It’s now been FIVE straight weeks where the number one College Hockey team in the nation dropped out of the top slot. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they came crashing down in brutal fashion. They were the first one of these five to lose both games after a number one ranking in the national polls. Not only that, but both wins went to a previously unranked Northern Michigan squad. To say that was an upset would be an understatement.With what feels like a rotating carousel at the top of the rankings this season, there is no clear “frontrunner”. Instead, there are a handful of consistent teams that take their turns showing signs of promise as well as “chinks in their armor” that can be exposed. There are EIGHT teams that have been ranked in USA Hockey’s Top 15 every single week this season. You could (responsibly) bet on any one of those eight as your national champion right now and make a legitimate case for why. That’s because the season is only 1/3 of the way over, despite it being the middle of December.
The Three Seasons
The official college hockey season runs from the beginning of October through the middle of March for just about everyone. Within that timeframe, however, you’ve got two separate “seasons” of play. The first runs from opening day for each program to their Christmas break. This is typically full of a lot of non-conference games and tinkering with roster spots and lineups. Despite all the hype, criticism, and projections that have already been flying around…this is where we are now.The next “season” runs from New Years through each of the individual conference tournaments. This is where teams can make a serious statement and move up (or down) the rankings, both nationally and within their own conference. Somebody who didn’t perform well in non-conference play can make it up against familiar opponents. More exciting yet, a team (or goalie) can get hot and earn a tournament bid by winning their own conference championship. Only a few teams are “out of the running” before their conference tournament starts.
Now if you’re lucky, your team gets to play in the third season of College Hockey…the playoffs. While this “third” is just over two weeks in length, I assure you it’s just as grueling as the others. This year it’s scheduled from March 24th to April 9th, with the Frozen Four taking place in Boston, MA. Four short games (unless you’re North Dakota and UMD) separate one college hockey team from a national championship. Every team wants to play a full season. Few get the opportunity to.
Explaining the Rankings:
1. Minnesota State – MavericksThese guys crushed last week, as usual. Okay, crushed might be an overstatement, but they certainly took care of business. Sandelin, Napravnik, and Smith were familiar faces on the box score in their 2-1 (OT) and 3-1 victories. These guys continue to live up to the hype they’re getting this season and generate points weekly. When you’ve got that kind of scoring power paired with the consistency of Dryden McKay, the Mavericks can match up against anyone in the nation.
2. University of Minnesota, Duluth – Bulldogs
The Bulldogs had a less ideal weekend. Some might say a brutal one, in fact. To the outside observer, it’s a series loss that should be extremely concerning for the club. While there are things that definitely need to be addressed, tell Chicken Little to chill because the sky is not falling in Duluth. They were forced into playing a third-string goalie in his first game minutes in five years. They did this while on the road. Then add in the fact that they were playing against two of the top eight players (in total points) in the country. It was always going to be an uphill battle, but when you top it all off with the other three missing players, it was too much for the Dogs to overcome.
3. St Cloud State – Huskies
The Huskies walked away with an 8-1 win on Friday, are you kidding me!? Not only that, but we got to see Jami Krannila pull off a “Michigan” to cap it off?! Bananas. It’s one of the few times that College Hockey broke into the Top 10, even though those idiots at ESPN still had it at number 2. Whatever. Then…well then they come back down to earth. North Dakota served them up a steaming 3-5 loss. A split on the weekend kept them right where they were at in the rankings.
4. University of Minnesota – Gophers
These kids have got me in a goddamn BLENDER. This was their fifth series split in a row. However, with a 5-1 BEATDOWN of Michigan on Friday night, this one felt different. Even with a 2-6 loss following it up on Saturday, they proved that they can, in fact, still play with any of the big boys. Coming away with a split on the road versus the only team above them in the Big 10 conference is undoubtedly a huge confidence boost for the boys.
5. Bemidji State – BeaversWith 5-2 and 6-1 wins on Friday and Saturday respectively, the series was never close. It went exactly as expected and that’s what needs to happen if a team wants to be recognized nationally. Even with those convincing wins, somehow Bemidji still did not gain enough points with voters to be ranked by USA Hockey or USCHO. I honestly don’t know what else they’d have to do to earn a spot. Frankly, it’s insane given they’re ahead of Ohio State, Omaha, Cornell, Providence, and Northern Michigan in the Pairwise rankings. That’s obviously not the end-all-be-all, but I’ll shout their praise from the rooftops if nobody else will.
6. St. Thomas University – Tommies
Nothing new for the Tommies last weekend. They go into the weekend with a bad record and left with an even worse one. Not much fight coming out of the White and Purple this far into the season. At this point, they’re just begging to make it to the Christmas break.
Here’s something I didn’t realize until this weekend: Minnesota doesn’t play until after the new year starts. Not only that, but their first game back is against the US Under 18 team. I’m not sure how they got away with that kind of break to rest all of their players, but it’s got me shaking my head. St Cloud isn’t far behind with their players not taking the ice again until New Year’s Eve. A lot of the other clubs in the country have got to be thinking, “must be nice to be able to rest all your players for an entire month”. With those teams absent from the schedule, there’s only four state programs playing this weekend. Given that the Mavericks are set to face off against the Beavers, there’s only three games to preview. That being said, there are massive implications in every one of them.
CCHA College Hockey Games
#1 Minnesota State @ Bemidji State – Fri & Sat Dec 10-11
Mankato is back at number one; their third stint on the throne already this season. With a road trip looming against a tough conference opponent in Bemidji State, they’ll have to work to keep it again. Mankato has already dropped a few conference games this year to the likes of Ferris State and Lake Superior State in addition to being taken into OT by Michigan Tech last weekend. As talented as the mavericks are in every phase of the game, nothing is guaranteed. Nathan Smith will look to regain the national points lead after being passed by Northern Michigan’s Hank Crone last weekend. He’s currently one point behind.
