Having the College Hockey season impacted by the Olympics is a rare occurrence. The winter version of the international games only happens once every four years, so there’s a slim chance that it overlaps with the playing time of many top-level college athletes. Being that NHL players have traditionally taken part, it’s even more infrequent. This year, however, the NHL has opted to keep it’s players out of the games and use that time to make up a large portion of their own games that had been postponed from COVID concerns. That opened the door for some of the best college athletes to join their countries in China to compete for a gold medal.Every single member of the United States Men’s roster played college hockey at some point in their career, with FIFTEEN of it’s members actively playing in the current season. Team Canada isn’t far behind that mark with seven former and three current college hockey players as well. As for how the Olympics affects college rosters, this is how it breaks down by position/school:
- Marc McLaughlin – Forward – Boston College
- Nick Abruzzese – Forward – Harvard
- Sean Farrell – Forward – Harvard
- Matty Beniers – Forward – Michigan
- Brendan Brisson – Forward – Michigan
- Ben Meyers – Forward – Minnesota
- Matthew Knies – Forward – Minnesota
- Noah Cates – Forward – Minnesota Duluth
- Nathan Smith – Forward – Minnesota State
- Sam Hentges – Forward – St. Cloud State
- Drew Helleson – Defense – Boston College
- Brock Faber – Defense – Minnesota
- Jake Sanderson – Defense – North Dakota
- Nick Perbix – Defense – St. Cloud State
- Drew Commesso – Goaltender – Boston University
- Jack McBain – Forward – Boston College
- Owen Power – Defense – Michigan
- Devon Levi – Goaltender – Northeastern
While the Men’s numbers are certainly impactful, the Women’s side of the Olympics will be full of familiar college athletes as well. As of initial team rosters being released, 43% of ALL competitors have ties to NCAA DI programs, whether that be current players or alumni. Their play is already underway with the USA winning their opening matchup with Finland and Japan pulling out a win against Sweden.Of all the Colleges/Universities with players taken, Minnesota State and Michigan might be the only ones who are all but guaranteed a postseason berth. Some are already out of contention for at-large bids. Most of the others are currently battling tooth-and-nail for a higher seed in conference tournaments and to stay within the top-rated teams. It would be an understatement to say that these guys being gone for as many as SIX games (barring any COVID isolation periods) will impact the season.
Explaining the Rankings:
1. Minnesota State – Mavericks
Teams come in to Mankato with a thought of how it’s going to go and leave with the sad reality of how it actually went. That was true for Arizona State last weekend. A Sun Devils team loaded with offensive talent that’s built to out-score opponents in an arms race was matched up against a team with the second highest shooting percentage in College Hockey who ALSO has one of the best goalies in NCAA History. That’s a humbling experience.
2. University of Minnesota, Duluth – BulldogsPeople who blame the referees for their team’s losses are immature, petulant children. With that being said, the Bulldogs were absolutely FLEECED by the zebras on Saturday night. There was a goal called back, incidental contact called as penalties, and missed offsides calls. You name it and it happened to the Dogs. They still managed to take the majority of points from a Western Michigan team that was RED HOT coming into the weekend, but a second win would have changed the NCHC landscape.
3. St. Cloud State – Huskies
What an absolute letdown from the Huskies. They managed to escape the weekend with some points, but no victories to show for it. After beating North Dakota 8-1 earlier this season, they got a taste of what the other side of that blowout is like dropping Friday’s game 7-1. They’ve still got some games in hand, but last weekend puts them WAY behind in the points race for the Penrose Cup.
4. University of Minnesota – Gophers
Kings of the split. It seems like that’s all these boys know how to do. It’s great when you’re playing another highly-respected and highly-ranked team like Notre Dame, but they’ll need more than that this weekend.
5. Bemidji State – Beavers
Talk about being in a freefall. The Beavers get swept two weekends in a row after being on the cusp of getting some real national attention. You hate to see it as a fan of Minnesota hockey, but sometimes the magic fades. They’ll basically need to win-out to be in any sort of conversation for a chance at the postseason. Looking at their schedule, I don’t see that happening.
6. St. Thomas University – TommiesNo game last week. I’m not sure whether the Tommies were on timeout for getting waxed or trying to mend their broken egos. Either way, it’s going to be a tough rebound against Michigan Tech. Pairwise update: They’re still not in last. Tommies are now one spot above Vermont.
National Rankings Roundup
This week, the National Rankings RoundupTM has been modified to weight each of the ranking sources instead of treating them all as equal. This takes into account the credibility of source, potential committee influence, what data they utilize, evident bias, and amount of teams ranked. Weighted at 45%, the most impactful source is the one that matters most at the end of the year, the Pairwise Rankings.
NCHC College Hockey Games
#6/7 St Cloud @ #3/4 Denver – Fri & Sat Feb 4/5
This will be the first and only time that the Huskies meet up with Denver on the season. With the Pioneers being the highest nationally rated team from the NCHC, that’s a break for the Huskies. Unfortunately, they’ll be playing in Denver, at elevation. If you’ve been listening to The Has-Beens, you already know that plays a MAJOR role in their games. When your body isn’t used to sucking wind to that extent, it makes playing from behind almost impossible. The key in Denver is playing with a lead so you’re not chasing.
