One Writer’s Prediction for the Rest of the Season
CHN Staff Report
Like most sports with clearly defined breaks, the college hockey calendar comes with something of a lie.
The first half of the season isn’t, for most anyway, actually the halfway point of anything. It makes sense for the break to come. Most schools are between semesters. The winter holidays make it difficult for fans to attend.
It’s just a good idea.
But, now that we’re a couple weeks of games into January, we have a truer midway point.
Every team in the country has played most of its non-conference schedule and a least a quarter of its league games.
Even a cursory glance at the standings leads to some immediate questions about what league tables will look like once conference tournament seedings and Pairwise placement really start to dominate storylines.
Some quick ones: Is Massachusetts really the best team in Hockey East?
Will Michigan solve its goaltending and defensive issues in time to save its season?
What on Earth is wrong with North Dakota?
Is Bowling Green finally going to finish one of these successful seasons with a trophy?
The answers to those questions will come in time. And those answers will determine who plays whom and where and when about eight weeks from now when championships are the prize for wins instead of promise.
Below is a look — a prediction really — at what I expect league standings to look like after the regular season. I’ve broken it down by the various tiers of accomplishments each league offers. Conference regular-season champions, the teams that will receive byes, teams that will miss their leagues’ playoffs entirely, etc.
A lot, of course, remains to be decided. Players will break out after disappointing or otherwise anonymous first halves. Others will fall back to Earth after dominant opens to the season. Unfortunately, it’s safe to assume some injuries will also become problems.
Anyway, here we go.
Champion: American International
The Yellow Jackets are a year removed from the best season in program history. Third-year coach Eric Lang has his team in first place after Tuesday’s defeat of Sacred Heart.
Air Force has a game in hand on the Yellow Jackets. But AIC swept the Falcons earlier this season.
Statistically, these teams are largely even. The difference here comes down to goals. AIC manages about 3.4 per game in league play. Air Force scores about 2.4. The Yellow Jackets will take another step forward and claim the first meaningful championship in their 21st season as a Divison I program by winning the Atlantic Hockey regular season.
Byes: AIC, Air Force, RIT, Robert Morris, Army
Most in the college hockey world probably only took note of Canisius last weekend. The Golden Griffins got the usual mix of great goaltending, timely scoring and puck luck to sweep North Dakota in Buffalo. It’s a massive accomplishment for the program. Most expected Canisius to compete for the Atlantic Hockey title. It’s been a majorly disappointing season to this point for Canisius.
The first three teams listed above are the best in the conference in teams of puck possession and skill. Army and Robert Morris have been the best in goal. They’ll all get a weekend off in March.
First-round hosts: Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara
CC’s inconsistency won’t keep it from getting a home playoff series thanks to Atlantic Hockey’s playoff format. Everyone gets in, so somebody has to play some home games to start the tournament.
This distinction, frankly, has more to do with the ineptitude of Sacred Heart, Bentley and Holy Cross, whom I expect will all be on the road to open the Atlantic Hockey postseason.
Champion/Bye: Ohio State
Sean Romeo expectedly hasn’t performed quite to the all-American level he did last season. He’s been good, though. Tommy Nappier, who has shared time with Romeo, has been brilliant. All in all, the duo has given OSU some of the best goaltending in the nation. The Buckeyes boast an equally prolific offense led, of course, by Mason Jobst.
OSU already has a four-point lead on second-place Wisconsin. The Buckeyes biggest threat is last year’s champion Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are the same team, more or less, they were a year ago. Great goaltending and structure always seem to create just enough offense. But the five-point hole UND has already dug, even with a game in hand, means the Big Ten championship goes through Columbus this season.
Quarterfinal hosts: Notre Dame, Penn State and Wisconsin
Notre Dame and Penn State are national title contenders. Wisconsin’s placement here has more to do with their steadiness and the troubling signs out of Ann Arbor and Minneapolis. Michigan can’t defend. Minnesota can’t score. Wisconsin’s performance in the league has been mostly OK, and the Badgers will get to stay for the Big Ten’s first round because of it.
