TMQ: First-place favorites, Beanpot upset possibilities and a sudden change

Todd: There are five weeks left in the regular season, Jim (four for some), and what do we know? I guess we know that there’s going to be a lot of shuffling in the conference standings over the final weeks, with four of the five leagues showing a gap of no more than two points between the top two teams, and in two leagues, only four points separating the top six teams.

But in the WCHA, Minnesota has opened up a five-point lead on Minnesota-Duluth. While the Bulldogs have two games in hand, the margin stands out because of the close nature of the other leagues. After UMD’s rare clunker of a weekend against Michigan Tech, how much of a favorite for the WCHA title do you see the Gophers being?

Jim: Minnesota is no more of a favorite than any other team holding first place at this point. Games in hand play a major factor. Hockey East is going to see that play out over the next two weekends when Boston College and Boston University play reduced league schedules due to the Beanpot. That gives Massachusetts-Lowell and Merrimack the chance to gain some ground.

Of course, Maine is in the middle but it will also give back its games in hand this weekend, playing a two-game nonconference series against Alabama-Huntsville. Honestly, leagues will show their true colors in two weeks when most games in hand have disappeared.

Todd: You mentioned the Beanpot, so let’s start looking ahead at that. Monday’s semifinals have Northeastern against Boston College and Boston University against Harvard. Are we headed toward another BC-BU final here?

Jim: If I were an odds maker, of course. In my heart, I hope not. I really want to see Northeastern or Harvard win this tournament. Not for favoritism; rather for the desire to see this tournament continue to grow.

We’re 60 years in and Harvard hasn’t won since 1993 and Northeastern since 1988. For almost two decades fans have been waiting for one of the two underdogs of the tournament to bust through. Both have come close, but it’s always BC or BU in the winner’s circle. Even with 60 years of history, I’m sure anyone can imagine that can become boring.

Todd: My guess is that most people who aren’t already fans of the Terriers or the Eagles probably would be in the same boat. But in the 18 seasons of the Harvard/Northeastern drought, those teams have combined for 12 winning seasons (seven by Harvard), while BU and BC have 28 (15 by the Terriers). So it’s not hard to see why the Crimson and the Huskies have been shut out.

Not that there haven’t been some close calls. Northeastern lost in overtime in the title game last season and in 2005; Harvard dropped OT championship games in 2008, 1998 and 1994. Wouldn’t you think that a bounce is coming one of their ways at some point?

Jim: Listening to Northeastern coach Jim Madigan talk at Monday’s Beanpot lunch, the Huskies might just be the team to finally reach the summit. Remember, Madigan won the tournament twice as a player (few with the Huskies can say that), once as an assistant coach and now is behind the bench. I know that Vegas would take that into account, but I don’t know about many fans giving those facts credibility.

Todd: From one Huskies to another. Last weekend, Michigan Tech fell into a 4-0 hole just over 15 minutes into the opener of a series at No. 1 Minnesota-Duluth. At that point, you’ve got to figure the game, if not the series, was just about done for Tech. From then on, though, the Huskies scored the last nine goals of the weekend, gaining a 4-4 tie on Friday and blanking the Bulldogs 5-0 on Saturday.

I’m not sure if shock is the right word to describe the reaction to a turn of events of that magnitude against a No. 1 team playing at home, and one that had been playing very well up to last weekend. But that’s what I’m going with. Did Minnesota-Duluth stay atop your ballot this week?

Jim: Minnesota-Duluth did indeed stay atop my ballot, and it had nothing to do with falling to Tech. The fact of the matter is that the Bulldogs possess the best winning percentage in the nation, put together the longest unbeaten streak this season and remain No. 1 in the PairWise Rankings. Yes, last weekend wasn’t ideal, but if you give enough examination to UMD and its season, you realize this is still the nation’s best team. Do you disagree?

Todd: I don’t disagree. I spent some time Sunday night looking around at other teams to see if I could find someone else worthy of the No. 1 spot right now, and I couldn’t. I think we should be looking at the whole picture, not just the most recent weekend. Even with the loss and tie last weekend, Minnesota-Duluth still finished the middle three months of the season 13-2-3 (.806 winning percentage). In the same span, Boston University was 12-6-1 (.658); Minnesota was 12-8-1 (.595). So I think the Bulldogs still have a strong claim to being the best team in the country.

Turning to the week ahead, the new front-runner in the CCHA has another series against a ranked opponent ahead. No. 6 Ferris State, which has flown a little under the radar this season, plays at No. 19 Northern Michigan. Also, No. 18 Miami plays at No. 7 Michigan. In the WCHA, No. 11 Colorado College and No. 13 Denver play a home-and-home series. What’s up out East?

Jim: We have mentioned the Beanpot, of course, which takes place next Monday. But that’s hardly the best of the games. Colgate, fresh off a sweep of Cornell, faces Union on Friday. Union will then face Cornell on Saturday. Before it heads to Monday’s Beanpot, BU — fresh off two losses to Maine — will have to take on Merrimack. And lastly, though some people don’t think of Atlantic Hockey as East, Niagara and Mercyhurst will square off in a critical series in the AHA standings.