TMQ: Three leagues stand out after first month of play

Referee Geoffrey Miller signals goal with scorer Matthew Gaudreau of Boston College at his skates with 36 seconds remaining in the Eagles’ win over Denver on Friday (photo: Melissa Wade).

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.

Paula: As we enter November, Jim, we have a full month of play behind us and now finally each Division I team has played at least a game for the record. Looking at October — especially how the month ended with three ECAC Hockey teams sweeping their opening weekends — I’m struck that no one may have an easy time of it this season. In every conference, there are several contenders for the regular season crown and I would be surprised if anyone runs away with anything in 2015-16.

Look at the statement Western Michigan made to open the NCHC season with a sweep of Omaha, 4-2 and 6-1. Then there’s Harvard in its first weekend of play, period, outscoring Dartmouth 12-2 in a home-and-home series, and Rensselaer with a home-and-home sweep of Union after the Engineers began the season 1-4 in nonconference play. Of course, Quinnipiac is still undefeated this season but has yet to begin league play.

October has me wondering two things: First, how much of a tune-up does nonconference play really provide, and second, just how close is each conference finish going to be come March?

Jim: Personally, I see nonleague play early in the season as a good benchmark for teams. For some teams, it doesn’t tell us the entire story and that is what league play is all about. And for many teams, you won’t realize the importance of that nonleague benchmark until March, when it is far too late to alter the outcomes. This is the chance for teams to set themselves apart from the rest of their conference.

Thus far, three conferences have begun to differentiate themselves well: the ECAC, the NCHC and Hockey East. Those three hold the top winning percentages out of conference and probably fittingly comprise the top 12 spots in the most recent Division I Men’s Poll. There are 5 NCHC teams, 4 Hockey East teams and 3 from the ECAC in the top 12. If you want to dip down to the top 15, add another ECAC team to pull that conference even with Hockey East and slip in Michigan from the Big Ten and Bowling Green from the WCHA.

Listen, I’m hardly a historian on the poll, but this seems like such a clear demarcation near the top: People are certainly paying a lot of attention to how strong teams in ECAC, NCHC and Hockey East have come out of the chute.

Paula: I’d like to think that the early nonleague play is a good indication of things to come as well, both for conferences overall and for individual teams, but there are aberrations. Minnesota State is 4-0 in conference play after beginning the season 0-4; after starting the season 6-0 in nonconference play, UNO dropped those two NCHC-opening games. Those are examples specific to a single league, though, and one that had some consistency issues in 2014-15 — and the voters don’t seem to mind those hiccups when it comes to the NCHC, at least not so far this season.

I think you and the voters are onto something when looking at the ECAC, the NCHC and Hockey East after a month of play. It’s not just a matter of win percentage. For teams with more than a few games to their credit, there are some statistics that indicate good chances of long-term success. There are 16 teams with a scoring margin of one goal or more so far. Three of those teams — Harvard (5.00), Yale (3.50) and Cornell (2.50) — are ECAC teams that have played only two games.

Of the remaining 13 teams in that category — all of which have played six or more games this season — six are Hockey East teams, three are ECAC teams, two are NCHC teams, one team plays in Atlantic Hockey and one in the Big Ten.

Of the 25 teams averaging three goals or more per game in six or more games so far this season, eight are from Hockey East and four each are from the ECAC and the NCHC, but you can add another three to the total from the ECAC if we include the season-opening performances of Harvard, Cornell and Yale. Crazy.

That delineation seems real enough to me, Jim. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that in the early going, Hockey East looks like the league to catch and keep pace with. I say this knowing that the ECAC is 8-7-1 against Hockey East, too.

Jim: You may be onto something here, and even individual stats bear this out early. Eight of the top 13 point scorers in the nation are from Hockey East. A couple of the league’s goaltenders also fall into the top 10. Certainly, all good talking points but these really need to be looked at as small data points on a season-long graph.

One league we’re not talking a ton about here, though, is Atlantic Hockey. There may not be a ton of praise for that league given its 8-28-2 out-of-conference record, but there have been a decent number of mild (and not-so-mild) upsets thus far. Mercyhurst got wins against Colgate and Ohio State, yet it’s to be seen whether either can be considered impressive. Bentley, of course, swept a Northeastern team that hasn’t exactly played earth-shattering hockey.

But on Saturday, Robert Morris shut out then-No. 10 Michigan at Yost. Michigan doesn’t lose much at home, forget about being whitewashed. That is one win for an AHC team that certainly must be talked about.

Paula: I am so glad that you mention Atlantic Hockey, Jim, because that is a conference that doesn’t get nearly enough recognition all season, either in the polls or by Division I fans in general. Not only did Robert Morris shut out Michigan at Yost on Saturday, but the Colonials shut down an offense that had been averaging 4.8 goals per game, and until the Wolverines powered back with four third-period goals in their 5-3 win over Robert Morris on Friday, the Colonials were leading that game 3-1. And Mercyhurst is one of those teams I mentioned averaging a lot of goals, 3.50 per game.

Yes, these are early statistics and we don’t have a big pool of games from which to draw, but I do think that there are several teams in Atlantic Hockey that may prove themselves capable of making some postseason noise, including Mercyhurst and Robert Morris and perhaps even Rochester Institute of Technology and Sacred Heart. Yes, I said Sacred Heart. With an autobid, anything can happen.

Jim: What you just said strikes a chord with me. Listen, we’re months away from the NCAA tournament but I was speaking with a coach last weekend who said pretty much every team that made the tournament last season, including RIT, the Atlantic Hockey champ, had a chance to win it. I don’t think we could’ve made this statement even five years ago.

The talent gap between teams continues to shrink and while it would be unrealistic to say that any team can win a national championship, any team that makes it to the field of 16 certainly can.

That also applies to the regular season. There just aren’t easy games. The last-place team in one conference could beat the top team in another conference if the favorite doesn’t show up to play.

Thumbs up

This one may be a bit of silver lining for Wisconsin fans that always have high expectations, but a thumbs up to the Badgers’ sweep of Arizona State. Friday’s 5-1 win broke a 14-game (0-10-4) winless streak that dated to Feb. 20. It was also the first time the Badgers have swept a single opponent in a weekend series since March 7-8, 2014. The Badgers are 2-3-3 this season; they started 2014-15 with eight consecutive losses.

Thumbs down

This one is easy: To former Boston College forward Jeremy Bracco, who left school last week and hours later joined Kitchener of the OHL. Listen, college hockey isn’t for everyone and maybe that was the case here. So maybe we shouldn’t be blaming the player as much as Kitchener and its coaches and staff. This league continues to lose respect each and every day for badgering players who enter college with phone calls trying to continue to win them over. Sometimes you have to understand when you lose a recruiting battle, though we still believe college hockey will be better off for having the players who want to be part of this game on the ice.

Coming up

No. 7 Harvard and No. 12 Yale just got their seasons started last weekend, but they put their rivalry on the ice on Friday in Boston.

It’s not the only rivalry on tap this weekend: No. 9 Denver and Colorado College play a home-and-home series, and former WCHA foes Wisconsin and No. 1 North Dakota play in Grand Forks.

No. 8 Omaha, meanwhile, looks to rebound from being swept at Western Michigan when it hosts No. 6 Minnesota-Duluth.