Bemidji took their turn sweeping St. Thomas in CCHA play last weekend, outscoring the Tommies 11-3 over two games. That type of confidence boost paired with the talent of an experienced roster is a dangerous combination. Senior forward Owen Sillinger is also trying to chase down the points title this year as he’s only three away from the top slot. He is absolutely ROLLING right now, having put up at least one point in nine games straight. McKay and the Mavericks defense will have their hands full trying to keep him off the box score.
Prediction: Split? Maybe? Yeah, we’ll go with a split. What the Hell do I know. Minnesota State is great and Bemidji is really good. Expect a battle.
Michigan Tech @ St Thomas – Fri & Sat Dec 10-11
Michigan Tech lost two games in a row and still remain a legitimate bubble team. They took Mankato to overtime in a ridiculously close game on Friday night. Saturday was a 1-goal game until the Mavericks snagged another Empty Net Goal on the year with nine seconds left. People will look at the 8-7 overall record and skip past the Huskies, but that would be a mistake. Any team that can play with the (now) number one team in the country deserves to be respected.
If St. Thomas loses the rest of their home games this season, they will eclipse the current record of 11 home losses in a season, held by Princeton in the 1970-1971 season. (Note: This stat was taken from a 2009 pamphlet, so someone else may have sucked worse in the last 12 years). They’re also currently in dead last for scoring margin at a rate of -3.44 after having given up 89 goals on the season with only 27 of their own.
It’s becoming too easy to dog this team every single week. It’s like ripping on the Vikings. Sometimes you just need to mix it up and challenge yourself to be positive. From here on out, I’ll only be talking about the good things the Tommies do every week. If they succeed, College Hockey succeeds.
Prediction: Huskies take their turn punching down (last negative comment, I promise) and walk away with 2 wins.
NCHC College Hockey Games
#10/11 Denver @ #5 Minnesota Duluth – Fri & Sat Dec 10-11
Denver is one of the sneakiest teams in College Hockey right now. I don’t know who’s running their PR or speaking their behalf to the NCAA poll committees, but being ranked at #8 is bordering criminally low. Based on how much they’re flying under the radar, Shiv Roy is making more and more sense. Their 10-4 record is nothing to write home about until you realize their only losses came at the hands of ranked opponents. People just tuning in to College Hockey won’t realize that the Pioneers are currently riding a six-game winning streak either. During this time frame, they’ve outscored their opponents 34-6, which includes fourth-rated Western Michigan. This team may have started the season lazy, but they’ve since flipped the goddamn switch.
Denver is not even close to the Bulldogs’ biggest rivals, but they ALWAYS play them tough. Sure, the Bulldogs have won the last five games in a row, but that matches their longest winning streak against the Pioneers and it’s the first time it’s been done since 1983. With Ryan Fanti projected to be back in the lineup following his mandated Covid Protocol absence, the Bulldogs are a much better matchup. Coming off of an embarrassing sweep against previously unranked Northern Michigan, Sandelin and his team are sure to be motivated for wins.
A Necessary Look Ahead
You never want to look ahead on the schedule, but UMD might have to. From Dec. 26th to Jan. 5th, they’ll have three players out of town for World Juniors. During that time they’ll be taking on Minnesota State, the (current) number one ranked team in the country. As if that weren’t difficult enough, the Bulldogs will follow that series with a matchup against conference favorite, St. Cloud State, just two days after World Juniors wraps up. Neither of these programs have any players traveling for Juniors this year, so it will (once again) be an uphill battle against two tough, well-rested opponents for the Bulldogs.
With that upcoming schedule in mind, they’ll HAVE TO take advantage of a full squad while they’ve got it. Every conference matchup means a little bit more than other games on the schedule. Despite being ranked #5 in the nation, the Bulldogs are needing to climb the rankings in the NCHC and “bank” some important points/wins. You never want to put more pressure on yourselves than you need to in College Hockey and the Dogs aren’t in a “must sweep” scenario.
Prediction: Despite writing blogs every single week, I’m not great with words. Instead, I’ll let DJ Khaled explain my thoughts on the changes of a split in this series.
Other Games to Watch
#14 Omaha vs #4 Western Michigan – Fri & Sat Dec 10-11
Two teams from the NCHC, both ranked in the top 15, each with a 12-4 record on the season. To date, Western Michigan’s wins and losses have been more impressive than Omaha’s, which is why there’s such a large gap in the rankings. With that being said, Omaha has a chance to close that significantly by winning this weekend. Should the (Omaha) Mavericks find a way to win both, they’re almost guaranteed a top-ten spot next week. If they split, it would be more beneficial to Omaha, than it would hurt Western Michigan. Now, if the mustangs sweep, they’ll have a legitimate claim to the spot in the nation.
Boston College vs Boston University – Fri Dec 10
Of all the weird things to happen in the College Hockey landscape in 2021, having neither Boston College or Boston University ranked is right up near the top. As a fan of College Hockey in general, it’s disappointing because those schools are among the most heavily covered nationally. As a fan of the MINNESOTAN and midwestern hockey style, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it a little bit. This is still one of the biggest rivalries in the sport and the first time they’re seeing one another this year, so it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.
I’ve been hit by cars three times, which is an indication of how stubborn I am.
I write about everything across the board, but focus on Hockey and the pain that is Minnesota sports.
Argue with me on Twitter: @venividiveech