NCAA Hockey 101 is a weekly feature on U.S. Division I college hockey. Stick around and you just might learn a thing or two.
I have to admit that this time two weeks ago, I was a little incredulous. Tiny little Bemidji State had given everyone a reason to cheer for them last year when they tore through the NCAA tournament to become the first team from their tiny little four-team conference to make the Frozen Four. That was a very nice little story.
But did they deserve to be No. 6 in the country? It seemed a little silly to me. Sure they'd split with a subpar Minnesota team and that's a name that -- unfairly or not -- still has some sway around college hockey, but the Beavers hadn't really beaten anyone of note.
They only had one loss in 12 games, but they'd barely played anyone of note (sorry, Robert Morris fans, it's true) and that loss was to the so-so Gophers.
Then they proved me wrong.
On Nov. 27 they stunned No. 1 Miami, the team that beat them in the NCAA semifinals last season, 3-2. Of course, the next night they lost 2-1 in overtime to unranked but strong Ohio State, but still -- the Beavers proved they are a "for-real" team. That weekend opened a lot of eyes and they jumped to No. 5 in the country then swept Niagara, outscoring the Purple Eagles 11-4.
It's been a pretty upside down and very odd first half of the season in college hockey, but perhaps nothing is odder than these Beavers having scored 62 goals and conceded just 28 (the nation's stingiest goals allowed per game) for the best goal differential in the country.
Led by a pair of forwards -- junior Matt Read and freshman Jordan George -- who have 42 combined points in 16 games, and sophomore goalie Dan Bakala whose stats are a ridiculous 1.73/.935, the Beavers have skyrocketed to a 13-2-1 record. With only a handful of remaining opponents that aren't considerably worse than them, it's getting increasingly more difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Beavers will lose more than four more games the rest of the season.
It's pretty obvious by now that they've earned their No. 4 ranking. They will easily make the NCAA tournament this year and will be just the second (and last) College Hockey America team of all time to win 30 games.
Plus, no one on the corner has swagger like the Beavers.
In which I ask a blogger five questions about the team they follow. This week I shot an e-mail to Mike McMahon, who covers Merrimack for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune and runs the excellent, comprehensive Warrior Rink Rat blog to find out his thoughts on the Warriors' recent slump and Hockey East in general. Here's how that went:
Why have the Warriors dropped off so suddenly after a hot start?
First and foremost, obviously, is that the schedule got tougher. When they started the season 6-3-0, half of those wins were against Holy Cross, Army and UConn. Granted, they did beat Vermont, Boston University and Boston College, too, but the schedule in league is tougher than the AHA opponents they had in NC. They also went through a stretch where the defense was downright horrendous. They had a stretch of four losses in late Oct., early Nov. where they averaged 3.5 goals per game.
C'mon, 3.5 goals per game and you go 0-4 in that stretch? Tells you how poor the defense was. Although they did rebound a bit -- only allowed three goals last weekend to Northeastern but split the pair.
Give me a scale of 1-to-10 on the job Mark Dennehy has done this year.
I'd give him an 8. The real comparison is to look at the team he inherited in 2004-05 (1-22-1 in HE play) and now four years later, this is truly the first team that is all his. These are all guys he brought into the program - no leftovers. In terms of raw skill, this might be the best team they've had since joining HE. It's certainly the best team in the last 10 years. These are his guys and they're buying into his system. It's still a long way to being complete, but this is the first season in which they've taken a significant step forward.
Are you surprised at the overall lack of quality from the defenses and goaltending in Hockey East this year (BC's HE defense is the best in the league at 2.64 goals allowed/game)?
Surprisingly, no. Don't get me wrong, I didn't see this coming, but once you look at it and take a step back, it's not surprising. There's a lot of underclassmen in net. Joe Cannata, Rob Madore, Scott Darling, Alex Beaudry, Chris Rawlings and Kieran Millan are all starters (or split-starters) and are all either freshmen or sophomores. John Muse is a junior but coming off hip surgery. You combine that with some potent offensive clubs, and these young kids tend to struggle.
What's a legitimate expectation for Merrimack's league finish this year?
Anywhere from fifth to 10th in Hockey East. They've played well but with everyone so bunched up, they could still find themselves out of the playoffs. In comparison to years' past, they can beat anyone on any night. Consistency is the key. They also have to use their scoring as a luxury and not get into these run-and-gun shootouts with teams, because while they can score, I'm not sure they have enough firepower to be in shootouts every night.
We know about the Stephane Da Costas and Chris Bartons, but who's the unsung hero on this Warrior team?
I'm a big Adam Ross fan. He's a 6-foot-4 defenseman who seems to block 30 shots per game and staples guys to the boards. Pat Bowen is another guy who doesn't get talked about enough -- he has 10 points in 14 games as a defenseman -- he's really stepped up his game, logging big minutes and has been a tremendous power-play player for them.
• With BU still struggling, Kat Hasenauer wonders what it would be like if Jack Parker consulted Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, to fix the Terriers' numerous problems. And if things get really bad, they might be able to get him to play goal. He can't do any worse than that other Millan they've got. [...On Being a Sports Girl]
• Speaking of Bemidji, it looks like Mankato isn't taking them all that seriously: the Mavs are giving their freshman goalie his first career start tonight against the Beavers. [PucKato]
• Denver won another big fight for a top-flight recruit, getting a commitment from Zac Larraza of the US Under 17 team. They beat out teams like BC, Michigan, and Michigan State. [Let's Go DU]
• Miami and Ohio State this weekend should be pretty good. Well, maybe. The RedHawks have only lost one of their last 10 against the Buckeyes. [The Brotherhood]
• Nice to see Western Michigan get back on track after almost a month of losing, beating No. 12 Alaska 3-1. [Michigan College Hockey]
• Goalie Brett Bennett, a big key to Wisconsin's success this year, got hurt in practice earlier this week. That's real bad news for the Badgers, especially ahead of a weekend at North Dakota. [Madison.com]
(Hey guys, I'm always looking for links here. If you have a college hockey post on your blog, please send it along to the address below.)