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, after the weekend we had, I’m wondering if I’m the only poll voter who had a difficult time with this week’s ballot.
It was another weekend in which several of last week’s top-10 teams either split with opponents or were swept, and yet it’s so early in the season and so much of it is nonconference play that I genuinely struggled with some of my selections.
In spite of the movement from last week to this, Denver has solidified its hold on the top spot, while eight voters — myself included — gave the top nod to St. Cloud. I think an argument for either can be made, and I understand giving Denver more of the benefit of the doubt because the Pioneers are the defending national champs and because of their win and tie with Notre Dame. I went with St. Cloud because Denver tied with Lake Superior State earlier, but at this point, it’s really just hair splitting. Two weeks ago, SCSU swept Boston College at home; this past weekend, Denver went on the road to play Boston University and Boston College and beat them both. Both the Pioneers and the Huskies begin NCHC play this weekend and face off against each other in two weeks.
I think we may be looking at two very good teams that may be battling for that top spot for a good part of the season.
Jim: I think that the two-game series between Denver and St. Cloud in two weeks will give us a clearer picture of just how good both of those teams are. But right now, I think they might be head and shoulders above every other team (though Harvard made a statement the first chance it was given with a 5-0 season-opening victory over Dartmouth).
As for my ballot, I actually went with Denver this weekend. That was a shift for me after voting St. Cloud first late weekend, but watching Denver travel to beat a very difficult BU team on Friday and then really man-handle BC on Saturday, I’m starting to believe this team might be better than last year’s national champions. From what I can see, the Pioneers have everything. They have plenty of fire power with two lines that can be considered most teams top lines. They get scoring from their blueline. They’re tough to play again in the neutral zone. Special teams are solid and, of course, having Tanner Jaillet in goal give a tough-to-beat last line of defense. If this were a baseball player, we’d be calling them a five-tool player.
Also, their tie against Lake Superior doesn’t bother me that much knowing they can beat a team like Boston University (and yes, I realize the Terriers current record isn’t very good). The Friday game against Lake Superior featured a 63-save performance from Nick Kossoff. I’m not sure any team would have won that game and the Pioneers are lucky Kossoff didn’t steal a victory.
I mentioned Harvard up above and I think it’s now time to talk about the Crimson. I’m not sure what kind of a test Darmouth was, but Harvard passed with flying colors. Most importantly, their two top players – Ryan Donato and Adam Fox – both found the scoresheet, always a positive out of the gates. Donato scored twice and Fox added two assists from the back end. Most importantly, Harvard scored in every way possible – once on the power play, once shorthanded and three times even strength. The Crimson also limited the Big Green to just 19 shots on goal. The Crimson won’t have to wait too long to prove themselves against national contenders as they face Cornell on November 11 and travel to Minnesota for two games on November 17 and 18.
Paula: I do think that Cornell will be a good test for Harvard. In opening the season this past weekend, the Big Red swept Alabama-Huntsville by a collective score of 8-1. As we’ve discussed a number of times, that’s the way that good teams are supposed to take care of business. The two Cornell players that led scoring for the weekend made an impression on me as well. Senior Trevor Yates had three goals and an assist in the series and sophomore Jeff Malott had two goals in the first game. Malott had just six goals in 30 games last season, so that’s a nice start. Yates had a dozen in 35 games last year. It was also a nice debut for rookie goaltender Matthew Galajda, who had 39 saves in the two games.
Minnesota should be a good barometer for Harvard as well, especially because it’s a home series for the Golden Gophers. They met their own challenge this weekend with their two-game sweep of a tough Clarkson team, Minnesota’s first sweep of the season. In recent years, the Gophers have been inconsistent in the early part of the season, before Big Ten play began in late November and early December. I know it’s something that Don Lucia has commented on repeatedly in the first half of the first four seasons of the Big Ten conference. The Gophers didn’t sweep an opponent in the first half of 2016-2017 until they played Michigan State Nov. 8-10, so two wins over a very good team this early in the season has to be considered progress.
In terms of progress, what have you seen so far this season out East that makes you think that a given team is moving in the right direction? I’ve been impressed in the Big Ten with how both Michigan State and Michigan are responding to their new head coaches and to how both Wisconsin and Ohio State are playing in front of veteran goaltenders from other programs. The Spartans’ 4-2-1 start to the season is their best start since 2009-2010. The Wolverines won their first game at Pegula Arena in two seasons in their split with Penn State and they seem more consistent than they have in a few seasons – and they’re also off to a 4-2-0 start. The Badgers are, in general playing pretty well in front of Kyle Hayton, who graduated from St. Lawrence with a year of eligibility left, so he’s enrolled in Wisconsin’s MBA program and playing out his final year. And the Buckeyes are 5-1-2 in front of Sean Romeo, a senior transfer from Maine.
I also like what I see from Minnesota State, a team with a sweep of Boston University and most recently a tough Michigan Tech team. I’m hoping that the WCHA is finding its footing as a league, and we may be seeing indications of that.
Jim: Out East, I think they team that quietly stands out right now is Providence. The Friars had high expectations coming into the season but had a three-game stretch where it had a difficult time keeping pucks out of its net. It surrendered a three-goal lead to Boston College then needed six goals against St. Lawrence in a 6-5 OT win. The next night, the Friars were shutout, but also allowed four goals.
That defensive problem seemed to be fixed this weekend when the Friars won low-scoring games against Boston College (2-10 and Boston University (3-0). Hayden Hawkey, besides having a great name, should be considered one of the top goaltenders in Hockey East and this weekend he proved it.
Quinnipiac is also an eastern team I will keep an eye on. I don’t feel like coach Rand Pecknold has that standout player but does have a bunch of middle-level talent that can often carry a team. They swept a very good Northeastern team two weekends ago and had last weekend off. Now league play lies ahead.
Two teams at the opposite end of the spectrum ended very interesting streaks this week. UMass Lowell, which seemed to right the ship two weeks ago with wins against Clarkson and St. Lawrence, but then dropped two against Northeastern this weekend to drop to 3-5-0. That knocked the River Hawks out of the USCHO.com poll for the first time in 119 weeks, the second longest active streak (according to former veteran scribe at the Lowell Sun Chaz Scoggins. Who holds (or should I say held) the longest streak? That would be Boston College, which had been ranked for 209 straight weeks before falling out this week after losses at Providence and against Denver.
It will take some work for me to figure out which team has the longest active streak in the poll. But thanks to Chaz (and his good friends an UML radio voice Bob Ellis) for passing those nuggets along.
A Tip of the Cap…
Paula: … to the NCHC for a near-perfect weekend in nonconference play, a 7-1-0 record that included going 6-0-0 against Hockey East teams.
The single loss came because of Nebraska-Omaha’s road split with Notre Dame Thursday. The Mavericks beat the Fighting Irish 6-4 on Thursday, taking a 5-1 lead by the 17:55 mark in the second. Notre Dame rebounded with a close 5-4 win Friday night. With the weekend’s results, the NCHC is 30-13-7 against nonconference foes for a .670 win percentage, a shade behind the Big Ten (.671), a conference against which the NCHC has a record of 5-3-1.
Jim: About the only thing you left out is that five of those seven wins for the NCHC came on the road this weekend, something that, depending on where those opponents fall, could mean bonus points for team’s RPIs. As we mentioned and can re-affirm this week, the NCHC and Big Ten are really positioning themselves well for the PairWise Rankings.