NCAA hockey top 20: [Almost] nobody’s perfect

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October 23, 2012 by Casey Hart

It was a fairly wild weekend in college hockey, resulting in some typical early-season shakeups in the national polls. Eight teams received first-place votes in the USCHO.com poll.

For me, it came down three teams. Between the two most popular choices, preseason No. 1 Boston College and newly top-ranked Minnesota, I went with the team with the stronger body of work this season. That’s the Gophers. The best resume so far this season, however, belongs to 3-0-0 New Hampshire, which gives the Wildcats a strong claim to the top spot. But with some teams yet to play, last year still counts, and I kept UNH behind four of the five teams that, in my view, entered the season a notch above the rest. (The fifth was Ferris State, off to a 1-1-2 start.)

My top 20 is below. Each team is listed with its overall record, record against my ranked teams, last week’s ranking and, for comparison’s sake, national rankings from the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey (top 15) polls. My ballot is submitted to USCHO by Monday at noon.

1. MinnesotaGolden Gophers
3-1-0 overall • 0-0-0 vs. my ranked teams  • 1-1-0 last week
Last week: 1 • USCHO: 2 • USA Today: 2

Both Boston College and Minnesota have lost once, only to avenge that defeat. The Eagles’ revenge win was more convincing, but I’ll take the Gophers’ 12-2 aggregate dismantling of Michigan State last week to the Eagles’ from-the-jaws-of-defeat win Friday at Massachusetts. There is still work to do, though; Minnesota struggled all weekend to contain Michigan Tech’s transition attack (and was even worse at shooting at an empty net). Side note: Saturday’s win was head coach Don Lucia’s 600th.

2. Boston College
3-1-0 overall • 1-0-0 vs. my ranked teams • 2-0-0 last week
Last week: 2 • USCHO: 1 • USA Today: 1

The Eagles avoided a second straight loss to open the season Friday, but only by the slimmest of margins. They trailed by 3-0 and 4-2 in the third period, but captain Pat Mullane scored twice in the final four minutes of regulation and assisted on Johnny Gaudreau’s overtime winner. BC outshot the Minutemen 21-6 in the third period and overtime and carried that momentum—and probably got an extra boost from a pregame banner-raising—to a 3-0 win against Northeastern to avenge the previous weekend’s loss. The rest of Hockey East is hoping a switch hasn’t been flipped to BC beast mode.

3. North Dakota
1-1-0 overall • 0-0-0 vs. my ranked teams • 1-1-0 last week
Last week: 3 • USCHO: 4 • USA Today: 4

Skating with just 10 forwards—a night after opening with just nine—the team with no name lost by a goal at Alaska, a much more forgivable sin than Union’s lone loss, a one-sided defeat at home to Merrimack. Clarke Saunders, a transfer from Alabama-Huntsville, started both games for North Dakota and shut out Alaska-Anchorage with 21 saves in a 5-0 win Friday.

4. Union
2-1-0 overall • 0-0-0 vs. my ranked teams • 0-0-0 last week
Last week: 4 • USCHO: 8 • USA Today: 8
5. New Hampshire
3-0-0 overall • 1-0-0 vs. my ranked teams • 1-0-0 last week
Last week: 7 • USCHO: 12 • USA Today: 11

The Wildcats own the nation’s best record and have done just about all that could have been asked of them, averaging 4.67 goals in three wins against good teams (two against St. Cloud State and a 4-1 defeat of No. 11 Boston University Saturday, all at home). Five different UNH players have notched two goals each, and Casey DeSmith shut out the Terriers over the final 59 minutes. A home-and-home sweep of Northeastern could earn the Wildcats my vote for No. 1 no matter what happens above them on this list. Of course, the same goes for the unbeaten squads from Miami (at Michigan) and Denver (home against Michigan Tech) this weekend.

6. Miami
3-0-1 overall • 0-0-0 vs. my ranked teams • 1-0-1 last week
Last week: 8 • USCHO: 3 • USA Today: 3

The RedHawks climbed to No. 3 in the USCHO.com poll, earning four first-place votes, after remaining unbeaten with a home win and tie (no credit here for the shootout win) against promising-but-unproven Providence. They have allowed just five goals in four games.

