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, Paula, welcome back to the hockey season. I know you are just like I am and there is an adrenaline rush that goes through you when the college hockey season begins.
And it didn’t take too long to produce some upsets. You were present for likely the most prominent one, Vermont’s 5-2 road victory over Michigan. After the game, Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon called the defense in the “ugly at times,” and said that his goaltender, Stefanos Lekkas, was the difference maker.
That seems to be an understatement, though, as Lekkas pretty much stole this game with a career-high 48 saves. Anyone from Hockey East knows how much of a difference maker Lekkas can be, and I guess Wolverine fans learned that this weekend.
My question, though, is this an opening night blip on the radar for Michigan, coming off a Frozen Four appearance last season. Or is this an early season warning that this year might not be as great a season for the Wolverines?
Paula: Thanks, Jimmy, and a welcome back to you, too. I love this time of year. Everything is potential.
That game in Yost was like the perfect primer for early season hockey. Both of those teams will learn a lot from their first-game experiences. For the visiting Catamounts, it was as you said a great display by Lekkas, who had to fend off excellent Wolverine chances, especially in the third period when Vermont had to kill a bunch of penalties. Vermont can also take away from the game that the Catamounts can play with a really fast, skilled team in a hostile environment and exploit an under-prepared opponent’s weaknesses.
And the Wolverines came out classically unprepared. I don’t think they underestimated their opponent, but they were not ready at the start of the game and it showed, with Vermont owning Michigan in Michigan’s zone and scoring two really good goals before the game was five minutes old.
All of that having been said, I think that Michigan is going to be very good this season. The Wolverines are very skilled and well coached, bring the benefit of that Frozen Four appearance with them, and showed that they can recover from a slow start in a game. As the game progressed, Michigan got better and better and better and without Lekkas’ performance, it would have been a different game.
Lots for both teams to learn from that game.
Speaking of learning experiences, what did we see in that opening series between defending champion Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota? Minnesota led for most of the first game and the Bulldogs used a power play to tie it up, then 11 goals scored between the two teams the following night, with a Minnesota win? Was it opening weekend jitters to produce such inconsistent hockey in that second game? New coach bounce? The .936 performance on the weekend by Minnesota junior Mat Robson in spite of letting in five goals?
Jim: Yes, yes and yes.
Certainly the play of Robson helped spur the Gophers. And having a new head coach particularly with the track record of Bob Motzko, will likely be a positive for Minnesota all season.
And, though I won’t call it jitters for the Bulldogs, I do think that the excitement of the banner raising on Saturday probably threw the team off a bit.
What I can’t really explain is Sunday’s 7-4 game. Minnesota scored those seven goals on 22 shots and Hunter Shepard simply wasn’t the answer for the Gophers offense.
This, like most games this time of year, might need to be chalked up to “it’s early.”
All that said, the tie-loss weekend for Minnesota Duluth allowed an idle Ohio State to jump into the top spot in the USCHO.com Poll. That’s a team I am pretty excited to see this year as I thought last year proved this team’s talent level and ability to play with speed and skill.
Paula: The Buckeyes have every ingredient necessary to build on and repeat their success of last season. In addition to the team’s speed up front, Ohio State’s approach to offense is holistic from the goal out, and we both know that any team that plays good team defense has a chance to win games. The Buckeyes had been close to that level of play for years but needed it all to come together. Returning a veteran team that has seen that success, including goaltender Sean Romeo, is the reason why the coaches picked Ohio State to finish first in the Big Ten preseason poll.
Pivoting to the USCHO Poll, we talk about the context of the poll all season and what it says about the game, and I think it’s actually most interesting now, when virtually nothing has been decided. It’s interesting to see the anecdotal perceptions of the poll voters. I was surprised to see Ohio State first, but I was not surprised to see seven teams receive first-place votes. It is rather shocking to me having covered the Big Ten since its inception to see three B1G teams receive first-place votes, and it may interest people to know that I was one of the four voters who put St. Cloud at the top of the ballot.
And look at Boston College in 12th place but with two first-place votes. I hate to bandy about the concept of parity at the start of the season when few teams have played; rather than an indication of parity this early, that poll is a reflection of the variety of informed opinions about how the season will open and progress.
Jim: And, at this point in the season, the poll represents a sense of cluelessness among the voters. We hear coaches say it all the time that as soon as one season ends, you flip the script and no two teams are alike. So as much as we love to look at what returns from year-to-year and predict what one team will have success versus the competition is difficult, if not impossible.
I went back the last 12 seasons, and exactly zero preseason No. 1 teams won the national championship. The closest any team came was 2006-07 when Boston College topped the first poll but lost in the national title game to Michigan State. Five teams over that period didn’t make it out of the first round of the NCAA tournament and two – BC in 2008-09 and Notre Dame in 2011-12 – didn’t even make the postseason.
So I guess this is the time of year that I tend to listen to the coaches: the polls are more for the fans than anything else.
Paula: I completely agree, Jimmy – they’re pure entertainment. The speculation is fun, though.
Before we finish up, I think we should mention one of the things we love the most about covering college hockey, the sense of family that has developed among all those involved. We see it here in-house at USCHO, we observe it at the rinks when we in the press greet our competitors as the friends they are, and this past weekend, Army West Point brought many of us to tears with its collective support for Union’s Jack Adams.
Adams lost his brother, Providence alum Mark, in September. After Union beat Army 4-1 Saturday, the Black Knights made sure they took the time to interact with Jack Adams personally, giving their condolences and letting him know that he’s in their thoughts.
The gesture is an illustration of everything positive that can be associated with participation in team sports as well as a reminder of how small our college hockey world can be.