Powerhouses, Parity, and Darkhorses: Catching Up on NCAA Hockey Storylines

It’s been a wild year in college hockey, but with conference play in basketball ongoing, and a legendary title matchup between LSU and Clemson stealing many of the sports headlines, much of the college hockey season has been lost in the shadows. But, it’s never too late to catch up: Here, I’ll try to briefly summarize the major events and storylines from the first half of the season, as the field of contenders begins to make itself apparent. 

Minnesota-Duluth slumps early, but they’re back

The Bulldogs entered the season with their eyes on a historical achievement; having won the past two national titles, UMD – a preseason favorite – was looking to three-peat, a feat not done since Michigan did the trick in 1951, ‘52 and ‘53. However, at the beginning of the season, UMD barely looked like a tournament team. They started the year 1-3, and they were outscored 9-3 in a two-game sweep at the hands of #17 Wisconsin. After tying and beating top-ranked Denver, the Bulldogs looked to vault their way back to the top, but they promptly lost to Miami of Ohio and were swept at home by Minnesota State-Mankato, getting outscored 7-2 on the weekend. At 7-6-1, UMD found themselves nearly halfway through their season. Their talent was evident, but the results were inconsistent and frustrating. 

However, the calendar flipped to December, and the Bulldogs flipped a switch. After averaging 2.3 goals per road game to start the year, the Bulldogs slapped ten goals on the board in a two-game series at Omaha, followed by nine goals in two games at Merrimack. Moving to 2020, the Bulldogs haven’t lost a beat, beating Western Michigan 6-3, and tying them 3-3. This offense is unreal, and UMD back up to #8 in the nation and scorching hot. These Bulldogs still have their eyes on history. 

The Clear Top 3

For all the discussion about UMD, there has been a clear top three teams that have emerged at the halfway point of the season: Cornell, North Dakota, and Minnesota State. In a year where parity has reigned supreme (more on that later), these three squads have been absolutely dominant, with a combined 6 losses. 

Cornell leads the pack, at 12-1-2. The Big Red have been led by one of the best defenses in the country, surrendering 24 goals in 15 games. Their one loss was a 2-1 defeat to Dartmouth; which they responded to by absolutely thumping #9 Ohio State 5-2. The Big Red might be the best team in the country, but they’ve got close competition at the top. 

North Dakota has won 10 of 11, a span that has seen them take a series from Denver, score eight goals in one game, and also nine goals in another game. The Fighting Hawks’ offense against the Cornell defense? There’s a savory title game I wouldn’t mind watching. 

But before we put our money on a title matchup, it would be unfair if we didn’t mention the other elite team in the hockey world. Although a few points behind UND and Cornell in the latest poll, Minnesota State has been wildly impressive with a 20-3-1 record. They set the tone for the season by opening 6-0-1 with a dominant sweep over Arizona State and a series win over North Dakota. After an overtime loss, the Mavericks broke off a ten-game winning streak, a run that included convincing sweeps over Michigan Tech and Minnesota-Duluth. After a two-game skid to end 2019, the Mavericks have returned in full force, currently on a five game run, outscoring their opponents 19-2. They’ve given up 1.3 goals per game and score 3.6. They might have the most impressive resume to date, and have their eyes on a deep run in March. 

With a strong offense and absolutely elite defense, the Mavericks are cruising. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletics

Parity in the middle of the rankings makes conference championships extremely important

One notable feature of the college season so far has included the incredible parity in the Top-20. 15 teams in the rankings have at least five losses, and eight teams have at least seven losses. With only a 16 team national tournament, conference championships have always been pivotal, but they may be even more so this year, as at-large bids will be at a premium with several well qualified teams fighting for spots. Take for example Notre Dame; the Fighting Irish are the two-time defending Big 10 champions and are coming off a Final 8 appearance and back-to-back Frozen Four appearance the two years before. However, an at-large bid is anything but a certainty for the Irish who have struggled since the start of conference play. At just 10-9-3, Notre Dame sits 18th in the country. Heading into winter break, they were a four-seed in the college hockey bracketology, but a recent skid likely knocked them out. The Big 10 title might be a must-win for the Irish, who could find themselves watching the NCAA tournament at home for the first time since 2015. The same can be said in the Hockey East, where BC, UMass, Providence, Northeastern and UMass-Lowell all currently sit in the top 16 teams…however, those teams will continue to bludgeon each other in the regular season, and in all likelihood, at least one or two of those squads will fall out of a tournament spot. Winning the Hockey East championship will be a huge boost and a sigh of relief while the other four squads sweat it out on selection day. 

So, a quick message to pretty much every team outside the Top 5: Win your conference because there are very few guarantees this season.

The Fortress Invitational

College hockey began the new decade in style, with a mouthwatering slate of games at the Fortress Invitational. The lowest ranked team there was #20 Army West Point, and the field also included #11 Providence, #9 Ohio State, and #1 Cornell. The tournament was rated the highest in-season tournament by quality of competition. Cornell lived to the hype as the #1 team in the semifinals, dominating Ohio State 5-2. Providence survived a feisty Army team 3-1. Ohio State would claim a tight consolation final, while an extremely exciting title game ended with the Friars securing the title via shootout. With the best team in the country and three potentital tournament teams, the entire weekend was must-watch hockey in Vegas and set the tone for the year. 

