(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.)
Last weekend's North Star College Cup — or, let's be honest, Minnesota Beanpot — featured four teams this year, all playing at different levels.
Clearly top of the heap and the heavy favorite was No. 1 Minnesota State, riding high in its admittedly weak conference and brushing aside nearly all foes this season with relative ease. They are one of the most dominant teams in college hockey over the last three years or so.
A little farther back, you'd have to say, were No. 7 Minnesota Duluth and No. 17 Minnesota. Both very good on paper, both having a little more trouble than you'd probably expect, and in this regard Minnesota might have even been farther back in terms of public perception (and certainly the polls, which as always are stupid) if not actual performance. Personally, I prefer the Gophers to the Bulldogs, but people are always going to look at “wins!” as the ultimate arbiter of team quality.
Definitively in last place for this four-team field, however, was Bemidji State. The Beavers may be beloved in many corners of the country thanks to that improbable Frozen Four run a few years ago, but the success there is a distant memory now; they're a lowly 7-12-3 this season, even if the underlying numbers (50 percent goals for, and 52.8 percent shots for) indicate they should be better than that. Even taking the possession numbers into account — and even if you skew them for the fact that they trail more often than not and play in a poor conference, where they're still only 5-8-3 — you'd have to say that this unequivocally was the team that was going to get pummeled first by Duluth in the opening round, then whichever team lost the Minnesota/Minnesota State game the next night.
So of course Bemidji won the damn thing.
Friday, they beat Duluth 4-0, then Saturday they beat Minnesota State 3-1. Yup, they went 7-1 on aggregate for the weekend against the Nos. 7 and 1 teams in the country, with freshman Michael Bitzer (.909 in 13 games before this weekend) stopping 53 of 54, and all 42 he saw at even strength. Five different guys scored the goals, with Gerry Fitzgerald and Kyle Bauman the only two to strike twice.
And yeah, of course, they got pushed around in both games at 5-on-5, as you'd expect: 36-22 versus Duluth, and 44-32 versus Mankato. For a team of this caliber, going 80-52 (39.4 percent) sounds about right given their quality of competition. But with that having been said, it couldn't matter less.
Two wins are two wins, especially for a team struggling this badly to get them this season. That they were against two of the teams adjudged by media types to be among the seven best in the country headed into that weekend is massive and cool and nice for the Beavers. That they also get a trophy out of the deal is even better.
Hopefully, and I'm not particularly counting on it, this is the kind of thing that can propel Bemidji forward. They're in a deep hole in their rather poor conference but basically everyone else is bad enough that their sound fundamental process can net them several more wins in the WCHA. They still train Mankato, and Michigan Tech, and Bowling Green by insurmountable point totals (and they play all three in the next six weeks), but edging ahead of Ferris is certainly possible, especially given that the teams play each other on the penultimate weekend of the season.
That said, it might just be too late for them. In which case this is a nice little accomplishment in an otherwise tough season.
But the worst team in the field already won this tournament, which instantly makes it more interesting than the stupid Beanpot.
Why is Lowell slipping?
One of the few teams that has looked pretty strong for more or less the entirety of the season is finally starting to slide back into the morass of a hyper-competitive conference.
As UMass Lowell moves toward February, it carries one of the worst losing skids it has seen in years; the River Hawks have dropped four of the last five games, all to conference opponents, after starting the year 14-3-3. It went from undefeated in Hockey East (9-0-1) to having four losses in the space of three weeks, with only a win against a deeply poor Maine club mixed in to break up the otherwise dismal run.
But you could say, with a large amount of certainty in fact, that this was probably always coming for Lowell. They started the year with 31 of a possible 40 points, despite the fact that they lost four of their top six scorers, including current Minnesota Wild defenseman Christian Folin. They also lost the best goalie in recent memory in college hockey, Connor Hellebuyck (.946 save percentage in 53 career games) to Winnipeg's system, and he's already a legitimate AHL All-Star.
They have 14 freshmen on the roster, including two goalies, meaning lots of inexperienced players are being forced into big roles. But those netminders haven't played the bulk of Lowell's minutes this year: junior transfer Kevin Boyle has (.896 in two seasons with UMass).
