No Challenge Too Small
by Ryan Lambert/Columnist
(Ryan Lambert writes "Second Thoughts" bi-weekly. In order to keep him on his leash a little, we made him alternate the column's focus between Eastern and Western schools. -ed.)
The Big Ten/Hockey East Challenge wrapped up this weekend with the latter league coming out on top, but unless you were paying a hell of a lot of attention, you probably didn't notice that it existed at all.
Which is strange, isn't it? One of the strongest conferences in the country (some would say, flat-out, the strongest) going up against a big-name and new conference that everyone — not just fans of the teams participating — should theoretically care about. There should have been heft, there should have been pomp. There was instead nothing. The reason why, once you know it, will make you say, “Oh, that explains everything.”
The reason you heard relatively little about this kind of thing until the start of the season was that it wasn't anybody's idea in particular. Hockey East didn't call the Big Ten, or vice versa, back when the new league was formed and say, “It would be cool if we did this.” Instead, what happened was no one really put any significant thought into it at all, then someone looked at the composite schedules and said, “It's kind of cool that it worked out like this.” Minor adjustments were made at that time, a points system (which only bordered on sensical) was developed, agreements to continue doing it were made, and press releases were issued.
Seriously, that this happened at all is a coincidence. Wisconsin didn't schedule its disastrous trip to Boston with an eye toward anything but playing two very good teams. Michigan and Michigan State didn't schedule UMass Lowell and BU thinking there would be any conference bragging rights on the line. Which is why participation was unbalanced and literally all over the map.
Michigan State and Michigan played four games each, Wisconsin and Minnesota two, and Penn State did so just once. UNH and UMasses Lowell and Amherst all took on the Big Ten twice each, BC and BU thrice, Vermont once. Five schools from a six-team conference participated, and poor Ohio State has to sit there with the indignity of these other rivals having blown it big time (from their point of view, if they care, which they don't). Meanwhile, five other teams from Hockey East did nothing against the Big Ten in two weekends, and even if this was a fairly top-heavy representative sample, it still doesn't make a lot of sense.
No one took much notice, either. I was at the BU/Wisconsin game two weeks ago, and I don't think it was mentioned once by anyone at any point in the night. You'd expect the Big Ten to keep the fact that it got clobbered here as quiet as possible, but shouldn't this be screamed across Hockey East's front page? “Hockey East wins inaugural Challenge!” or something. Oh, and it needs a better name. Hell, get it sponsored. The “[Your Ad Here] Challenge Cup” sounds a lot better than Big Ten/Hockey East Challenge,” doesn't it?
Again, this could have theoretically been a big deal, and hopefully in time it will be, but for now this just looks like a poorly-handled and lopsided mess. (Only six of the 13 games were on TV.) Of course Hockey East had the “challenge,” such as it was, mathematically sewn up by the middle of the third night of competition, because three of of the six league teams participating in it were in the NCAA tournament last year, and another went to the league final. The final score was 18-11 and only ended that close because the Spartans improbably knocked off the visiting Terriers and Minnesota took three of four points from BC at home. When games were out east, the bigger, more established league punished the Big Ten, taking eight out of a possible 12 points.
This was a convoluted system, and it left some teams behind. Take, for example, Merrimack, which only gets to play 32 games this season, instead of the customary 34. If this Challenge had be cooked up before the schedules were made, rather than on the fly, maybe that's the kind of thing that doesn't happen, and a team in a respectable league actually gets to play the full slate.
Obviously, this being the first year that the Big Ten has even existed, it makes sense that a grand tradition of competitive excellence could not be established between the two conferences right away, and now that they actually have a way to get schedules drawn up in such a way that a) everyone gets to participate, and b) this kind of thing matters a lot more.
Make a trophy, have an on-ice presentation (which would actually be easy enough if you schedule one last game on the final day of the challenge, like the BC/Minnesota tilt on Sunday). More importantly, give everyone a reason to care. What does a Northeastern or Providence or Ohio State fan, for instance, care how this went, because their teams had any equity in it?
One thing that shouldn't — and thankfully will not — happen with this scenario, is the infamous interlocking schedules Hockey East and the WCHA played from 1985-89, in which teams in those conferences playing each other had the results count in their league standings, which is just bizarre. You would expect (hope?) that no one involved would ever think that kind of thing is a good idea.
This should be more than two weeks in October, for one thing. Interlocking schedules is a bad idea, but scheduling out-of-conference games between one or two teams per league per month through, say, the end of the semester break isn't. Make sure everyone is involved, make sure it's played up as much as possible. The idea to have the tiebreaker at a big venue later in the season — as was the plan with Vermont and Penn State at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia in January — is a good one, but just make that the decisive game if it comes to that.
This is all so easy. There's no reason not to do it.
Michigan: Well, it had to end some time, but it's interesting that Lowell was the team to end the Wolverines' unbeaten start. Michigan, of course, will blame special teams, because they gave the reigning Hockey East champs two goals on four opportunities, including a major, and went 0-fer on their two chances.
