Between the Lines
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
If the season ended today (don't you just love that phrase) — among other things — Hockey East would only have one team in the NCAA tournament. This, of course, assumes Boston College wins the HEA tournament, which it will at this rate.
Boston College, riding a nation's best 9-game unbeaten streak, has proven itself to once again be the head of the class in Hockey East. And coach Jerry York's recent well-deserved contract extension bears out the Eagles' ability to consistently remain in the national spotlight. The problem is, there is no one else even in that class. Everyone else seems to have taken an incomplete.
It wasn't that long ago Hockey East had three teams in the Frozen Four. Last season, BC and UNH advanced in the tournament — BC barely getting by Mercyhurst, and UNH defeating Harvard in OT before losing to Denver. BU got trounced by North Dakota. Maine lost to Minnesota at Mariucci.
This season, both Maine and New Hampshire had promising starts, but have staggered. BU has won four in a row, but has a long way to go to prove it can consistently win. Vermont started out great, but has not yet proven capable of defeating the top teams in Hockey East. Providence has had an impressive comeback season with first-year coach Tim Army, but still hangs outside the NCAA bubble. All five of those teams are in a pack just on the outside, and any one or two of them can surely still make it.
But it's nevertheless another troubling sign for the conference, and for Eastern hockey as a whole. The trend that started about five years ago just continues to pick up steam instead of reversing. And the top recruiting classes continue to go to Western schools.
This doesn't mean Eastern schools are doing a poor job — in fact, the ECAC, for example, has actually strengthened, as a whole, in recent years. It's moreso the confluence of positive coaching changes; and new, attractive, luxurious facilities that have given the West the edge.
Amazing what a difference a week makes.
The injury to Wisconsin goalie Brian Elliott has blown the WCHA race, and the national rankings, wide open.
Interesting that when the season started, many wondered whether Elliott could reliably fill the skates of departing netminder Bernd Bruckler. So all he did was backbone the nation's top team — and perhaps the most dominant regular-season team since the 1996-97 Michigan Wolverines — to an 18-2-2 record.
Then, a teammate ran into his knee during practice, and set him back 3-4 weeks.
And Wisconsin goes out and gets swept at home by Denver.
Now, getting swept by Denver isn't the worst thing in the world, but the way Wisconsin had been just steamrolling past everyone, it certainly was disconcerting at the very least.
Badgers coach Mike Eaves was not overreacting following Saturday's loss, saying his team will learn from the experience. But he did acknowledge that losing Elliott causes and adjustment, and not just in the obvious ways. Yes, untested freshman Shane Connelly had to step in, but there's also the mental impact of players who might think they have to play differently to protect their goalie.
"He did himself proud for jumping into a big series," Eaves told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "Friday, we didn't score any goals, and their goalie actually stole the game. On Saturday, they got three power-play goals."
You have to think Wisconsin will respond, and it better. Red hot Minnesota comes to town this weekend. It's hard to believe Wisconsin's tremendous overall play is so fragile as to blow up just because Elliott went down, no matter how good he is and how unproven Connelly is. At the very least, it won't allow them to get complacent after having beaten up on the Gophers in Minneapolis earlier this season.
But time will tell. In the mean time, there's a chink in the armor. And because of the sweeps by Denver and Minnesota, those two teams are just four points back of what had previously seemed like an insurmountable lead in the WCHA standings.
* Jerry York's contract extension will take him through 2010-11, which should be plenty of time for the 60-year old to get his fill of coaching. He actually never thought he'd last this long, but he's since become just the second coach ever to win national championships with two different teams. He does it in a way that is so unassuming — he is far from the "in your face" kind of coach — that it's great to see you can be successful with that kind of demeanor. York now stands six wins shy of Bob Peters for second on the NCAA's all-time wins list. "I think it's still exciting to put the skates on every afternoon," York told the Boston Herald. "So as long as that's still there, I'm pretty excited."
* Massachusetts' Matt Anderson missed most of last season with a broke ankle suffered at the hands of UNH defenseman Robbie Barker. So it was some sweet justice that he broke the Wildcats' hearts with a game-winning power-play goal last Saturday at Durham.
* Former North Dakota player Dane Jackson was hired by the Adirondack Frostbite of the United Hockey League to replace Marc Potvin. Potvin, the former standout Bowling Green defenseman, was found dead in his hotel room in Kalamazoo, Mich., the morning of a game on Jan. 13. Foul play has been ruled out, but an exact cause of death is still not known.
* If we keep saying this, it won't be true anymore ... but Nebraska-Omaha's Bill Thomas must have the most unheralded 18 goals in the country.
* Michigan's Jack Johnson has a whopping 106 penalty minutes. In a full NHL season, that would equate to nearly 400, so that's not only a lot for college hockey, it's a lot PERIOD. He's also a plus-6, second best on the team, for what it's worth.
* One of the most improved players this year is Cornell junior Ryan O'Byrne. Cornell fans would tear their hair watching him at times in the past, especially after his miscue was largely responsible for Minnesota's game-winning OT goal in the West Region final last year. But the highly-touted Montreal draft pick has been stellar this season, on both ends of the ice. He's second on the team with four PPGs.
* The Hobey hype for BC sophomore Chris Collins should pick up steam. He now has 19 goals, is a plus-13, and had four shorthanded goals. But North Dakota's Drew Stafford should get more mention. He's got 18 goals, is a plus-18, and also has four shorties.
* It's not been fun for UAA goalies this year. Nathan Lawson and John DeCaro have faced 961 shots this season, while teammates have taken 634. It means their save percentages aren't terrible considering all the goals allowed. Nobody on the roster has a positive plus-minus, and Justin Bourne is a minus-20. Ouch.