NCAA hockey preseason top 20: Nos. 1-5

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September 29, 2012 by Casey Hart

One of the common challenges of preseason polling is choosing between teams that put together impressive postseason runs and those that were the best over the course of the year. The 2011-12 season didn’t leave us with that problem, as the regular-season champions of college hockey’s top four leagues were also the squads that made up the Frozen Four. Joining that foursome in the 2012-13 top five is a team that had a championship playoff run of its own and also just happened to post the nation’s second-best record after Thanksgiving.

Previously: Nos. 6-10Nos. 11-15 • Nos. 16-20 • Near misses

1. Boston CollegeEagles
2011-12 record: 33-10-1
NCAA tournament: champion
Hockey East finish: champion
Hockey East tournament: champion
USCHO final rank: 1 • My final rank: 1

If you don’t have the Eagles at No. 1, you’re overthinking it. Not only have they not lost or tied since January, they haven’t even allowed three goals in a game since that month. They finished the season on a 19-0-0 run, and the only game with three goals against in that stretch was the streak-starter, when Steven Whitney’s final-minute goal lifted them to a 4-3 win. Boston College simply operated at a different level than the other 58 Division I teams for the rest of the season and gets the nod for No. 1 this year despite losing more contributors than some of its top-five brethren. The first order of business will be to help coach Jerry York get the 12 wins he needs to set a new NCAA record with 925 in his 41 seasons, 18 in Chestnut Hill.

The squad lost its top two goal-scorers, but the cupboard up front is far from bare overflowing. Four players are back after scoring 36 or more points, including the senior duo of Whitney (16-23-39) and Pat Mullane (10-29-39) as well as York’s latest tiny dancer, the dazzling Johnny Gaudreau (21-23-44). If there’s anywhere to worry, it’s on the blue line, where three top-four defensemen—including Hobey Baker finalist Brian Dumoulin (7-21-28)—have departed. Goaltender Parker Milner (.937 save percentage, 1.66 goals against average, 29-5-0 record) is back, though. All he did was post five shutouts (well, three; he took an early seat in the third period of two lopsided wins, but you get the point) in the final 12 games of the season and earn selection as the NCAA Championship’s Most Outstanding Player by allowing two goals on 112 shots in the tournament. I’m pretty comfortable leaving the Eagles atop my ranking until given sufficient reason to do otherwise.

2. MinnesotaGolden Gophers
2011-12 record: 28-14-1
NCAA tournament: semifinalist
WCHA finish: champion
WCHA tournament: runner-up
USCHO final rank: 4 • My final rank: 4

If you thought the Eagles’ offense was loaded, check out these guys. The Golden Gophers, the country’s top-scoring team a season ago, buried 12 goals in their first two NCAA tournament games before running into the BC buzzsaw. They bring back their top four and six of their top seven scorers from last season. Erik Haula (20-29-49) and Hobey hopeful Nick Bjugstad (25-17-42—Among returning players, only Maine’s Joey Diamond scored more goals) are part of a quartet of 40-point forwards returning. Every defenseman who saw action in more than one game is back, and that group will need to be strong. The graduation of Kent Patterson (.907, 2.32, 28-14-1) leaves junior Michael Shibrowski, who stopped all five shots he faced in his lone period of action last year, as the U’s most experienced netminder.

3. UnionDutchmen
2011-12 record: 26-8-7
NCAA tournament: semifinalist
ECAC Hockey finish: champion
ECAC Hockey tournament: champion
USCHO final rank: 3 • My final rank: 3

The Dutchmen joined BC in pulling off the trifecta of conference regular-season and tournament championships to go with a Frozen Four berth. Union did it with defense, allowing an NCAA-low 1.83 goals per game. That is not to say the Dutchmen couldn’t score—they ranked sixth in the nation at 3.49 goals per game, including a half-dozen in a November visit to Yost Arena—but it was Hobey finalist Troy Grosenick (.936, 1.65, 22-6-3) who drove the bus. Five regular defensemen are also back, including the offensively inclined Mat Bodie (8-21-29) and Shayne Gostisbehere (5-17-22), with the latter coming off a standout performance at the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp. The Dutchmen lost their biggest guns, Jeremy Welsh (27-17-44) and Kelly Zajac (8-34-42), but a capable cast of forwards and offensive defensemen lurks behind Daniel Carr (20-20-40) and Wayne Simpson (18-13-31). In a related story, the Dutchmen are 43-13-10 in ECAC Hockey and 73-30-17 overall since Simpson, Bodie and, to be fair, Welsh arrived in Schenectady three seasons ago.

4. North Dakota
2011-12 record: 26-13-3
NCAA tournament: quarterfinalist
WCHA finish: third
WCHA tournament: champion
USCHO final rank: 5 • My final rank: 5

Like its hated rival at No. 2, North Dakota will trot out a proven lineup in front of a new starter (or starters) in goal. Five UND regulars are back on the blue line and first-round pick Jordan Schmaltz bolsters the corps, but goaltender Aaron Dell (.900, 2.67, 18-10-2) left early for the pros. Transfer Clarke Saunders (.906, 3.72, 2-23-1) joins North Dakota after surviving a nightly barrage of rubber last season with Alabama-Huntsville. Up front, leading scorer Brock Nelson (28-19-47) signed with the Islanders, but the next five players on the 2011-12 UND scoring list return. The forward group is headlined by Danny Kristo (19-26-45) and bolstered by Rocco Grimaldi (1-1-2), who will take a second stab at his freshman year after his 2011-12 campaign lasted just four games before an injury. North Dakota lost just six of its last 30 games (22-6-2) following a 4-7-1 start trailing only BC for the best post-Thanksgiving mark (24-6-1). I don’t expect the opening-weekend suspensions to affect UND much after its return to the lower 48 and will take this team over a Ferris State squad (spoiler alert!) faced with the task of replacing half of its defensive top six.

5. Ferris StateBulldogs
2011-12 record: 26-12-5
NCAA tournament: runner-up
CCHA finish: champion
CCHA tournament: quarterfinalist
USCHO final rank: 2 • My final rank: 2

Lest anyone mistake Ferris State’s run to the NCAA final for a late-season fluke, I hereby issue this reminder: The Bulldogs won the CCHA regular-season title. In fact, it wasn’t all that close; they won by four points despite picking up just one point on a home-and-home weekend against Western Michigan and winning just one shootout all year. The key to the team’s NCAA run was a defense, led by since-graduated All-American Taylor Nelson (.924, 2.10, 21-7-3), that surrendered just one goal in each of its first three tournament games and kept the Bulldogs within a goal of Boston College through 56 minutes of the title game. Before Nelson got hot after the turn of the calendar to 2012, he shared time with C.J. Motte (.925, 1.98, 5-5-2). Motte won his first three collegiate starts, allowing one total goal and shutting out Rensselaer and Miami, and actually finished with better ratios than Nelson. The question is likely not Motte’s competence to take over, but whether the unit can account for the loss of All-American Chad Billins (7-22-29) and two other senior defensemen who skated in more than 40 games. Despite the loss of scoring leader Jordie Johnston (20-16-36), much of last year’s balanced attack remains, including Kyle Bonis (19-12-31) and Matthew Kirzinger (10-24-34).

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