TMQ: New college hockey season starting to come into focus as games are played, impact players emerging

Eric Dop has posted three wins on the young 2020-21 season for Bowling Green (photo: Paul McCarthy/UAF).

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: Each week, Paula, as more teams get underway, we are learning a lot more. This week, as the NCHC pod kicked off and each of the teams (expect for Colorado College, which gets underway this week after a COVID delay), I feel we learned one major thing: USCHO’s poll voters have gotten a lot right.

The top three teams in the USCHO poll going all the way back to October and the preseason poll have remained the same: North Dakota, Boston College and Minnesota Duluth. Good job, voters, as those teams are a collective 10-0 right now. North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth each won three times. BC earned two wins, but in convincing fashion over a ranked Providence team, not allowing a single goal and scoring 12 in the two games.

I think I also have to throw Minnesota into this bunch, which has begun the season 6-0-0 in the Big Ten and has moved from 14th in the preseason poll all the way up to No. 4.

This quartet of teams is certainly is off to the hot starts they each wanted.

Which, do you think, is the best of this bunch?

Paula: While we have only a little to go on, I’ve been voting Boston College at the top of the poll and I think their performance through four games has justified that.

The Eagles have scored 22 goals in four games – again, not much to go on – and they appear to be getting goal scoring from all four classes. Yes, their freshmen are something special, but the offense isn’t limited to that class.

One thing that I am not seeing as much of yet with BC is a wee bit more depth. (Have I said enough that we’ve only seen them play four games?) You and I both know, Jimmy, that a team that has four threatening lines is better than a team where the scoring is concentrated among fewer players, but the Eagles’ offense is quality enough that it doesn’t appear to be a legit concern – unless you consider the power play, which is 1 for 12.

Spencer Knight and the defense in front of him are playing with the kind of confidence that breeds more success, both in the defensive zone and in the Eagles’ transition game.

I like the way Minnesota has played through the first six games, particularly the increasingly consistent and confident performance of Jack LaFontaine in net. The Golden Gophers aren’t flashy up front, and their scoring is even more concentrated. Senior Scott Reedy has five goals in six games – three on the power play, three game-winning goals – and Minnesota’s offense in general is driven by veteran players.

You know, Jimmy, maybe I feel like I need to highlight Minnesota because teams from the NCHC, year after year, are so dominant nationally that discussing them seems to be a default setting.

BC, though, is my pick for the best of the bunch so far. What about you?

Jim: I can tell you that I, indeed, did have BC on the top of my ballot this week. Simply put, outscoring a Providence team 12-0 over two nights is an accomplishment that needs recognition. That recognition is my first-place vote.

But I think there is little separating any of these top four teams. North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth are going through a true gauntlet right now playing ten games in 21 days. I look at a team like Denver, for which I have high expectations. They are 0-3 after one week in the NCHC pod. They easily could be 3-0 and it wouldn’t shock me if they left the bubble 7-3. But playing stiff competition without a lot of practice time to work on issues can be difficult.

We’ve talked a little bit about the poll and I mentioned how easy it was to rank the top four team. But it was equally as tough for me to try to rank the next 16. Many teams that I am confident (Denver is just one instance) are below .500. A lot of the top teams haven’t even played a game yet.

Did you have the same challenges putting together your ballot this week?

Paula: Weirdly, I did not feel as though this week’s ballot was particularly challenging, and for exactly the same reasons you cited as making it difficult for you to fill out your ballot. I went through that last week, when I looked at everything from top to bottom and thought, “How do I make any sense of this college hockey landscape at this point in the season?”

In some ways, it’s like that at the beginning of every season, well before the Ivies start and during a lot of interconference play, especially when what we’re seeing from some teams doesn’t match our expectations from the previous season or incoming freshmen aren’t doing what we thought they would – or they’re excelling in ways that we couldn’t have anticipated. We use those early weeks to gauge entire seasons, and we – and I mean all of us in college hockey – are often correct in our assessment based on what we see October through the end of November.

Consistency has helped guide us through the beginnings of previous seasons, when we’ve had the chance to see relatively uniform start dates and schedules that we can count on, and all the result of normal preseason preparation.

That consistency now seems like a luxury. Last week, I was at a loss as to how to approach my ballot. This week, I just looked at games played and made some minor adjustments. I don’t know how anyone else is processing the information presented to us, but all I can do is vote based on what I’ve seen and speculate about what may be hockey yet to come.

Jim: The one team that I happily moved right up my ballot this week was St. Cloud State. What a fantastic start for Brett Larson and his squad in the NCHC pod!

I had a chance to talk to him after the game on Saturday, a game where the Huskies fell behind but rallied to beat Denver. Larson said that last year’s team might have folded when they fell behind. But this team seems more mature. The Huskies premiered in the poll at 13 this week, but continued success will keep that team moving upwards.

To me, that’s one of the better early-season stories. Do you have one you are following?

Paula: I mentioned Scott Reedy, with his five goals in six games, and Minnesota’s start is a story that I’m watching closely for obvious reasons.

Another team that’s captured my attention in the early going is Bowling Green. You and I have talked in the past about the uphill climb that the most recent incarnation of the WCHA has faced and what a challenge it’s been for several teams in that league to become or remain competitive on the national scene. Certainly Minnesota State has emerged as a consistently competitive team in the past few seasons.

After showing a lot of promise in 2019-20, Bowling Green is looking even better this season, like a team on the verge of being in the mix every year. In their 4-1-0 start, the Falcons are averaging 4.20 goals per game for the seventh-best offense nationally, and BGSU has the sixth-best national defense. The Falcons are led by a solid senior class, including a whole squadron of forwards who lead the team in scoring and goaltender Eric Dop, who has three wins so far this season.

I know I’m not alone in noticing what the Falcons are doing. Voters pushed Bowling Green up two spots to No. 16 in this week’s poll.

Last season, it was a pleasure to watch American Hockey steadily improve and build on its momentum from previous seasons. Raising the level of competition in every league benefits every team in college hockey. What’s even more interesting about Bowling Green’s traction is that it comes in the last season of the WCHA as we know it. Seven teams from that conference move to a reconstituted CCHA in 2021-22, along with St. Thomas, which will go from D-III to D-I to round out the league’s eight-team membership.

There are bound to be growing pains with the new CCHA. An improved WCHA this year will help mitigate some of that next season, and Bowling Green is doing its part to contribute to ensure that the league it helped found in 1971 is off to a good start a year from now.