Things to Watch, Part II
by Matt Conyers and Matt Taylor/CHN Writers
Yesterday, we started a look at the things to watch in college hockey this season. With games starting Friday, it's time for Part II.
7. The new arenas
It is nearly impossible to understate the advantage that playing in front of your fans gives you every night. If you need an example, look at Wisconsin during last year's NCAA tournament. While they weren't playing on their normal home ice in Madison, they earned the right to play in the regional in Green Bay. Once they advanced from there, the Frozen Four was in Milwaukee. Good teams earn the right to play in front of their fans, whether during conference tournaments or the NCAAs.
This season, Quinnipiac, Miami and Cornell debut either new or renovated rinks. These three teams went a combined 36-10-5 last year at home, with two of the three (Miami, Cornell) reaching the NCAAs.
The advantage could be greater this year. Cornell's fans have always been known as some of the most passionate in college hockey, and with the recent success in Miami, the RedHawks have the opportunity to grow a fan base for a team that had limited success but is now nationally known and has a new rink to show off. Quinnipiac has been a team that has challenged for an NCAA berth as a member of Atlantic Hockey in previous years, and with good success, along with a new facility to attract recruits, they could become a team to beat in the ECAC the next couple years.
8. What do RIT and Air Force bring to the Atlantic Hockey conference?
Atlantic Hockey scored one for the little guys last season, with the much publicized NCAA upset of Minnesota at the hands of Holy Cross. This year, the conference welcomes RIT, in only their second Division I season and first as a conference member, as well as former CHA member Air Force.
The new members bring obviously more competition to the conference, which has been very competitive the last few years, with four different conference champions (Holy Cross, Mercyhurst, Quinnipiac, and Connecticut) in its seven year existence.
Former Division III powerhouse RIT plays its first exclusive Division I schedule this season. Besides the rest of the conference, they'll also play non-conference games against teams such as Cornell, Union, and a St. Lawrence team who they beat last season. They returned a very young but talented team, including seven of their top eight scorers led by junior Simon Lambert, who scored 34 points last season, and goalie Jocelyn Guimond.
The Air Force Falcons were 11-20-1 and finished fourth in their final season in the troubled CHA last year but graduated only two players. If they can continue to get improved production from young players such as Eric Ehn, Josh Schaffer and Brian Gineo, they might be able to contend right away in the expanded conference.
9. The holiday tournaments
With more than a handful of the country's best teams taking part in holiday tournaments, college fans will not be at a shortage for quality hockey when Thanksgiving and the holidays roll around. Still, there are undoubtedly a few tournaments that stick out amongst the group - most notably, the Great Lakes Invitational and the Florida Classic.
Likely to steal the most headlines in New England is the Florida Classic, with three top 15 teams entering into the mix. This particular holiday entanglement features Hockey East's biggest border war: UNH vs. Maine. With both teams facing off at least once in the annual tourney, tensions figure to be extremely high. The Christmastime meeting will mark the second of four games that the two passionate rivals will engage in. Making it even better is the fact that both will likely be nationally ranked at the time of the duel. As of press time, the Black Bears are slotted at 11th place in the polls, and UNH is 10th. While the rivalry game will most likely steal the limelight, Cornell promises to turn some heads as well. Entering the year, the Big Red may be positioned for another season as the overlooked dark horse. Anchored by steady coaching, Cornell figures to be one team no one in Hockey East wants to play when December rolls around. Throw Western Michigan into the mix, and you have one of the best Florida Classic lineups in the past five years.
Estero, FL isn't the only place hosting classic rivalries this December. Contending for attention amongst the games' hordes of fans will be the GLI, with a main attraction that manages to put the Black Bears and Wildcats to shame: Michigan State vs. Michigan. The mother of all college rivalries will be the main course in Detroit. Thanks to a preseason poll that has both the Spartans and Wolverines ranked - 5th and 7th, respectively - the tourney has received an extra boost of excitement. It will mark the first time the two heated rivals have gone head-to-head in a midseason tournament in more than 10 years. Figure in the fact that a highly regarded Harvard team will be looking to rain on each squad's parade, and you have what looks to be one of the better holiday tourneys in years - and the best this season.
