After Further Review: January
by Tom Reale/CHN Correspondent
It's the calm before the storm. January begins with teams tenderly reawakening from their late December slumber, and ends with the setup for the home stretch. Most teams still have a crack at greatness, but the next few weeks will be an important determinant in who gets to keep working for a chance at glory, and who gets to spend Spring Break with all the other students.
By January, we know who the top teams are — Minnesota, New Hampshire, St. Cloud State, Notre Dame, and Denver keep popping up — and we know who the weak teams are. We know who's good for real, and who's unfortunately floundering. Teams that came into October with high expectations and have stumbled have seen their dreams get a little smaller. Teams that came in with little pomp are daring to dream.
Take a deep breath. Exhale. You ready? February's the shortest month of the year, but it's long on drama on the hockey calendar.
So without further ado ... the miscellany, the background, the utterly useless, and the truly intriguing about the January that was in college hockey.
Without Further Ado
Win the whole thing: The immortal words of Jake Taylor from the movie "Major League" seem to be driving the RIT Tigers this season. Barred from playing in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs due to their Division I probationary status, RIT's season will end on February 24 at Bentley no matter what happens, but that hasn't stopped the Tigers from staying hungry and playing for the regular season title. Although half of the RIT roster was plying their trade in Division III just two seasons ago, the Tigers — picked to finish 8th in the preseason coaches' poll — have burned a trail of terror through Atlantic Hockey since the beginning of December, with a league record of 11-2-0 over the last two months, with the only losses being a pair of one-goal setbacks, both of which the Tigers held leads during. After only six victories during their inaugural, independent campaign in Division I last season, RIT now needs only four more victories for their first 20-win season in five years.
Logjam: Brown may be sitting alone in last place in the ECACHL, but they're still right in the thick of the hunt. Only five points separate fourth-place Cornell — the last team holding a position for a first-round bye — from Brown, and the Bears are only two points out of a home-ice playoff spot. In fact, if the playoffs were to begin today, each team participating in the first round would hold a losing ECACHL record. In fact, even with just four weeks left in the season, it's still possible for every team in the league to finish with 22 points, and any team can finish in any position.
You're in: Hockey East remains the only league which does not invite all of its members to participate in the playoffs. The league started with eight spots, but there are only six left — New Hampshire and Boston University have locked up their spots already.
Lost opportunities: Several teams are mathematically eliminated from regular season championships. The CCHA has already lost four from the chase — Northern Michigan, Alaska, Ferris State and Bowling Green. Three are out in Atlantic Hockey — preseason favorite Mercyhurst, Canisius, and AIC. Northeastern, Merrimack and UMass-Lowell are too far off the pace in Hockey East to reach the top, and in the WCHA, Minnesota-Duluth is the only team eliminated from the chase for the MacNaughton Cup.
Broken: The impressive streaks of Minnesota, St. Cloud State, and Clarkson were all broken in January. For the Gophers, it's been a difficult month, first having their unbeaten streak halted at 22 at the hands of the rival Wisconsin Badgers, and then stumbling to a 2-4-0 record since the streak ended, including being swept at home by North Dakota (now the nation's hottest team, unbeaten in seven). St. Cloud State ended a 12-game win streak with a shocking home collapse at the hands of Minnesota State, while Clarkson saw an 11-game unbeaten streak erased in overtime against Union. The Huskies and Knights have fared better than the Gophers since the ends of their streak, going 3-2-1 and 2-1-1 respectively in the interim.
Sophomore jinx?: Among those that stuck around, last year's top freshmen seem to be doing just as well this season. Sacred Heart's Bear Trapp was the top returning sophomore scorer in the nation, and his current rate of scoring is practically identical to his pace from last season. Niagara's Les Reaney and Ted Cook, third and fourth respectively among returning sophomores, are already ahead of what they finished with last season. Both had 40 points in their freshman year, and both sit at 41 with a month left to play. Cook's 26 goals to date lead the nation. Other sophomores like North Dakota's T.J. Oshie and Notre Dame's Erik Condra are also mirroring their first year production, but some, like Quinnipiac's Brian Leitch and the Sioux's Jon Toews seem to be falling victim to the feared jinx.
