Monday, December 27, 2010

Living Up to Expectations?

With more time to kill before the Engineers take on Alabama-Huntsville on Thursday, let's take a look around the nation by examining the USCHO.com pre-season poll and seeing how well teams have lived up to expectations. For the most part, teams are still within 5 positions or so of their initial placement, but there are notable exceptions.

Teams are listed by their preseason rankings, with current rankings (as of December 13, the most recent poll) in parentheses.

1. Boston College (5th) - The Eagles soared to start the season, jumping out to a 3-0-0 mark in their first two weekends. But from October 23rd to November 26th, BC struggled and to some extent called into question their preseason expectations, which pegged them as the practically untouchable national favorites. During that ten game stretch, the Eagles were 5-5-0, suffering two losses to Merrimack and one to Vermont. A double thrashing of BU in early December before starting their mid-season break has led some to believe BC will be back on track heading into the second half.

2. North Dakota (3rd) - The Fighting Sioux have practically mirrored the Eagles this season, but basically all of their losses have been against some of the toughest competition in the nation. After opening at 3-0-1, UND went 2-4-0 over their next six games, though losses were at the hands of teams like Maine, Denver, and Minnesota-Duluth. But since the middle of November, the Sioux have proven their mettle - they are 8-1-1 since. They're right in the thick of things.

3. Miami (6th) - The Redhawks were hot during the month of October and haven't been able to put together winning streaks since, but they also had a pretty tough schedule through November and December. Each of Miami's losses has been to a ranked team, but with only one weekend sweep since Halloween, the Redhawks' status as the top team in the CCHA will be under heavy fire in January.

4. St. Cloud State (NR) - Bar none, the Huskies are the biggest disappointment of the season thus far. Expected to be North Dakota's closest competition for the MacNaughton Cup in the WCHA, SCSU has instead faltered greatly; they possess only two wins since the beginning of November, have lost at least once in every single weekend of the season, are 1-7-1 in their last nine games, and sit in 11th place in the WCHA. Their problem? No defense and a sub-par offense. With several of their top guns well off their usual pace and both of their respected goaltenders allowing far more goals than expected, the Huskies are outside of the Top 40 nationally in both categories, a recipe for disaster in any league, let alone the uber-competitive WCHA.

5. Michigan (11th) - Pre-season expectations are always high for the Wolverines no matter what the circumstances are, but to some extent, they always seem to fail to live up to those expectations. Michigan is easily the most consistently successful program in the nation, as they have been to 20 consecutive NCAA tournaments, and they're in decent shape for number 21. Still, in that time they have won only two national championships, and none since 1998. So Michigan being good is not new, but they have to be something more to be truly impressive, since they're so rarely at the very top for how good they are. That's pretty much the explanation for why the 10-5-4 Wolverines are down in 11th now. Other teams have simply been more impressive. Their only glaring loss was to Ohio State on December 3rd.

6. Yale (1st) - Although their ranking remains somewhat controversial, the Bulldogs have still been on top of their game throughout the season. As we've recounted a couple of times, Yale was only 15 minutes away from still being undefeated, with a 3rd period collapse spanning 10 minutes of game time against Air Force being the only blemish so far on their schedule. Any losses going forward will be amplified, but with their final non-conference game coming at home against Holy Cross (albeit without head coach Keith Allain, who is coaching the US Junior Team), Eli's only challenge may come in the last weekend of January when they travel to Union and RPI.

7. Maine (9th) - It appears that the Black Bears are finally on their way to returning to the heights of Hockey East that they are accustomed to. There are a few missteps out there - a one point weekend against Michigan State and a tie with UConn the most glaring - but those were mitigated with a weekend sweep of North Dakota and the fact that since mid-October, Maine's only losses are to Boston College (twice) and New Hampshire, not much to be ashamed of, although the losses to the Eagles were by a combined 8-1. So the Black Bears are essentially where they were at the beginning of the year, just a touch off based on those early setbacks and the drubbings by BC.

