Reporters sound off on how current conference standings shook up preseason projections
The Big Ten and NCHC preseason polls have held up for the favorites, Minnesota and Denver. The CCHA is a bit more juggled as Minnesota State has struggled and Northern Michigan is in sixth place.
Before the NCHC, Big Ten and CCHA men's college hockey seasons began, each conference released a preseason poll. It's certainly not gospel and teams will rise or fall to the occasion throughout the winter months. Still, they provide a glimpse, even after the transfers and incoming freshmen have arrived on campus, as to which teams should rise above the rest all while perhaps providing some bulletin board material for teams expected to finish last.
In the case of the CCHA and Big Ten, the preseason poll was a survey of coaches; for the NCHC, it was a poll of media members.
At the break, the Big Ten and NCHC preseason polls have held up for the conference favorites, Minnesota and Denver. The CCHA is a bit more juggled as Frozen Four runner-up Minnesota State has struggled and Northern Michigan (which received two first-place votes in the preseason poll) is in sixth place.
Northern Michigan head coach Grant Potulny said before the season that many teams in the CCHA could close the gap. "There's no holes in our league right now," he said during the conference's media day back in late September.
So with The Rink Live reporters, contributors and other beat writers around the leagues, here's a look at the conferences at the break:
MATT WELLENS (MINNESOTA DULUTH BEAT WRITER, DULUTH NEWS TRIBUNE):
The media poll is on track to get two things right at the break with Denver in first and Miami in eighth. Otherwise, a lot of swinging and missing so far.
Colorado College and Omaha being in the top four is a big surprise, and great steps for those programs. It's odd to see Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota toward the bottom right now, however, with five or fewer points separating the third through sixth-place team, the Bulldogs and Fighting Hawks could be in the top half while the Mavericks and Tigers slip to the bottom by season's end. There is a lot of hockey left to be played.
The two questions I have are whether St. Cloud State can challenge Denver for the NCHC title, and whether Western Michigan can be a factor in the league with its goaltending. The Broncos have some of the league’s top offensive weapons, but it’s .879 team save percentage is canceling those goals out.
BRAD SCHLOSSMAN (NORTH DAKOTA BEAT WRITER, GRAND FORKS HERALD):
The biggest surprise is St. Cloud State. While I picked St. Cloud State to finish in the top half of the NCHC, I didn't think the Huskies would be this good. They used the transfer portal exceptionally well to offset some big losses in the offseason. Forward Grant Cruikshank, defenseman Dylan Anhorn and goalie Dominic Basse have all been outstanding.
The biggest disappointment is Minnesota Duluth. The Bulldogs, ranked No. 5 in the preseason national poll, head to Christmas at No. 39 in the Pairwise Rankings, which is behind four Atlantic Hockey teams (RIT, Niagara, Sacred Heart, American International) as well as Miami and Ferris State squads that entered the year a combined 28-118-8 since New Year's Day 2020.
North Dakota is simmering to make a move. A lot of metrics show the Fighting Hawks have been much better than their first-half results. Their second-half schedule is largely at home (10 home, six road). That could increase to 12 (or 13) home and six road if the Fighting Hawks host an NCHC quarterfinal playoff series.
Right now, the NCHC only has two teams in the top 20 of the Pairwise Rankings, so it's a steep hill to climb for everyone outside of Denver and St. Cloud State to get to the NCAA tournament. It may require reaching, at a minimum, No. 14 to get an at-large bid, because it's possible neither the CCHA or Atlantic Hockey will have anyone in the top 16. The NCHC has had at least three teams in the NCAA tournament every year since the league started in 2013-14.
MICK HATTEN (SCSU BEAT WRITER, THE RINK LIVE):
My top and bottom teams in my preseason poll are holding true. I had Denver winning the regular season title and Miami taking last. But the rest of my poll is all over the place. The two biggest surprises to me in the first half have been St. Cloud State being in second place and North Dakota being in seventh. With all that UND had coming back on defense and Drew DeRidder transferring in to play in goal, I thought they’d be better defensively and had picked them to finish second. SCSU I had picked to finish fourth, but their goaltending and transfers have elevated them way beyond that.
I picked Minnesota Duluth to finish third and they are in fifth — with a losing conference record. Colorado College and Nebraska Omaha have both been better than I expected. The Tigers have gotten a boost from goalie Kaidan Mbereko and are in third, while UNO, which I picked to finish seventh, has been inconsistent, but in fourth place. Western Michigan has been better offensively than I thought they’d be and much worse defensively.
JESS MYERS (MINNESOTA BEAT WRITER, THE RINK LIVE):
In September, I predicted that the Gophers would be the nation’s best team on New Year’s Day, once the 10 newcomers got acclimated to the pace and pressure of college hockey. They appear to be right on schedule, pulling away from the pack in the Big Ten at the break. Elsewhere, Penn State and Michigan State have been pleasant surprises, both in large part to better-than-expected goaltending. Michigan, for all of its high-end talent, has been inconsistent under interim coach Brandon Naurato, and Wisconsin is in a struggle to find its way both offensively and defensively. That means an increasingly hot seat for Badgers coach Tony Granato.
BEN JONES (PENN STATE BEAT WRITER, STATECOLLEGE.COM):
Penn State has been looking to regain its form after COVID-19 robbed the Nittany Lions of an NCAA Tournament postseason berth with the program's most talented roster to date in 2020. That bounce-back season appears to finally be in full swing with Penn State getting production on both ends of the ice and between the pipes.