Spartan head coach Rick Comley commented on how well a tournament like the GLI prepares his team for success later in the season. "It helps a lot," said Comley. "Any time you mix a tough conference schedule with good nonconference play, your kids are going to be battle-tested. I think that helped us as we got into our league playoffs last year, and in the NCAAs with a big win over New Hampshire. You can trace those right back to the tough games that you play during the year."
Looking for a tournament that's a little less glamorous but still high-octane? Then check out this season's Ohio Hockey Classic or Badger Showdown. Both tournaments feature a top five squad and teams looking to emerge this season as the surprises of the year. Pay extra attention to the Providence vs. Wisconsin matchup in the Badger Showdown, which could be the Friars' best chance to display if they are the real deal.
10. What impact will the new NCAA tournament criteria have?
To first address this question, the new changes must be understood, and like anything in the college hockey world of PairWise rankings, that's not always the most straightforward task. The most notable amendment to the rules is the change in the RPI formula and its overall weight. The RPI value was - and still is - comprised of one team's winning percentage, their opponents' winning percentage, and their opponents' opponents' winning percentage. The change, however, places much more emphasis on a team's opponents' strength of schedule by decreasing the weight given to the opponents' winning percentage and increasing the weight given to the opponents' opponents' winning percentage. We know - it's a mouthful.
According to the higher-ups, this alleged improvement will prevent the negative-impact scenario (whereby a team's RPI could decrease even after a win against a poorly-ranked team) and will help teams plan a better set of non-conference games. If a win has the effect of lowering a team's RPI, it simply will not be entered into the formula.
In short, the changes look to do one clear-cut thing to the NCAA tournament selection process: switch one problem for another. While the effort to fix a faulty system is applauded, the changes ultimately do little to solve the bigger problem. The NCAA selection process is flawed, and fatally so. And the only way to cure it may be a complete overhaul and the implanting of an entirely new way of approaching the tournament selection. Until then, the NCAA tournament criteria will continue to have its detractors. The impact of these changes will be minimal and overstated if anything. Like any college hockey season, there will be several teams staying home when they honestly feel like they should be skating at the end of March. If anything, these changes may muddy an already cloudy picture.
11. And finally... Will Wisconsin repeat?
The easy answer would be an unequivocal yes. But, then again, what fun would that be?
If last season's NCAA tournament proved anything, it's that nothing in college hockey is predictable. An impressive victory by Holy Cross over Minnesota proved that nothing is a sure bet come playoff time. Still, there is history to be observed. Before Wisconsin's triumph last season, the NCAA Championship was claimed by two repeat offenders back-to-back, Minnesota and Denver. More importantly, both had a similar identity to this year's Wisconsin team. Great coach? Check. Well-balanced offense? Check. Solid defense? Check. Oh and don't forget this little tidbit: the Badgers have the best goaltender in college hockey in Brian Elliot.
But why might the Badgers NOT be the odds-on-favorite to win it again?
Well, first of all, this isn't 2004 anymore. The competition among the six leagues is vastly superior to what it was previously, and more importantly, there are no longer any easy wins in the NCAA tournament. With the emergence of quality teams in Atlantic Hockey and the CHA, elite squads can no longer expect to waltz through the opening round. The increased overall talent level means that the big guys like Michigan and Boston University will have few 'easy wins' on the regular season schedule.
And Wisconsin will face the same situation. Those once automatic weekends will now become more difficult and will place added pressure on the defending champs. Oh, and did we mention that the Badgers will have one heck of a big target on their backs? With an extremely difficult schedule that features weekend slates against familiar foes North Dakota, Minnesota and Denver - as well as a pair against Boston College, in a rematch of the national title game - don't expect this attempted return to the promised land to necessarily go smoothly. We'll find out the answer in St. Louis in April, but whatever happens, it's going to be fun to watch.