TMQ: Deciding which teams are contenders, pretenders as February approaches

 (Tim Brule)
Boston University celebrates a goal earlier this month prior to being the top-ranked team in the country (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: First off, let me begin by welcoming our guest columnist this week, Candace Horgan. With Paula traveling back from New York after attending the Big Ten game at MSG, Candace has gracefully agreed to step in.

And Candace, it didn’t take long for the curse of No. 1 to arrive this week. Boston University, a day after rising to the top spot in the USCHO poll, fell to Merrimack and compounded that loss with another to the Warriors on Friday.

Sure, BU responded admirably on Saturday with a win over then-No. 7 UMass Lowell, but the damage was done. As BU coach David Quinn told me on Saturday, hockey is a sport where will can overpower skill.

After watching BU on Saturday, I see the skill is there in spades. But consistency on the ice can be so difficult. Is that the best way to explain the revolving door at No. 1?

Candace: Thanks for the welcome, Jim!

I saw BU in Denver in October, and they are definitely a skilled team, so bouncing back doesn’t surprise me.

As for your question about No. 1 teams, I see it differently. I see it as a team that shouldn’t have been ranked no. 1 in the first place. Two weeks ago, Duluth went to Grand Forks and swept North Dakota. They had my top ranking last week and this one, with Denver second.

I feel the NCHC teams face stiffer competition. I’ve seen teams from every conference except the ECAC in person, and I’ve seen ECAC teams on TV. I think the NCHC top to bottom is the strongest conference. I’ve consistently ranked Western Michigan a few spots higher than the poll does for that reason.

Colorado College for instance, though it had mostly struggled in conference, won the Florida tournament, shutting out Merrimack and beating a ranked Cornell team. Even though CC has played better in the second half, they are only 2-5-1 in the NCHC since beating Cornell.

Do you think the other writers just don’t see NCHC teams enough, or is something else at work?

Jim: I totally understand why anyone would have voted for Minnesota Duluth two weeks ago, particularly after that sweep of North Dakota. For me, the streak BU was on earned them my vote. That said, I have now seen both Minnesota Duluth and BU in person and find it difficult to compare the two teams. BU is so talent heavy with some incredible individuals who, when they play to their best, seem unbeatable. Minnesota Duluth is a more solid fundamental team with tons of guys who have the ability to score through hard work, grit and some decent talent as well.

The one area that I now give BU the edge is in goal. Jake Oettinger is hands down the best goaltender I have seen play this season. I have watched him on tape six times and was really impressed on Saturday. When I saw the Bulldogs play twice in October, goaltending was their weakness. I knew things improved and watched them on tape a few times where Hunter Miska looked so much improved.

Regardless, Duluth has again proved it belong at number one, particularly after following the NoDak sweep with a victory in the North Star College Cup.

Speaking of, am I the only one sad to see that the NSCC is coming to an end? What went wrong? It seemed like a great concept and a good way to keep old rivals playing one another since the breakdown of the old conference alignment a few years back. I really saw this as the next coming of the Beanpot. But not so much. What do you think happened?

Candace: I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree there Jim on your assessment of BU and Duluth. I don’t see any so-called talent discrepancy.

Perhaps it’s your Hockey East-colored glasses?

You could say the same about me with the NCHC, but when BU played Denver, I didn’t feel BU was in either game, whereas Duluth and Denver had a minute-by-minute battle.

Regarding the North Star College Cup, I think a few things were at play. One is that the rivalries aren’t quite there as they are with the Beanpot. I think some people may have felt that a special tournament was trying to be created and it wasn’t really there.

It seems there might be too many tournaments to me sometimes. The NSCC was fun while it lasted.

There were some other interesting results to talk about. Wisconsin sweeping Ohio State is one, but I think of Arizona State beating Quinnipiac is a bigger one. I’m not sure if that says more about ASU or Quinnipiac. Did that result catch you of guard as much as me?

Jim: I will leave you with two major thoughts about the comparison of the NSCC and the Beanpot. First, having a five-team rotation was a killing point from Day 1. Second, a major reason the Beanpot draws is that it is on two Monday nights in Boston and can easily pull in the downtown work crowd. I’m not sure we can say that even if the NSCC moved to a weeknight. Truthfully, that would have been an absolute disaster.

