Archive for the 'Commentary' Category

How Important is Scoring First?

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

For the past few weeks, it seems like every player or coach I’ve spoken to has brought up the importance of scoring first. How important is it, though?

Truth is, it’s pretty important.

Across the nation this season, the team that has scored first has won almost 70 percent of the time (69.8%). Atlantic Hockey drags that percentage down, actually. In every other conference, the winning percentage for teams that score first is over 70 percent. In Hockey East, it’s the highest at 74 percent.

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WCHA Weekend Preview, Feb. 20-21

Friday, February 20th, 2015

There are only three league series this weekend, but still plenty on the line in the WCHA. There are just three weeks left in the regular season and a lot to still be sorted out in that time.

Minnesota State, Michigan Tech, and Bowling Green have already clinched spots in the playoffs, with the Mavericks and Huskies having secured home ice advantage. The Falcons can do the same this weekend against Northern Michigan. After that, though, everything is still up for grabs. Five of the remaining six playoff-eligible teams — all of which are in action this weekend — can finish anywhere from fourth place and home ice to last place and missing the playoffs. Only Lake Superior State can’t finish higher than fifth.

In the Polls: Following its winless weekend against Alaska last time out, Minnesota State dropped to No. 2 in this week’s USCHO.com poll. Michigan Tech moved up a spot to No. 4 and Bowling Green held steady at No. 8. Bemidji State (3) is the only WCHA that received votes in the poll.

The Mavericks still hold the top spot in the Pairwise rankings, though, while the Huskies and Falcons check in at No. 7 and No. 8, respectively. No other WCHA team is in the top 25.

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ECAC Weekend Preview Feb. 13-14

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

The standings are so close that with three weeks remaining any of the teams in the top ten could get a bye in the first round. Quinnipiac and St. Lawrence have run away with the league, as the Bobcats have a three point lead on the Saints and SLU has five points clear of the mess of teams in third place. Behind the two front-runners it is a mess, as four teams are tied for third with two others just a point behind in the standings. The battle for the byes and home ice will come down to the last game of the season in three weekends.

Quinnipiac and St. Lawrence meet on Friday, with the league in balance. St. Lawrence has quietly won seven games in a row, all in ECAC play, while QU is riding an overall four game unbeaten streak and eight in league play. Realistically, SLU is playing the best hockey in the league right now and its 7-1 trouncing of Union shows it but QU is playing some awesome hockey as well, mainly led by its defense. With a win on Friday, Quinnipiac can practically wrap up the league barring a meltdown with two weeks left in the season, while the Saints can make it a battle for the league title in the coming weeks. (more…)

ECAC Weekend Preview Feb. 6-7

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

From here on out, each league team will play two games a weekend. With only four weekends remaining in the regular season, every game seems to be huge. St. Lawrence is hard charging, having won five league games in a row. Quinnipiac is on a six game unbeaten streak and leads the league by three over the Saints. But the league as a whole continues to be close, as positions 3-9 in the league are separated by a mere four points and 4-9 just two points. Tenth place Union sits just three points behind Home byes, home advantage and the illustrious Cleary Cup all seem to be in play in the coming weeks.

Quinipiac and St. Lawrence have looked like the best teams this half. Those two teams look to be the favorites for the Cleary but I am sure some of the teams below them could compete for the title. Harvard got Alex Kerfoot back in the Beanpot semi, which quite frankly they should be proud of as a group. Sean Malone was also back in the lineup, but wasn’t on the bench for the thrilling end. Yale, Clarkson and Cornell all have struggled to find scoring this season, which makes me speculate whether or not any of those teams can make a run. An interesting one to me is Dartmouth, who swept the Capital Region teams at home last weekend. (more…)

Three Things I Think: WCHA, Feb. 4

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

After playing most of the season with three contenders for the MacNaughton Cup, it’s beginning to look like it will come down to a two-team race. Minnesota State and Michigan Tech have separated themselves at the top of the standings, while Bowling Green’s struggles have put them at a significant disadvantage. After another disheartening weekend, the Falcons are now 10 points back of the first place Mavericks, and six back of the Huskies, with just 10 games left to play.

Rapid Recap: Minnesota State continued to have Ferris State’s number, sweeping the Bulldogs with a pair of 5-1 wins. Michigan Tech poured on the offense in its sweep of Alabama-Huntsville, winning 5-0 and 11-1. Northern Michigan earned its first back-to-back wins since November, sweeping Alaska-Anchorage, 5-3 and 3-2 (OT). NMU senior defenseman Mitch Jones scored the OT winner with just 11 seconds left on Saturday to secure the sweep. Bemidji State ran its unbeaten streak to four, beating, 5-2, and tying, 2-2, stumbling Bowling Green.

