(Ed. Note: Ryan Lambert is our resident NCAA Hockey nut, and we decided it’s time to unleash his particular brand of whimsy on the college game every week. So NCAA HOCKEY 101 will run every Tuesday on Puck Daddy. Educate yo self.)
This year was the final one of conference realignment, as the UConn Huskies moved from Atlantic Hockey to Hockey East.
What you need to know about UConn is that they are kind of a team without a home, and in a serious state of transition. Their on-campus rink is tiny, cold, and doesn't seat enough people to meet Hockey East conference rules, meaning that even their home games are going to be played in rinks that aren't particularly close to the school: Hartford's XL Center (which is more or less their “home” rink), and Bridgeport's Webster Bank Arena (where they will play five games this year).
They're also just now getting up to the allowable 18 scholarships for players, which Hockey East requires, both in terms of the rules and for a team with designs on one day being competitive. The maximum in Atlantic Hockey was 12, but in order to comply with Title IX, the Huskies went without altogether.
UConn was a logical fit for Hockey East because now it is the league home to the flagship state schools of five of the six New England states (UMass Amherst, Maine, UNH, and Vermont being the others). But where it was not a logical fit was that, because it didn't have any scholarships at all, it was typically a doormat in Atlantic Hockey, which was already the weakest conference in the country. So what you have to understand is this was a huge, huge step.
Most people thought UConn was going to be a doormat in Hockey East as well, and they were right. This is a team with no real history, and thus the ability to recruit competitive players was and is going to be difficult for some time to come. Connecticut, fortunately, is a big hockey state, so the quality players that grow up there might, some day, have designs on playing for the hometown team.
But we're still a ways off from that, and there's a whole conference schedule to play. And it's a little bit fitting that the first game of its league slate, played last Wednesday, was against Boston College. The coach the program hired to lead it into the scholarship era, Mike Cavanaugh, was a long-time assistant at BC. UConn's president is a BC alum. One of the best players on the team this year is a transfer from BC. But the Eagles are still the Eagles, and UConn remains a program without its feet under it. Wednesday should have been a nice “Welcome to the league, sorry about a 4-1 loss,” moment.
Instead, the Huskies eked out a 1-0 win. It was, actually, pretty much the textbook definition of eking out a win. They were outshot 35-22, they gave up six power plays, they didn't score at even strength. But they won. And who scored the goal? BC transfer Evan Richardson. Meanwhile, sophomore goaltender Rob Nichols made 35 saves, and continued his strong season, which to that point saw his season save percentage rise to .938.
Unfortunately, the Huskies didn't have long to savor the victory, because on Saturday night they traveled to another traditional Hockey East power to take on BU. There, against all odds, they ground out a 4-4 tie behind two power play goals and a 30-save effort from Nichols, who has now already seen 292 shots in just nine appearances.
If you'd told anyone in Storrs that the Huskies would have three league points from four games, they would have said, “Well they're going to get them from Merrimack and Vermont, because there's no way they're getting results from BC and BU.” But here we are.
And how they're doing it is more or less tailored to the team's capabilities: The commitment to shot-blocking is off the charts. Through those nine games, the defense and forwards have gotten in front of 172 attempts, more than 19 per night. That's obviously best in the nation. And they've still allowed 311 shots, sixth-most in the country, and nearly 35 per night. Nichols is going to stay busy, but he's been great so far.
This is a team which Cavanaugh always had to know wasn't going to be able to compete talent-wise (they're outshot by about 11 per night, on average, even with all those blocks), but has achieved total buy-in on the system. Their “success,” such as it has been at 2-4-3, was always going to be minimal this year, but if they can get a few more results like these they'll feel good about it anyway.
Alaska faces huge sanctions
One of the biggest bits of news on the week came not on the ice but from on-high. The NCAA handed down massive, fairly draconian sanctions on the Alaska Nanooks due to infractions first discovered back in 2011.
The short story of it is this: Over the five-year period from 2007 to 2012, the team used ineligible players for a number of different reasons (six from 2007 to 2011 did not declare majors or didn't complete enough credits toward their degrees, and four from 2008 to 2012 were not enrolled in degree programs at all, but rather pre-degree programs). The NCAA stressed that the students themselves did nothing wrong, but their school certainly did.
(The long story is here, if you want to read it under “Summary of infraction details.”)
As a result of these infractions, which were self-reported to the NCAA when Alaska discovered the issue two years ago, all wins and stats the team piled up from 2007 to 2011, and the roughly 60 percent of games played in 2011-12, had to be vacated. That includes the 18-win team that went to the 2009-10 NCAA tournament, as well as current NHLer Chad Johnson's Hobey Baker-nominated 2008-09 season, in which he won only 14 of 35 games, but posted a .940 save percentage.
The team will also lose one scholarship for three years (though due to the self-reporting two years ago only has to do it for one, something like a time-served jail sentence), and cannot participate in the WCHA or NCAA postseason tournaments this year. The school is also on three years' probation.
Harsh, really. Other schools have self-reported NCAA infractions in recent years (though admittedly not to this extent; more often it was stuff like inappropriate contact with recruits, and so on) and gotten slaps on the wrist or the equivalent of an, “Okay, thanks for letting us know. Don't do it again.” But this is the NCAA we're talking about, and reasonable punishments aren't always going to be something you can expect.
ECAC coaches at it again
A thing that one can come to expect in certain situations is that, a) Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold will do something to draw the ire of an opposing coach, and b) Cornell coach Mike Schafer will find just about any reason at all to complain when his team loses.
These two conditions came to a wonderful confluence on Saturday night, when the Bobcats put down the Big Red 1-0.