And yet they won. But it was because basically every bounce went their way for the first three months of the season: They outscored their opponents in those first 20 games 78 to 48 (61.9 percent), and only outshot them 617 to 560 (52.4 percent). Their PDO in all situations was 104.1. With a career .896 guy being the most proven of their three goalies, and more than a dozen freshmen on the roster.
And so you might have expected a drop-off. Many Lowell fans are saying the goaltending is catching up with them, and that's certainly how it appears when you give up 15 goals in your last three games. But here's the thing: their possession numbers are chugging along pretty convincingly after they were woefully outshot for the first part of the season. The problem overall is the fact that they're taking more penalties — something they did at one of the lowest rates in the country — and their save percentage when they're on the penalty kill has absolutely hit the skids.
Over their last five games, the River Hawks are allowing one goal on every three shots the opposition takes when they're down a man. The number of shots they're allowing really isn't changing very much, but when 1 in 3 shots is finding the back of the net, you're in trouble.
The other issue is that their goaltending this year doesn't have the same baseline level as last season, when Hellebuyck was the best goalie in the country by a mile. Back then, the team's save percentage occasionally dropped this low on the PK, but what they were doing at even strength was at a much higher level, and it therefore didn't matter as much.
Now, I've seen Lowell's last three games, in which they've conceded eight goals out of their 14 allowed, not counting ENGs, on the PK. This penalty kill has been atrocious, and it's not just goaltenders fanning on shots. Boyle's big problem, all season, has been the fact that he cannot control rebounds, nor can he absorb the first shot. These crucial goaltending talents seem to escape him altogether. But at even strength, it doesn't matter because Lowell's defensive system is to collapse like a house of cards in a hurricane, and the defense excels at taking away any hope of a second-chance opportunity for teams at 5-on-5.
When they're down a man, though, you can clearly see that this becomes far more difficult, and thus if Lowell isn't diligent in lifting sticks, blocking shots, clearing out the front of the net, and winning draws when they're shorthanded, they're going to get clobbered and have stretches that look like this. There's no Hellebuyck, who seems to have been born getting square to every shot he sees, to bail them out.
The good news for Lowell is that, apart from a single game at home against lethal BU, they're playing Merrimack and UMass Amherst for five of their next six games. These are teams currently ranked 35th and 44th in the country in efficiency on the man advantage, with talent levels to match those rankings. If these games don't get them out of the funk, nothing will.
Penn State goes off
Finally, I want to talk about something that is hilarious to me. You know that corsi-related panic where stats-phobic people are like, “Well then why don't you just shoot the puck every time you come over the blue line?”
That's what Penn State does in actual practice. Despite the fact that they don't have the talent level of most other teams in college hockey (that's what only having two years of actually being a Div. 1 program will do for you), they lead the nation in shots on goal with 963 in just 23 games this season (41.9 per game). They understandably also concede a pretty decent amount (710, or 30.9 per) but if you don't have the talent level, that's certainly going to go a long way toward helping you win.
This past weekend in a pair of home games, the Nittany Lions took their strategy to its logical extreme. Playing Northern Michigan, a team playing without its head coach due to his having been placed on administrative leave and which doesn't have positive possession numbers to begin with, they really drew some blood in attack.
Final goals for the weekend were 10-9 to the hosts, who won and tied. Final shots, 117-59 also to the hosts. Final shot attempts at even-strength, 146-83.
In fact, in all situations for Saturday's OT game, Penn State out-attempted Northern 117-45. In 65 minutes of hockey. I cannot begin to understand that number. It made the 85-56 difference the night before look like a joke.
If this team had any type of goaltending, it would be one of the best in the country.
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?)
North Dakota (swept Colorado College)
BU (swept at Vermont)
Minnesota State (beat Minnesota, lost to Bemidji)
Miami (split with Denver)
Minnesota Duluth (lost to Bemidji, beat Minnesota)
Michigan (swept at Wisconsin)
Harvard (lost at Cornell, won at Colgate)
UMass Lowell (swept by Providence)
Denver (split at Miami)
Boston College (beat Merrimack, won at UConn)
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