In the Polls: After a week at No. 3, Minnesota State re-gained the top spot in the USCHO.com Div. I poll. Michigan Tech moved up three spots to No. 5 and are in the top five for the first time since Dec. 15. Bowling Green slipped two spots to No. 8. Bemidji State (8) is the only WCHA team receiving votes.

Following the weekend’s results, the Mavericks remained at No. 1 in the Pairwise, while Bowling Green stayed at No. 6 and Michigan Tech moved up three spots to No. 7.

(Following the jump: My three thoughts/observations on what went down in the WCHA last weekend)

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NCHC Weekend Preview: Jan. 30-31

Friday, January 30th, 2015

Two months from today, the only college hockey games remaining in the 2014-15 schedule will be the games to be played at the NCAA Frozen Four in Boston — the national semifinals and the national championship game. As of now, five NCHC teams sit in the top 11 of the Pairwise, certainly well-positioned for an NCAA spot if they continue to play well, but of course, for all league teams, the stretch run to the NCHC tournament and the possibility of an automatic berth are inspiring factors during these final weeks of the regular season.

Still, before any of that, to remain in the conversation two months from now will require a strong upcoming six weeks, and this weekend, with 10 games remaining for each team in the regular season, one series in particular could end up having major implications for whether North Dakota or Nebraska-Omaha can position themselves for a No. 1 seed — not just in the NCHC tournament, but in the NCAA tournament as well.

Nebraska-Omaha (15-6-3, 9-4-1-1 NCHC) hosts North Dakota (18-5-2, 9-4-1 NCHC): North Dakota, No. 2 in the Pairwise, trials UNO (No. 4) by a single point for the NCHC regular season lead heading into this significant weekend series in Omaha. Tonight’s game — televised on CBS Sports Network — is UND’s first road contest since a Dec. 13 win at Denver, while UNO has been off for two weeks since a weekend split with Colorado College (whom UND swept in Grand Forks a week ago). The teams last met in a contested and physical late November series in Grand Forks, when UNO won a shootout following a 2-2 tie in the Friday night game and UND came back for a 3-2 win on Saturday. North Dakota’s game-winner on Saturday night was a Stephane Pattyn shorthanded goal — insult to injury after UND held the Mavericks scoreless on seven power play chances during the weekend.

Aside from the obvious storylines (e.g. a matchup of two of the nation’s top teams, UNO head coach Dean Blais returning to his former stomping grounds, where he won two national titles, etc.), consider this: in NCHC play, UNO is the league’s top-scoring offense, while UND is the best defense. It’s a matchup of two upperclassmen goaltenders, UNO’s Ryan Massa and UND’s Zane McIntyre, who are No. 1 and No. 2 in the league in save percentage. Think that means it’ll be a pair of low-scoring games? Not necessarily. This series also features four of the five NCHC players — North Dakota’s Mark MacMillan and Drake Caggiula and Omaha’s Austin Ortega and Jake Guentzel — who are averaging over a point per game in NCHC play this season (Denver senior defenseman Joey LaLeggia is the other). MacMillan in fact leads the league in goals in conference play. And it’s not just the upperclassmen who have stepped up for these teams — three of the league’s top five scoring rookies are also in action in this series this weekend.

So, clearly, there’s plenty to keep an eye on in this series. Omaha coach Dean Blais told Tony Boone of the Omaha World-Herald this week, “We could play our best game of the year on Friday night and not win. But if we play our best game of the year, all the pressure is on them, not us.” It’s a nice motivational tactic by the veteran coach, but for a team looking for the same legitimacy that North Dakota (a Frozen Four team last season) already has, and with UNO playing at home trying to distance itself from the visitors in the standings, there’s plenty of pressure on the Mavericks as well. Prediction: Omaha wins Friday, North Dakota wins Saturday.

Denver (14-8-1, 7-6-0 NCHC) hosts Minnesota-Duluth (14-9-1, 8-5-1 NCHC): Plenty has changed since these teams last met in October, which resulted in a weekend split in Duluth. First and foremost, DU sophomore Evan Cowley started both games for the Pioneers, which is unlikely to happen this weekend. Freshman Tanner Jaillet has emerged as the goaltender whom Jim Montgomery has called upon most often over the past few weeks, as Cowley hasn’t seen action since being pulled 18 minutes into the first period against St. Cloud on Jan. 16 (after allowing just one goal). Jaillet picked up three straight wins before a loss at Miami last Saturday. Now, the Pioneers host a Bulldogs team that is coming off a North Star College Cup appearance in Minneapolis last weekend, where UMD beat Minnesota on Saturday (its third win over the Gophers this season) after falling to Bemidji State a night earlier. Junior Matt McNeeley earned the win over Minnesota, starting in place of freshman Kasimir Kaskisuo. Kaskisuo played well in the first half of the season, but has been much more inconsistent of late — now with a four-game winless streak in his starts. Given the recent results, it wouldn’t be surprising to see McNeeley, Kaskisuo, Jaillet, and Cowley all play in some capacity this week. I’ll be at Magness Arena for both games this weekend. Prediction: Denver sweeps.

