TMQ: In-season tournament analysis, looking at which teams are primed for a second-half run

 (Melissa Wade)
Boston College got off to a lethargic start, but with a recent surge, what does the second half hold for the Eagles? (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, Happy New Year, Paula, and Happy New Year to all of our loyal readers. I hope 2019 is a great year for all!

As we flip the page to 2019, we’re coming off some impressive performances and milestones from this past extended holiday weekend.

Let’s start in the desert where Casey Jones’ Clarkson team proved they are ready to go in the second half, knocking off host Arizona State and defending national champion Minnesota Duluth to win the Desert Hockey Classic.

And Clarkson did it the old-fashioned way, too.

No need for flashy offense for this Golden Knights team. They clamped down on defense and allowed goaltender Jake Kielly, the tournament’s MVP, to do what he does best. Just one goal beat the junior netminder, who improved to 11-6-0 on the year and bolstered his GAA to 1.95 and save percentage to .928.

Clarkson is coming off its first NCAA appearance in 10 years and seems ready to go out of the gate in the second half. Before the break, Clarkson was streaky. Two four-game winning streaks were separated by three different occurrences of back-to-back losses.

I feel pretty bullish that this Clarkson team will return to the NCAAs, but it does seem consistency in the second half will be most important to their success.

Paula: That it does, Jimmy, and Kielly certainly has provided the Golden Knights with the opportunity to be in every game he’s played this season, putting up numbers that look to better what we saw in his very good freshman and sophomore years.

The brief lapses this season aren’t related to scoring, either, as they have scored fewer than three goals just four times this season and no one has shut them out yet. They’re only 3-3-0 so far in conference play, though, so a lot depends on that in the second half.

I’m particularly impressed with the strong Hockey East showing in two other tournaments, the Ledyard Bank Classic and the Catamount Cup. Providence begins the second half strong with two wins and the title at the Ledyard Classic, extending the Friars’ unbeaten streak to six games (4-0-2).

Kudos to Vermont, who won the Catamount Cup for the first time since the 2015-16 season. The Catamounts had to come from behind against Rensselaer in the title game and win by virtue of a five-goal differential in the tournament. That’s three in a row for a Vermont team that looked pretty good to me in Ann Arbor at the start of the season.

Northeastern is the runner-up in the Catamount Cup, having beaten Rensselaer in the first round and shut out Alabama-Huntsville in the second, but the Huskies fall short in that goal differential that determined the outcome of the tourney. Still, Northeastern extends its win streak to eight games, dating back to Nov. 9.

At midseason, Jimmy, it looks to me as though Hockey East is solidifying as a very strong conference, and the holiday performances of both the Friars and Huskies seem indicative of that.

Jim: Things are certainly better and the six wins you mentioned certainly helps Hockey East’s case with its out-of-conference record, but I’ll reserve judgement on whether Hockey East is solidifying anything for a few more weeks.

After this weekend, the out-of-conference opportunities are pretty limited, but more teams need to pull off two-win weekends when the opportunities presents themselves to make up for some of the early-season damage against other conferences.

One thing you highlighted was the Catamount Cup and the fact that two teams each finished with two wins and thus needed goal differential to determine the champion. Am I the only one who doesn’t think using a formula like this makes sense?

I know why Vermont and coach Kevin Sneddon sets up their tournament this way – they typically invite another Hockey East team and don’t want to have to face them in a final. That’s all well and good, but when you don’t use a typical semifinals/finals approach, to me, at least, it takes away from the overall “tournament” atmosphere. No team deserves a trophy for being able to run up the score on an opponent, which goal differential encourages.

I don’t know why I get hung up on this every year around this time, but doesn’t it seem like a less sensible way to host an in-season tournament?

Paula: No, you’re not alone in that.

It’s annoying to watch more than one team in a field win two games and go home without hardware. I don’t like any format that also encourages teams to run up a score to get a trophy – although that isn’t what happened in Vermont’s games against Alabama Huntsville and Rennselaer, both of which produced interesting scoring, including the two Vermont power-play goals at the end of the second period, 1:05 apart.

Conversely, the format penalizes teams for playing good, solid, hockey, especially if a team has to come from behind to win as Northeastern did against Rennselaer.

I’ve always been a fan of outright wins in midseason tournaments, although I acknowledge the need for a shootout to advance in the first round.

The first three games of the GLI went to overtime, which can surprise no one familiar with the Big Ten this season and Michigan specifically. The Wolverines’ 2-2 OT tie against Michigan Tech in the first round was their fifth of the season so – naturally – Michigan and Michigan State tied in the third-place game early New Year’s Eve day.

We know what it means when good teams find ways to get the job done, as Northeastern did in the Catamount Cup, scoring in overtime after Rennselaer tied the first-round contest in the last minute of regulation. After watching this Michigan team in the first half, I can say that the Wolverines are good team … but that may be their inability to seal the proverbial deal is something that will dog them in the second half.

Jim: While we’re talking about good teams and teams that need to improve, I’ll posture this question: Which team currently outside of the top 20 in the PairWise has the most potential to make a second-half run and earn an NCAA bid?

I’m going to sound like a Hockey East homer and go with Boston College. The Eagles start to the season was a disaster, 0-5-0, but the 6-1-2 mark over the last nine games gives me a lot of hope. The biggest problem for the Eagles is the number of teams they will have to leapfrog (anywhere from 14-18 depending on the number of postseason upsets) in the PairWise just to get to the bubble. But most of BC’s hockey it still ahead of them. They played just 14 games before break and will play 20 in the second half. Seems like there is still a lot of opportunity.

Paula: Jimmy, that isn’t even remotely a homer pick, as Boston College would top my list as well.

What the Eagles have done after that slow start is impressive, and even if they don’t work their way past all those ahead of them in the PWR, if the Eagles play with confidence and success in the second half, they may earn their way to the NCAA tournament with a Hockey East playoff championship.

Other than BC, there a couple of teams that catch my eye.

At the risk of sounding like a homer myself, I have found Wisconsin to be full of surprises this season. The Badgers haven’t exactly been consistent, but they’re undefeated in their last six (3-0-3) and playing with resolve. Like the Eagles, they face a lot in terms of PWR in the second half, but they start their second half with two games against Denver and have four games remaining against Notre Dame and two each against Ohio State and Penn State.

There are possibilities – not probabilities, perhaps – but possibilities.

Also, of course, any number of Atlantic Hockey or WCHA teams currently outside of the top 20 in the PWR may win an autobid. Those conferences are fascinating this year.

Here’s to a very Happy New Year to you, too, Jimmy, and to all of our readers. I can’t wait to see what 2019 brings college hockey.