks earlier. With numbers like 6-0, 1.19 and .961, he has to be considered for the mythical Player of the First Quarter Award. Anyone you’d like to nominate?

Jim: Two names that I’ll put on the radar screen: Jack Connolly at Minnesota-Duluth (no relation, of course) and James Marcou at UMass. I saw Connolly play on tape this weekend where he had three goals against Minnesota. He really stood out. He’s leading the nation in scoring right now. Marcou is the real deal. USCHO.com’s Dave Starman and I were talking this Saturday night and he compares Marcou to Nathan Gerbe, though maybe lacking the edge that made Gerbe a pint-sized all star. Marcou’s hot start is a major reason that the Minutemen are turning heads in the early going. You mentioned goaltending because of Cheverie’s numbers thus far. My mind thinking in opposites mode turns back to the league I see the most, Hockey East. At this point in the season, there isn’t a single team in Hockey East where goaltending stands out (Lowell’s Carter Hutton is the top goaltender, but his numbers rank him 15th nationally). That after last season where BU, Northeastern, New Hampshire and Lowell all had standout netminders. Just an interesting observation.

Todd: It stands to reason, then, that Denver, Minnesota-Duluth and Massachusetts all are doing pretty well early in the season. One player might not make or break a team, but in those teams’ case, it seems like having a dominant player is doing some good things. UMD put together a memorable postseason run last season but was highly inconsistent in the months that preceded March. If the Bulldogs can avoid that trap this season, they could get well past the point where they need a big finish to make the NCAA tournament. You mentioned Quinnipiac and Bemidji’s upcoming weekends; anything else to look out for?

Jim: Well, for starters, Tuesday night we have the pre-Beanpot matchup between Harvard and BU — two teams headed in the wrong direction to start the season, but always a heated affair. Northern Michigan played solidly last weekend against Nebraska-Omaha and this week will take on another nationally ranked team when it travels to Fairbanks to play Alaska. The aforementioned Holiday Classic in North Dakota with the Sioux, Bemidji State, Ohio State and Miami will be an early season barnburner. And, not to highlight the Terriers too often, but the Red Hot Hockey game at Madison Square Garden between Cornell and BU is the renewal of one of the best college hockey rivalries of all time. For the two of us, I’ll pass along Happy Thanksgiving to our readers, and we’ll be back a week from now with two full months of hockey in the book. Until then …

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