The Pioneers are 7-0-1 in their last 8 games with no visible signs of slowing down. Unlike St. Cloud, they didn’t have anyone who left to participate in the Olympics, so they’ll be playing with their full arsenal of weapons. With all of these advantages in mind, it might seem like an insurmountable hill to climb for the Huskies, but there is one surefire key to success. The Powerplay. Yes, obviously a man advantage is good for any team, but it’s GREAT for St Cloud. They’re the most efficient team in the country on the power play (37.4%) and Denver is 45th in the nation (77.3%) on the penalty kill. If they can draw penalties, they’ll find a way to win.
Prediction: Series Split. It’s the selfish pick, but it’s the right one.
#6/7 UMD @ #6/7 St Cloud – Tue Feb 8
Bulldogs technically have a “bye week” this week, but they’ve found a way to play anyways. They’re set to visit the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center to take on the Huskies in one of their two make-up games from their previously postponed series. These two teams are back-to-back in both National polls as well as just about every other ranking platform as well. These two teams have had very similar seasons with big wins and surprising losses. Both were ranked #1 in the nation for short stints and both have a large group of returning seniors and 5th year players. Expect it to be a close game.
As it stands right now, the Huskies are six points behind UMD in the NCHC standings. If St Cloud is able to upset Denver two games in a row, they’ll be tied coming into this game. My guess is that they’ll be behind in the standings with an urgent need to catch up. UMD will be missing their captain Noah Cates in this game with St. Cloud out both Sam Hentges and Nick Perbix. Despite holes in both rosters, it should be a classic heavyweight NCHC battle with a lot of implications. It always is.
Prediction: Tough to call before seeing how the Huskies play Denver, but I’m saying a “rested” Bulldogs squad finds a way to steal one on the road.
CCHA College Hockey Games
#1 Minnesota State @ Bowling Green – Fri & Sat Feb 4/5
What happens when an unstoppable force like Mankato meets an immovable object? Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until the NCAA playoffs before we find out. Minnesota State swept the Falcons in Mankato earlier this year winning those games 9-2 and 5-3. Nathan Smith will be missing from the lineup who had 4 points in their last series, so other members of Mankato will have to step up and be difference makers. While I expect this series to be a little bit closer, I don’t expect a different outcome in the big picture.
Despite everything I just said, Bowling Green is not a bad hockey team. They’re certainly not good this year, but I want to make it clear that they’re not bad. With just one ranked win (Oct. 29th @ Bemidji) on the season to date, there’s not a lot of confidence in the Falcons pulling off an upset, but that doesn’t mean they can’t challenge the Mavericks. Alex Barber, Taylor Schneider, and Austen Swankler lead the team (by a large margin) at or around one point per game. Those three will need to lead the charge. Hell, they can’t get swept by a guy who didn’t even expect to make their roster, right?
Prediction: Mavericks keep the magic alive, rolling out another sweep.
#14/15 Michigan Tech @ St. Thomas – Fri & Sat Feb 4/5
The Huskies are currently winners of 5 straight, outscoring their opponents 21-5 in that stretch. They just beat a talented and dangerous Northern Michigan team 5-1 on a rare Tuesday matchup. To say the boys from Houghton are feeling it would be an understatement. Including this series, they’ll be favored in their next SEVEN games before closing out the regular season against MN State. Barring a couple of bad losses, this team WILL be in contention for postseason play. Some people even think they have a shot at winning it all.
St. Thomas has been in the spoiler role for the majority of the College Hockey season already. It’s what everyone expected coming into the year and it’ll be this way for the next few years as well. If they can muster a win here, it will spoil something BIG for the Huskies. St. Thomas lost both games against the Mich. Tech 1-6 and 3-4 in their first series earlier this season. If they can find a way to neutralize the scoring here, these games could be kept close. I feel like that’s said every week, but when you’ve been limited to two or fewer goals in TWENTY TWO games this season like the Tommies have, it’s obvious what needs to happen.
Prediction: Huskies have to sweep convincingly to climb quickly and they’ll do it.
Northern Michigan @ Bemidji State – Fri & Sat Feb 4/5
Coming off of a loss to Michigan Tech on Tuesday, the Wildcats are in panic mode. Despite having beaten the #1 ranked team in the country three times this season, their playoff hopes are in jeopardy. They’ve got the highest shooting percent in all of College Hockey at 12.6% and will be looking to keep that up. With Mankato’s Nathan Smith and Michigan’s Matty Beniers out for the Olympics, the door for points leader in the NCAA has been opened for two players in these games. Northern Michigan’s Hank Crone and Bemidji’s Owen Sillinger are a handful of points back and separated by one point between them. If there are fireworks to be seen, look for those guys to provide them.
