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: Jim, there are two things I want to start with this week.
The first is Quinnipiac. The Bobcats received 32 votes for No. 1 in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll and they’re top in the PairWise Rankings. I’m not arguing at all whether they deserve to be No. 1; clearly, they do. That having been said, however, a dozen of their games have been decided in overtime, nine of those since the start of 2016. They are 5-1-4 in their last 10 games, which means that they have won only half of their last 10 games. Of course, it also means that in four of those contests that weren’t wins, they’ve found a way to pick up a point.
What do you make of this, especially the number of overtime games even divorced from Quinnipiac’s record? On the one hand, I think it indicates that the Bobcats are very tough and can find ways to get points in close games; on the other hand, I wonder why it is that Quinnipiac needs to come from behind so often to get to OT, as it has in so many of its overtime games.
The second thing is Michigan and its overall team reliance on offense. The old adage says that defense wins games, but for the Wolverines, that absolutely is not the case.
Friday night, Michigan ran into a tough defensive team, Ferris State, and the final score of 5-2 was not indicative of how close the game really was. It was 3-1 after two, but the Wolverines are outscoring opponents 55-20 in the third period of games this season and they’re averaging 4.78 goals per game overall. While Michigan has improved defensively from the net out in the second half of the season, it’s clear to anyone who watches Michigan that this is a team that relies almost solely on its offense to win games. Conventional wisdom says that will eventually bite the Wolverines, but when you beat opponents 8-6 or 7-4 or even 8-3, does it matter how many goals you allow? I still think that the number of goals the Wolverines allow may haunt them in NCAA tournament play. What do you think?
Jim: You bring up two good topics. The Quinnipiac one we have touched upon in recent weeks. And the longer it goes for the Bobcats where the team shows no sign of melting down, the more confidence I get. Every single time a team comes from behind or wins a game in overtime, it gains not just confidence but also experience in prevailing in close games.
That said, in playoff times, I do believe the opponents play better defense, which could make getting that key goal to tie the game all the more difficult. That’s a problem in a one-game scenario that is very real.
The same goes for Michigan. On average, this Michigan team can be very successful offensively but when you get into a single-game scenario as you will find in the Big Ten tournament as well as the NCAAs, you simply can’t rely on having your offense firing on all cylinders. It’s much more effective to know that your defense and goaltender will shut down opponents and, if your offense is limited to, say, two goals on a given night, that your team can still prevail.
The reality, however, is that both Quinnipiac and Michigan are getting things done right now in unconventional ways. And Quinnipiac, at least, is on the precipice of earning the top seed in the ECAC Hockey tournament.
Which brings me to the overall conference standings. We have one week left in the regular season for half of the leagues. The Bobcats clinched a share of the league title but no team has clinched the top seed. Add in the WCHA and NCHC, each of which have two weeks left, and the Big Ten, which has three. And it seems that nothing is going to be decided in any conference before the final week of the regular season. That’s about as tight as standings can get.
Paula: I agree about the Bobcats and Wolverines. If teams find ways to prevail, their confidence can increase and they can find other ways to prevail in tight games or one-and-done situations.
I love the conference standings right now, the drama of having it come down to the wire. It’s in these situations, too, that certain teams really excel, with so much on the line and their proverbial backs to the wall.
The WCHA is an awesome race right now. There are five points separating first-place Minnesota State (33) from Ferris State and Northern Michigan, each of which has 28 points. In between, Bowling Green and Michigan Tech each have 31 points. Technically, any one of those teams can capture the regular season title. Each team has four remaining games, but Minnesota State plays teams behind Ferris State and Northern Michigan in each of its remaining series, while the Falcons and Bulldogs duke it out this weekend and Tech finishes against Northern Michigan. Minnesota State, it seems, has the benefit of a favorable schedule.
The same thing is happening in the Big Ten, which has three weeks of regular season play remaining. A single point separates first-place Minnesota (33) from second-place Michigan (32), and those two teams play each other this week while third-place Penn State (29) is idle. After the series with Michigan, the Golden Gophers play Michigan State and Wisconsin, two teams decidedly not vying for top spots in the league. Michigan has a series against Ohio State and then finishes the season at home with Penn State.
North Dakota and St. Cloud State — two of the strongest teams in the country — are tied for first place in the NCHC, each with 47 points. I think one of the most exciting things about the NCHC this season is Denver’s play in the second half. The Pioneers have moved up to third place in the league with 41 points, and they’re riding a five-game win streak into this weekend’s play, the longest in the NCHC and one that includes a sweep of North Dakota.
The RedHawks make the NCHC playoff picture interesting as well. Miami is 8-5-1 since the first of the year, with wins over St. Cloud State and Denver and a sweep of Omaha.