Michigan State: The Spartans were down a goal against BU with less than five minutes to go, but scored twice in 52 seconds to salvage a weekend split (they also lost to Lowell, 4-1 the night before). Both goals were, shall we say, strange.
Minnesota: Scoring nine goals against Boston College in one weekend is something a team does very often. But then again, the Gophers haven't lost to a non-conference opponent in the last regular season in the last 14 tries, so this appears to just be what they do.
Ohio State: Huge shoutout to the Buckeyes for hosting a Pride Night for the Jan. 11 game against Michigan State. This is the kind of thing literally everyone in college hockey should be doing.
Penn State: Penn State had a two-goal lead late in the first period, then everything went sideways. Vermont scored all five of the game's remaining goals and won with ease. Look, I know you haven't been in Division I very long, guys, but everyone is supposed to beat Vermont.
Wisconsin: It's looking more likely that Joel Rumpel will be able to go this coming weekend against Lake State, which will be a nice reprieve from the shelling his backups endured in his absence out in Boston two weeks ago. Getting a save percentage of more than, oh I don't know, .750 really helps your chances of winning.
Colorado College: The Tigers were well on their way to what would have been a scoreless tie, but then Josh Thorimbert gave up a goal with 9.9 seconds left. Too bad, too. He stopped the first 41 he saw.
Denver: For real, though, how are you gonna lose at home to Canisius? It's not Lowell/Sacred Heart bad, obviously, but it's not far off either.
Miami: I took in both RedHawks games this weekend and saw something interesting: Riley Barber and Austin Czarnik just don't come off the ice. Didn't have a stopwatch on it or anything but if either played less than 60 of the series' combined 126:36, I'd be shocked. They were just out there constantly, and rewarded for it with a combined 3-6-9. The rest of their teammates went 3-5-8 altogether.
Minnesota-Duluth: Big W for Duluth against previously-unbeaten and juggernaut-looking Notre Dame. That included two goals nine seconds apart, and another just 3:16 after that. Would you believe the Bulldogs don't have another home game until early December? Strange, that.
Nebraska-Omaha: Might want to tighten up that PK before league play starts. Going 3 for 7 is only good when you're on the power play.
North Dakota: Drake Caggiula is fine after this scary fall in an exhibition against the U.S. U-18s. Never want to see a guy get stretchered off like that. In less important news, of course NoDak crushed the U-18s.
St. Cloud: The Huskies are unbeaten at 3-0-1 thanks to a weekend road sweep of Colgate. Scoring four goals in the first period of Saturday's game usually helps you get there.
Western Michigan: No games for the Broncos this weekend, but WMU is doing wonders for the economy in Kalamazoo, according to WMU's Board of Trustees. If residents don't think so, they might try to outsource the team.
Alabama-Huntsville: Actual conference play! The Chargers were swept by Bemidji at home, giving up seven goals and scoring just one. So, uhh, room for improvement.
Alaska: The Nanooks trailed 4-1 halfway through the game, then cut it to 4-2 late. Then Cody Kunyk took over, setting up two goals to tie the game and scoring his own to win it. The third period in this video starts at 5 minutes and boy does it get crazy.
Alaska-Anchorage: No games for UAA this week either, but they did pull a recruit from the BCHL. That's not nothing.
Bemidji State: Andrew Walsh sure did get a lot of work this weekend. He allowed one goal on 35 shots. In 120 minutes of hockey. He should be player of the week just for staying awake (but he's not).
Bowling Green: BG star Ryan Carpenter will miss at least three more games before he's cleared to return from a fractured finger. He scored 18 goals last season, so yeah, I guess the Falcons probably do miss him.
Ferris State: Yeah this is a week old at this point, but not enough attention has been paid to how ugly Ferris's breast cancer awareness jerseys were. Great cause and all that, obviously (and in fact, go here to donate), but yeesh. Run that design by a few more people.
Lake Superior: The Lakers have apparently made a scholarship offer to Sault St. Marie, Ontario, native Owen Headrick, who's a '97 birthdate, and also property of the Erie Otters. Good luck winning that battle.
Michigan Tech: Gotta love Blake Hietala's honesty: “Grew up watching Tech-Northern, hated Northern.” Attaboy. The two goals he scored on Saturday just prove it.
Minnesota State: If you live in Mankato and need anything that couldn't be borderline illegal (alcohol, tobacco, prescriptions, etc.), former Mav Tyler Elbrecht's new delivery business will bring it right to your house for a small fee. Why isn't this a thing everywhere? Why won't Tyler Elbrecht deliver things to my house?
Northern Michigan: The night before Hietala lit up the Wildcats, it was NMU star Stephan Vigier's time to shine. He scored the first goal of a 2-0 shutout just 4:55 into the game, and now has five goals in six contests this season.
Player of the Week
Yeah I guess Austin Czarnik assisting on five of Miami's six goals on the weekend qualifies as being really good.
Goal of the Week
Not the world's greatest goal from Hudson Fasching, but you can't beat the celebration. Let this be a lesson to anyone trying to kiss anyone else while they both wear facemasks.