A class all his own: Okposo, Nodl, or Trotter? Wong or Rosen? While Rookie of the Year debates may be all the rage in other leagues, Hockey East seems to have a rather clear choice rising far above all others — Maine's Ted Purcell (13-18—31) is the only Hockey East player among the Top 20 rookie scorers in the nation, with 11 more points than the next highest rookie, Northeastern's Chad Costello. Husky goaltender Brad Thiessen (2.54, .917) might get some mention, but with a month to play, the award is Purcell's to lose.
Homecoming: Quinnipiac opened the TD Banknorth Sports Center on campus with a women's game between the Bobcats and top-ranked Mercyhurst. The teams played in front of a crowd of over 1,700, the largest crowd to watch an Eastern women's hockey game this season. The next night, the men celebrated in front of a sold-out crowd of 3,286, dismantling old Atlantic Hockey rival Holy Cross 7-0. It was the Bobcats' largest margin of victory since an 8-1 victory over Canisius in February 2005.
Freaky: The 30th edition of the Big Red Freakout, Rensselaer's annual hockey festival, had some interesting confluences. It was the first time since 1990 that St. Lawrence was the opponent, that the game was taking place in January, and that Dan Fridgen was not behind the Engineer bench in some capacity. 1990 was also the last time the Engineers had walked away from the Freakout with no points. With the team floundering in last place in the ECACHL and St. Lawrence in first, the time may have been ripe for the end of a streak, but the Engineers were able to establish a 3-1 lead early in the third period, and it was the Saints who needed to come back to force a tie. The Freakout streak is now at 17.
Season of history: Notre Dame, with 21 wins, already has more wins this year than in any season since rejoining the CCHA in 1992, and are only 2 away from the 23-win mark set in their very first season in the league, 1982. The Fighting Irish are on pace for only their second appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Circle the date: February's Must See TV
February 2: Maine at New Hampshire — It's never a dull moment when the Black Bears and Wildcats are tangling. This game emanates from Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester and is a home game for New Hampshire — just as they should have some more home games coming in Manchester in late March.
February 3: Wisconsin at Colorado College — The second half of a two-game set, the winner of this series will have a leg up on getting a spot in the dance. The loser will have to take the road less traveled.
February 5: Beanpot — Fans outside of New England constantly scratch their head over what makes the Beanpot so special. You've got to experience it to fully understand.
February 9: Denver at Michigan Tech — It's Winter Carnival again, and this year, Michigan Tech has more than pride on the line. The Huskies are having a breakout year, and although they're still among the bottom half of the WCHA, they're still within shouting distance of the middle of the table. Denver, meanwhile, is in the hunt near the top and looking for a #1 seed for the NCAA tournament.
February 10: Michigan at Michigan State — There shouldn't really be much more to say here. It's a rare season when this matchup is meaningless, and this is not one of those seasons.
February 16: Mercyhurst at RIT — A unique late look at what was supposed to be and what has become in the Atlantic Hockey schedule. Mercyhurst, coming into the season with high expectations, has floundered, while RIT, coming in with little expectation, has exploded.
February 17: Alabama-Huntsville at Bemidji State — The old Division II rivalry is rekindled. The Chargers are having a difficult season, but they do hold wins over Army, Princeton, and UMass. Bemidji State, meanwhile, looks to stay sharp as they aim for the top of the CHA and an expected showdown with Niagara in Des Moines for the autobid.
February 23: St. Lawrence at Quinnipiac — It's perfect timing. The Saints and Bobcats are separated by only one point — the top two teams in the ECACHL standings as February begins. If it stays that way through the month, this game could be the final battle for the Cleary Cup.
February 24: St. Cloud State at Minnesota — It was looking like a MacNaughton coronation for Minnesota as January began, but as the month ends, the Huskies sit only three points behind the Gophers. If that gap is maintained or is narrowed, the back end of a home-and-home series could be a major factor in who lifts the oldest trophy in college hockey.