Todd: As the final weekend with a full schedule of 2009 approaches, it’s probably about time to look at the conference standings. The first thing that jumps out at me is that Bemidji State has opened up a 12-point lead in the CHA. The Beavers are 8-0, while Robert Morris is 1-4-2, Niagara is 1-3-1 and Alabama-Huntsville is 1-4-1. Not a whole lot of doubt about who’s going to get the top seed in the final CHA tournament, and unless the Beavers collapse in the second half, they’ll be in line for an NCAA tournament spot no matter how they fare in the postseason. What stands out to you, Jim, as you look at the standings around the country?
Jim: I think the Hockey East standings are quite notable in that New Hampshire, while not even part of the USCHO.com poll until this week (and, at that, ranked No. 19 after wins against Massachusetts-Lowell and Vermont last weekend) sits in first place with a two-point lead over No. 10 Boston College and a five-point lead over No. 9 Lowell. I guess the fact that UNH is winless out of conference has a lot to do with that. You can also look at the fact that defending national champion Boston University sits 10 points behind UNH. As Jack Parker alluded to over the weekend, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to make up a gap that big (though I think it’s time that BU likely begins worrying about things like home ice or even making the playoffs and not about a regular-season title).
Todd: The picture in the WCHA is cloudy as usual. Three points separate the first five teams, and North Dakota is in sixth, five points behind leader Denver. One of the teams in a three-way tie for third intrigues me this week, and that’s Wisconsin. No one in the WCHA has scored more goals, and only North Dakota has allowed fewer. Seeing the Badgers do well defensively is no surprise, but this team can score in bunches, as evidenced by its 14-goal weekend against Michigan Tech. When they won the national championship in 2006, the Badgers’ scoring margin was plus-1.53. So far this season, it’s plus-2.12 (second in the nation to Bemidji State’s plus-2.25). If they can get some points out of a trip to North Dakota this weekend, this will a team to watch in the second half.
Jim: I think the one thing that is interesting about the WCHA’s standing is that already it seems that the haves are separating themselves from the have-nots. The top six teams are all above .500 overall and are all nationally ranked. The bottom four teams are below .500 and missing from rankings. The same can’t be said for the CCHA, where Michigan is in 10th place and exactly .500, or, say, Hockey East, where Providence is in the cellar but boasts a 7-7-1 overall record. Is it safe to say, then, that the WCHA’s standings are very much indicative of where the strength in that league resides?
Todd: Things seem to be trending that way, at least. But I don’t think that’s a real dark line drawn between sixth and seventh. Minnesota State is one game below .500, and I think Minnesota could be a better team than they’ve shown so far but, like you mentioned with BU before, it’s getting to the point where the Gophers have to readjust the regular season goals. You mentioned the CCHA, so I wanted to throw this out there: I can’t get used to the three-points-per-game system being used there this season, even though it’s probably the right way to do it if you’re going to use the shootout. Thoughts?
Jim: I’m a major proponent of the shootout in the NHL. There, everyone is on a level playing field as all 30 teams are using the shootout. Everyone’s standings look the same. Every team is rewarded the same for wins, losses, overtime/shootout losses and shootout wins. The fact that the CCHA is the only team that uses it just feels strange to me. I was working in Hockey East when they used this for a couple of seasons in the mid ’90s. It was a fun gimmick, but when you consider it has zero impact outside of the league standings, it feels very insular to me. Additionally, I don’t like the three-point scoring system. Teams that used to earn ties would get 50 percent of the available points. Now a tie is worth only 33 percent if you can’t score on breakaways. It’s possible that I simply like the NHL’s scoring system better and that’s why I’m partial to that league’s shootout. At least you’re not penalized for having a deficiency in one specific aspect of the game (penalty shots), particularly given the fact that a penalty shot is almost never seen outside of the shootout.
Todd: Unless, of course, you’re Colorado College, which has seen three penalty shots already this season, including one on which Mike Testwuide scored in the final minute last Saturday to tie Denver. But back to the CCHA’s format. I can understand why there are concerns that, in the way things were last season, some games were worth more than others. If a game ended in regulation or overtime, two points were dished out. If it went to a shootout, that game produced three points, which skews the system somewhat. I think you’re right in calling it a gimmick, but not all gimmicks are bad. I think it needed to be tried, and I’m glad the CCHA is giving it some time to see how it works out. What’s on the docket for the weekend?
Jim: Well, I’ll literally have my eye on BC and Harvard Wednesday night as I’ll be covering that game. I’ll be interested in seeing how Harvard, a team that I believe has massively underachieved thus far, does against a red-hot BC team. I think this weekend’s most compelling games are in the WCHA where Wisconsin faces North Dakota and Denver locks horns with a Minnesota-Duluth squad I think is capable of being a top-tier team this season. How about you?
Todd: Throw in the third WCHA series between ranked opponents — Colorado College at St. Cloud State. And in the CCHA, Michigan and Notre Dame play a home-and-home series Friday and Sunday that could tell whether the Wolverines are capable of making up some of the ground they’ve lost in the standings.
Jim: Oh, good call on the Michigan-Notre Dame series. This really is a litmus test for both teams. Notre Dame is coming off two losses against Miami, while Michigan … well, we know that the bottom of the CCHA standings isn’t a place that Red Berenson likes to reside. I hate counting teams out at the holiday break, but if Michigan is on the wrong end of a sweep this weekend, it could spell doomsday for them. Until next week …