Colorado College (5-16-1, 1-11-1 NCHC) hosts St. Cloud State (10-13-1, 5-8-1 NCHC): In a matchup of the only two teams in the league with overall records below .500 this season, the Tigers start a six-game home stretch with their first meeting of the season with St. Cloud State. CC, despite just one win in 13 NCHC games this season, has played much better of late. After beating Omaha two weeks ago tonight, CC went to Grand Forks last weekend and lost two close games, 2-1 on Friday and 5-3 (with an empty-netter) on Saturday. The improved play has come thanks to a more creative and effective power play and on-ice leadership from senior Scott Wamsganz, who has points in five straight games. Without question, the Tigers look much better than they did in November but will still have their hands full against a St. Cloud team that, while sometimes maddeningly inconsistent, has the potential to be dominant. Last Friday, the Huskies used their own Olympic ice sheet to their full advantage, creating space and frustrating Western Michigan with a 7-0 win. It was arguably the best St. Cloud had looked all season, but the weekend was spoiled by blowing a 2-0 third-period lead the following night (ultimately losing 3-2). Of course, CC plays on the larger ice surface as well, and that will play to the strength of talented forwards like juniors Joey Benik and Jonny Brodzinski. Prediction: St. Cloud wins Friday, Colorado College wins Saturday.

And finally, in a one-game series on Saturday night:

Western Michigan (11-10-3, 4-7-3-3 NCHC) hosts Miami (15-9-0, 8-6-0 NCHC): The RedHawks swept the Broncos earlier in the season, and now, with the second game of this series set for next weekend (outdoors at Chicago’s Soldier Field), both teams come into this one-game affair in Kalamazoo after wins last Saturday (WMU over St. Cloud, Miami over Denver). For Miami, the win snapped a three-game losing streak during which the RedHawks struggled to find offense. WMU met the same problem in last week’s 7-0 shutout against St. Cloud. Without question, certain players will be the focus of each team’s defensive efforts this weekend — Miami, a bit more balanced thanks to the playmaking ability of Austin Czarnik, relies on Riley Barber, Sean Kuraly, Blake Coleman, and Cody Murphy to score goals, while WMU relies heavily on its top line of Nolan LaPorte, Sheldon Dries, and Colton Hargrove. LaPorte’s eight power play goals lead the nation for a WMU power play unit that is fourth-best (23.5 percent effective) in the country, so Miami (averaging 14.0 penalty minutes per game) will have to stay disciplined on Saturday. Prediction: WMU wins in a shootout.

 

Three Things I Think: NCHC, Jan. 5

Monday, January 5th, 2015

There are a couple more weeks of sporadic non-conference action, including this weekend’s home-and-home between Western Michigan and Notre Dame, but of course, the primary focus for NCHC teams now is on conference play and on preparing for a postseason that, last year, saw the league’s No. 6 and No. 8 seeds play for the tournament title.

Miami at the faceoff dot

There are plenty of storylines to highlight when it comes to Miami’s success over the first half of the season, which the RedHawks continued with a sweep of Rensselaer over the weekend. There is, of course, the statistical anomaly of seeing Austin Czarnik atop Miami’s list of point-scorers despite having scored just one goal, and there’s Jay Williams, who has quietly become one of the top goaltenders in the league, coming off back-to-back shutouts of Cornell and RPI. Another storyline, though, that hasn’t received as much attention has been Miami’s strong faceoff play. Simply put, at the faceoff dot, the RedHawk centers have been downright dominant. Blake Coleman (166-78), Sean Kuraly (224-146), and Justin Greenberg (67-48) are the only NCHC players who have faceoff winning percentages over .580 this season, with Coleman’s .680 faceoff winning percentage the best among all NCHC players. Those faceoff wins have led to timely defensive zone clears, increased offensive zone pressure, and puck possession that’s given Miami the edge in several close games this year. The RedHawks have 14 wins as they head to St. Cloud State this weekend, where a 15th win will already match last season’s win total.

