College Hockey has reached the point in its season where the great teams have emerged and bad teams know who they are. Past that, you’ve got a mass in the middle that’s constantly changing. Teams are shifting up and down every week with very few consistent enough to keep that movement in one direction. This weekend will be no different. There are so many ranked matchups across the NCAA that we’re about to see more movement in the national rankings than ever.A lot of the big matchups happening so frequently has to do with having lopsided competition within conferences. The NCHC, Big 10, and CCHA seem to be light years ahead of Hockey East, Atlantic Hockey, and the ECAC this season.
While there are a few quality teams in those conferences, the competition just isn’t there from top-to-bottom in any one of them. At least not like it is in the first three. Now that we’re into the conference-heavy portion of the schedule, that’s why we’re seeing so many elite matchups week in and week out.With any one of those middling teams having the opportunity to steal a series against a higher-ranked opponent, we’ve finally hit the “moving day” portion of the schedule. A full sweep could rocket someone from the mid teens to the top ten. Conversely, an unexpected couple of losses to a lesser opponent could drop even the biggest powerhouse 4-5 slots pretty easily. It’s CHAOS, and if you know me, you know I love it! As the very cancelled and very controversial rapper once said, essketit!
Explaining the Rankings:
1. Minnesota State – Mavericks
After laughing at the UMD Bulldogs for losing to Northern Michigan as the #1 team in the country, Mankato got a taste of the pain. While they were able to split the series, another surprising loss has been added to the Mavericks’ record. With Nathan Smith leaving for the Olympics soon, their identity of goliath is starting to be questioned.
2. St. Cloud State – HuskiesSt. Cloud has played two games since December 4th. One series in nearly two months has me nervous and anxious for the Huskies players and fans. They looked good before, but who knows what team is going to come out the other end this weekend.
3. University of Minnesota, Duluth – Bulldogs
Although they came out of the weekend with four points, it felt like another loss for the Doggies. When you put up 50+ shots and keep your opponent to under 20, you win that game 99 times out of 100. Unfortunately, their Saturday game ended in a tie with a shootout loss against the worst team in their conference.
4. University of Minnesota – Gophers
The boys in Mariucci must love the theme park, because the roller coaster season seems to have no end in sight. A convincing 4-1 win on Saturday was followed up by a 2-3 loss on Saturday. Having this come against an average (at best) team in Alaska does not bode well for the Gophers for the long haul.
5. Bemidji State – Beavers
The Beavers just REFUSE to become ranked. Every week for the entire year, they’ve been on the bubble. When they are ranked, they lose the series. When they’re not, they come out and grab big wins. They’ve been in the “others receiving votes” section of the USCHO poll for the last few weeks and were the first one out again this week after a win and an OT loss last weekend. At this point, I imagine this is where they WANT to be. It’s the only explanation.
6. St. Thomas University – TommiesHoly Christ on a cracker, the boys won again. They were finally able to put 4 goals in the net for just the second time this season which was a HUGE part of it. Yeah, both instances were wins against the same Ferris State team, but it’s nice to see it happen. Really rough upcoming matchup though…more on that later.
National Rankings Roundup
The national people with influence have got it twisted. With the majority of them voting Quinnipiac as the number 1 team in the nation, I wonder if common sense even exists anymore. Quinnipiac has only played ONE game against a ranked opponent in their last eight and that was against #18 Harvard. Those eight opponents also combine for an average Pairwise ranking of 45.8 out of 59 DI College Hockey teams in the nation.
Listen, I understand that they’re on a 15+ game winning streak, that’s good for anyone. However, if Clemson was beating up on MAC schools all year long, they wouldn’t even make the football playoffs. As for the rest of the rankings, East Coast BiasTM is still alive and well…unfortunately.
CCHA College Hockey Games
#2 Minnesota State vs St Thomas – Thurs & Sat Jan 20-22
This is the meanest and most sinister matchup I’ve ever seen in my life of watching College Hockey. It’s not just that you’ve got a bottom-five, first year DI team playing against one of the best teams in the nation. Hell, they’ve already played one another this year. The dubious part is scheduling this game to take place in front of the entire hockey community and state during Hockey Day Minnesota.
