Tuesday Morning Quarterback: A Beanpot renaissance

Jim: Well, Todd is off this week tending to duties related to the Packers winning the Super Bowl, thus we’re graced by the presence of longtime CCHA writer, Paula C. Weston. Paula, it’s getting to the most exciting time of the year, and the reason I know that is the first of two Beanpot Mondays are in the books. Not sure if in the Midwest you get to see much in terms of Beanpot highlights, but I can tell you Monday night’s second semifinal between Boston College and Boston University was one for the ages.

The game had everything to keep fans excited, including, of course, overtime. BC came out on top and will face Northeastern in the final for just the third time in the 59-year history. That’s a stat that just strikes me: In 58 years of a four-team tournament, these two clubs have met just twice in the finals. What’s more, that’s not the rarest of matchups in the Beanpot final, as Harvard and Northeastern have faced each other exactly ZERO times. I’m not a mathematician, but the odds of either of those happening can’t be good.

Paula: No, we don’t get much Beanpot coverage out here, but just looking at your recap of the BC-BU game reminds me of the intensity of that rivalry. I find it interesting that Harvard and Northeastern have never met in the finals. Chris Rawlings’ 41-save performance in shutting out Harvard last night — that’s impressive.

The Beanpot itself has me thinking about a lack of such tradition here in the Midwest (or the West, for that matter). The only thing even faintly reminiscent is the Great Lakes Invitational, which always includes Michigan, Michigan State and Michigan Tech, with a guest fourth team. Not to steer the talk away from current events too much, but many people here in the CCHA are hoping that something similar to the Beanpot — perhaps a mini-tournament within a bigger league, and playing for something that matters – when Penn State goes Division I and there are six Big Ten teams. A division within a league would be ideal, but I digress.

Jim: I think traditional tournaments such as the Beanpot are great for the game, but I do caution as the CCHA — or anyone — begins trying to replicate something of the sorts, it’s tough. The New England state schools attempted it in the 1990s when New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts-Lowell and Vermont played a tournament called the Governors’ Cup. It lasted all of four years, basically because the natural rivalries didn’t exist to create the buzz.

The Beanpot is unique in that it is played in the doldrums of the college hockey season — early February. And it’s played on Monday nights, not back-to-back evenings. So there is time to generate local buzz. Plus, BC, BU and Northeastern all hate one another. Harvard is another story as no one knows what to think of the Crimson, and that’s become a problem.

Before last night, people were wondering if the Beanpot was still a relevant event. So imagine trying to replicate something like that elsewhere in hockey. Trust me, I’m all for building new traditions. I just think this one is tough to build.

Paula: Very true. I’m not suggesting replication so much as an establishment of a tradition within a given league. And February isn’t just the doldrums of the college hockey season; it feels like the doldrums of the whole year.

Speaking of February, though, when I was looking at the remaining CCHA schedule this week, I realized that we’re coming down to the proverbial wire. As you know, this week Miami recaptured the top spot in the CCHA by sweeping Michigan — no easy thing to do — and with just four regular-season games remaining for the RedHawks, it will be interesting to see how the end plays out. Miami is one point ahead of Notre Dame; the Irish are one point ahead of Michigan. Both the Fighting Irish and Wolverines have two games in hand over Miami.

And then there’s Western Michigan in fourth, six points behind Miami — and each game is worth three points in the CCHA now — but with series against Miami, Michigan and Notre Dame to round out the regular season. We may have a photo finish this year in the CCHA, and it’s absolutely the antithesis of doldrums this February.

Jim: I have to say, the CCHA has the best race to the finish this season. Right now there are five teams with the chance to win the regular season. What is interesting is what the departure of Nebraska-Omaha means to this playoff picture. In the past, one of those five teams would not have received a first-round bye. But with the CCHA’s new alignment and playoff structure, the top five finishers get a weekend off. I’m not completely writing off teams like Alaska, Lake Superior or Ohio State getting into fifth place, but I feel like the CCHA is made up of two groups right now: the top five and the non-top five.

Paula: I usually think of the CCHA as a three-tier league, but I think you’ve nailed it. With the top five getting a first-round bye, those middle teams will provide as much drama as the top three or four. Look at the WCHA, too: Denver and Minnesota-Duluth tied and a point ahead of North Dakota, which is two points ahead of Nebraska-Omaha, which is two points ahead of Wisconsin … and the Bulldogs have two games in hand over the Pioneers, making two WCHA series this weekend — Denver at Minnesota and Wisconsin at Nebraska-Omaha — especially interesting.

Jim: I guess the CCHA is hardly alone in close standings. Hockey East has its share of close races, namely the race for first (Boston College and New Hampshire), the race for third (Boston University and Merrimack) and the race to make the playoffs (Massachusetts, Providence and Vermont), but there isn’t the multi-team race for the regular season title. In the ECAC, Yale and Union, I think, will go to the wire for the regular season title. It would be a major step forward for Union if it was able to overtake the Bulldogs. Yale has looked a bit more human in recent games and Union continues sharp play. An interesting game is set for Friday against Cornell, which seems to be playing well of late. It’s rare to say, but the Union-Cornell game will be one I’ll be watching closely this weekend. How about you, Paula? What has your eye?

Paula: The series I’m watching is Western Michigan at Miami. Since the Broncos have Miami, Notre Dame and Michigan remaining, this is a real litmus test for them with their 13-game unbeaten streak on the line. Senior goaltender Jerry Kuhn has been the goalie of record for the whole streak and Jeff Blashill has his team playing very well. This series will show whether the Broncos have been the beneficiaries of a more favorable schedule in addition to whatever mojo they have under a new coaching staff.

This series will also show if the RedHawks are finally playing at the level that they should be. After struggling in spots this season, Miami looked mighty good against a worthy opponent in a sweep of Michigan last weekend, and if the RedHawks are playing the kind of hockey of which they are capable, Miami could extend its current five-game (3-0-2) unbeaten streak and begin to peak at the perfect time of the season.