TMQ: On perfection, parity and teams whose true colors are yet unknown

Connor Clifton and Quinnipiac are 11-0-2 this season (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

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: Perfection once again won’t occur this hockey season. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Quinnipiac put together an impressive run of 11 straight wins to open the season before posting back-to-back ties last weekend against Clarkson and St. Lawrence. The Bobcats still have yet to lose a game.

Quinnipiac’s run, however, got me thinking about Cornell and its 1969-70 team that went 29-0 to win its second national title in four years. The game has certainly changed a lot since that Big Red team ran the table. We use the word parity all the time in describing today’s college game. Thus I feel like its safe to say that Cornell’s perfect record probably will never again be touched. Do you agree?

Paula: I do agree that perfection is unattainable. An undefeated season? Maybe — a big maybe. But perfect? Nope.

There are many reasons for this, but the biggest one that comes to mind is the amount of information that’s available about any team via technology. Every team pores over video of opponents to prepare for upcoming games, and in doing so, each team is able to determine a way to exploit any weakness an opponent exhibits in ways that simply couldn’t be done 45 years ago.

Additionally, this is something that is done for college-bound players before they get to play Division I. Savvy coaches are preparing their players better and at younger ages for nearly any potential scenario, anything that can be anticipated with video. Players are smarter about the game in general now.

In some ways, the parity makes the college game more interesting; in others, however, it seems to take some of the shine off the game.

Years ago when I asked coaches about parity, they also talked about the improvement in goalie equipment, especially bigger pads. I can’t speak to whether that’s part of it.

While nobody’s perfect this season, there are some impressive records out there, especially in Hockey East and the NCHC.

Jim: It’s true, once again we can sit here and talk about Hockey East and the NCHC. Right now, Hockey East occupies three of the top four spots in the latest Division I Men’s Poll and half the members in the NCHC have overall winning percentages of .667 or above.

With the Ivies all having some games under their collective belts, I think we can also pass judgment on ECAC Hockey and, right now, I’m impressed with five of the 12 teams. We’ve already mentioned Quinnipiac, but Harvard, Yale and Cornell have all gotten off to the start each wants. Add in St. Lawrence, which shut out Quinnipiac in Saturday’s scoreless tie, and I like a lot of what I’m seeing in the ECAC as well.

Rensselaer is also off to a solid start in league play, matching Quinnipiac at 4-0-2, but the Engineers are 2-4 out of conference so the jury remains out on them.

The team I can’t figure out is Clarkson. The Golden Knights were 5-1 out of the gate, although the one loss was a 7-1 slaughtering at Merrimack. Clarkson is 0-3-2 in its last five, but the two ties came against Quinnipiac and Rensselaer.

Am I the only one that is confused about just how good (or not so good) Clarkson is?

Paula: I think Clarkson is having difficulty figuring out how good Clarkson is. Since that 5-1 start, the Knights are 0-3-2, a stretch in which they’ve averaged 0.80 goals per game after starting the first six games averaging 4.17 goals per game. It may not be completely fair to point to the strength of their opponents, but on paper, that is what it looks like. The opponents Clarkson has played since that fast start have been a bit tougher.

Sometimes a start like that can propel a team through a tougher stretch of schedule, give a team confidence down the road, but this recent skid does not bode well for the Golden Knights as their ECAC season progresses.

The league that perplexes me is the very league that I cover, the Big Ten. On USCHO Live! at the start of the season, you made a comment about how tough I was on the Big Ten in my season preview — a fair comment, in my opinion — but, once again, B1G hockey is struggling big time with its nonconference schedule at the start of the season.

We’ve talked a bit about the more successful leagues in the early going. I’m curious, however, as to what other people think about Big Ten hockey. I see a lot of it, obviously, through the season and I know what I think. Do you have a take on why the Big Ten has such difficulty with nonconference opponents?

Jim: I have to tell you that I am a bit perplexed by the struggles of Big Ten teams as well. None has simply come out of the gate with a bold statement. Penn State looks and feels like a team that wants to carry the Big Ten flag, but I’m not even ready to put a stake in the ground for the Nittany Lions.

As you said above, it’s maybe not right to talk about strength of schedule, but the fact of the matter is that Penn State has played six of its 12 nonleague games thus far against Atlantic Hockey teams, a conference that is 9-36-3 out of conference. Not exactly a ringing endorsement to classify Penn State having significant success.

You’re closer to the league than I am. It doesn’t seem like teams are struggling with the recruiting game but I have to think it was easier to recruit to say Wisconsin or Minnesota when the teams were playing against teams like Denver and North Dakota regularly. There also have been enough teams to elevate the performance of their programs (Union, Yale, Quinnipiac, Providence and the like) to make recruiting more competitive.

I guess what I am saying is simple: I have as little an explanation for the Big Ten’s early season struggles as you.

While we’re talking about conferences off to less-than-blazing starts, we shouldn’t leave out the WCHA. The same conference that produced the top overall seed in last year’s NCAA tournament is 14-18-8 out of conference thus far, including a dismal 1-10-2 mark against the NCHC. I know it’s too early to look at the PairWise Rankings with much certainty, but the highest-ranked WCHA team is Michigan Tech, ranked 21st. Not exactly the same success this conference enjoyed last season.

Paula: I hadn’t even considered the recruiting advantages of being one of the two or three “big” teams in the WCHA or CCHA. What an interesting point, Jim.

I have a huge affection for the current WCHA, as it is home to many of the CCHA teams I covered for so long. It does seem as though the WCHA is poised to have a down year. While it is too early to look at the PWR with any real sense of what’s going to happen between now and the end of the season and we’re still early enough on for me to be wary of some statistics, it’s disconcerting to see the top team in scoring for the WCHA, Michigan Tech, come in at No. 19 nationally. The league’s top defensive team, Bowling Green, is tied for 10th, but it’s a big drop to the league’s second team, Tech again at No. 19.

There is a lot of interesting hockey on tap for Thanksgiving weekend, especially hockey of the nonconference variety. With host Notre Dame plus Harvard, Rensselaer and Western Michigan, the Shillelagh Tournament looks to be very competitive. The St. Cloud State-Minnesota series should be an interesting barometer for both teams, as is the game between Boston University and Cornell in Madison Square Garden Saturday. I’m also looking forward to seeing North Dakota in my own backyard as the Fighting Hawks — and that will take some getting used to — visit the Spartans.

Thumbs up

To the North Dakota Fighting Hawks. Yep, that’s right. If you were under a stone for the last few weeks, North Dakota finally has another nickname. Hopefully this will allow us all to put the Fighting Sioux — and all the controversy associated with it — in the past. Knowing the North Dakota faithful, however, that might not happen any time soon.

Thumbs down

To the number of games resulting in a tie this season. We’ve just finished Week 8 and there have been 55 games that have finished in a tie after five minutes of overtime. The three-on-three play that the NHL is using this season (and that the NCHC uses after the five-minute OT to award an extra point in the standings) is exciting. Couldn’t the NCAA use a mandatory three-on-three or four-on-four format throughout every league to reduce the number of games that result in outright ties?

Coming up

In addition to the Shillelagh Tournament at Notre Dame, there’s one more holiday tournament this weekend: the Friendship Four in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Brown, Colgate, No. 4 UMass-Lowell and Northeastern play Friday and Saturday.

Besides No. 11 Boston University and No. 16 Cornell in Red Hot Hockey at MSG, there’s also No. 10 Yale at No. 1 Providence on Saturday in games between ranked teams.