One thing that apparently happened in the game was that Q star and Lightning draft pick Matthew Peca hit Cole Bardreau from behind, and got five and a game for his troubles. In an apparent effort to drive down the penalty assessed to arguably his best player, Pecknold told the refs he thought Bardreau was embellishing. This was not :classy” to Schafer's satisfaction, because Bardreau just last year had his neck broken, and his career almost ended, on just such a hit from behind (though against a different team).
Thus, Schafer and Pecknold got into a bit of a shouting match after the game, and Schafer then took some time at the start of his postgame presser to explain why (language not in any way safe for work):
“I guess my first comment is, and I want to be loud and clear, I thought what their coach did was like a classless [butt]hole. Kid gets hit headfirst into the boards, same kid that broke his neck, and he's calling for embellishment. You talk about respect in the game for our athletes on the ice. Show some integrity in the game. It pisses me off.
“We've been down here before and there was an issue a couple years ago in the playoffs where he ran the score up and apologized. Then he tries to apologize for the [poop] of trying to get an embellishment call on [a hit] headfirst into the boards. The kid's lucky he didn't break his neck. I guess that's how our sport will always continue.”
Schafer circled back to the topic a bit later:
“It had nothing to do with the players on the ice. It had everything to do with their head coach, screaming, asking for embellishment. If you wonder why guys were pissed at the end, at center ice, it's not the kids. They take the lead from us. So yeah, I contributed to it because I'm pissed off at their coach at the end of the game for being such an [butt]hole.”
For the record, the playoff game Schafer is talking about was Cornell's 10-0 loss to the Q in 2012-13, when the Bobcats were one of the best teams in the country and Cornell finished below .500.
At any rate, Schafer received a one-game suspension from the ECAC, which is deserved. (It also reminded me of a time last year where he was complaining to the media after some loss or another that his team, which got shutout, was only credited with 10 shots on goal or something like that. As though having 15 or something would have helped the situation. Anyway, Mike Schafer is annoying and does this kind of thing all the time.)
And the reason I bring up ECAC coaches being “at it again,” is that just 10 months ago, Union coach Rick Bennett and RPI coach Seth Appert got into it a bit after the Engineers upset the Dutchmen in the Mayor's Cup then celebrated like they won two Stanley Cups and a Super Bowl, instead of a regular-season game in January. Cut to 40 seconds of this video:
Wisconsin is a disaster
You know Wisconsin, right? Like, NCAA powerhouse Wisconsin. Have 15 former players in the NHL this season Wisconsin. Seven drafted players on the team Wisconsin. Won 24 games last year Wisconsin.
Yeah, they're 0-6 to start the year, and that's actually one of the kinder stats I could tell you about them. Their leading goalscorer is undrafted defenseman Chase Drake. He has two. Just five other guys are tied with one. Seven goals in six games. Yessir, that's bad. But it's also bad when you consider they have just 130 shots, or 21.7 a night.
Another bad stat is that they've allowed 20. On just 178 shots. That's an .888 team save percentage, which falls entirely on the shoulders of Joel Rumpel (who by the way was great last year at .929). Backup Landon Peterson was 30 of 31 in his one appearance this year. Maybe try going back to him.
And these games they've lost. Woof. Okay, you get swept by North Dakota, fair enough. But losses to Alaska and Anchorage? Swept by Northern Michigan at home? Gee whiz.
Now, to be fair, they started out pretty badly last year at 4-5-1 including giving up 16 goals in 120 minutes to BC and BU, then went 20-6-1 the rest of the way. Tough to see that happening right now though. Maybe they beat Colorado College in their next game a week and a half from now. They might get a bounce or two.
A word on great records in weaker conferences
Last week someone sent me a message asking why I hadn't referenced what was, at that point, a 5-0-1 record for Northern Michigan. Being 5-0-1 is, of course, a noteworthy achievement even if it is early in the season, and even if Northern played a pretty soft schedule (Wisconsin, Lake State, and Alabama-Huntsville) to get there.
So here is basically my policy on thinking teams from the WCHA and Atlantic Hockey are any good: I never believe it.
Every year, two or three teams from these weak conferences are going to finish with something in the neighborhood of 20-plus wins, and it will be shallow. They might sneak into the NCAA tournament because of all those wins, and because both conference's postseason champions get automatic bids, but they're not going to do very well there.
Right now, some of the best teams in the nation — on paper anyway — are in these conferences. The only two undefeated teams left are Michigan Tech and Robert Morris, which are a combined 15-0-1. Northern is now 6-1-1. Bowling Green is 7-2-1. Minnesota State is 7-3. The reason for this is that these teams tend to play easy schedules from October to February, and those that can play well, have some talent, and get good coaching are going to have success.
The only thing that will convince me these teams are actually going to be capable of winning games against legitimate NCAA-caliber teams is when they do it. Bowling Green split with Miami? Fair enough, but do it for more than one weekend. Minnesota State split with Duluth? Good stuff, show me more.
It's not that these teams can't be good — Minnesota State last year seemed perfectly legitimate to me, and gave a more pedigreed Lowell team a pretty good first-round game in the NCAA tournament before losing — but if you want me to care deeply about their records, you're out of luck.
An somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?
1. Minnesota (swept Notre Dame)
2. North Dakota (swept Wisconsin)
3. UMass Lowell (took three points from Northeastern)
4. Boston University (beat BC, tied UConn)
5. Michigan Tech (swept Alaska Anchorage)
6. Nebraska-Omaha (swept Ohio State)
7. Vermont (swept Maine)
8. Miami (swept Colorado College)
9. Minnesota State (swept Bemidji)
10. Boston College (lost to UConn and BU)