UNO block party

Joining Miami in the top 6 in the current Pairwise is Nebraska-Omaha. The Mavericks had a six-game winning streak snapped on New Year’s Eve with a 6-2 loss to New Hampshire (after UNO had beaten the Wildcats in overtime the night before). Senior goaltender Ryan Massa, who missed the series due to the flu, has helped steady a UNO defense that was suspect at times last season, and the defenders in front of him have clearly played harder as well. That’s evident by looking at Omaha’s shot-blocking prowess. The Mavericks defense has arguably the most prolific shot-blocking crew in the league, led by senior Brian O’ Rourke’s 2.47 blocks per game, best among any NCHC player . O’Rourke, along with junior Brian Cooper, and freshman Joel Messner, have combined for 120 blocked shots this season so far — the most for any trio of defensemen in the NCHC.

Hafner takes over

On November 14, Western Michigan senior goaltender Frank Slubowski was pulled in an eventual loss to St. Cloud State and was replaced by junior Lukas Hafner. Slubowski, a talented goaltender who goes by “Frank the Tank” as one of his nicknames, is well-liked and respected by his teammates, but it’s been Hafner who has taken control of the Broncos’ goaltending position this year. The Broncos are in need of a strong January, and Hafner’s play has put WMU in a good position. The Toledo, Ohio, native is 4-1-1 in his last six games, allowing two goals or less in all of them. Moreover, Hafner is in fact the only NCHC goaltender who’s allowed two or less in the last six games overall.

Coming soon: On Friday, we’ll preview all the weekend’s NCHC action.

Thoughts on Eichel, Demko Major Junior Rumors

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

It felt foolish even having to ask the question yesterday of some within the BU hockey program, but it was once again necessary after yet another firestorm of rumors out of Canada that Jack Eichel was “jumping ship” to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League after the World Junior Championships concluded.

The response, by the way, after some laughter, was a definitive “no.”

No one at BU is worried about Eichel, yet rumors persist. SportNet’s Junior Hockey Podcast tweeted yesterday that there were “rumors” that Eichel was going to sign with Saint John after the tournament. Host Jeff Marek – who I respect, but he’s way off on this – made an argument for why, in his mind, Eichel should leave college hockey. It’s the old “he’ll play a more pro schedule” argument that we’ve heard a million times.

More games doesn’t make Eichel, or anyone else, a better player. For most 18-year-old stars making the jump to the NHL, which I’d expect Eichel to do after this season, skill isn’t the issue, it’s strength. Playing a 60 or 70-game schedule allows for very little time in the weight room. Playing two games per week at BU, along with a lot more practice time, allows Eichel the chance to get in strength and conditioning work with BU strength coach Anthony Morando, a disciple of the great Mike Boyle.

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Three Things I Think: NCHC, Dec. 16

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

We’re heading to a quiet stretch in the schedule, following a weekend where CHN Team of the Week Nebraska-Omaha made a big statement with its sweep of St. Cloud State. Western Michigan also performed well, taking an overtime win and a shootout win over a desperate Colorado College team still looking for its first NCHC win of the season.

Instead of looking at UNO’s or WMU’s reasons for success, here’s a closer look at three teams who suffered defeat this past Saturday night.

Kaskisuo pulled

Sure, the Finnish freshman didn’t have the best start on Saturday evening against Michigan Tech, allowing two goals on four shots in the first five minutes of the contest, especially as the second goal came as the result of a weak rebound that followed a mis-play by the netminder. Still, it may have surprised some that UMD coach Scott Sandelin pulled his star goaltender, who had been awarded multiple weekly and national accolades throughout his 14 consecutive starts from the upstart Bulldogs. Kaskisuo was pulled in favor of junior Matt McNeely, who earned a shutout win over Notre Dame at the start of the season. McNeely played regularly as a freshman and only sporadically as a sophomore before giving way to Kaskisuo this year. It was a great decision by Sandelin on Saturday to switch to McNeely for many reasons — above all, it prevents Kaskisuo from being too comfortable as the designated No. 1 starter, reinforcing the need to be sharp at all times and to avoid the sometimes natural letdown the night after a big road win (UMD, of course, beat Michigan Tech a night earlier). McNeely is also a veteran who was able to weather the storm until the Bulldogs tied the game in the third period. Michigan Tech did win late, on Mike Neville’s game winner — his first goal of the season — with less than 20 seconds to play, but the decision to pull Kaskisuo, to wake up a sluggish team on the road, is the type of calculated decision that could pay dividends later in the season.

