TMQ: Some of the top teams show cause for concern around the holiday break

Boston College has been knocked off balance lately, with losses in its last three games (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.

Jim: We have a new year and a new No. 1. Well, technically an old No. 1, as North Dakota has been at the top of the Division I Men’s Poll already this season (though this is the first time as the Fighting Hawks).

But Providence, after getting through the break unbeaten, has dropped two of its first three games since returning. The first, a 2-1 loss to Cornell at the Florida College Hockey Classic, didn’t seem like a significant loss as it came against a top-10 team. The fact that the Friars rebounded with a 2-1 win over Boston College the next night made it feel much more like a blip on the radar.

But Sunday’s loss to Brown in the Mayor’s Cup may be a bit of a cause for concern. I’ve seen Brown play, and if you can’t shut down its top line it is a very dangerous team. But Brown pounded the Providence net with 46 shots in the game. And while shots aren’t always the best measure, they often tell the story.

We’ve already addressed how difficult it is — borderline impossible — to go an entire season without a loss. But in Providence’s case, I worry that its first loss could snowball a little bit here.

Paula: I agree that there may be something to be concerned about, given that the two losses came within the last two weeks after a little 18-day break for the holidays — and given that Brown outshot Providence 46-34 in that game. It certainly is an inauspicious way to begin the second half of the season.

Providence isn’t the only Hockey East team, however, that gave pause in holiday tournament play. This week, the Friars play a home-and-home series against a Boston College team that has now dropped three in a row dating to the Eagles’ game against Notre Dame on Dec. 10 and including two losses in the Florida College Hockey Classic. That first loss in Florida came to eventual tournament winner Ohio State, an unranked team that came from behind to win 3-2 after the Eagles carried a 2-0 lead into the second period and in a game in which BC outshot the Buckeyes 32-19. Of course, the second BC loss in that tournament was against Providence in the consolation game.

Perhaps another top team to keep an eye on as the second half begins is Quinnipiac. The Bobcats ended the first half with a loss to Boston University, then returned to play with a sweep of Princeton (Dec. 28-29), and then tied Northeastern 3-3 on Jan. 2.

We know that perfection is unattainable, but often how a team performs in midseason tournaments and how a team begins the second half can be a harbinger of things to come all the way in March.

Jim: I think that every coach absolutely dreads the first two to three weekends back after the midseason break. Not surprisingly, almost every team loses its timing, and getting that back — and quickly — can be so difficult.

That’s what makes scheduling a challenge and an art. We can look at Boston University, which hasn’t played a game since before the break and won’t play one until Thursday night when it travels to Harvard. That’s pretty fortunate given that four of the Terriers’ players are at World Juniors. Knowing that schedules are put together as much as three or four years in advance, there is no way that David Quinn could’ve known his cupboards would be so bare right now. But it should work out well. Brandon Hickey will definitely be back for Thursday after Canada was eliminated in the quarterfinals. And depending on travel schedules, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson (Sweden), along with Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Fortunato (USA) could all be back after playing in Tuesday’s bronze-medal game.

If you don’t take a break like the Terriers and a handful of other teams, however, you’re risking playing games with your team out of game shape. It’s no different than teams that play their first games of the season in early October after possibly practicing for a week or less. But scheduling the teams you want to play often takes making sacrifices as to when those games are played.

What it comes down to — and I know we’ve said this very thing before — is that it doesn’t matter when you play the games. You just have to win them.

Paula: Speaking of winning, I’d like to move on to some of the winners of the holiday tournaments, beginning with the surprise Buckeyes — and this does tie into what you’re saying about scheduling. When I talked to Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik at the end of the first half of the season, he was concerned about the amount of time the Buckeyes had off. Ohio State ended the first half with two overtime losses to Minnesota to open the Buckeyes’ Big Ten campaign Dec. 4-5. Rohlik remarked something about the luck of the schedule, that his team would have nearly a month off and then have to face Boston College in Florida.

The Buckeyes won that game and then beat Cornell 8-0, and that midseason hardware may be just the boost that the underachieving Ohio State team needs as Big Ten play gets underway, fully.

And then there is Michigan, a team with a suspect defense that took the Great Lakes Invitational title without key blueliner Zach Werenski, who is captain of that U.S. team in the World Juniors. The GLI win may solidify a very inconsistent Michigan team.

In ECAC Hockey, Harvard and Dartmouth both earned tournament titles, each marking a program milestone. As the Crimson took the Shillelagh Tournament earlier this season, Harvard has captured two tournament wins for the season, a first in the program’s 118 years.

Dartmouth’s milestone is less historic. The Big Green’s 3-0 win over Merrimack on Sunday in the Ledyard Classic marked the first time this season that Dartmouth registered back-to-back wins. Also, it’s the first time since 2008 that Dartmouth prevailed in the holiday tournament that it hosts.

Jim: While we’re talking about tournaments, we might as well talk about the Americans’ performance at the World Junior Championship in Finland. Unfortunately for Team USA, it once again fell victim to Russia, which ended the Americans’ gold-medal bid for the third straight year. The USA can still earn a medal with a win over Sweden on Tuesday, but I really thought this team had the components to go further.

Although he chose to play neither college nor major junior and turned pro in Switzerland before his NHL draft year, Auston Matthews was a beast in the tournament for the Americans. That was the good news. The bad news was that Team USA’s offense, which was clicking throughout much of the tourney, couldn’t break open the semifinal against Russia when it had the chance. And once the Americans fell behind, Russia’s defense was masterful.

I know you followed along this tournament as much as I did. Should the Americans lose to the Swedes, is this considered a disappointing tournament for Team USA?

Paula: That, my friend, is a great question. This USA team is talented, coordinated and well-coached but at times has not played up to its potential in the tournament. The game against Russia was a good one, but — as you said — once they fell behind, there was little chance for the Americans to catch the Russians.

Of course, a loss to Sweden in the bronze-medal game would be a huge disappointment to Team USA, but does it necessarily follow that the entire tournament would be a disappointment? The Americans have sat out the medal round for the last two tournaments, so getting to play for the bronze medal is a positive step for this team. I know that the players and coaches will talk about their disappointment if they don’t medal this year, but as a fan of the game, I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen from this team in this tournament and I’ve enjoyed watching them play.

Yes, Matthews was a beast in this tournament. And, yes, I’d like to see more collegians on the roster next year.

Thumbs up

To the Mariucci Classic for playing a full overtime in the championship game on Saturday. As it turned out, Harvard needed only 2:39 of it to beat Minnesota, but there was no chance of the title being decided in a shootout.

Thumbs down

To the inability to close out a game with a lead late in the third period in a holiday tournament. Yes, we’re looking at you, Minnesota and, especially, Michigan State. The Gophers were 33.9 seconds away from winning their first Mariucci Classic since the 2012-13 season before Harvard tied the championship game and then won in overtime. And the Spartans gave up leads with 1:26 and 4:15 remaining en route to overtime losses to Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan at the Great Lakes Invitational.

Coming up

There’s college hockey in NHL arenas Friday, Saturday and Sunday this weekend.

Arizona State hosts Connecticut, Michigan Tech and Yale in the Desert Hockey Classic at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz., on Friday and Sunday. On Saturday, No. 2 Quinnipiac plays No. 5 Harvard at Madison Square Garden in New York.

But first, Harvard has to deal with No. 11 Boston University on Thursday.

No. 3 Providence and No. 7 Boston College play a home-and-home series on Friday and Saturday, while No. 6 Omaha hosts No. 17 Denver.