The last series between these two teams was more than a blowout. It’d be more accurate to categorize that as a full-on beatdown. Although the games were 9-0 and 5-0 in favor of Mankato, neither were even that close. This time around, I’m fully expecting St Thomas to put up more of a fight.
I’m not crazy enough to say that either will be a one-goal game, and probably not even two-goals, but when you’re playing a familiar opponent while you’re trying to prove yourself, strange things can happen. We’ll see if any of the silver-spoon children from St. Thomas have any sort of experience playing out in the cold instead of private indoor rinks.
For a lot of the top teams, it’s often hard to find the motivation to “get up” when a less-talented opponent comes to town. For the Mavericks, that shouldn’t be a problem. Dryden McKay will be looking to extend his shutout record and this is yet another prime opportunity to do it. On top of that, Nathan Smith will be looking to build a lead and store points like a squirrel stores nuts before he makes the trip overseas. I expect both of them to leave this series happy with how it went.
Prediction: Mankato returns to bully little brother and takes an easy sweep.
Ferris State @ Bemidji State – Fri & Sat Jan 21-22
Ferris State just took their lumps last weekend. That’s not to say that they were playing some sort of College Hockey powerhouse, but more-so that they were sent home with their tails tucked after dropping another game against St. Thomas. For a team that’s beaten Mankato this year, it’s strange to see them lose two games to the Tommies. They’re currently 49th in the national pairwise rankings, facing off against the 19th team in Bemidji State. If they want to steal a win on the road, they’ll have to grind for it.
Bemidji is the first team out of the USCHO top-20 rankings. The two teams above them are Harvard and Northern Michigan, both of which have tough matchups this weekend. If the Beavers can string together two strong performances from their players this weekend, they WILL be ranked by the time I’m writing about them next week. I write about the guy every week, but Owen Sillinger has a prime opportunity this weekend to pass Hank Crone on the NCAA scoring leaders list. With Nathan Smith leaving for the Olympics soon and Theisen/Kopperud cannibalizing points from one another down in Arizona, Sillinger has a VERY good shot at the title come the end of the year.
Prediction: Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V from last week. Beavers sweep and return to the ranked teams. Hopefully they don’t make me look like an idiot again.
NCHC College Hockey Games
#7 UMD vs #16 Nebraska-Omaha – Fri & Sat Jan 21-22
The UMD Bulldogs are the most frustrating team on the planet. Okay, that may be a bit dramatic, they’re certainly not anywhere near the level of the Timberwolves, Twins, or Vikings and they’ve won multiple national championships in the last decade. Unfortunately, they always seem to be playing to the level of their competition. After a weekend where they let vital conference points slip away from them against the worst team in the NCHC, they’ve got to face the most underrated and underappreciated team in the NCHC. They’re not currently in “must win” territory to keep their playoff hopes alive, but if you look ahead on the calendar, things certainly don’t get any easier.
Despite being ranked far lower than UMD on the season, Omaha actually is very comparable. They’ve got two more wins than the Bulldogs and Isaiah Saville is not a “bad” goaltender to have. They have NINE seniors/grad students on their roster and those boys are absolute GRINDERS in front of the net and in the corners. That’s they style of play that both of these teams like to execute, so we’ll see who’s got more motivation and grit by the end of the weekend. Normally I’d say that home-ice will play a part in the series, but after playing in the NCHC bubble to start the year last season, UMD is just returning to their home-away-from-home.
Prediction: Bulldogs might not be panicking, but I am. I would REALLY like to see a sweep from the doggies on the road, but I’m predicting a 1-1 split while they work out some kinks.
Miami (OH) @ #5/6 St Cloud State – Fri & Sat Jan 21-22
After two weeks of postponed games, St. Cloud State is FINALLY returning to the ice. They’ll have a matchup against a conference opponent with a need to make up ground in NCHC standings. They’re currently 12 points out of the lead with two games in hand. Given that Miami is currently at the bottom of the conference, the Huskies have a really good opportunity that they’d be silly to let slip away. Given that they’re 6 points behind 3rd and 4th place in the conference, and their next three series are slated to be against top-ten teams, it’ll be a battle for the rest of the year.
As far as Miami goes, they’re coming into the weekend with some semblance of confidence. The Bulldogs let off the gas in their last series on Saturday and Miami made them pay. The RedHawks took home the extra point in a shootout victory after a 2-2 tie. If Miami gives up 50+ shots to a team like St Cloud, I don’t expect the same results. They’ll need to play better defense and frustrate St. Cloud to draw penalties if they really want the opportunity to win one on the road.
