NCAA Hockey 101: Will top powers come together in time?

NCAA Hockey 101: Will top powers come together in time?

(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.)  

One thing you can set your watch to in college hockey is that Boston College and Michigan are going to be good pretty much every year.

That really hasn't been the case so far this season; the Eagles are a game above .500 at 8-7-1, and Michigan recently needed a spate of games against some serious cupcakes (AIC, RPI, Ohio State) to get to the, ahem, lofty record of 8-6. It has, understandably, been something of a headscratcher for the college hockey punditry. How could two teams with so much talent on paper, and such quality coaching staffs, be so deeply mediocre?

Is it just one of those things that can happen when you've only played 14 or 16 games? Or is it indicative of deeper problems? The answer, unfortunately for both the teams in question and observers trying to figure it out, is “both.”

From a purely analytical standpoint, BC is just about where it should be (.531 winning percentage based on a goals-for rate of 52.8 and shots-for of 51.4), and mainly because the defense has flatly not been as good as advertised. In theory, the Eagles' defense should be dominant, as it features three draft picks, a kid who's probably a top-five pick in the coming draft, and solid depth.

They're backed by the excellent Thatcher Demko, a Canucks second-rounder with a career .920 save percentage. This should be one of the best defenses in the country, but Devils prospect Steve Santini has played just four games this year, former Panthers first-rounder Michael Matheson has been out to lunch rather a bit, and Noah Hanifin has often played like what he is: the second-youngest player in the country.

Meanwhile, there's just no scoring from this Eagles team. Not that they were ever going to do what Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Billy Arnold did last year, but BC has the 23rd-best offense in the country right now in terms of goals per game, and they're currently being led in scoring by undrafted, unremarkable defenseman Teddy Doherty. This despite five forwards on the roster having been picked in the first four rounds of past NHL drafts, and a few more who came into the year looking like they'd be another in a series of prototypical BC “dominant college players who aren't great pro prospects” (Barry Almeida, Brock Bradford, Matt Lombardi, etc.).

BC always has at least one player who scores a point per game for the whole season. At this point, someone would need to go on a second-half rampage to even get close.

But things do seem to be evening themselves out somewhat, as the Eagles have won four of their last seven and tied one more. However, that was all against some pretty soft competition, and sandwiched in between was a 6-2 home thrashing at the hands of Minnesota, and a 1-0 road loss to Providence.

And out in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines find themselves in much the same boat? Talented, yes, but woefully underperforming. And unlike BC, this is for the second year in a row (they only won 18 last season).

Their issues aren't quite the same, though. They're scoring nearly 4.1 goals per game, which is a number that should be good enough to win you more than a few contests, obviously. But where the Wolverines are falling down is in net, and you might be able to say that literally. Oilers draft pick Zach Nagelvoort was revelatory in his first season, going .929 and papering over a lot of the team's larger problems. This year, he has been the problem. A .908 save percentage just isn't going to get it done, and the fact that he was hurt in the early part of the season, giving Steve Racine (.882) more time than he ever should have received, really put the team behind the 8-ball. Tough to say whether Nagelvoort is still battling that injury, though.

If he can get healthy/not-terrible — and he's .941 in his last five games — and Michigan can keep scoring, there's no reason this team couldn't rain hell on everyone down the stretch. They've already won five of their last six.

Not that it gets any easier for either team any time soon. After they, rather coincidentally, play each other on Saturday, both are off to easy Christmas tournaments, and then get a pretty easy crop of conference games on the other side of break. It's probably a little late in the game to give either a chance to be truly elite this season, but both seem quite capable of making a solid enough case for themselves that they become NCAA tournament teams.

Maybe no one's really great

This has been rather an odd season in terms of no teams really doing a lot to stand out from the field. As mentioned in this space before, there are a few teams that are clearly head and shoulders above the rest, but which seem intent on tripping along the way in an effort to keep things a little fair. To that end, six different teams across the country received votes for the No. 1 overall spot, which is currently occupied by North Dakota. 

