October 4, 2007 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Things to Watch, Part I

by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer

Today is the first installment of a two-part series that outlines the "things to watch" for the 2007-2008 season, which officially begins on Sunday, October 7 with Clarkson and St. Lawrence kicking things off in the ECAC North Country.

1. The can't miss games of the season

October 13: Michigan State at North Dakota. This is the season opener for both teams, and the winner could earn early season bragging rights as the nation's best team.

November 24: Cornell vs. Boston University. This is one of the biggest college hockey events of the year, as the Big Red and the Terriers renew their historic rivalry in New York City's Madison Square Garden. These two teams last faced each other in November 2002, with Cornell winning two home games en route to a Frozen Four appearance.

November 24: Wisconsin at Michigan State. This Thanksgiving weekend matchup features the 2006 and 2007 NCAA champions, respectively.

December 28: Clarkson vs. Maine. This is one of the first-round matchups at the Florida College Classic and will feature two of the East's top goaltenders in David Leggio and Ben Bishop. This game will also provide a grand opportunity for Clarkson — the ECAC favorite — to prove itself on a national level. The Golden Knights will then face Boston College the following weekend.

Michigan's nonconference schedule: Before the end of November, the very young Wolverines team will play Boston College, Boston University (twice), Wisconsin, and Minnesota (at least once). If they can survive that stretch, they could cruise to an NCAA tournament berth.

March 7-8: Colorado College vs. Denver. This home-and-home rivalry series wraps up the regular season for both the Tigers and the Pioneers. Last season, this series had NCAA implications, but neither ultimately advanced to the tournament. This year, with the Frozen Four in their own back yard — and a West Regional at CC — this series could have enormous implications for one or both of these teams. Just ask Minnesota or Wisconsin how important a home crowd can be at the Frozen Four.

2. The fate of the CHA

This week's news that Wayne State will drop its men's ice hockey program adds an unfortunate sour note to the much-anticipated start of the 2007-2008 season.

As discussed by CHN earlier this week, the fallout from this decision could be far-reaching. The most acute issue, certainly, is the uncertain fate of the CHA, an already struggling league that, for all intents and purposes, is now pushed to the brink of extinction. The remaining four teams — Robert Morris, Bemidji State, Alabama-Huntsville and Niagara — have all enjoyed varying degrees of success over the past several years. But now they appear forced to either relocate to another conference or follow the demise recently endured by hockey programs at Iona, Fairfield, Findlay, and now Wayne State.

Following the 2005-2006 season, Air Force flew from the CHA to Atlantic Hockey, but other CHA members have found considerable resistance to their attempts to join new leagues. According to head coach Bill Wilkinson, the CCHA was reluctant to welcome his Wayne State Warriors as a thirteenth team. And last year, amidst rumors that his team was applying for admittance to the WCHA, Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore told CHN that the process would be extremely difficult.

"There's a moratorium right now, and until the moratorium is lifted, it's premature to even discuss it," said Serratore. "Somebody has to propose a motion in the WCHA, and then it has to be seconded, and then it has to be voted for by the majority. So until that happens, it's premature to even talk about it."

The uncertain future of the CHA, college hockey's most troubled conference, will be a storyline to watch for the entire season. Will the probable loss of the CHA's NCAA tournament autobid lead to a reduction of the current 16 team field to 12 teams? Will Wayne State, led by one of the game's best coaches in Bill Wilkinson, play an inspired season that returns the Warriors to the NCAA tournament? And, perhaps most importantly, will the WCHA, CCHA, and ECAC make plans to expand or restructure in order to save the four remaining CHA programs? Time will tell, but with respect to this final question, it's fair to say that we hope so.

3. Hobey hopefuls

Two-thirds of last year's Hobey Hat Trick — forwards Ryan Duncan (North Dakota) and Eric Ehn (Air Force) — return this year and should be considered preseason favorites to return as finalists this season. Duncan, playing on arguably the best team in the WCHA and perhaps in all of college hockey, will look to become the first player in history to win two Hobey Baker Awards.

Last season, playing alongside Jonathan Toews and T.J. Oshie, Duncan accumulated 57 points in 43 games, and in addition to winning the Hobey, was named WCHA Player of the Year and a First Team All-American. Though Toews has since opted for NHL glory with the Chicago Blackhawks, Duncan and Oshie will draw Hobey consideration if they can match or exceed their numbers from last season.

Meanwhile, Ehn, a senior from Dexter, Mich., finished last season second in the nation in scoring (24 goals, 40 assists) while leading the Air Force Academy to its first-ever Atlantic Hockey championship and NCAA tournament appearance. And a strong case for Ehn to win the Hobey could have been made because of the intangible qualities Ehn brings to the table — dedication, discipline, scholastic achievement, and in a reflection of Hobey Baker himself, service to his country.

Over the past several years, goaltenders have reached the Hobey Hat Trick on multiple occasions. However, with the departure of Cory Schneider from Boston College to the Vancouver Canucks, there are few netminders that stand out as early season Hobey contenders. Goaltenders to watch include Ben Bishop (Maine), David Leggio (Clarkson), and Jeff Lerg (Michigan State). Other potential candidates for the Hobey include forward Nathan Davis from Miami and a pair of ECAC forwards — Nick Dodge (Clarkson) and Brandon Wong (Quinnipiac).

One final thing to watch will be whether, for the seventh consecutive season, the WCHA's highest scoring forward or defenseman wins the Hobey. Not since 2001 — when Michigan State's Ryan Miller, now of the NHL's Buffalo Sabres — has a goaltender or non-WCHA player won college hockey's most prestigious individual honor.

4. The consequences of summer departures

Certainly, most teams who have lost players to the professional ranks over the summer are the kind of programs that tend to rebuild with high-end recruits. For instance, North Dakota should survive the loss of Jonathan Toews, especially with returning players Ryan Duncan and T.J. Oshie. Similarly, Minnesota should survive the departures of Erik Johnson and Alex Goligoski.

On the other hand, Denver may find it more difficult to immediately recover from losing top goal-scorer Ryan Dingle, as well as veteran forward Geoff Paukovich and defenseman Keith Seabrook. The Pioneers open the season with four games against Maine and Notre Dame. They then play Minnesota, Colorado College, and North Dakota — all before December. As critical as last year's stretch run ultimately was, this year's first 14 games for Denver are crucial. And if the Pioneers are slow to compensate for their offseason departures, they may find it difficult to recover in time.

Boston College will certainly face a challenge in replacing Cory Schneider in net, but they have a strong recruit in John Muse who should assume the starting role. Finally, Dartmouth will be hurt by the losses of T.J. Galiardi, Kevin Swallow and David Jones, who was last season's ECAC Player of the Year and a Hobey Baker finalist.

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