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, this weekend was a reminder that the season is young and that some favored teams have some work to do. Look at how the top 10 teams in last week’s USCHO.com Poll fared. As a group, they were 9-8-0, although two series featured top-10 teams playing other top-10 teams.
It’s not surprising that No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth and No. 5 Notre Dame split a pair of games, but it is surprising that No. 2 Boston University dropped both of its games to No. 10 Denver, especially since Friday’s 4-3 win was Denver’s first of the young season.
I’m also not surprised completely that No. 3 Quinnipiac split a pair of overtime games with a good Maine team, if though the Black Bears weren’t ranked in last week’s poll, nor am I shocked at No. 7 St. Cloud having been swept by No. 14 Minnesota State, as the NCHC looks to be very competitive again this year.
No. 6 Boston College’s struggles with Wisconsin, though, really blew me away. I watched both games. In Friday’s 3-1 loss, the Eagles couldn’t muster any kind of cohesive game. In Sunday’s 8-5 win, BC had a 6-3 lead going into the third period and allowed the Badgers back into the game with two Wisconsin goals by the middle of the third period.
Is this just a symptom of the early season? What does this kind of weekend really say?
Jim: I think what we learned this weekend is that it’s so difficult to predict just how good each team will be when the season begins. Let’s look at St. Cloud State. While some teams entered last weekend having played two (in some cases four) games, this weekend was the opener for the Huskies. And despite being ranked 7th, they got manhandled by Minnesota State, which has opened the season with four straight wins over ranked opponents.
Should we write off St. Cloud? Heck no. But rest assured, coach Bob Motzko is probably working this week to refocus his team.
The reality is that sometimes it takes until Christmas to really know which teams are contenders to be standing come season’s end.
All that said, the mixed results for ranked teams resulted in some shakeups in the USCHO.com Poll. Still undefeated, defending national champs North Dakota held onto the top spot. But after that there was plenty of movement.
Not surprising, the teams that had the most success this weekend made the biggest jumps. UMass Lowell, which swept Colorado College, moved from eighth to fifth. Denver jumped from tenth to sixth. And Minnesota State, at 4-0-0, made the biggest jump from 14th to ninth.
Does all of this mean much to me? Not really. Because any team at this point in the season is one good or one bad weekend away from some major poll fluctuation.
Paula: And we’ve both discussed the genuine parity we’re seeing in college hockey in recent seasons, so it’s not unusual for a good or bad weekend to be relative, too, in the greater scheme of things.
As the season is just underway, not only are current records impossible predictors of what may happen in the coming months, but statistics are often likewise unintentionally misleading. That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t early indicators that are interesting to examine.
One thing that caught my eye this weekend – especially in light of our conversation last week about penalty calling – was the play of Bemidji State junior goaltender Michael Bitzer. Bitzer posted shutouts in both of the Beavers’ road games against Northern Michigan this weekend, killing off 10 total Wildcat power plays in the process. In his four games this season, he’s allowed just two goals. This performance piggybacks on his solid sophomore season (.915 SV%, 2.16 GAA). I think that Bitzer may be someone to watch this season.
Another stat which is interesting is Lake Superior State’s 13-goal weekend against Michigan State. Last year, the Lakers were 59th in the nation offensively (1.80). That’s the same number of goals that the Lakers scored in their last seven games of 2015-16, including their season-ending, three-game WCHA playoff series. It may be nothing more than a confidence-building first weekend, but it could be a sign that Damon Whitten is poised to turn some things around in his third year with the Lakers.
It could just as easily be a sign that the Spartans are in trouble this year.
What have you seen so far that’s grabbed your attention, even though the season’s young?
Jim: First off, let me say that if Lake Superior can stay anywhere near its 6.5 goals per game pace that it showed this past weekend, it could be an exciting season for the Lakers. But as you pointed out, it is quite possible this is a harbinger of disaster for Michigan State as much as anything.
I know we talked about penalties a lot last weekend. Looking through box scores, for the most part the number of power plays were down and, in the games I watched, there seemed to be more adaptation from the players that helped in that direction.
That said, saying that special teams are having their impact at this point is an understatement. And nowhere is that more evident than looking at a somewhat unique stat of combined special teams. You can find this stat on collegehockeystats.net and it adds together a team’s efficiency on the power play with its efficiency at killing penalties.
The five bottom teams in this category – Merrimack, Union, Bowling Green, Michigan State and St. Cloud State – have a combined 2-11-2 record and that includes a 2-1-1 mark for Union which has been relatively successful despite a power play that is 4-for-25 and a penalty kill that is 11-for-15. Take Union out and the other four teams are 0-10-1.
Maybe a team can get by with a power play that is struggling or a penalty kill that is allowing the opponent to score. But if your team struggled in both aspects of special teams, count on wins being difficult to come by.
Paula: I totally agree on that last point. If your team is deficient in one aspect of specialty play and can make up for it somewhere else five-on-five, then you may be able to see some success over the course of a season. But if your team is deficient in both the power play and penalty kill, that’s an enormous problem – especially if games are called more tightly through the season.
From your end, what looks good this weekend? I’m looking forward to the Michigan Tech-Michigan series. The improved Huskies playing a young Michigan team is exciting, especially with the coaching ties between the programs. I’m really interested in the Maine-Miami series, too. I think Miami is improved this season, but I think Maine is as well. Traditionally, the CCHA had a difficult time with Hockey East and games between teams of each conference were good indications of how each league would fare in a given season. The CCHA is no more, but I’m thinking that this matchup will be a good measure of each team’s improvement.
Jim: Well, I think before we even get to the weekend, I’m looking forward to Connecticut and Quinnipiac playing on Wednesday night. This in-state rivalry game is always a fun one, but I think UConn is a pretty solid team this season and will give Quinnipiac all it can handle.
There are a number of games between nationally-ranked opponents, but the series I want to watch are the two games in North Dakota between the Fighting Hawks and Bemidji State, which quietly has risen to No. 18 in the rankings and now sports a 4-0-0 record. I think this series is a test for both teams: NoDak to show how it handles a hot team and Bemidji State to show whether or not it is the real deal.
It’s early in the season, but we may have already found a candidate for goal of the year. Heck of a move here by Wisconsin’s Cameron Hughes.
To Boston College. BC may have begun the season at 2-2-0, but imagine how much better the Eagles could be it they got their power play going? BC has had 23 chances with the man advantage to date and have exactly ZERO goals. You read that right, 0-for-23. This team could be scary good if they get that power play clicking.