TMQ: Holiday story lines, second-half turnarounds and World Juniors disappointment

Massachusetts-Lowell celebrates a goal in its win over Merrimack for the Mariucci Classic title (photo: Jim Rosvold).

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.

Jim: It’s been a while since we have chatted in this space and there have been a lot of in-season tournament champs crowned, the U.S. World Junior team again lost to Russia in the quarterfinals and North Dakota has returned to the top spot in the Division I Men’s Poll.

So what story line of the past few weeks caught your interest?

Matthew: More than anything else for me, it’s been the struggles that a lot of the nation’s top teams were made to deal with in their games over the holidays. It doesn’t really surprise me that North Dakota is back in the No. 1 spot — I had Boston University there on my ballot, but at present I can accept the idea of a 1A and a 1B — but problems came up further down.

I’d expected Omaha to go 4-0 against Alabama-Huntsville and New Hampshire, but the Mavericks had to really dig to pick up the three wins that they got against what this year have generally been much lesser opponents. Minnesota lost the opening game of the Gophers’ own tournament to Merrimack before beating Rochester Institute of Technology in overtime in the third-place game, and — the following still feels really weird to say — Michigan Tech’s 2-0 loss at Wisconsin on Saturday could do some real damage to the Huskies in the PairWise Rankings.

Hockey East seemed to have a solid holiday break. We mentioned Merrimack’s success in Minneapolis, but Boston College and UMass-Lowell both swept their competition over the festive period, and I don’t think we can really discount too much BU after it tied against a Union team that seems to be starting to figure it out again.

What about you? I have a feeling you focused a lot on the World Juniors, but is that what sticks out to you most from our winter break?

Jim: You mentioned Lowell, and its ability to win two holiday tournaments is noteworthy. But certainly the lack of success for Team USA at the World Juniors still has me scratching my head days later. The Americans struggled in many of the opening-round games and then lacked the firepower against Russia in the quarterfinals. That success, or lack thereof, goes back to the New Year’s Eve loss to Canada. Win that game and the road to the finals was so much easier. So although the loss to Russia eliminated Team USA, it was really done in losing to Canada.

Now the questions of what happened is being asked. This U.S. team was loaded with talent but that didn’t translate. What do you think needs to change for Team USA? Or is this simply the result of a volatile tournament?

Matthew: I think it’s mostly down to it just being a highly volatile tournament. When even Denmark is proving to be a tough out, you know the tournament field is really well-balanced.

Having said that, I have to think that USA Hockey’s selectors are wondering if they picked all the right players. He’s not an NCAA product, but I was a little bit surprised that Christian Dvorak, who has 69 points already this season for London in the OHL, was missing, and I think Kyle Connor (an 18-year-old who is averaging over a point per game this season for Youngstown in the USHL who is going to Michigan next season) was worthy of a look.

How do you look at it? We’re only a couple of years removed from the U.S. winning gold at the World Juniors, but missing the semifinals four of the last seven years is worrying no matter how you spin it.

Jim: It would be worse if the U.S. didn’t medal in all of the other three tournaments but you do wonder why success at the Under-18 level doesn’t translate to Under-20. Part of it may be the fact that at U18 many of the players play together all year in the National Team Development Program but in U20 there isn’t the same chemistry. Chemistry just doesn’t develop overnight or in a two-week training camp.

Matthew: Sometimes it takes a lot longer than two weeks, in fact. We could make the case for that with a few college teams that we thought would be a lot better off this season than they proved themselves to be over the course of the first half.

Are there any that you’re pinning high hopes on in terms of turning things around? I’m not sold on how much better Wisconsin can get, but at least when it comes to the western teams, I can’t help feeling that St. Cloud State is a much better team than it’s been. The Huskies are going to have to make up a lot of ground if they want to secure home ice for the first round of the NCHC playoffs, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if SCSU surprises some people in the run-up to the postseason.

Jim: Despite a win on Saturday, I have pretty much given up on Wisconsin. Still, all they need is a three-game winning streak in March to make the NCAA tournament.

If there is a team in the east I want to believe in, it’s Northeastern, which earned a win and tie against St. Lawrence last weekend. This team has the talent to succeed and could surprise many who have written it off already.

Matthew: I think Northeastern’s a good call, but we’ll have to see what the Huskies look like once they get through these next few weeks. They have Yale, Boston College and Vermont all in a row over the next five games, but the home stretch looks favorable if Jim Madigan’s group can get through the first half of this month relatively unscathed.

Thumbs up

To Omaha sophomore forward Austin Ortega, who on Dec. 30 against New Hampshire scored his seventh game-winning goal of the season in a 2-1 win. With that tally, he proved that he didn’t have to wait until the calendar flipped to 2015 before he set a school record for game-winners in the same season.

Thumbs down

To the Catamount Cup and Ledyard Classic for using predetermined pairings to decide a champion. Sure, this year it worked out and the two winners from the first night played the second night. But let’s not play for a trophy if you don’t use the typical semifinal/final format.

Coming up

The NCHC has two big conference series this weekend. New No. 1 North Dakota hosts No. 7 Minnesota-Duluth and No. 13 Omaha hosts No. 10 Denver.

No. 3 Harvard and No. 19 Yale play at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. And Brown and No. 14 Providence play a home-and-home series for the Mayor’s Cup.