If either Hayden Lavigne or Strauss Mann figure it out, Michigan is a national title contender. Full stop. But neither has shown he can do it just yet. There’s certainly more to it than just the goalie. The play without the puck has doomed Michigan so often this season. Mel Pearson got it turned around last season. He and his staff need to do it again if this star-laden Michigan roster wants another trip to the NCAA tournament.
The Bobcats are one of the most complete teams in the country. After a couple disappointing seasons, QU is ready to compete for every championship for which it’s eligible.
Byes: Quinnipiac, Cornell, Yale, Clarkson
I suppose these are the first real bold opinions here.
Quinnipiac is, obviously, self-explanatory.
Cornell is as well. The Big Red haven’t quite received the level of goaltending most expect. It comes down to track record and performance, though. The Big Red control games. They score enough. They minimize chances. Sophomore Austin McGrath has been very good of late, filling in for an injured Matthew Galajda. No matter which starts their games going forward, Cornell should play well enough down the stretch to at least bother QU on its way to the Cleary Cup.
The third and fourth byes will be the most contested. Union, Clarkson, Yale, Harvard and, maybe, Princeton are candidates for me.
Princeton has been one of the most disappointing teams in the country at this point. Last year’s ECAC tournament champion has won only five of its first 17 games. They’re still in the race for a bye, but their performance in the first half makes it hard to believe they have a run in them. It was this same weekend a year ago that saw Princeton begin its march that took them to an ECAC tournament championship. Building on last year’ success means starting right now.
Selecting Clarkson comes down to goaltending as much as anything.
Jake Kielly isn’t having the kind of season he had a year ago. But no one reasonably could’ve expected him to do so. He’s been one of the nation’s best goalies, however, and the Golden Knights, who have played only six games in the league thus far have played quite well since returning from the break.
They’re simply more complete than either Union or Harvard. Currently, the Golden Knights are 10th in the league. Being in 10th place right now is a hurdle, even with the games in hand over basically everyone with which they are competing.
Yale has been a tough team to figure. The Bulldogs’ schedule in ECAC play hasn’t been terribly daunting. They haven’t been convincing outside of the ECAC, either. In fact, Yale has lost three of its last four games — tying the other — against Hockey East competition. Not having Phil Kemp or Jack St. Ivany due to their time had World Juniors didn’t help matters.
Ultimately, though, the Bulldogs have more talent on their roster than they’ve had since their national championship season. Their blistering start ECAC play will be tough for others to overcome. Currently, Yale is tied with Quinnipiac for first place in the ECAC. The Bulldogs even have a game in hand on QU.
First-round hosts: Union, Harvard, Princeton, Brown
Union and Harvard are only marginally worse than the teams above them. Both are probably good enough get to Lake Placid and win the league title with some small improvements.
The final two first-round hosts spots come down to Princeton, Brown and Dartmouth. Eliminating Dartmouth is as simple as goaltending. Gavin Nieto and Luke Kania have played well for Brown. Adrian Clark hasn’t for Dartmouth. It’s too bad. An empty Meehan Auditorium for the ECAC playoffs is a bad look for the league.
Even with UMass’ hot start to the season, both in the league and non-conference games, the Minutemen are tied with Boston College for first place in the Hockey East standings and just three points clear of sixth-place UMass-Lowell, which defeated UMass last Friday in Amherst.
The Minutemen have been fantastic this season. They score goals. They prevent them just as well. But they’re brand new to these conversations. And that comes with doubts, especially after Friday’s loss.
Providence has been here before. The Friars are deep, well-coached and good at basically everything. They’re currently a point back of UMass with one more game played. Expect the Friars to win their first Hockey East regular-season title since 2016.
Quarterfinal hosts: Providence, Northeastern, UMass, UMass-Lowell
The first three spots here all seem pretty straight forward. Providence, Northeastern and UMass are three of the nation’s best teams. The fourth spot is largely undecided at this point.
