After Further Review ... December
by Tom Reale/CHN Correspondent
December is usually an opportunity to catch your breath midseason before the intense months of January and February, but it's also a good chance to take a step back and really get a good look at some of the evolving trends for the season on whole. At this point, we're beginning to see what was just a flash-in-the-pan in October and what's becoming the reality of the 2006-07 season.
It's become fairly obvious that several teams are much better than we'd anticipated, and it's becoming clear that some clear favorites are not as competitive as we'd thought — they aren't just lucky winners or hard-luck losers anymore.
The holidays are over, and if the first two months were the appetizer, December was the salad. It's time for the main course over the next two months to see who's going to get to stay for dessert.
So without further ado ... the miscellany, the background, the utterly useless, and the truly intriguing about the December that was in college hockey.
What a difference half a year makes: Several teams were able to eclipse their 2005-06 season win totals before the 2006 calendar year concluded, including RIT (6 last year, 9 so far), Notre Dame (13 to 16), Brown (5 to 7), Northeastern (3 to 5), Alaska-Anchorage (6 to 10) and Michigan Tech (7 to 8). On the flip side, Wisconsin and Holy Cross have both reached their total loss tallies from last season, with 10 each, as has Alabama-Huntsville, with 13.
New governor, new champs: Sarah Palin, Alaska's newly elected governor, was on hand at Sullivan Arena last weekend to award Alaska-Anchorage with its first Governor's Cup since 2001 after it swept the rival Nanooks to claim the title. The 42-year-old Palin, who took office on the fourth of December, is the youngest governor in Alaska history, first woman governor, and the first Governor born after Alaskan statehood. Her son, Track, goes to high school in Michigan, where he plays ... hockey (see, you knew this was coming full circle).
And the winner is: With their 5-2 victory over Ferris State in the championship game, the Minnesota Golden Gophers have now won eight consecutive Dodge Holiday Classics. In 16 years as the host of the tournament, the Gophers have missed the championship game only twice, in 1992 and 1998, and their overall record in the tournament formerly known as the Mariucci Classic is 25-7-0.
Next year: On the flip side, Vermont's loss to St. Cloud State in the championship game of the Sheraton/TD Banknorth Catamount Cup marks the ninth time in 10 holiday tournaments held at Gutterson Fieldhouse dating back to 1990 that the Catamounts were unable to claim. Their sole victory came last season, when Vermont was powered by back-to-back shutouts over two former ECAC rivals to win the Catamount Cup.
Holiday hotness: With a shorter schedule than most months, it's a little easier to run the table in December, but only Notre Dame (six), St. Cloud State (six), and Clarkson (five) were able to make the claim. Not surprisingly, the three schools have some of the longest current win streaks in the nation, led by SCSU's current string of 10 straight, which is the longest win streak in Division I so far this season, followed by Clarkson's seven straight and Notre Dame's six. Meanwhile, Minnesota's unbeaten streak now sits at 20 consecutive games — the longest in school history. Perhaps even more frightening for opposing teams, the Gophers are also in the midst of a school-record 16-game unbeaten streak on the road dating back to December 2005.
Shining armor: If you needed more of an indication that Clarkson's program is returning to glory after having spent most of this decade in the doldrums — easily the most lackluster stretch in the program's storied history — look no further than its Badger Showdown victories. That propelled Clarkson to its first piece of hardware since finishing the 2000-01 regular season atop the ECAC standings, and its first tournament victory since winning the ECAC tournament in 1999. The Knights have as many or more wins on their current win streak than six of their ECAC rivals do all season.
Perfect: Maine and St. Cloud State both finished their non-conference schedules for the season in December, and are the only two schools which can claim an unbeaten record out-of-conference. SCSU won all six of its non-conference games, sweeping home series with Clarkson and Colgate, then defeating Union and Vermont in the Catamount Cup. Maine finished their non-conference schedule 7-0-1, with the only blemish coming in a disappointing tie with Mercyhurst on the 16th of December in Portland.
Jackets win!: AIC finally snapped its long losing streak with a home victory over Mercyhurst on the first day of December, halting the slide at 13, and then followed up with a split the next weekend at Canisius. The new mantle is somewhat smaller heading into January — Bentley and Western Michigan both come into the month on four-game losing streaks to lead the nation.
