TMQ: Lost years, tight races and Hobey hopefuls

Jim: Well, Todd, it’s been a little while since we last chatted and a lot has happened. The U.S. Under-20 team fell flat on its face at the World Junior Championship, a number of teams have played some high-profile games, tournament champions were crowned and, possibly most importantly, defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth has done a great job of establishing itself as the consensus No. 1. Of all that’s happened in the last three weeks, what stands out in your mind?

Todd: I’ve been in a forward-looking position lately, so it’s tough to keep track on everything that’s happened since we last wrote, but I think the World Juniors disappointment for the U.S. was so prominent that it deserves special mention. Maybe we just expected too much out of the team, but it was stunning to watch that group come up short against Finland and then let a winnable game against the Czech Republic slip away.

Jim: I agree that the lack of success for the U.S. at World Juniors really stands out. I think that tournament is somewhat strange for teams that come together just days prior and must jell as a team. Talking with coach Dean Blais, he thought that the team lacked the standout players from the gold-medal team of 2010. I’m not completely sold on that being the downfall, though. It seemed that what the club lacked was the killer instinct. Every single game could have been won. Two were tied in the third and the Canada game, when there was no hope left for the Americans, was a one-goal game late. All in all, it will be remembered as a lost year for Team USA.

But enough about the past. You said you’ve been forward looking, so what is it you’re most looking forward to?

Todd: I’ve been looking forward to the races for conference titles and spots in the NCAA tournament now that we’re less than 10 weeks away from Selection Sunday. You’ve got seven teams within five points of leader Mercyhurst in Atlantic Hockey. Boston College and Boston University are tied for the top spot in Hockey East. Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth share first in the WCHA. Eight teams are within four points of leader Cornell in ECAC Hockey. Ohio State has built a nice, seven-point cushion in the CCHA, but that’s on a three-point-game system so it’s not as big as it looks.

I think we’ll see some separation soon, but don’t be surprised to see multiple league titles go down to the final games. Which league race do you think will be the closest?

Jim: I feel like the Atlantic Hockey and Hockey East races look incredibly tight. In reality, nine teams have a shot at the AHA crown as all are within seven points right now. In Hockey East, BU and BC may be at the top, but Merrimack is three points back, Maine is four and Massachusetts-Lowell is five. Believe it or not, Lowell is in great position as it plays most of its second-half games at home (it played only four home games before the break) and it has three games in hand on BU, BC and Maine.

You mentioned the NCAA tournament and Selection Sunday. We’re 10 weeks away, as you mentioned, and an early look at the PairWise Rankings tells the story more of the teams that would NOT make the tournament today than would. Names like North Dakota, Denver, Michigan State, New Hampshire and Yale are all on the outside looking in. Some are closer than others, but if all of those teams were absent, I think we’d have to say that is a shocker.

Todd: Here’s the obligatory there’s-a-long-way-to-go disclaimer, but you’re right that we could be seeing a bunch of new teams in the tournament in place of those old standbys. North Dakota seems to be trending upward of late, but the other schools haven’t shown much recently to give the impression that they’re getting ready for a big run at an at-large berth.

In one of those infamous “if the season ended today” scenarios where no upset tournament champions exist, the CCHA would currently get seven teams into the NCAA tournament as at-large teams. That’s the same number as Hockey East (four) and the WCHA (three) combined. I would fall off my chair if there actually are seven CCHA schools in the tournament come March, but I think the quality of teams in the CCHA so far this season needs to be acknowledged.

Jim: Well, that stat there demonstrates one thing: The CCHA has played well out of conference. If you look at schedules, most non-conference play is over and the CCHA’s massive advantage in the PWR is a feather in the cap. That said, the fact is in-conference play will eliminate some of those CCHA teams, no doubt. The question is, though, what leagues will benefit if some of those seven teams drop?

Todd: Hockey East may not stand to benefit as a whole, but Northeastern is knocking on the door, and who would have thought that two months ago? Even after a 1-7-2 start, the Huskies are up to 17th in the PairWise and are in the discussion for an at-large bid. I would imagine things will start moving quite a bit here soon.

Jim: As Northeastern moves up, I have some concerns about Merrimack. The Warriors are a resilient bunch, no doubt. Sunday they tied a game with an extra-attacker goal for the third time this season, but the offense doesn’t seem to be dominating like it did last year. They are in the meat of the schedule right now so I think we will see movement from them one way or another in the next three weeks.

Todd: We mentioned North Dakota before, and it is in a similar situation, with Minnesota at home this weekend and a trip to Minnesota-Duluth left, sandwiched around series against St. Cloud State and Wisconsin. A good stretch there puts UND in a great spot.

I have to admit that I almost typed Sioux twice in that last paragraph. It’s going to take a while to work that out of the system.

Jim: You’re better than I am as I find it hard to believe they are, indeed, not the Sioux. That is a story for another day.

Changing subjects, now that we are in the second half who do you see making their case for the Hobey Baker Award?

Todd: I’ve been on the Austin Smith bandwagon for a while, and I think that unless he drastically falls off, he’ll be in the mix at the end. He’s at a goal-a-game pace and on a team that’s getting attention for being much better than expected (stumbles last weekend at Ferris State aside).

But with the way Minnesota-Duluth is playing, it’s hard to miss Jack Connolly. Three assists in a nationally televised game at Western Michigan last Friday is a nice way to reinforce your status as one of Division I hockey’s best playmakers. Who’s on your radar?

Jim: I think both Spencer Abbott at Maine and Danny Biega at Harvard are guys who deserve a look. Both see the ice incredibly well. They may not score goals but are instrumental to their team’s offense. I also think T.J. Tynan at Notre Dame deserves mention. He’s a very dynamic player.

Todd: I should add Wisconsin defenseman Justin Schultz to the list, but, right or wrong, I think his candidacy will depend on how well the Badgers do the rest of the way. They just got back to .500 after sweeping Rochester Institute of Technology at home over the weekend, but they’ve got a way to go to be part of the national picture. If they get there, Schultz will be no small reason, and I think his combination of smart play in his own zone and next-level abilities on offense will impress people.

Jim: Let’s look ahead to this weekend. Obviously the two highest-profile games in the East are Harvard-Union and BC-Northeastern, both of which will close out Frozen Fenway at Fenway Park. How about out West?

Todd: Besides the North Dakota-Minnesota series, there are a couple of heavyweight battles in the CCHA. Western Michigan and Notre Dame play a home-and-home series, with the Broncos looking to avoid a slump after the losses to Minnesota-Duluth last weekend. And Ohio State hosts Michigan on Friday before the teams take the show to Cleveland’s Progressive Field for an outdoor game Sunday. That’s three series between ranked teams, which could get the polls moving next week.