Scoring has never been Penn State's issue, but winning games that aren't high scoring is a welcome development for this group. Time will tell if these Nittany Lions are for real or simply grinding out the wins, but any team that scores, plays defense and gets solid goaltending has a chance no matter why it's happening.
The second half of the season has never been Penn State's forte, so a strong start out of the break could go a long way towards setting the tone. An Allentown Regional stop just a few hours away would be a welcome reward if the second half of the year is as good as the first.
JOHN FINERAN (NOTRE DAME BEAT WRITER, SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE):
Notre Dame was picked to finish second with the return of 10 seniors and grad students following a 28-12 season. With a schedule ranked the toughest among 60 Division I teams, this team has struggled to find its way.
Last season Notre Dame’s scoring margin was 1.15 goals per game; this year it’s minus-0.50. Last season, Notre Dame was No. 1 in penalty-kill percentage; this season it is 45th. Senior goaltender Ryan Bischel has done his part with three shutouts, a .925 save percentage and 2.64 goals-against average. Junior right wing Ryder Rolston (6-7-13) and grad defender Nick Leivermann (5-7-12) lead a team averaging just 2.5 goals a game.
TODD MILEWSKI (WISCONSIN BEAT WRITER, WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL):
Starting 1-9 in the Big Ten isn't a good sign for coach Tony Granato's future with Wisconsin, not when the athletic director is looking for a return to competing for championships and has a June 30 deadline before Granato's revised buyout starts to go up again. The coaches picked the Badgers for fourth in the Big Ten but that was undermined almost immediately by the continuation of scoring woes that marred last season. More production against lesser defenses gave a sense of hope in late November but it's going to be hard to escape the hole they've dug.
SHANE FREDERICK (MINNESOTA STATE BEAT WRITER):
The CCHA standings are jam-packed at the holiday break, with just five points separating the top five teams and seven points separating first through sixth. It’s going to be a wild January and February.
The surprise team is Ferris State, which has not only taken points in every series so far this season, but became the first conference opponent in 11 seasons to sweep Minnesota State in Mankato. The Bulldogs will definitely be in play in the competition for home ice in the playoffs. Picked fourth in the preseason, Bemidji State, which also swept at Mankato (taking 5 of 6 points), sits in first place with two games in hand compared to their closest competitors.
As for the disappointment, it’s Minnesota State, which, after a hot start, has cooled, falling to a precarious position in the Pairwise and putting its shot at a sixth straight MacNaughton Cup in peril. The Mavericks are only one point out of first place, but they’ve won just twice in their last eight conference games.
The mid-season Player of the Year goes to Northern Michigan forward AJ Vanderbeck, who leads the league and ranks seventh in the nation with 24 points, including 11 goals.
RYAN STIEG (ST. THOMAS BEAT WRITER):
The CCHA is in an unusual spot that a lot of people probably didn’t expect in October. Unlike the previous season, and the majority of the seasons in the former WCHA, there’s no frontrunner at the end of the first half.
Last season, Minnesota State ran away with the league and basically had the MacNaughton Cup all but wrapped up by Christmas. As a result of that, along with their many years of past success, the Mavericks were picked to win the conference again in the preseason poll. But Mankato is currently in third at the break.
That isn’t even the biggest surprise as Ferris State went from a predicted seventh place up to fifth and just on the outside of a home-ice spot in the first round of the playoffs. Mankato is probably the biggest disappointment so far with Northern Michigan a close second as both were picked to either finish in the top spot or in second during the preseason and neither is currently where they were predicted.
With the MacNaughton and home ice completely up for grabs at this point, it’s going to be an interesting and fun second half in the CCHA.
JACK HITTINGER (CCHA INSIDER):
How does one distill such an unpredictable half-season into short form?
For starters, let’s talk about Minnesota State: I think many thought the Mavericks would struggle without Hobey Baker winner Dryden McKay. So maybe it shouldn’t be a shock that the Mavericks aren’t going to run away with the MacNaughton Cup this year.
More surprising? That Bemidji State and Michigan Tech are atop the standings. Both the Beavers and the Huskies lost a significant amount of scoring and were projected to finish in the middle of the pack, but they’ve each found ways to win behind strong goaltending and defense. St. Thomas and Ferris State have also upped their games and expectations. The Tommies have already surpassed their 2012-22 win total (3) under second-year head coach Rico Blasi and look like a totally different team from a season ago — one that gives even the country’s top teams fits whenever they play.
Ferris State is also resurgent, looking more and more like they are poised to turn back the clock to when they were regularly competing for titles in the old CCHA. Meanwhile, there’s just one team that has really struggled this year: Lake Superior State. The Lakers have been anchored to the bottom of the standings all season and haven’t been able to put much offense together despite returning star player Louis Boudon and a bunch of players from their NCAA tournament run two seasons ago.
CHRISTIAN BABCOCK (BEMIDJI STATE BEAT WRITER, BEMIDJI PIONEER):
I certainly didn't expect Bemidji State to be in first place at the holiday break as the Beavers are now. I have my doubts that they will hold that position until the end of the season, but the Beavers have impressed so far, particularly with their sweep of Minnesota State last week. Those two teams should have plenty to say about how the final standings shake out, but things are still wide open in the CCHA.