8. Minnesota-Duluth (4th) - File the Bulldogs in the "slightly underrated to start the season" category. Most thought UMD would be among the better teams in the WCHA, and although it's partially thanks to St. Cloud's drop off the cliff, they are pretty much the heirs to that title of being North Dakota's closest rivals for top honors within the league. The Bulldogs rightfully got a few weeks at the very top of the polls thanks to their outstanding start of 11-1-2. A not-as-impressive December of 1-2-1 thus far has dethroned the Bulldogs in favor of the other Bulldogs, and they face a tough task in their Amsoil Arena grand opening on Thursday against North Dakota, but UMD is absolutely a better team than they were given credit for at the beginning of the year, and that's saying a lot considering that they were at least very well respected coming in.

9. Denver (7th) - Significant losses to graduation and the professional exodus left the Pioneers as question marks in the eyes of some observers, but a freshman class chock full of talent has DU among the top teams in the WCHA once again. They didn't sneak up on anyone, as they were expected to finish 4th in the league by both the media and the coaches, but as the season has progressed it has become apparent that DU was definitely reloading rather than rebuilding, and much of their success has indeed been on the shoulders of their younger talent. This is a program which, if they can hang onto their young guys for another year or two, could be one of the best teams in the country for sure, and they're right there with the best already.

10. New Hampshire (2nd) - The Wildcats are certainly one of the pleasant surprises of the season. Though their pre-season expectations are usually high regardless, there was little expected of the Wildcats outside of their usual Top 4 finish in Hockey East and perhaps another NCAA bid. Instead, UNH has proven themselves to be national contenders and a true rival for BC's assumed supremacy in Hockey East. Unbeaten at home, the Wildcats' only two losses this year have been to Miami and Boston University, the latter coming while their opponent was ranked #1 in the nation.

11. Cornell (NR) - The Big Red's early season ranking may have been based more on reputation than anything concrete. Offensively and defensively average, Cornell just isn't putting together enough of both regularly enough to be producing victories. Their recent dominance within the ECAC had many expecting Mike Schafer to use his system to be able to put together a winning team no matter what. Early returns suggest that this just hasn't been the case. Although not quite as big of a disappointment as St. Cloud to date, Cornell is probably going to be in a fight to claim a home-ice spot in the first round of the ECAC Playoffs, something they are definitely not used to be doing.

12. Alaska (16th) - The Nanooks advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history last year, and the table was set for UAF to be confirmed CCHA contenders this year. It hasn't quite panned out that way, as the Nanooks haven't been able to keep pace with Miami, Michigan, and Notre Dame, thanks in large part to their inability to earn weekend sweeps - they have only two all year, one in their non-conference tournament in October and one against last place Bowling Green. They have solid wins against Miami and Michigan on their resume, but they'll need to score more goals to go on a winning streak in league play and soon if they are going to live up to lofty pre-season expectations.

13. Wisconsin (15th) - The Badgers were viewed in much the same light as Denver at the dawn of the season. A Frozen Four team last year, UW was decimated by graduation and early jumpers, but they've been able to manage better than most teams in the fiercely competitive WCHA thus far. The Badgers have gotten plenty out of both their offense and their defense to become a solid all around team this season, and if they played in any other league but the WCHA, they'd probably be right near the top of the table. As it is, simply having a solid team isn't always enough out west. They've won the games they were supposed to win (for the most part, anyway, as a loss to Alaska-Anchorage doesn't look too good), and they've lost the games against teams like UND and UMD.

14. Boston University (10th) - The Terriers came into the season with low expectations bolstered somewhat by their reputation as a traditional college hockey power, then wowed everyone by racking up win after win on their way to a #1 ranking earlier this year. But BU is now showing some signs of regression to the mean, as partially evidenced by their twin thrashings at the hands of BC and their punk-out in Troy in mid-December. The big story with BU thus far has been how well talented young individuals have melded together into a team. That will definitely serve them well going forward.

15. Minnesota (19th) - The Golden Gophers have had a rough couple of years, and it honestly doesn't seem to be getting much easier. Like Wisconsin, they've lost a lot of games to better teams, and they've won a lot of games against weaker teams, but their 3-point weekend against UMD and losses to St. Cloud State, Michigan State, and being swept by Minnesota State don't seem to quite pigeonhole them. The Gophers certainly had lower expectations than their usual fare coming in, and it's safe to say that those lower expectations were justified.

16. Michigan State (NR) - When the calendar turned from October to November, the Spartans seemed to disappear. Expected to contend in the CCHA this year after a disappointing showing last year, MSU earned a tie in the first game of each weekend series in October, and a win in the return meeting to start off the season 3-0-3. While the month included games against Maine and Alaska, they were also all played in East Lansing. Since then, the Spartans are 3-9-0 and have crumbled to 10th place in the 11-team CCHA. Outside of St. Cloud, MSU may be the biggest disappointment going right now.