Bemidji currently sits at fourth in the nation in terms of power play efficiency at 25.8%. While that already seems to be the key to success, it’s further cemented by the fact that Northern Michigan is in the bottom four on the penalty kill (73.1%) with a man in the sin bin. Despite a rough stretch, the Beavs had a defender and their rookie goaltender highlighted as CCHA players of the Month for January, so it’s not all bad news. Playing trap hockey is one thing, but trapping your opponent into taking some penalties is another. Ironic that a team named the Beavers will be relying on that to survive.
Prediction: I want to say the cats take two, but I can’t do that to the Beavs at the Sanford Center. 1-1 Split incoming.
Big 10 College Hockey Games
Michigan State @ #8/10 Minnesota – Fri & Sat Feb 4/5
Michigan State is the only team that the Gophers have swept since October. They’re also just the 3rd team that Minnesota has been able to sweep all season. Whether it’s just a good matchup from a play-style standpoint or something else, it’s a confidence booster for the Gophers. After playing Michigan and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks, this will be a welcome pace for the Minnesota men. The one thing that’s concerning for the Gophers is all of their missing pieces gone at the Olympics. Meyers, Faber, and Knies are three really tough pieces to lose, especially after your captain goaltender bounced mid-season.
Michigan State has lost six games in a row. Three consecutive series sweeps, that started with Minnesota a month ago. The Spartans are a .500 team who’s currently below .500 with a desire to prove their worth. Michigan is, in my opinion, the 2nd biggest hockey state in the nation and they’ve got their own pride to maintain. With a shorthanded Gophers team lining up on the other side of the ice, they’ve got a premium opportunity in front of them. They’re 7-1-0 when they are able to put up three on the year, so that’s the goal for this squad.
Prediction: I’ve said it a hundred times, it’s hard to complete a season sweep. Depleted Gophers split the series 1-1.
Other Games to Watch
#18 Omaha @ #11/12 North Dakota – Fri & Sat Feb 4/5
North Dakota has only allowed ONE 5-on-5 goal in each of the last two weekends. After one of the tougher stretches I’ve ever seen out of North Dakota, this team is showing that it’s not all fire and brimstone in Grand Forks. After four losses in a row, they absolutely took it to the #6 Huskies on Friday. Then, they followed it up with a shootout win on Saturday to take the majority of points in the series. They’re still just three points out of first place in the NCHC and fully capable of securing home-ice throughout the conference playoffs.
Omaha has one key to success, physical play. When the games get tough, guys get frustrated. When guys get frustrated, they take penalties. Despite Omaha being the most penalized team in the country, North Dakota is right behind them in the NCHC. Omaha holds the advantage in both Power Play and Penalty Kill percentages. With the Fighting Hawks’ best player gone at the Olympics, there’s less downside to the Mavericks playing aggressive, even if that means taking some penalties. Those boys simply have to capitalize when they have chances.
Prediction: North Dakota is the better team, out-plays Omaha, but misses Sanderson & splits at home.
Long Island University @ #9/10 UMass – Fri & Sat Feb 4/5
Another weekend where the east coast darling UMass is matched up with a soft opponent to boost their rankings. They are the reigning national champions, so they deserve some semblance of respect. I’ll admit that every single time. With that being said, I have NO idea how they’re currently ranked 7th in the Pairwise system and in the Top 10 of both national polls given the lack of top-level teams in Hockey East and their schedule to date. I said it with Cornell before (and have been proven correct), and I’ll say it with UMass now: This is not a top-ten team in the nation. Now say this with me, “Go Sharks.”
Alaska vs Arizona State – Fri & Sat Feb 4/5
This is what I’m referring to as the “Garden” series. No, it will not be played at Madison Square Garden, as fun as that would be. Rather it’s a metaphor for these two teams and how they relate to College Hockey. Much like a garden, you’re often trying to grow something from nothing. Sometimes, you find a particular strain and put it in the perfect position where it exceeds all expectations. That’s Arizona State right now. Despite some struggles this year, they’ve had early success in the sport. There are investors who want to be involved, a new rink in the works, and their marketing/socials team are knocking it out of the park. Everything seems to be firing on all cylinders for the Sun Devils.
Other times, you have to maintain your garden to keep what you’ve already got in place. Despite how odd somethings seems, it can provide a lot of positives for the garden grow as a whole…even if it rarely produces as often as you’d like. That is Alaskan Hockey. While the Nanooks (Fairbanks) are the only Alaskan team playing right now, the Seawolves (Anchorage) are scheduled to re-join the ranks in 2022.
The Nanooks record is less than ideal at 7-16-1, but they’re honestly better than it seems. They’ve beaten both Minnesota and Clarkson while also taking teams like Denver, UMD, Cornell, and Omaha to overtime. As an independent school, they could play a cupcake schedule and amass more wins; instead they choose to grind and compete against the top teams in the country. As of today, they’ve had a stronger strength of schedule than 33 other teams in College Hockey. Keeping these Alaskan teams and that mentality alive is good for the sport. It will be even better when (not if) more western teams make the jump to DI play.
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Jordan Belfort probably said it better than I ever could, “I never ask my (clients) to judge me on my winners. I ask them to judge me on my losers, because I have so few.”
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.
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