As for the Arizona State upset of Quinnipiac. I have been concerned for a few weeks that this is not your typical Quinnipiac team. Results have proven that. At the same time, I spoke with Arizona State coach Greg Powers a few weeks back and he liked the way his team is trending and that continues to play out. Is this an unreal upset? Absolutely! Is it one a good bookie (er…. prognosticator) could have picked? Probably.

I will leave you with one question to answer with NCHC-colored glasses: what should we make of Western Michigan?

Candace: Western Michigan is for real.

I don’t know how else to state it. I think the PairWise ranks them much more accurately than our poll does, for instance. I saw the Broncos play Denver twice back in October, and while they got swept, it was a very competitive series, and I felt both games could have gone either way. Western, barring an epic collapse, should make the NCAA tournament, and I think once there, depending on the draw, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them in Chicago in April.

Coach Andy Murray has his players all buying into the systems. They get outstanding goaltending from freshman Ben Blacker, who has a 1.81 goals-against and a .930 save percentage. Sophomore Matthew Iacopelli leads the team in scoring and is a dangerous forward, and freshman Wade Allison has developed into a threat. While the rest of of the offense isn’t 1993 Maine caliber, they get a lot of secondary scoring from other players, such as Griffen Molino, Fredrik Tiffels and Colt Conrad.

Western will also be a threat for several years. They are only losing four seniors from this team who play regularly, and only two are among the top six on the team in scoring.

I think I want to ask you about the Big Ten. I’ve felt all year that Penn State was ranked higher than it should be. Most of their record came from beating teams in Atlantic Hockey and the WCHA who weren’t that good. They get bonus points for a split series with St. Lawrence, and a tie and win against Notre Dame, so they should be ranked, but I haven’t ranked them higher than I think four all year, and that was grudgingly. Penn State hasn’t played a strong schedule, and I think that will cost them down the road.

One Big Ten team that I was impressed with when I saw them was Wisconsin, which played Denver tough. Tony Granato has done a great job in his first season, and the Badgers were ranked in the poll this week after sweeping Ohio State. What is your sense of the Big Ten right now?

Jim: My opinion of the Big Ten is somewhat neutral. That said, as a voter in the poll, I haven’t been impressed by many teams.

Does that make me indifferent or insoluble?

You’ve Got Mail

“What is the latest information regarding expansion in college hockey? Most of what I have heard centers around the Big Ten, where I know there had been talk of Rutgers and Nebraska exploring starting up programs and everyone knows we need to get college hockey back in the Chicago market. There is enough talent to grow the game and it would be fun to see it happen.” – Tim Hicks, Rochester, Minn.

Jim: I’m not sure we’re going to see any expansion until there is a significant financial commitment from a school or an individual or group of donors. Penn State was entirely funded by Terry Pegula. Arizona State was funded by a group of investors.

So as much as we’d all like to see schools expand, everything is predicated on money. If a program has about $20 million to invest, it could try to compete. But a realistic number these days is closer to $60 million to develop a viable program, particularly if a Division I-like rink doesn’t already exist.

Candace, I may be the grim reaper of expansion. But where do your thoughts lie?

Candace: Jim, in this case, I think we are in agreement.

I’ve been following the game for 30 years or so, and have seen several programs fold in that time. Expansion requires several considerations. One is just the expense involved in starting a program, getting a rink built that is D-I caliber, the travel, etc. The other thing that I think some schools will run into is Title IX considerations, and whether the school would need to either start a women’s program, a la Penn State, or they drop a different program.

I’ve heard rumors over the years about schools with existing programs upgrading to D-I, but that is also an issue with the D-III rule that was passed, so only a D-II school could do it, and I don’t think any of those schools are interesting in doing that, and for others that are D-III, they’d need to upgrade their entire athletics program to D-I, much like Lindenwood did a few years ago when it started a D-I women’s hockey team, and that also becomes a big expense.

Expansion is nice in theory, but I don’t see it happening any time soon, but then again, Arizona State caught me off guard, too, so who knows what will happen!

Want your question answered in next week’s TMQ? Email it to [email protected].