Prediction: Huskies assert their dominance in a triumphant return with a 2-0 sweep.
Big 10 College Hockey Games
#3/4 Michigan @ #11 Minnesota – Fri & Sat Jan 21/22
The rematch of two hockey blue-bloods is finally here. After splitting their series in Ann Arbor earlier this season, the Wolverines of Michigan will be coming to “3M Arena at Mariucci” to take on the Golden Gophers. Bob Motzko and his Minnesota players have got to be absolutely BESIDE THEMSELVES after losing to the Nanooks of Alaska at home on Saturday last weekend. I’m not big on black magic or the weird holistic treatments, but they may want to look into anything they can to wipe that from their memories with this matchup staring themselves in the face.
In football many coaches have popularized the phrase “The standard is the standard”. Well, in college hockey, I’m now trademarking “Michigan is Michigan” under the same premise. I don’t know what else to say about them this year, but they’re exactly as expected. I’ve written about them from top to bottom this year. The coverage has included the depth and talent on their young NHL-ready roster, as well as their cowardice and slimy schedule dodging.
This is the exact matchup of teams team that Herb Brooks COULD have made in 1980…but he wanted the right players, not the best ones. Both of these squads will have people leaving to join Olympic teams for the US and Canada. Minnesota has already lost their starting goaltender and team captain to the Hurricanes in his entry-level NHL deal. While none of the Olympians have left yet, we’ll see if Minnesota can show some resiliency in the face of adversity against the “top dogs” in the Big 10. On that same note we’ll see if Michigan can assert their dominance before “having to play shorthanded” for a couple of weeks.
Prediction: It pains me to say it, truly. I want to see Michigan lose, but I see Minnesota dropping both.
Other Games to Watch
#1 Quinnipiac @ #8 Cornell – Sat Jan 22
Eighth ranked Cornell will be just the sixth game against a ranked opponent for the Bobcats of Quinnipiac this season. In fact, this will be just the second time in their last SIXTEEN games they’re facing what I’d call a “quality” opponent. Their last was a fraudulent (in my opinion) Harvard team who was ranked #18. Don’t get me wrong, a 13-0-2 record in your last 15 games is impressive for anybody, especially in College Hockey.
With that said, it’s insane to think they’d have anywhere close to that record against remotely stronger competition. They’re 3-1-1 on the year against ranked opponents so far and 1-1-1 against those ranked inside the top ten. While I’m STILL not convinced that Cornell deserves to be inside the top ten themselves, I think it will be a lot more indicative of the level of competition they can expect to see in the NCAA playoffs. Make no mistake about it, they will make the playoffs.
#9/10 North Dakota @ #3/4 Western Michigan – Fri & Sat Jan 21/22
Neither of these two teams played in their scheduled series last weekend due to COVID cancellations/concerns. Not only that, but neither of these teams have won a game in a LONG time. It’s weird to think that neither have notched a “W” this calendar year when they’re both top-10 teams, but it’s true. North Dakota started off the year with a loss to the U.S. Under-18 Team and then followed it up with getting swept by Cornell AT HOME.
To say that’s not how you want to come back from break would be an understatement. Western Michigan, on the other hand, DID win their last matchup, but they just haven’t played since Dec. 29th when they beat Michigan State. They were SUPPOSED to play the 30th against Michigan, but we all know what happened with those cowards. Can NoDak get the train back on the tracks? Will Western be able to keep their momentum and magic from the first half of the regular season alive? We’ll find out this weekend.
#12/13 Northeastern vs #12/14 UMass – Fri & Sat Jan 21/22
The RiverHawks of UMass Lowell are currently ranked higher than either of these two teams. Despite that, I still consider this the battle for supremacy in Hockey East. On one hand, UMass are the reigning national champions and started out the season as the number one team in the nation. It’s been a bit of a fall from grace and reality check for them ever since, but it seems they’ve stabilized and righted the ship. On the other hand, Northeastern’s Devon Levi is currently the highest rated goalie in the nation with a .955 save percentage. Regardless of how Hockey East plays out the rest of the year, I expect the winner of this series to represent the conference in the postseason.
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