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: Well, Paula, we have officially hit the halfway point.
And besides a two-game sweep of Minnesota State by Bowling Green last weekend, not a lot stands out as shocking.
So I will turn to other surprises from the first half of the season. I think both Massachusetts and Quinnipiac both opened a lot of eyes, as did the play of Arizona State. But what else stands out to you in the first half of the season that was surprising?
Paula: Welcome back, Jimmy.
There are several things that stand out as surprising to me in the first half, and I’ll start out East as you have. In addition to being pleasantly surprised by Massachusetts and a little less surprised – but still pleasantly so – by Quinnipiac, I’m really surprised by Boston College’s first half. I never expected the Eagles to open the season with five consecutive losses. Their recovery has been even more surprising, to have gone 6-1-2 since is an impressive recovery.
Watching Boston University begin the season 0-4 in D-I play was also a bit of a shock, and the Terriers’ roller-coaster ride of a season since that start has been perplexing. You said early on that both Boston College and Boston University were better than their opening records and clearly that’s the case. The extent of their respective recoveries remains to be seen, though, and watching the first half unfold with neither BC nor BU having a national presence was just … odd. It seemed fitting, then, that they played to a 0-0 tie to start December.
Another surprise – and a pleasant one – is the continuing solidification of the WCHA as a competitive conference. Among the conferences affected by realignment when Big Ten hockey became a reality, the WCHA was hit the hardest on so many different levels, from recruiting to revenue to travel to a slate of other things.
Add to that the number of programs in that conference that were at the time in states of transition, and the conference was weaker than many of us had anticipated. It’s a pleasure to see Minnesota State in the national dialogue for the entirety of the first half of the season and to see Bowling Green, Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State join the mix along with Michigan Tech and Bemidji State to create a very competitive league.
In the Big Ten, I still cannot get past that Penn State is averaging more than five goals per game at the midway point. I didn’t expect Wisconsin to be as competitive as the Badgers have been, and I’m also getting used to all the ties in B1G hockey.
Jim: I am intrigued by the WCHA.
When it seemed like Minnesota State might simply run away with things, they lose twice at Bowling Green this weekend and now the top of the standings feel like an accordion. You add the fact that Alabama Huntsville earned a win and easily could have found a way to sweep Michigan Tech. That said, Michigan Tech’s win over Huntsville catapulted them to first place in the WCHA at the break.
I also think you mentioned two teams that aren’t at the top of the standings in that league that are scary – Northern Michigan and Bemidji State. Both had first-half wins that impressed. Bemidji beat North Dakota and Minnesota State while Northern earned wins against Bowling Green, Lake Superior and Michigan Tech, all while those teams were nationally ranked. Maybe neither competes for the league title, but the ability to play spoiler is in play for both.
With the first half over, we can look ahead to the holiday tournaments a bit. They aren’t as robust as in past years, but that doesn’t mean the fields aren’t strong. And none may be stronger than Arizona State’s tournament, the Desert Hockey Classic. The No. 15 Sun Devils will be joined by No. 19 Clarkson, No. 4 Minnesota Duluth and No. 3 Minnesota State.
I know there are many more traditional holiday tournaments, but there may not be a better field.
Paula: That field is amazing. Dan and I touched on it last week, how it’s such a test for every team there but for different reasons.
Clarkson is such an interesting team. The Golden Knights have the ability to put together nice little strings of wins, much like the Sun Devils. And I can’t think of a more exciting impending midseason game than the match between Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State in the first round of the Desert Hockey Classic.
Jimmy, your mention of more traditional holiday tournaments reminds me that we’re down to just three long-standing tournaments and one that has become more traditional. The Catamount Cup features three teams that are struggling this season and one that is solid: Alabama Huntsville has three overall wins this season, Rensselaer has four and host Vermont has five. That means that No. 11 Northeastern has added incentive to perform well, as a bad showing may have end-of-season implications.
The field is a little stronger for the Ledyard Bank Classic. No. 10 Providence faces off against Brown, and the Bears have just two wins this season.
The Great Lakes Invitational has Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and Lake Superior State, a competitive all-Michigan field that will be worth watching. One of the most striking things about this year’s GLI is that the Lakers enter the tournament with the highest PairWise at No. 19.
Jim: I think I join you, Paula, as one who is very sentimental to the GLI. I have always considered that the Beanpot of the Midwest, despite the fact that there is always one rotating team. It’s a competitive tournament each year, played in an NHL building and there is always the possibility (and hope for some fans) that rivals Michigan and Michigan State can end up playing at some point.
I really do enjoy holiday/in-season tournaments. I believe strongly they are good for teams to play. They mimic an NCAA or a league championship tournament in the fact the game times aren’t at the typical 7 p.m., there could be long overtimes (though most in-season tournaments besides the Beanpot have defaulted to shootouts), and, most importantly, it’s survive and advance.
So many coaches tell me that these trophies are important. My final question to you before we break for the holidays: Do you actually believe them?
Paula: I do believe them, Jimmy, as I’ve seen teams propelled to good second halves after gaining confidence from midseason hardware.
There were so many times when, at the end of a season, Red Berenson credited a GLI title for a great second-half Michigan run. And back when there were more holiday tournaments than there are today and, therefore, more teams participating in midseason tourney play, coaches cited exactly what you say here: such tournaments allow teams a chance play in nonconference competition with the feeling of something at stake, and that can be as good a rehearsal as any for the NCAA tournament.
Whenever I think about holiday tournaments, I think back to the 2003 and 2004 Badger Showdowns, when a very middling Ferris State team captured back-to-back titles over the Bulldogs’ much more competitive host, Wisconsin. In each of those seasons, Ferris State bowed out during the CCHA tournament, while the Badgers went onto the NCAA tournament. While I’m certain that Ferris State coach Bob Daniels would have loved to have had better seasons in those years, I’m equally certain that he and those Bulldog squads were really proud of winning the Badger Showdown.
I know this because Bob Daniels has always been a coach who has valued such things. You can say what you want about Ferris State’s traditional chances beyond its own conference play, but every coach, every player, wants to win a national championship and the Bulldogs have never been an exception to that. Daniels, however, has always instilled in his players the desire to capture – and value – everything available. He always preaches that a conference playoff title, for example, should be appreciated for what it is itself and not just an automatic ticket to the NCAA tournament. That’s he feels about midseason hardware – and trophy or title for which his team can play, at any time.
I am sure, Jimmy, that Daniels isn’t alone in that. So, yes, these trophies are important to more than a few coaches and programs, and some teams can use holiday tournament success to help shape or even change the entire course of the second half of the season.