17. Notre Dame (12th) - After a miserable season last year followed by a mass exodus of talent, both to the NHL and of committed freshmen choosing the major junior route, expectations were significantly lower for the Fighting Irish. Expected to finish fifth in the CCHA, Notre Dame is instead on top of the league table at the midway point. The Irish have yet to come out of a weekend without any points (including in non-conference play, as they salvaged a tie with North Dakota on Thanksgiving weekend), though there are only a couple of weekend sweeps at home thus far and a few head-scratchers, like a loss to Bowling Green. Still, the Irish are clearly a better team than expected at the outset.

18. RIT (NR) - The Tigers not only raised expectations last year by making it to the Frozen Four, they proved that the dream of the national championship isn't necessarily out of reach for any program. They lost a lot of the talent they had last year, but after a rough start that saw RIT ejected from the national rankings almost right away, they're actually taking a turn for the better. Despite some awful losses, they've regained the top spot in Atlantic Hockey, both by points and winning percentage. It's hard to say that RIT isn't living up to expectations just because they are no longer nationally ranked - it's a bit unusual to see teams from Atlantic Hockey in the polls, and when they get there one loss is usually enough to toss them from those rankings.

19. Union (12th) - Underrated partially because they're in the ECAC, partially because of their history, and partially because they had some question marks offensively to start the season, the Dutchmen have steadily risen through the national polls during the first half of the year. Those question marks were mostly squelched when UC got out of the box with an offensive barrage, but their mettle was called into question when they were swept on the road at Western Michigan. They have another chance to prove themselves worthy this week in Minnesota, but the Dutchmen have at least proven their ability to dominate lesser teams, something not all good teams are able to do regularly.

20. Colorado College (20th) - The only team that's right back where they started the season, the Tigers stumbled out of the gate. After their 3-point weekend over RPI, they went 5-7-0 through the end of November, but a six-game winning streak has them back above water. The hitch? Those six wins were against some of the weakest teams in the WCHA - Alaska-Anchorage, Michigan Tech, and St. Cloud State. A 5-2 victory over Nebraska-Omaha was countered by a 3-0 loss the next night. They have a favorable schedule going forward, though.

NR. Ferris State (18th) - Defense, defense, and more defense has put the 3rd breed of Bulldogs into the national rankings. One of the leaders of "the rest of the pack" in the CCHA, FSU actually isn't that far removed from their pre-season expectations, but if you go out to a game in Big Rapids, don't expect an awful lot of goals. That's because while Ferris boasts the nation's top defensive numbers, their offense is among the worst - 50th out of 58 teams.

NR. Nebraska-Omaha (8th) - Perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise thus far have been the Mavericks, who have taken to the WCHA like a fish takes to water. In short order, UNO was not only a ranked team, but at one point this season was receiving multiple first place votes. That was, to a large extent, expected at some point once Dean Blais took over the team last year, but few expected the Mavericks to jump into the WCHA and immediately join the ranks of the contenders. They've done exactly that. UNO kicked off their season with five wins in a row, and were 8-1-1 after ten games. They're 4-4-0 since, so they've dropped back a touch, but one of those wins is over North Dakota.

NR. RPI (14th) - Picked to finish 4th and 5th in the ECAC respectively by the coaches and media, the Engineers have vaulted themselves from being considered contenders for a first-round bye to being contenders for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. They've still got a long way to go, but the schedule is favorable going forward, with Yale the only presently ranked team left to play - one game out of 18. Most notably, RPI has been in every single game they've played, with the empty-net goal at Yale accounting for the Engineers' only loss by multiple goals.

NR. Merrimack (17th) - You heard it here first when Adam Wodon picked the Warriors as a dark horse team out of Hockey East during our Summer Cooler series - and they certainly haven't disappointed in that role yet. They may not be ready to challenge the confirmed "Big Four" in Hockey East just yet, but they've pretty firmly established themselves at the head of the rest of the pack. The Warriors have earned a season series win over BC already, something few other teams will be able to claim, and like the Engineers, they've been in every single game they've played, never getting blown out and with just a single empty-net goal keeping them from having only one-goal losses on their record.

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