Polls, as ever, are stupid and typically pointless, but they at least serve to illustrate just how jumbled the top of the country has been. This is NoDak's second straight week atop the polls, and before that, BU occupied the No. 1 slot. Seven days prior it was Michigan Tech, and before that it was Minnesota. The Gophers at least had the dignity to hold that slot for a month prior to stumbling from it.

It's hard to say that North Dakota is in fact the best team in the country this season. They're winning a lot, but it seems to be thanks to luck at the attacking end of the ice more than anything else. Scoring 58 goals in 17 games, and on just 538 shots? I'd expect that to come down.

But who replaces them? Minnesota has to figure out how to score at 5-on-5 at some point, right? Maybe BU cobbles together some depth (more on that below)? Could Harvard keep roughing up the ECAC? Obviously it's hard to say, but right now there's no definitive favorite for the national title. Hasn't been that way in a while.

Hockey East at the break

Along the same lines as above, I wanted to note how weird Hockey East has been this year. BC's not great, okay, fine, it happens sometimes. But the rest of the conference has been downright bizarre as well. 

Lowell and BU sit tied atop the league with 16 points each, having lost a combined one conference game between them in 19 tries (BU lost to Providence on Nov. 1). The River Hawks have 37 goals in nine games, the Terriers 38 in 10. For its part, third-place Vermont has 37 in 11. And no one else has more than BC's 24. Providence is fourth in the conference with just 18 goals in 10 games. Just strange.

And the thing is, Lowell and BU are very flawed teams, as I've discussed previously. The goaltending and defense in Lowell has left a lot to be desired, but they keep winning. Basically no one besides the Jack Eichel line is scoring for BU at 5-on-5, but it doesn't matter at all, because Eichel has 25 points in 15 games, all but six of which have been at evens.

This is a league that's typically going to produce between four and six NCAA tournament teams in a given season, and this year that number might be as little as three; the entire league is garbage out-of-conference (33-34-5, .493).

Obviously the top of the league has been a lot better than it should be, and the bottom has probably been a little worse. But if everyone meets in the middle as the season wears on, where does that leave what is typically the nation's most dominant conference?

Robert Morris running away with it

And finally we come to Atlantic Hockey, the league I talk about least because it is the one with the worst winning percentage of the six by far (.435, and .261 against non-league teams).

Usually, there are two or three teams fighting it out near the top of the conference, but this year, there's only one worth talking about. The Colonials of Robert Morris University basically have the league's autobid locked up already, with dominant possession numbers (54.9 percent), a huge goal differential (plus-29 in 14 games), and a 10-1-3 record overall. They've played just two OOC games so far, but they didn't lose either one, making them the only team in Atlantic Hockey with a non-conference record of better than .500.

Dalton Izyk and Terry Shafer are splitting time respectably enough for them, as the team has a combined .931 save percentage, one of the best numbers in the country. They also have a pretty solid core group of scorers, as seven have already crested double digits, and Cody Wydo's 21 points makes him one of the top scorers in the nation.

There's really little reason to suspect that anyone in the AHA can really slow them down or catch up to them, just based on a quick look at the numbers. It's strange to say they probably have an NCAA spot locked up already, but they probably do.

At least, it would take a huge misstep for them to not-make it at this point.

A 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.     North Dakota (swept Lake Superior)

2.     Harvard (beat Princeton and Quinnipiac)

3.     Boston University (took three points from Merrimack)

4.     Minnesota (took three points from Michigan State)

5.     UMass Lowell (beat UConn and Maine)

6.     Minnesota State (split with Alaska)

7.     Miami (split with Omaha)

8.     Minnesota Duluth (swept Colorado College)

9.     Denver (split with Cornell)

10.  Michigan Tech (idle) 

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is hereand his Twitter is here