TMQ: No more surprises when it comes to Harvard’s success this season

Patrick McNally and Harvard are 9-1-2 at their holiday break (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

Each week during the season we look at the big events and big games around Division I men’s college hockey in Tuesday Morning Quarterback.

Matthew: We’re coming off of yet another week of uncertainty at the top of the Division I Men’s Poll, Jim, and I’m curious to get your thoughts on what we witnessed over the past several days.

Top-ranked North Dakota held up its end of the bargain — barely — but each of the top four teams in last week’s poll had an up-and-down weekend. Among those four teams, which surprised you the most for reasons either good or bad?

Jim: Honestly, I’m not sure if I can say that too much surprised me at this point. The Minnesota State Mavericks proved they are human again, snapping their six-game winning streak against an Alaska team that I think is better than its .500 record.

Boston University took three points from Merrimack, leaving North Andover with a tie on Friday night. But anyone that follows Hockey East knows that playing at Merrimack is one of the more difficult things to do in that league, proven by the Warriors’ 7-1-1 record at Lawler Arena.

And Miami splitting with Omaha is only surprising because of the fact the RedHawks throttled the Mavericks 8-2 on Friday. Saturday, Miami simply dug a 3-0 hole that proved just a bit too much from which to climb.

If there was any surprise for me, and I feel there is almost a need to stop using the word “surprise” with this team any longer, it was Harvard continuing its winning ways, posting road victories at Princeton and Quinnipiac. The wins extended Harvard’s winning streak to a nation’s-best six games while placing it at the holiday break at 9-1-2. It is the team’s best start under Ted Donato and best record at the break since the 1992-93 team that didn’t lose its first game until February.

Matthew: Well, let’s stay on the subject of Harvard for a while. I’m starting to get the feeling that this is becoming another Michigan Tech situation in a few different ways. Obviously, Donato has the Crimson firing on all cylinders like Mel Pearson had Tech working on for much of this first half of the season, and the Huskies still are.

Harvard’s ascendancy this season also makes me think of Tech’s in that here we have another team that before long could be making a serious case for being deemed the top team in the country. What do you feel might be the ceiling for Donato’s group?

Jim: Well, given the recent abyss that the top spot has created for teams in the poll, maybe Donato would prefer his team to remain lower. But I do believe that the top ranking may be Harvard’s ceiling, as you put it. The Crimson have ascended to No. 5 this week, making a two-week rise of 13 spots for this club.

I like that the Crimson’s second-half schedule begins with an exhibition game against the Russian Red Stars, giving the team a chance to get skating legs back in a game that doesn’t count in the standings. A single game against Rensselaer will be followed by a marquee game against rival Yale at Madison Square Garden.

At that point, it’s likely that the hype machine will be working on overdrive on the Crimson if the winning streak is still intact. That is when we may find out more about this team. Can the players remain focused despite the distractions likely caused by increased attention, the likes of which many of these players have never seen?

Matthew: If they prove that they can, I think it would mark a pleasant change. We’ve had what almost seems like a recurring game of musical chairs in terms of who’s been named No. 1, and while I’ve enjoyed the parity, I think we’re starting to get to the point where we’re looking to see which teams can create separation between themselves and the trailing pack.

Harvard, I think, has every chance to make that happen for itself and keep its momentum rolling. Looking at their schedule in the new year, apart from the Beanpot, the Crimson have to hit the road to face only one team that’s currently ranked — Colgate on Jan. 24 — and the schedule on balance looks reasonably manageable. It’s too soon to predict how long the Crimson can stay hot, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Harvard’s riding high going into the postseason.

Turning our attention out west, North Dakota remained in the top spot in our poll after sweeping Lake Superior State at home. The Lakers threatened to be giant-slayers on Friday, however, when they took a 4-1 lead in Grand Forks before UND woke up and scored six unanswered goals.

Lake State’s WCHA rival Minnesota State fell from No. 2 to No. 3 this week after the Mavericks split at home against Alaska. The Nanooks are already pretty firmly in the middle of the WCHA pack, so I’m curious whether the Mavericks’ struggles against them should leave us at all concerned going forward.

Jim: I certainly don’t think so. Personally, I believe one of the most difficult things to do in college hockey is sweep a team on back-to-back nights. Minnesota State lost in overtime on Friday, a game that obviously could have gone either way. Thus Saturday’s victory was a solid bounce back, something I feel can say a lot about a team.

I also think there is a need to give more credence to Alaska, a team that began the season 6-0 before hitting a rough skid but now has taken points from three consecutive conference series, two of those series coming on the road.

I’ve let you do a lot of the asking of questions this week, so before we close, I’ll pose a question your way: With the midway break reached for many teams (and nearly all of the remainder reaching it this upcoming weekend), what has been your favorite story line of the first half?

Matthew: That’s a great question, and I invite our readers to give their own answers in the comments section below. For me — and call this western bias seeping through if you must — my favorite story line so far this season has been the success that Michigan Tech’s been enjoying.

Mel Pearson was a somewhat sneaky home-run hire for the Huskies when MTU brought him in a few years ago from Michigan, and I’ve got to think the Wolverines wouldn’t mind having him back. Tech has been making some big leaps under Pearson ever since he arrived in Houghton, but it’s really come to a head now that the Huskies are enjoying a level of national relevance that had been unheard of with them.

What about you? Is Harvard your eastern team of the season to date, or would you go in another direction?

Jim: I think in terms of teams of the first half in the east, both Harvard and Boston University have earned that distinction. But in terms of a favorite story line, I think I have to go with the debut, and subsequent hot play, of BU’s Jack Eichel.

It’s been quite some time that a freshman has not only had the impact Eichel is having this early in his career but also for a player that young to bring so much positive attention to college hockey. This week, both The Hockey News and USA Hockey Magazine feature Eichel prominently in advance of the World Junior tournament. He will be among the most-watched players at that tournament and that will continue to shed a very positive light on the decision to play college hockey.

Thumbs up

To both Bemidji State and Alaska-Anchorage. The Beavers and Seawolves skated to a 3-3 tie on Friday in Anchorage and followed that up with a 4-4 tie on Saturday. Fourteen goals evenly split over two games is certainly one way for fans to get their money’s worth.

Thumbs down

The Maine Black Bears continue to struggle mightily away from Alfond Arena. Last Saturday, the Black Bears let slide two third-period leads against UMass-Lowell before eventually falling in overtime. Under coach Red Gendron, Maine is 1-18-3 in road games. This year, the Black Bears have lost twice when holding third-period leads and also dropped a 3-2 decision to BU after leading 2-0. You almost have to wonder at this point whether it’s just a disproportionate statistic or a mental block.

Coming up

One of the coming weekend’s big series takes place in Denver, where the 11th-ranked Pioneers host No. 1 Denver in an NCHC matchup.

Meanwhile, No. 18 Providence hosts No. 14 Colgate in a Tuesday night nonconference game, and No. 4 Michigan Tech hosts No. 9 Minnesota-Duluth in a meeting of former WCHA rivals.