Providence knocked Cornell out of the NCAA tournament last year and repeated the deed in the Fortress Invitational. Photo Courtesy of the Ithaca Journal

Teams you probably want to root for

Here, I’ll give you three teams to root for that have a viable chance at the national championship right now. If you don’t have a horse in the running, hop on the bandwagon of one of these squads. All three of them are seeking their first title, which could make their chase for glory well worth watching. 

Penn State 

The Nittany Lions exploded out of the gate last year, starting 7-0, but they fizzled in Big 10 play, sweeping just one series and slowly fading out of contention. When all was said and done, Penn State didn’t even make the NCAA tournament, but this year, they have their eyes on finishing the job. The Nittany Lions are 16-6, including an 8-4 mark in Big 10 play with sweeps of Minnesota and Wisconsin spurring on their hot streak. They’re ranked 6th in the country right now – the top ranked Big 10 team – and they look to have a legitimate shot at reaching the Frozen Four, where anything could happen. 

Minnesota State

I already talked about Minnesota State, but they’re a story well worth mentioning in this section as well. Their superb achievements this season have already been covered, but the Mavericks are truly doing something special in Minnesota. A long-time second fiddle to Minnesota-Duluth, the Mavericks might be the best team in the state this year. They looked really good last year, but they were cut down abruptly in the first round by Providence. This year, the Mavericks look even better. Ranked #3 right now, they are gunning for a title. 

Clarkson

Honorable mention here goes to Northeastern, who was a title favorite and possibly the most talented team in the country before being upset in the first round. But Clarkson gets the nod as our third team to root for, as they haven’t reached the Frozen Four since 1991. After a heartbreaking first round exit last year, the Golden Knights are hoping to take the next step this March. They allow the sixth-fewest goals in college hockey with an outstanding penalty kill and spectacular 7-1-2 away record. They’re ranked #7 right now, they’re an underdog well worth rooting fpr as we hit the halfway point of the season. 

Dark-horses to watch

This category is to list three teams who are currently outside the Top 16 who are darkhorse squads to make the tournament and make a run. To qualify you could not be a Top-16 team and you could not have made the tournament last year (sorry Notre Dame), as neither of those make for an appealing underdog story to root for. You also can not be currently leading your conference, as that means you are a favorite to make the tournament. 

Northern Michigan

Northern Michigan sits just outside the bracket right now, ranked #17 in the country. They’ve also fallen victim to being in the WCHA conference, home of the #3 Minnesota State Mavericks. This means that the Wildcats’ stellar 11-5 conference has kept them a steady three games off the pace in their own conference. A mid-season slump made a tournament berth look extremely unlikely, but the Wildcats are now streaking, winners of five straight, including a victory over the Mavericks and an impressive road sweep of #15 Bowling Green. They’ve got a legitimate shot at cracking the tournament field for the first time since 2010, and, given they’ve proven their ability to win versus elite opponents, they can earn their first tournament win since 1993. 

Michigan Tech

This team is not quite in the tournament drought that Northern Michigan has, but they haven’t had much success once they’ve made the field, and they’re probably the least likely of these three teams to make the tournament. The Huskies failed to qualify for the tournament last year, breaking a three-year streak, but they didn’t win a single NCAA tournament game in that span – losing two overtime heartbreakers, sandwiched around a blowout loss in 2017. Before that? Well it’s been a while for Michigan Tech, as they haven’t won a tournament game since 1981, when they claimed third place in the country. They currently sit at #19 in the country, but a lackluster performance in WCHA play has them in sixth, with an 8-7-1 conference mark. They’ve struggled against elite competition; outside of a sweep versus Northern Michigan, the Huskies are 3-7-2 against ranked opponents. Ultimately, their inconsistency throughout the season and inability to go on a long run may doom them. But given their nearly 40-year drought between tournament wins, it’s still worth rooting for this team to snap that streak. 

Michigan State

This section is centered around Michigan teams, as the Spartans take my final spot of dark horse teams to root for. Michigan State has not only not made the NCAA tournament since 2012, they haven’t won a single postseason game since 2013. Since joining the Big 10 for the 2013-2014 season, the Spartans are 0-6 in Big 10 playoff games. They haven’t won a NCAA tournament game since 2008, and this year, the Spartans are hoping a late surge and strong conference performance can lift them into the field. They may need a Big 10 title to do so, but they have a chance at that, currently sitting second with a 7-4-1 conference record. Their strong conference resume has undone some of the damage of a 4-6 non-conference record. To be fair, the Spartans have faced a brutal schedule, with 15 of their 22 games coming against opponents that are currently ranked or were ranked at the time of the matchup. The Spartans have tread water and given themselves a chance, but they’re only 5-5 since November 30. They’ll need to pick it up and get hot soon if they want a chance at ending their horrendous postseason streak. 
Hopefully this article was helpful in catching up on some college hockey storylines. If there’s a particular topic you’d like covered, contact us at collegetalking@gmail.com or message us on twitter @college_talking.

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