Last week, you said that coaches always want their teams to be playing their best hockey of the year at this point, and I think we are seeing some teams do just that. The uncertainty of how these three leagues will finish, too, makes this very exciting for fans — especially since there was so much dominance by a small number of teams in both the WCHA and NCHC early in the season, something that’s hard to say about the Big Ten since it has only six teams.
Jim: I do stand by my statement that coaches really do work hard to gear their teams toward playing extremely well down the stretch. For some coaches, that means fine-tuning a season-long contender. For others it’s to play the role of spoiler or make a run toward a conference title from a low seed in the conference tournament.
That said, if you’re a team in Hockey East, the ECAC or Atlantic Hockey, I do believe that the conference tournament formats favor the top teams. Having to survive a best-of-three series not once but twice can wear on a team. And even if a coach tries to see the silver lining and says playing a first-round series can keep a team sharp, every single coach in the nation would appreciate an off week this time of year to allow a team rest and the ability to reset before the postseason.
As I write all of this, I’m looking at a team like Northeastern in Hockey East, which began the season disastrously, put itself behind the 8-ball but is now playing incredibly. Yes, it is good to be hot this time of year, but there is no way that Northeastern will get to the NCAA tournament without winning the Hockey East tournament. Thus, you might have one of the top teams in the country needing to win six games over three weekends just to have a chance to prove itself in a national tournament. That difficult-to-navigate path to the NCAA tournament might keep one of the hottest teams from ever making the NCAA tournament.
Paula: That happened last year with Michigan, too, when the Wolverines were playing really, really well down the stretch but had played so poorly earlier in the year that they were a bubble team and needed the Big Ten championship to get into the NCAA tournament. To coach Red Berenson’s credit, he has maintained during his team’s NCAA drought of the last three seasons that the Wolverines would only be there if they deserved to be there.
Not only do the conference tournament formats favor the top teams, I think they should. I know that’s a somewhat contentious thing to say, but if a team like this year’s Northeastern team or last year’s Michigan team — or this year’s Miami team or Dartmouth or any number of teams coming on strong in the second half — has put itself in a position to need its league’s autobid to get into the NCAA tournament, that’s an indication of a season-long process, as you’ve said, and perhaps an unconscious or unintended one. While coaches want to fine-tune for the season, no coaching staff intends for its team not to measure up in the first half.
Every team has to deal with what coaches are now calling adversity, whether it’s a spate of injuries within a given season or a rebuilding process or personal issues affecting the players. In the end — and I do mean in the very end of the season — it’s the teams that can handle that most effectively that persevere. And by “teams,” I mean the players as much as or more so than the coaches. One thing that we do need to remember is that we’re talking about squads of college kids, and how each team handles challenges even from year to year can vary greatly.
Jim: And I think that when we talk about great coaches, most of the “greats” know how to navigate a team through the worst moments of adversity. Every team deals with injuries. Every team deals with bouts where it might lack confidence either offensively or defensively or being able to come from behind in games. Whatever the situation might be, it is the teams that overcome the most difficult moments in the season that are generally standing come season’s end.
It is very rare that we see a team remain a top club from the start of the season to the end. I can’t think of a ton off the top of my head. The 1992-93 Maine and 2008-09 Boston University teams stick out because of my familiarity with Hockey East. Minnesota’s 2001-02 team also falls into that category as well. And what is the one thing this trio of clubs has in common? All three won the national title in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion in the finals. So even when it seems that a team waltzes to a national title, the reality is that there is no such thing as an easy road to a national championship.
This week we turn away from men’s hockey and turn our attention to the women’s game, where we tip the cap to Boston College. The Eagles put together a perfect regular season — 34-0 overall and 24-0 in Hockey East — to become the first Hockey East team to put together a perfect season (either in league play or overall). In 2013, Minnesota finished off a perfect 41-0 season, but that is certainly an aberration and not the norm in college sports. Let’s see what the Eagles can do to repeat that feat.
— American Sports Net (@LiveOnASN) February 20, 2016
It’s the final week of the regular season in the three eastern leagues, and there are spots up for grabs in all three. Check out the upcoming week’s schedule for all of the games and see the standings for what’s at stake.
Saturday brings three games between ranked teams in ECAC Hockey, with No. 1 Quinnipiac hosting No. 7 Yale, No. 16 Cornell hosting No. 17 Rensselaer and No. 19 St. Lawrence welcoming No. 12 Harvard.
No. 6 Michigan and No. 20 Minnesota play a series that could determine the Big Ten regular season champion Thursday and Friday in Minneapolis.
In Hockey East, No. 2 Boston College looks to wrap up the title in a home-and-home series with No. 11 UMass-Lowell, while No. 9 Boston University plays a pair of games at No. 10 Notre Dame.
And in the NCHC, No. 13 Omaha will try to shake off a pair of home losses when they host No. 4 North Dakota.