Getting off on the right blade

Excepting the Ivies, teams have a weekend or two of action behind them. Every team wants a winning start to the season, but because the cumulative record of all teams at any point is always .500, not everyone will achieve that goal. For teams with championship aspirations, how crucial is a fast start?

In an attempt to answer that question, I looked at the conference races in the NCAA era. Dating back to the 2000-01 season, there have been 45 teams that have claimed or shared crowns in Hockey East, the CHA or GLWHA, the various incarnations of the ECAC, and the WCHA, excepting the vacated title of 2008. For each of those seasons, I compiled the champs’ first two conference game outcomes, and those of the teams that finished as runner-up.

Conference champions have served notice early of their intentions, registering a composite record of 84-1-5 over the first couple of conference tilts for each. CHA winners, Mercyhurst nine times and a co-champion from Wayne State, are a perfect 20-0, perhaps not surprising given the Lakers’ dominance of the circuit. ECAC titleholders have started almost as well at 21-0-1, with eventual 2006 winner St. Lawrence’s tie at the hands of Harvard in the Saints’ second game as the only blemish. Hockey East champs started 16-0-4, including New Hampshire tying twice as a kickoff to the title in 2009. WCHA rulers, at 21-1, suffered the only defeat, that by Wisconsin’s first championship team in 2005-06. The Badgers dropped their opener to Minnesota-Duluth, and then had to come from behind and win in overtime to avoid getting swept.

On the other hand, the teams falling one place short in the conference standings typically struggle a bit more at the outset by going 60-26-8. Runners-up in the CHA have really had difficulty, posting a record of 5-11-2. Subordinate teams in the ECAC start great at 18-1-1; that makes sense, because the larger number of members enhances the likelihood that those finishing just out of the top spot will still be of high quality.

League champions are typically able to extend their streak beyond the opening weekend. I averaged the game number in which the league titlists suffered their first setback, assigning an arbitrary value one more than the number of games for those that went through the schedule undefeated. Across all conferences, that worked out to the initial loss coming after the ninth game. The runners-up hit that first bump sooner, typically after the fourth game.

If a team is looking beyond league play and wants to hoist that NCAA trophy, does that change the importance of the first games in establishing a trend? While the eventual NCAA winners aren’t quite as dominating statistically as the .961 winning percentage of the conference champs, they still manage an impressive 20-2 clip. The two losses are the previously mentioned Wisconsin lapse at the hands of UMD, and Robert Morris upsetting UMD in the second game of its 2009-10 title run, when the young Bulldogs were without Jocelyne Larocque and looked to be far from medalist material.

The opponent in the Frozen Four championship game has also gotten off well, posting a composite 17-5 mark on opening weekend. That record is weakened a bit by Cornell’s 2009-10 squad getting ambushed and swept by a Mercyhurst team that had already played a few games.

The dominance of the future NCAA winner shines through more clearly when comparing their unbeaten streaks to start the season against those of the teams that they face in the championship game. NCAA champs lose for the first time after game 10 on average, highlighted by Wisconsin not falling until the 21st game in 2008-09. The national tourney victims first taste defeat just beyond game five.

As competition continues to increase in the game, some of the gaudy statistics are likely to moderate a bit. Based on Wisconsin losing only twice on its path to the crown in 2011, parity may be arriving, but it has yet to reach its destination. In fact, the Bulldogs in 2010 were the only championship team of the last nine years to lose more than four games, and that came in an Olympic year, when the most dominant players were absent.

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