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: Paula, we have a new No. 1 as Massachusetts catapults over St. Cloud State this week after a weekend of multiple upset of nationally-ranked teams.
For St. Cloud, dropping to No. 2 in the poll probably doesn’t feel that bad. After losing to Minnesota Duluth on Friday, that probably felt like a given. But when St. Cloud went down 2-0 on Saturday against the Bulldogs, there could’ve been a sense of panic setting in.
Instead, the Huskies pulled themselves up by the boot straps and rallied for the game’s final four goals to salvage what could’ve been a lost weekend.
To me, that is a pretty impressive accomplishment, probably more so than UMass’ sweep of an offensively-challenged Vermont team. Yes, I do believe UMass deserves the top ranking (I voted for that myself), but in terms of what a team accomplished on a weekend, St. Cloud State’s split may mean more to the team come postseason.
Do you agree?
Paula: Well, Jimmy, I do agree – to an extent.
That kind of in-season rebound to salvage a weekend against a very tough opponent is something that can help a team understand its own strengths, but only if the Huskies internalize and sustain the lesson learned the night before when they gave up two late third-period goals in the loss.
It all depends on what St. Cloud does this coming weekend, in my opinion, against a very hot and confident Western Michigan team. The Huskies opened their second half with a 7-2 loss to Union in the Three Rivers Classic, a game in which they struggled from the start and in which they surrendered two goals within the first two minutes of the third period. They followed that up with a win the next night with a 5-2 win over Robert Morris, scoring three goals in the third period of that contest.
Yes, St. Cloud appeared more ready Friday night against Minnesota Duluth than the Huskies did against Union, outshooting the Bulldogs 26-10 in the first two periods of that loss, but the Friday-loss-Saturday-win pattern of the first two weekends of 2019 may be something of a concern. If the Huskies don’t come out with their strongest game Friday against the Broncos, then maybe there’s something going on in the second half that wasn’t evident in the first. And in NCAA play, there are no second nights after a first-night loss.
If we’re talking about resilience and fortitude – and the NCHC – equally impressive to me was Denver’s ability to take care of business against a team the Pioneers should have beaten, Omaha. In Saturday’s 3-2 overtime win, the Pioneers could have lost that game in the second period alone, when the Mavericks outshot them and scored two goals to Denver’s one, but Denver did what good teams do and turned up the heat in the third, resulting in Ian Mitchell’s game-tying goal with less than two minutes remaining in regulation.
With both St. Cloud and Denver, we’re talking about teams who should be finding ways to win, something we touch on frequently here. In January, though, the lessons seem sharper in some ways.
Jim: I think anything that occurred last weekend for St. Cloud (and a number of other teams) can be forgiven when you consider the players who were absent from their respective teams because of the World Juniors. I’m not sure Ryan Poehling would have changed a ton in that Union game, but I’m sure it would have been a far different on-ice situation for the Huskies, so I’ll let that one slide.
But your point is correct. Teams who start showing the strongest character in victory in the second half of the year tend to have a higher level of success.
Another team I want to look at is Clarkson. I think the Golden Knights are better than most are giving them credit. When they got swept by Penn State in the opening weekend of the season, I think too many wrote off this team that lost a lot from the ’17-18 national tournament club.
I think this year’s team is equally as strong as a year ago and are proving it on the ice in the second half. They opened by winning the Desert Hockey Classic in Arizona, arguably the toughest of the holiday tournament fields. Since then, they’ve posted three more wins and currently sit 14th in the PairWise. There is enough experience on this team to make them dangerous for the entirely of this season.
Paula: To me, what makes Clarkson impressive begins where the first half of the season ended. After dropping a 4-2 game to St. Lawrence Dec. 7 in which they badly outshot the Saints, Clarkson shut out St. Lawrence the following night, halting a two-game skid and beginning their current six-game win streak. In that series against St. Lawrence, the Golden Knights – like St. Cloud and Denver – found a way the second night to beat a team that stymied them the night before in spite of their having thrown everything at the net.
Clarkson has Jake Kielly in net, the Golden Knights are tied with Denver for 10th nationally in scoring and Clarkson has the fourth-best defense in the nation. They are not a team that should be underestimated.
You mention Clarkson’s two losses to Penn State early in the season and now it’s impossible for me to avoid talking about the Nittany Lions, a team that I find fascinating this season. They were 8-0-1 to open the season before conference play began and are now 5-6-1-1 in B1G play, with an additional nonconference tie against Princeton during that span, too.
Penn State leads the nation in scoring, still averaging nearly five goals per game – which is astounding to me – and yet the Nittany Lions are giving up nearly four goals per game on average, singlehandedly reinforcing the adage that defense wins games. Penn State scored four goals in each of its games against Michigan State last weekend yet lost Saturday to the Spartans, 6-4, the only game this season in which the Spartans gave up four goals and won.
The Big Ten is a glorious mess this year, with some really good play and teams struggling for many different reasons, but the Nittany Lions seem to typify the conference. They’ve scored as many goals as they’ve given up in league play, they’re below .500 in conference play yet a point above Wisconsin in the standings and they’ve split points in every league series this season.
Jim: Well, the Big Ten is hardly the only conference in a situation where things are so close.
While the Big Ten has 10 points separating their seven teams (in a league where three points is earned for a win), Atlantic Hockey also has just 10 points separating first through last in an 11- team league. Granted Atlantic Hockey only awards two points for each win but imagine sitting in dead-last right now knowing that if you go on a run, sure, you might now win the regular-season title, but you easily could jump to a point where your team is battling for a first-round bye.
That, to me, is pretty crazy.
Paula: Crazy, and also why the results of the two tie games that Air Force and Army played this weekend were so interesting. Heading into last weekend, American International was on top of the AHA standings with 19 points, Air Force was in second with 18, Niagara in third with 16, followed by three teams with 15 points – Mercyhurst, Army, Robert Morris – and RIT with 14.
Air Force and Army each earn a point, which is enough for the Falcons to top the standings as AIC fell twice to RIT – which, along with how everything else played in that crazy league last weekend, was enough to vault RIT into fourth place. Mercyhurst with its sweep of Canisius is tied for second place with American International and Army – having tied the now-first place Falcons – is still what would be considered the middle of the pack, tied with Niagara, each with 17 points, each just three points out of first place.
The craziest thing of all to me at this point is that RIT has the highest PairWise of any AHA team – this week – and is 32nd.
I’m looking forward to how the season plays out with every league, but Atlantic Hockey may be a photo finish. Given the parity among all D-I men’s teams, too, I wouldn’t want to face the AHA playoff champion in the first round of the NCAA tournament.