NCAA Hockey 101: It's the Year of the Underdog

Ryan Lambert
October 30, 2009

Hockey 101 is a weekly feature on U.S. Division I college hockey. Stick around and you just might learn a thing or two.

College hockey, like college football or basketball I guess, is usually about traditionally strong schools winning a lot, and schools that are traditionally weak, or even middle-of-the-road pretty much winning nothing.

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Of the 58 teams in college hockey, only 18 have won national titles since the NCAA tournament began in 1948, and only 10 have won three or more. Michigan has nine, Denver and North Dakota have won seven each, Wisconsin has won six, and BU and Minnesota have each won five.

But things just feel different so far this year.

Merrimack, which has to have one of the worst records in college hockey over the last 10 years, went out to North Dakota and didn't look out of its depth, then came back home and won four straight, including demolishing No. 7 Vermont 5-2 last week. Lake Superior, a doormat the last two years with 21 combined wins, already has four wins in six games. Quinnipiac, which finished a mediocre 18-18-3, is off to a 3-0-0 start including a sweep of Ohio State in Columbus.

Minnesota, meanwhile, has 20 players on its roster that have been drafted by NHL teams, including 11 from the first three rounds and four first-round picks. Those Golden Gophers are 0-3-1. Boston University, the reigning national champion, has 14 players drafted with one first-rounder. They're 1-2-0. Last week I mentioned that Notre Dame was struggling to start the season, and they lost their only game of the weekend to drop to 3-3-0. The team that beat them was also the team that beat them in the 2008 national title game, Boston College, which is sitting on a weak 1-1-0 record. UNH, too, is just 2-2-1 with some ugly losses and soft wins.

These are obviously not normal results.

Last year, BU was just smashing its opponents, scoring 33 goals in seven games Minnesota didn't lose a game until Nov. 22, when they were already 7-0-4.

So what's the problem? It seems as though this year has been more about defense than offense, and slick, talented teams getting outworked by teams that are more willing to take a game to street level along the boards and in the corners. Minnesota has been shutout in all three of its losses, two of which came at home to a big, physical and mean Denver team. BU has five goals to show from three games, including a loss to UMass and what was by all accounts a very uninspired win against Michigan (that only ended as a win, and not something worse, because of a puck-handling miscue by the Wolverine goalie).

Perhaps powerhouse teams think they'll have it as easy as they did last year, when they skipped through games with a carefree ease and were hardly ever under any threat to lose to teams they "should beat." But college hockey isn't like college football, where Florida can beat West Virginia State Technical College or something 178-0 and finish with a one-loss season for the 46th year in a row.

Hockey is the sport where large talent gaps between teams are most easily closed by hard work. Maybe it's just taking some teams awhile to figure that out.

Homework: Attention college hockey bloggers

What I'd like to do this week is see if I can get everyone with a college hockey blog to email me with a link to their blog.

I'm sure there have to be a ton of college hockey blogs out there (I know mostly Hockey East ones due to my background), and I'd like to get a bit of a blogroll going so I can start a college version of Puck Headlines in this space beginning next week.

It might help you and it will certainly help me. Let's get on that.

Extra credit

• You don't see it so much in the pros, but college hockey has more than a few goaltender rotations every year. It's been very successful for a number of teams. But it's not too often that you see a three-goalie rotation. Quinnipiac, though, has used each of its goalies in one game this year and to great effect. Dan Clarke's rocking a 1.00 GAA and a .978 save percentage, Mathieu Cadieux has a 1.94 GAA and a .926 save percentage, and Eric Hartzall's got a GAA of 2.01 and a save percentage of .938. All three are 1-0. Clarke is the most experienced of the group as a sophomore. The other two are just freshmen.

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• BU will be without star forward Nick Bonino for the next month or so after he separated his shoulder against Michigan last week. That loss could hurt even more when BU and No. 9 Lowell play a home-and-home this weekend in a rematch of last year's controversial Hockey East title game.

• You know it's finally, officially college hockey season when even the ECAC -- which traditionally starts about a month after everyone else for Ivy League-related reasons I don't fully understand -- gets its league schedule underway. The best matchup between two ECAC teams, though, is non-league as No. 7 Yale visits No. 11 Princeton in the Ivy Showdown. Harvard vs. Darthmouth is the only in-league game of the weekend.

• Two Hockey East players lead the nation in points per game right now. UMass forward James Marcou has a goal and seven assists in three games so far, and UNH defenseman Blake Kessel (yes, Phil's little brother, and I know it's weird seeing "Kessel" and "defense" in the same sentence) has 10 points in four games. The two are tied for the national lead in assists with Colorado College's Bill Sweatt.

• Marc Cheverie has had one bad game and three really good ones. The Denver goaltender has three shutouts in four games this year, but still has a GAA of 1.00.

Ryan Lambert and writes about college hockey weekly here at Puck Daddy. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.