TMQ: First half shows the difficulty in consistency

Denver finished the first half with one win in its last seven games, while Boston College lost its final game before the break to end a 13-game unbeaten run (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: It was probably inevitable that Quinnipiac wouldn’t remain undefeated for the entire season. I think it’s interesting that the Bobcats lost last Saturday to another ranked team, Boston University, a team they’d never before faced and a team going with a goalie returning to play after missing last year with a concussion, senior Sean Maguire. Maguire made 36 saves in this, his third win of the season and his sixth game.

Denver has lost four in a row, all to opponents ranked higher in the polls and most recently to St. Cloud State. The Huskies outshot the Pioneers 64-58 and outscored Denver 11-4.

After rolling over Minnesota 8-3 Friday night, Michigan lost to the Golden Gophers 3-2 the next day.

Boston College lost, Denver extended its losing streak to four games after being swept by St. Cloud, and BU lost to Yale before beating Quinnipiac. No one is infallible, and it seems this year more than ever that the field is often unpredictable.

I know I’ve beaten the parity horse nearly to death this season, but it seems impossible to escape. What else, Jim, do you see contributing to some of the more surprising results we’ve seen in the first half — or are any results surprising at all?

Jim: Listen, parity is a big part of it but along with that also goes the fact that consistency is incredibly difficult. We see it in the NHL all the time and college players are younger and less mature. Thus, it is difficult to put together a team of players who night in and night out can bring a consistent effort. There are going to be bumps in the road at some point during the season.

And timing means a lot. Let’s specifically look at BU and Quinnipiac. On Friday night, the Terriers lost to Yale while Quinnipiac was idle. You would think advantage Quinnipiac. The Bobcats entered Saturday rested and were playing a BU team that played a tough game the night before.

But motivation is a funny thing. BU obviously was very motivated to get something out of the weekend. Quinnipiac was coming off three straight shutouts and four in its last five games. Maybe they got a little overconfident.

I guess at the end what I’m saying is there are a million reasons why teams win and lose games. Parity is certainly one.

Which brings me to Providence. The defending national champs now are the one remaining club that hasn’t experienced a loss this season. Everything I just laid out here makes that accomplishment — reaching the exam break without a loss — even more impressive. Do you agree?

Paula: I do agree, Jim, that the Friars’ accomplishment is very impressive, indeed. I’ve had them atop my poll all season. I always start the new season with the defending champion in the top spot, but it isn’t often that the defending champs remain there.

Their continued success in the first half is something they or any other good team can use to propel them through a really good second half — regardless of early season schedule. Providence has yet to play Boston College, Massachusetts-Lowell and Notre Dame, three of Hockey East’s top teams, and the Friars’ schedule on out is tougher and deeper than those three teams just because it’s a Hockey East schedule and HEA looks mighty tough again this season.

Even more impressive are Providence’s numbers: 3.87 goals scored per game (sixth nationally) and 1.80 goals allowed per game (seventh nationally) — and the Friars’ power play is 10th nationally as well. I don’t know how soon they will lose a game or how many they’ll lose, but the Friars give every indication of being in the mix at the end of the season.

While their first-half schedule wasn’t exactly weak, Providence did play a number of teams it should have defeated and did. That brings me to Penn State. The Nittany Lions (11-2-3) did not have the toughest first-half, pre-Big Ten schedule, but they made the most of that schedule and that success can spur them on in the second half while facing Big Ten teams that are distinctly vulnerable.

In fact, Penn State is the single B1G team that took full advantage of that early nonconference schedule and, in doing so, may have put itself in a position to snag its first NCAA postseason bid. The Nittany Lions score 4.28 goals per game (tied for second) and give up 2.31 (16th). If they maintain that for the rest of the season, they’re in good shape regardless of whether they capture the league’s autobid.

There are several other teams that at midseason look as though they’re in good shape for postseason at-large bids if they continue to do well in their conferences. Look at North Dakota, St. Cloud State and Omaha in the NCHC, St. Lawrence, Harvard and Cornell in ECAC Hockey — other than Quinnipiac, of course — and in the WCHA, Minnesota State and Bowling Green can play their way into postseason bids with savvy play in the second half.

I see more Big Ten hockey than play in any other league, although I’ve been lucky enough to see a decent number of teams from outside of my primary conference. Within the Big Ten, the team that surprises me most is Michigan. The Wolverines’ offense is absolutely for real — unreal, in some cases — but the team’s overall defense is suspect. That surprises me, given how good the individual defensemen are. It’s not just goaltending at Michigan, either, as the Wolverines can win 7-0 games and 6-4 games, and two of their three losses were 3-2 games.

The team that surprises me the most outside of the Big Ten is North Dakota. I saw the Fighting Hawks play, and their first line of Drake Caggiula, Nick Schmaltz and Brock Boeser is as good as any I’ve seen in recent years. Sophomore goaltender Cam Johnson (1.20 GAA, .955 save percentage) is hotter than hot going into the break. But the rest of the team is very unassuming. They’re good; perhaps they’re so good that they make it look really easy.

Jim, you see a lot of Hockey East play. What HEA team impressed or surprised you, and what team outside of Hockey East caught your eye — for whatever reason — in the first half?

Jim: I am with you on Penn State. The Nittany Lions still have a lot to prove but it’s pretty clear Guy Gadowsky has his team playing well right now.

In Hockey East, obviously Providence stands out to me as does Boston College. The Eagles posted an uncharacteristic loss last week to Notre Dame, letting a two-goal third-period lead slip away, losing 4-3. But there have been spurts this season that BC’s defense seems impenetrable.

But I think the team I am most curious about is Omaha. The Mavericks have just three losses, although two came against Western Michigan, a team that had an 11-1 loss this season to St. Cloud State. Omaha then handed St. Cloud State a 7-2 loss on Saturday night, which makes me wonder just how difficult the NCHC is to navigate this season.

Looking at the PairWise Rankings (and no, I don’t think it’s too early to do that), the NCHC is the most interesting conference to observe. The league has three of the top five teams in the PWR right now, but nothing else. Denver is close to the bubble, but things will have to significantly change in league play (which is very possible given the league’s nonleague success) to get six teams in the tournament for a second consecutive year.

Paula: And I agree completely with that, Jim, that the NCHC is the most interesting conference to observe. With the second half of the season bringing nearly all play within the conference for NCHC teams, it will be interesting to see if the three near the top can maintain those PWR positions and how the relative strength — or lack thereof? — will affect their chances at the end of the season.

Jim: The reality is that most out-of-conference play is nearly complete. There will be holiday tournaments at the end of this month, the Beanpot and a few random nonconference games for some teams. But where your conference stands right now in nonconference play should have a huge influence on how many teams you get into the NCAA tournament.

Thus, you can expect the ECAC, Hockey East and NCHC to be well represented in the NCAA field and the Big Ten, WCHA and Atlantic Hockey to have limited representatives. That all can change if teams below the bubble go on incredible second-half runs, but those runs, when in conference play, usually come at the expense of your conference compadres.

Thumbs up

It looked like this highly anticipated season might be a disappointment for Bowling Green. But after a 4-3-3 start, the Falcons are unbeaten in nine (7-0-2) and remain relevant to the national conversation.

Thumbs down

To Michigan State for being shut out on Teddy Bear Toss night. With fans ready to throw teddy bears at the first goal for Sparty, the team couldn’t score against Wisconsin and thus had to ask the fans to throw their bears after the game ended.

Coming up

Just 11 of the 60 Division I men’s teams are in action this weekend, including Massachusetts hosting the U.S. World Junior team on Friday.