Between the Lines: First-half Review
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
It's been a time for a little break, the semi-fun, semi-serious holiday tournaments notwithstanding.
Many fans took this time to spread some holiday cheer, and digest their stuffing. And, admittedly, College Hockey News, to an extent, did the same.
So let's take this time to recap the last couple of weeks, and the first half of the season in general.
• The news off the ice has not been all that Earth shattering, though Minnesota has had to handle a bit of tumult thanks to the aggressive (over-eager?) investigative journalism of a local FOX News station. And Maine had to deal with a police incident with some of its players.
And the future of the CHA remains in doubt, hanging like an albatross around the neck of not only that conference, but all of college hockey. Will the CHA even exist if it can't find a new sixth team soon? Where in the world can that team possibly come from?
But those are things to ponder for a little bit later. Right now, the issue is simply about the interesting machinations on the ice, where the first half was clearly dominated by Wisconsin. Championships aren't won in October, or even December, but the Badgers certainly have all the pieces in places to make a good run for it.
• The Badger Showdown was not exactly a big test of Wisconsin's abilities, but it ran roughshod over its two opponents, Northern Michigan and Western Michigan. Essentially, it was business as usual, with Brian Elliott recording two low-key one-goal games in net, and Robbie Earl and Joe Pavelski continuing their offensive production. Only Colorado College has a realistic chance to catch the Badgers for first in the WCHA regular season, and those two teams will hook up on Jan. 13-14, which are the next games for both teams.
• Minnesota also had lower-half teams to face in its tournament, and won it, though the Gophers did get a scare from Massachusetts-Lowell. Playing without the likes of Blake Wheeler and Phil Kessel due to their participation in the World Junior tournament, Minnesota still had Hobey candidate Ryan Potulny to help run the show. Potulny scored three more times, including two goals in the championship game that keyed a three-goal comeback against Lowell. Despite some early-season ups and downs, Minnesota is still within striking distance of a national championship.
• Denver was missing some players to the World Juniors, but it doesn't really explain losses to Princeton and Ferris State in its own tournament. Coach George Gwozdecky just thought his team was flat. Denver's WCHA record is still strong at 8-4, but at 3-5 out of league, it's getting a little late to keep brushing this off to just the usual "getting acquainted with each other" period. Giving up 45 shots to Ferris State is another red flag.
• North Dakota was another team missing key cogs to the World Juniors as it split a pair of home games with Harvard over the holidays. The Sioux had to hold on to win that second game, however, getting outshot 30-23. Despite their own ups and downs, there are plenty of positives for the Sioux. Drew Stafford is scoring a lot right now, and is up to 14 goals, and Rusty Spirko has stepped right back in after an injury and ignited things, already scoring six goals. Youth is destined to continue to play havoc with the Sioux's consistency, but with goalie Jordan Parise playing well and scoring coming from many areas, North Dakota, like last year, can be dangerous if it can get to the NCAA's.
• Chris Collins had three goals in the Denver tournament, including two in a 5-1 win over Princeton in the final, giving him 15 for the season. If Boston College can continue to get consistent offensive contributions from Collins, Brian Boyle and Dan Bertram, it has a great chance to make noise in the second half. But there's something still a bit disconcerting about Hockey East in general. Providence continues to impress, and hold its own after a fast start, winning its tournament from before Christmas. But it still wouldn't figure to have the horses to survive any sort of national race. New Hampshire and Maine seemed poised for strong seasons, but have had too many ups and downs lately. After a hot start, Maine has cooled off considerably, and just got bounced, 4-1, by Duluth in the Florida tournament first round. The Wildcats were also playing well, but have now gone 2-4-2 in the last eight, and are coming off a 6-2 loss to Niagara in their only game from over the holidays. Two games at home against Vermont this weekend will go a long way towards telling where both teams are headed down the stretch. Vermont is coming off back-to-back shutouts of Dartmouth and Clarkson, behind Joe Fallon, in its tournament. The wins helped HEA close the gap a bit on the ECAC, which had been leading the season race. It now stands at 13-12-1 in favor of the ECAC. The ECAC hasn't won the season series over Hockey East since 1997.
• At the Ohio Hockey Classic, Miami and Ohio State settled little, playing to a 1-1 tie (for the books) in the championship game. More importantly, if Ohio State — the preseason CCHA No. 1 pick — wants to catch the current first-place team, Miami, its last hope to do so may come next Tuesday. The teams play then, and one other Tuesday later in the year, and the Buckeyes would need to win both to have any chance at all.
• The ECAC has a very solid top six, and who will win the league is anyone's guess. Harvard is currently on top, but has played many more games than the others. Dartmouth is sixth, but dangerous. First place will probably come down to the other four — Colgate, Cornell, St. Lawrence, Clarkson. How about that? Just like old times with the four upstate NY travel partners. But because they don't possess the dominant talent of other schools, those teams are still prone to frustrating losses from time to time. St. Lawrence had one to Bowling Green, though maybe credit should go to Bowling Green, which just defeated Colgate. On the other hand, that's a couple ugly losses in a row for Colgate, after a tremendous start. With the real Raiders please stand up. It remains to be seen whether these glitches snowball into something that spoils what could be fine seasons for all of them.
• The most high-profile tournament of the holidays was the Great Lakes Invitational, but it turned into a show for the interlopers. Colorado College dominated, blitzing Michigan — which has four players at the World Juniors — in the opener, then similarly walking over Michigan State in the final. Michigan Tech had one-goal leads against both MSU and Michigan heading into the third period, but lost both games. Joey Crabb emerged during the tournament for CC, scoring three goals and recording 19 shots. The senior gives the Tigers another option down the stretch. Michigan is a team to watch in the second half. If goalie Billy Sauer can hold up, and if Jack Johnson can keep his head together, then the talent remains for the Wolverines to put it all together.