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: Well, Jimmy, this third weekend of the season provided plenty of interesting things to discuss.
Last week, we were eagerly anticipating the series between No. 1 Denver and then-No. 4 Notre Dame, especially since the series was televised on NBC Sports, giving a marquee match-up a national platform very early in the season. Fortunately, that series did not disappoint. The 2-2 tie Friday was riveting from start to finish, with neither team showing too many early season jitters and gaffs, and as much as I hate the shootout, it’s a format that fans across the country are now familiar with.
The Saturday 4-2 Denver win was great, too, right up until the end — especially the way that Denver responded to Notre Dame’s game-tying, power-play goal at 15:08 with Liam Finlay’s game-winning goal at 15:32. That’s always been a mark of a great team to me, the ability to respond quickly and then to control the rest of a given game and guarantee the outcome. Tanner Jaillet returned in great form in net for the Pioneers, and the Fighting Irish appear to have two good goaltenders in Dylan St. Cyr and Cale Morris to step in for Cal Petersen, who was such a big part of Notre Dame’s success.
What a treat it was to have such a fun series between two nonconference teams early in the season and to be able to showcase college hockey so well nationally this early on.
Jim: I have to agree, Paula. Those two Denver-Notre Dame games were prescribed viewing over the weekend. It really was a good marketing tool for college hockey.
As for the product on the ice, I think both teams had some positives to take away. For the defending national champion Pioneers, they were clicking offensively. Troy Terry, Henrik Borgstrom and Dylan Gambrell, names that anyone who watched last year’s NCAA tournament know well, all posted multiple points on the weekend. As for goaltender Jaillet, I think there were some rebounds that he wanted back, but Pioneers fans can validate the feeling that this team should compete to go back-to-back this season.
The Irish have at least one, and maybe two, replacements for Petersen. Morris, now a sophomore, can grow into being a reliable day-to-day netminder. While St. Cyr has some great roots, as the son of goaltender Manon Rheaume, the only woman to ever play in an NHL game. Through two games, St. Cyr’s goals against average is 0.96 and his save percentage is .976.
While Denver and Notre Dame provided some great entertainment on a big stage, the team that may have opened the most eyes over the weekend was Minnesota State. Hitting the road following a 4-0 home loss against St. Cloud State a week ago, the Mavericks went into No. 2 Boston University and swept the Terriers. Four straight goals helped pace the 6-3 victory, while Saturday’s rematch featured a 26-save shutout for Jason Pawloski.
That’s just what the doctor ordered for Minnesota State, though you can’t help but raise questions about Boston University. This is the second straight season the Terriers have featured arguably the top recruiting class in the nation yet a year ago this team finished without a single tournament trophy to show – no Beanpot, no Hockey East tournament title (BU was part of a three-way tie for first in the regular season) and no NCAA tournament title. Every time I watch this team of NHL draft picks struggle, I always wonder if it is difficult for players who have been all-stars their whole life to take on roles they’re not accustomed to on deep NCAA teams.
Paula: That is something I’ve always wondered about teams like this BU squad, a team loaded with talent that underperforms. Having covered Michigan hockey for two decades, I’ve seen my share of years when the Wolverines had plenty of talent with few desired results to show for it, and when that happens there’s often speculation about chemistry in the locker room and about the ability of elite players to adjust to the NCAA. I’m guessing that the Terriers will reveal themselves sooner rather than later this season.
Along the lines of Hockey East revelations, two weeks in and I’m wondering about both UMass-Lowell and New Hampshire. When the Wildcats swept the River Hawks last weekend, I wondered if UNH might be a team that is under the radar this season – but it’s so difficult to say this early in the campaign. With a sweep of Colgate and a 4-0 start to the season, though, even if the Wildcats are overachieving in the early going, that kind of start can breed confidence and help them toward a finish higher than their predicted eighth place. Lowell, picked to finish second, now needs to find a way to overcome a 1-3 start and the lack of confidence that may be a side effect of that.
As the season progresses, Jim, we talk about confidence a lot and what that can do for a team. Last year, we saw Penn State on fire in the first half of the season but against a relatively weak schedule. The Nittany Lions faltered in the second half of the season after Big Ten conference play began, but their early success was enough to keep them high enough in the PairWise Rankings and give the program its first trip to the NCAA tournament. All of this makes me wonder about the importance of a fast start to a season as well as what happens to teams that have lousy first halves but manage to end strong.
Jim: Confidence in sports is everything. Let’s make a big leap over to pro football for a second and remember back to the Atlanta Falcons collapse in last year’s Super Bowl. Since that historic collapse to end last year, Atlanta has twice lost second half leads this season including blowing a 17-0 lead against Miami on Sunday. I heard audio of both their head coach and a player being asked about protecting leads. Neither time did the reporter even mention the Super Bowl, but both referred to the Super Bowl collapse. Right now, Atlanta seems to have lost confidence.
Move over to college hockey, I’ve seen a lot of teams that may have been playing against a confident team, jump out to an early lead but fail to hold on because they weren’t as confident as their opponent.
You mentioned last year’s Penn State team. That team found many different ways to win. They’d blow out opponents, grab leads and find ways to close out and earns wins when they were outplayed.
I think so often that’s what separates good teams from middle-of-the-road teams. If a club can survive some of the tougher moments of the season, as you approach and enter the postseason you never know what can happen. We hear coaches all the time talk about the need to be playing their best hockey in March, not October.
Think Yale in 2012 and Providence in 2015. Each team did just enough to survive and qualify for the NCAA tournament, but both then had the belief and confidence to win national titles.
A Tip of the Cap…
Paula: A tip of the cap to Danton Cole and the entire Michigan State team for their 3-2 home win over Bowling Green Saturday night. Not only was that Cole’s first win as Michigan State’s new head coach, but it was the first home win for the Spartans since Nov. 4, 2016, when they beat Michigan Tech 3-2 in overtime. Saturday’s win ended in dramatic fashion, too, when Taro Hirose netted the game-winning goal with 40 seconds left in regulation after the teams had been tied 2-2 since early in the second period.
That snapped a home winless streak of 0-11-1, and the Michigan State fans in attendance were loud and appreciative.
Jim: It is really nice to see Michigan State get the early win at home. I’ve always counted Munn Arena among one of my favorites in college hockey, but when that building lacks atmosphere, so much is missing. I think the hiring of Cole as head coach is a strong one and do hope he can lead this program back to where it was 10-plus years ago.