St. Cloud’s struggles

The memory of St. Cloud’s (6-9-1 overall, 2-5-1 NCHC) back to back wins over Union and Minnesota seems a lot more distant than the reality that those wins came less than two months ago. Now, the Huskies have lost three straight, and four of five, coming off a sweep in Omaha. Yes, the offense has been surprisingly (given the talent) erratic, but more concerning has been the defensive play of St. Cloud’s top lines. On Saturday, like Friday, St. Cloud led heading into the second period and again gave up the lead en route to a 5-3 loss. Saturday was an up-and-down night for the Huskies’ line of Jimmy Murray, David Morley, and Patrick Russell, a line that’s second in scoring on the team and that tied the game on Saturday at 3-3 in the third period. However, the trio was on the ice for four of Omaha’s five goals, in many cases missing defensive opportunities to limit goal-scoring opportunities. Many of St. Cloud’s forwards — particularly their top six — are exceedingly talented. This year, for whatever reason, they’ve given up a ton of goals. Leading scorer Jonny Brodzinski, for instance, has 3 even-strength goals but is a minus-7. Brodzinski also has seven power play goals, and indeed the Huskies have played well in man-advantage situations. The key to turning things around seems to be a need to improve their defensive effort and efficiency in front of goaltender Charlie Lindgren.

DU line change

Friday, Denver earned one of its biggest wins of the season, a 4-1 win over North Dakota in a game where, simply, the Pioneers showed just a bit more poise than UND in what was a physical series all weekend. UND returned that favor on Saturday, then used a couple of creative stretch plays to defeat Denver 3-1 and split the weekend series. Friday, three of Denver’s four goals came from defensemen, and coach Jim Montgomery changed up his top two lines for Saturday, switching Danton Heinen and Ty Loney’s spots on the right wing and thus breaking up the top line of Heinen/Daniel Doremus/Trevor Moore — the top three scorers this season for the Pioneers. Certainly, it seemed like a brilliant move by Montgomery, a surprise change that could give the North Dakota coaching staff more to think about with its defensive pairings and matchups on the road. But neither line produced a point on Saturday, in part because of a more physical and defense-oriented game overall. Also, it was the new Heinen line (paired with Quentin Shore and Zac Larraza) that got caught in a bad second period line change, allowing a quick transition play for North Dakota that culminated in Nick Schmaltz converting a 2-on-1 rush. So, the move may not have worked quite as planned, but it was a bold decision by Montgomery, as we rarely see major lineup changes the night following a big win. Perhaps Montgomery realizes that some periodic changes may help prevent the offense from becoming too stagnant, a problem that the Pioneers have had in the past (though not this year). DU continues to have the luxury of offensive-minded defensemen who can provide goals even when the forwards struggle; four of Denver’s 5 goals this weekend came from the blueline.

Coming soon: On Friday, we’ll preview the only NCHC games (and in fact, the only NCAA Division I games, period) of the upcoming weekend, when Nebraska-Omaha hosts Alabama-Huntsville for a two-game nonconference series.

 

 

Three Things I Think: WCHA, Dec. 9

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

With four overtime games, high-scoring contests, upsets and near-upsets, it was a pretty exciting weekend of hockey in the WCHA. After the dust settled, Minnesota State emerged in a tie with Michigan Tech at 20 points apiece at the top of the standings. Bowling Green remains right behind them with 17 points. All three of those teams will resume conference play next month.

Rapid Recap: Alaska ended No. 2 Minnesota State’s six game winning streak with a 5-4 OT win on Friday before junior forward Dylan Margonari’s hat trick on Saturday salvaged a split for the Mavericks. Bowling Green went on the road an took three of four points from Northern Michigan, drawing a high-scoring, 5-5, battle in the opener before blowing out NMU, 5-0. Bemidji State and Alaska-Anchorage split a pair of ties and Lake Superior State gave North Dakota all it could handle, but was swept.

In the Polls: In the latest USCHO.com rankings, the Mavericks dropped a spot to No. 3, idle Michigan Tech moved up to No. 4, Bowling Green jumped to No. 13, and Northern Michigan dropped out of the top-20. Two WCHA teams are receiving votes: the Wildcats (51) and Ferris State (3). The WCHA is the only conference in the country with two teams ranked in the top five.

The WCHA also has three teams in the top 10 of College Hockey News’ first official look at the PairWise. Minnesota State is No. 1, followed by Michigan Tech at No. 5, and Bowling Green at No. 8. The rest of the league ranks as followed: Alaska (No. 25), Northern Michigan (No. 29), Bemidji State (No. 37), Ferris State (No. 39), Alaska-Anchorage (No. 41), Alabama-Huntsville (No. 45), and Lake Superior State (No. 54).

(After the jump: My three stars of the weekend and three thoughts on what went down)

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