Silent hero: So who's the nation's top goaltender? There are the ones getting all of the attention, of course — Lake Superior's Jeff Jakaitis, Notre Dame's David Brown, Vermont's Joe Fallon, Maine's Ben Bishop, just to name a few — but statistically, the title belongs to Brown freshman Dan Rosen, who has almost single handedly made the Bears a force to be reckoned with in the ECAC. After a difficult exhibition game where he allowed four goals on only 11 shots to start the season, Rosen took a role backing up sophomore Mark Sibbald. But in mid-November, in the midst of a loss to Wayne State, coach Roger Grillo pulled Sibbald and put Rosen in, and he responded immediately, making 17 saves to keep the Warriors off the board for the remainder of the game. He has now started nine of Brown's last 10 games, and held opponents to two or fewer goals in eight of those contests. Rosen leads the nation with a 1.44 GAA and .957 save percentage, and has given Brown an opportunity to win every time he's in the pipes.
Minor progress: They're still behind the traditional "Big Four," but it's clear that Atlantic Hockey and the CHA are making some more strides. A glance at the leading scorers table shows seven players from these conferences among the top 20 in scoring. Part of that is assisted by the conference games between weaker teams, but it's a good indication that the talent level continues to increase on the ice even if the win-loss records are not improving significantly — the leagues have combined to go 17-57-6 against the "Big Four." Individual teams are making even bigger strides. Bemidji State has swept two series with WCHA teams and is 5-1 against the conference with 4 more games to be played. Niagara holds 3 wins over ECACHL teams and is on pace with the Beavers in the CHA.
Circle the Date
January's Must See TV:
January 5: New Hampshire at Vermont — Must see part deux. Their meeting in December was a collision of streaking teams. Now, they're playing two in Burlington, still as the top two teams in the Hockey East standings.
January 6: Michigan State at Miami — It's practically the same thing, just farther west and a little bit farther down the standings. Michigan State seems to be back in the saddle after a difficult November, winning five of six in December and taking the GLI title. They face a difficult Miami team coming off a disappointing loss to Ohio State in the Ohio Hockey Classic.
January 9: Princeton at Quinnipiac — OK, it doesn't sound like much from first glance, but this travel partner game should be pretty interesting. Quinnipiac is likely to be a bit rusty, having taken nearly all of December off, but they sit atop the ECAC table. Princeton, meanwhile, is on a tear, with five wins in its last six. They face off on the sixth before finishing with a Tuesday nighter.
January 12: Alaska-Anchorage at North Dakota — The Seawolves were rude hosts to UND in November, sweeping the Sioux at home. If they can take some more points in Grand Forks, it'll be telling for both teams, as it could give a serious boost to UAA's chances for home-ice while indicating that the same goal could be much tougher than expected for North Dakota.
January 13: Bemidji State at Michigan Tech — This matchup wouldn't have seemed terribly intriguing back in October, but this should turn out to be a decent series. MTU has been up and down lately, but its ups have been higher than most would have imagined, and BSU will be looking to better its already impressive record against the WCHA.
January 19: Army at Air Force — OK, so it isn't quite the Army-Navy game, but the two service academies sponsoring varsity hockey start their one and only series this season with more than just pride on the line, as both teams are near the top of the Atlantic Hockey standings.
January 20: St. Lawrence at Rensselaer — I'd be kind of remiss if, as an RPI alum, I didn't mention the Big Red Freakout. The Engineers have not lost the Freakout since 1990 (12-0-4, including five straight wins). Coincidentally, this was also the last time that St. Lawrence was the opponent, and also the last time it was held in January. Coming into the month, it seems that only the Freakout factor could make SLU the underdog in this game. Should be interesting.
January 24: Boston University at Boston College — Now with 100 percent less fog!
January 26: Miami at Notre Dame — Obviously, by this time, everything could be and should be much different than it is now, but here we have two teams currently occupying the top two slots in the CCHA that combined for 31 wins before 2006 was even over, starting a two-game set. Yes, I'm sure it'll still be worth watching.
January 27: Colgate at Cornell — Things haven't gone as smoothly as expected for the Raiders as January begins, but this series has always proven to be explosive in the last few years, and with any luck, this year will be no exception.