Tuesday Morning Quarterback: Close calls helping or hurting?

Jim: Well, Todd, a number of pretty surprising outcomes this past weekend top to bottom. We can start at the top, where No. 1 Boston University quickly relinquished that position by twice tying Merrimack. I was at the game on Friday night and, if not for the BU penalty kill, which was a perfect 10-for-10, Merrimack gets a victory in that game. A night later, BU had to rally from two goals down in the third to get a second tie on the weekend. Now, granted, BU is the only team in the country without a loss, but after seeing them with my own eyes I have to say that the Terriers are far from what I would consider a No. 1 team at this point.

Todd: And I guess when you have a team as hot as Minnesota-Duluth is, it’s easy to see why the Bulldogs are now in the No. 1 spot in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll. Not that it has been a great place to reside so far this season. Minnesota-Duluth is the fourth team to hold the top spot, and we’re barely halfway through November. As for the Terriers, that’s three ties in a row. All but one of their games has been either a tie or decided by one goal, so if nothing else, they’re getting a lot of valuable experience on how to play in tight games. I wonder whether having to do that so much so early in the season will hurt them later.

Boston University has played only one game decided by more than one goal in its first 10 (photo: Melissa Wade).

Jim: I always question this when a team is on either side of close games. I feel if a team is earning a number of wins and ties, it can be a positive for them. They’re being exposed to the pressure of a close game, which any coach will tell you is invaluable come the postseason. If the team is losing a bunch of one-goal games, I think that can actually be damaging to the club psychologically. You begin to wonder if you can win the close game and anytime you have that one-goal lead or are tied you’re almost ready for the next shoe to drop and the game to be tied or allow the goal that gives your opponents a win. Do you agree?

Todd: I absolutely agree, especially on the down side of losing those games. It sometimes seems that if a team is going to lose a game, it’s better served losing by three or four goals. That might light more of a fire for the next time out than a close loss where you felt like you were doing all the right things. You might be doing a lot of things right to be a part of close losses, but in the end, you’re not doing enough.

On the subject of close losses, there’s Yale’s third-period collapse in a 4-3 loss at Air Force on Sunday. The Bulldogs went into the last 15 minutes with a three-goal lead, but gave up two short-handed goals, one power-play goal and an even-strength goal to lose. I was surprised by that outcome, and I’d imagine a lot of Yale fans were, too. Air Force coach Frank Serratore delivered a great line after the game (I know, what else is new?), when he said: “We are a bunch of nobodies who are struggling right now and we came from being down 3-0 in the third to knock off Goliath.” It’s a little stretch for me to think of Yale as Goliath, but I guess that’s a compliment to the Bulldogs. How do you think they’ll respond?

Jim: Yale’s loss is actually a tiny bit concerning to me. The Bulldogs play in the ECAC, which is known for top-to-bottom parity and the any-given-night mantra. Yale seems like a team that should stand head and shoulders above the rest, but trust me, the next time the Bulldogs have a third-period lead on the road and the opposition begins to come back, it may be far too easy to remember this Air Force game. The best thing for Keith Allain to do would be put this loss in back of him and the team. Dwelling on collapses like Yale had on Sunday has no positive benefits to a team. I can use Northeastern as a case study. The Huskies have struggled all year but this weekend had leads on Maine on the road both nights (including a third-period lead on Saturday). I have a feeling right now that Greg Cronin’s team is one with a mental block when it comes to closing out games. Sound familiar to any teams out your way?

Todd: My first thought was Michigan State, which has seen a few games slide out of its grasp over the last few weeks. Alabama-Huntsville ralled from three goals down in the third period for a tie; the Spartans gave up 2-0 and 3-2 leads to Western Michigan in a loss; and Ohio State rallied from a 3-1 deficit after two periods last Friday for a 4-3 overtime win. Those kind of slips can’t be comforting for Rick Comley and his team. But the Spartans get a chance to put all that behind them with a big series at Notre Dame this weekend.

Jim: Now there are two teams that I have my eyes on. Michigan State hasn’t performed to expectations at this point in the season and, as you mention, holding leads has been a problem for Sparty. Notre Dame was cruising until the past two weekends when it dropped games to Bowling Green and Michigan, though still got splits in both series. The Irish are perfect at home this year and will host this weekend’s series, so it will be interesting to see which team comes out on top.

I can’t believe we’ve written this much, though, and I haven’t asked you about two of the teams that have really opened my eyes this year in Minnesota-Duluth and Nebraska-Omaha. Are both of these teams legit? What are the chances either or both will be in St. Paul come April?

Todd: By all means, they’re legit. And what great timing for each. Minnesota-Duluth is moving into its new building at the end of the calendar year, and this is bringing a lot of on-ice excitement along with it. Nebraska-Omaha is making quite the first impression in the WCHA and making a lot of people think Dean Blais just has a magic touch with that team. But that doesn’t give enough credit to the talent he has assembled in the locker room.

I was just thinking the other day about the chances that UNO will get to the NCAA tournament, and I have to think they’re going to be pretty good. And once the Mavericks are in, I wouldn’t put anything past them. I get the feeling that the Bulldogs are developing that healthy swagger that really good teams have. They brush aside minor setbacks and keep pressing forward.

As for this week, I’m guessing the Boston University-New Hampshire home-and-home series is going to be a highlight for you this week, no?

Jim: BU-UNH is definitely a big series, as is Boston College and Maine. That will be interesting as it is split into a Friday-Sunday so fatigue won’t be a problem for either team in the second game. Also out east, Yale and Cornell square off for the first time this Friday. Interesting to see how Yale responds to their loss to Air Force against a Cornell team that many had high expectations for before the season began. How about out west? What’s catching your eye?

Todd: We mentioned the Notre Dame-Michigan State series. And, to me, there are two WCHA series to watch. One is Minnesota-Duluth putting its No. 1 ranking on the line at Wisconsin. The other is Nebraska-Omaha hosting North Dakota, giving Dean Blais his first shot at his old team.