Currently, BC is tied with UMass on points. The Eagles are 6-1-2 in Hockey East play, which may be surprising for those outside New England considering BC is 0-8-1 outside of the league.
[[Joe Woll]] has been fantastic for BC since around Thanksgiving. The Eagles just haven’t been great around him.
UMass-Lowell, on the other hand, is better than most seem to realize. The River Hawks don’t have the high-end talent they did two years ago when they won a third Hockey East championship under Bazin. They’re just as well-coached and difficult to breakdown now as they were then, however. UML will be a tough out in the second half. They won’t have to leave Lowell for the Hockey East quarterfinals because of it.
Fail to qualify: Vermont and Merrimack
The Catamounts have little-to-no scoring talent on their roster. As such, they’ve managed only 11 goals in eight league games thus far. Unfortunately, they’re going to waste one of the best goaltending seasons in recent memory because of it. Stefanos Lekkas has a .935 save percentage in 18 games this season.
Merrimack is quite clearly in the early stages of a rebuild. First-year coach Scott Borek has some notable wins on his mantle already; the Warriors defeated Michigan on Tuesday, as well as BC and Boston University earlier this season. Merrimack has been mostly terrible, however, and the Warriors will likely miss the postseason altogether.
Champion: St. Cloud State
St. Cloud State isn’t much better than Minnesota-Duluth. The Huskies have been dominant in the league to this point, however. They hold a commanding eight-point lead on UMD, which is currently in third place. It’s simply too much for UMD to overcome. The Bulldogs and Huskies meet this weekend in Duluth and the final weekend of the regular season in St. Cloud. The chance is there for UMD, but anymore slip-ups or tough stretches will end their hopes of claiming the Spencer Penrose Memorial Cup.
Quarterfinal hosts: St. Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth, Denver, Western Michigan
These are the four best teams in the conference.
The biggest wildcard is North Dakota. The Fighting Hawks have been dominant in many of the statistical categories that tend to indicate success. They, for example, account for 59.4 percent of the shots taken in their games. However, both Peter Thome and Adam Scheel have struggled in goal at times. No one on the roster can score either. A team shooting percentage of 7.7 percent suggests the goals are going to start coming. The defensive numbers don’t suggest the goals against will stop, though.
The performances just haven’t been very good for UND. And their form, mixed with their existing deficit, will have them on the road to open the NCHC tournament.
Champion: Minnesota State
Not much separates Minnesota State and Bowling Green at this point. The Falcons even swept MSU in December. And still, with 14 games played, the Mavericks are top of the league. The Falcons need to be perfect the rest of the way, and they need help from the rest of the WCHA.
Quarterfinal hosts: Minnesota State, Bowling Green, Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech
Minnesota State, Bowling Green and Northern Michigan all entered the season with hopes of pushing for NCAA tournament bids. The first two have. Northern Michigan’s performance outside of the WCHA just hasn’t been good enough, however.
Despite that, the Wildcats have more than separated themselves from most of the WCHA. They’re five points ahead of fifth-place Lake Superior State in third place.
Fourth-place Michigan Tech is the real question. The Huskies have once again proven they can compete with anyone and everyone in the WCHA. They’re only four points back of first place in the WCHA.
Fail to qualify: Alaska-Anchorage and Alabama-Huntsville
After the disastrous offseasons for both programs, it’s not a surprise to see the Nanooks and Seawolves experience forgettable seasons. Anchorage is already 10 points back of eighth place. Its fate is effectively sealed. Alaska is currently in a playoff spot, however. The Nanooks haven’t been great, but they’ve picked off some wins and get to play Anchorage four times.
Alabama-Huntsville, which is currently two points clear of Ferris State in the race for the final playoff spot in the WCHA, has dates with Lake State, Minnesota State, Northern Michigan and Bowling Green left. Three of the four series are on the road. The Chargers need a miracle — some help from the teams playing Ferris State and Alaska — to qualify for the WCHA playoffs.