7. Denver
2-0-0 overall • 1-0-0 vs. my ranked teams • 2-0-0 last week
Last week: 9 • USCHO: 5 • USA Today: 5

Two games, 10 goals for, three goals against. Not bad, especially against a pair of last season’s NCAA qualifiers, UMass Lowell and Air Force. Leading the way? Two familiar names. Nick Shore, the middle in a series of three DU brothers, netted a hat trick against the Falcons and is tied for third in the nation in per-game scoring with five points so far. Freshman Nolan Zajac leads the nation’s defensemen with two points per game, evidence that he enjoys some of the offensive skills displayed by brothers Travis, Darcy and Kelly.

8. Notre Dame
3-1-0 overall • 1-1-0 vs. my ranked teams • 1-1-0 last week
Last week: 6 • USCHO: 9 • USA Today: 10

I watched most of Game 1 between the host Irish and Minnesota Duluth. Notre Dame set up camp in the UMD zone at even strength, especially in the first and third periods, but the Bulldogs gutted out a 3-1 win by taking advantage of their chances and withstanding Notre Dame’s physicality.  The Irish came out Saturday like a team that had just lost a winnable game, throwing 21 shots on net in the first period and putting in two goals by the end of the frame on the way to a 4-1 win.

9. Northeastern
2-1-0 overall • 2-1-0 vs. my ranked teams • 0-1-0 last week
Last week: 5 • USCHO: 15 • USA Today: Receiving votes

Still in first place.

10. Michigan
2-1-0 overall • 0-0-0 vs. my ranked teams • 1-0-0 last week
Last week: 13 • USCHO: 6 • USA Today: 6

For scoreboard-watchers, it looked for a while like the Wolverines might lose at home to an Atlantic Hockey team for the second straight weekend, as Bentley held 1-0 and 2-1 leads at Yost Arena. In the end, though, Michigan poured 56 shots on Branden Komm and won 6-3 with A.J. Treais and Alex Guptill each scoring twice. Brett Gensler logged a goal and an assist for Bentley and leads the nation in scoring with three points per game (2-4-6 in two games).

11. Harvard
0-0-0 overall • 0-0-0 vs. my ranked teams • 0-0-0 last week
Last week: 11 • USCHO: 17 • USA Today: RV
12. Cornell
0-0-0 overall • 0-0-0 vs. my ranked teams • 0-0-0 last week
Last week: 12 • USCHO: 7 • USA Today: 7

The Crimson and Big Red finally begin play, along with their four fellow Ivy League teams, this weekend. Harvard dominated McGill in an exhibition Friday, and Cornell warmed up with a 1-0-1 weekend. Both should be tested at home in their openers: The Big Red hosts Colorado College for two games, and Bentley, the Crimson’s visitor Saturday, has so far looked very capable of an upset.

13. St. Lawrence
3-1-0 overall • 1-1-0 vs. my ranked teams • 2-0-0 last week
Last week: Not ranked • USCHO: RV • USA Today: RV

Coming off a streaky season, I found the Saints to be an obvious choice as best of the rest behind a strong top five in ECAC Hockey. Maybe I underestimated them. I suggested that in order to contend, SLU would need offense from more than just Kyle Flanagan and Greg Carey. Clearly, I neglected to consider the possibility that those two would combine for 21 points in four games (Flanagan with 5-6-11 and Carey with 3-7-10). That’s not to say that they have done it by themselves—the Saints have allowed just seven total goals and outscored Maine 10-1 in two games in Orono—but you don’t need much depth when your top two forwards are averaging more goals than scored (2.00) than your team is giving up (1.75).

14. Boston University
1-1-0 overall • 0-1-0 vs. my ranked teams • 0-1-0 last week
Last week: 10 • USCHO: 13 • USA Today: 13

Matt O’Connor seems to be the early leader in the battle to secure starting-goaltender duties. He debuted with a win against Providence and stopped all 15 shots he faced in relief of Sean Maguire against UNH.

15. Western Michigan
3-1-0 overall • 0-0-0 vs. my ranked teams • 2-0-0 last week
Last week: 16 • USCHO: 10 • USA Today: 10
16. Northern Michigan
3-1-0 overall • 2-0-0 vs. my ranked teams • 1-1-0 last week
Last week: 17 • USCHO: 16 • USA Today: 15

The Wildcats are not easing into their CCHA schedule. On the docket the next three weeks: two games each against Notre Dame (at home), Michigan (at home) and Miami (in Oxford).

17. Colorado College
3-1-0 overall • 1-1-0 vs. my ranked teams • 1-1-0 last week
Last week: Honorable mention • USCHO: 19 • USA Today: RV
18. Michigan Tech
2-2-0 overall • 2-2-0 vs. my ranked teams • 1-1-0 last week
Last week: NR • USCHO: RV • USA Today: NR

A night after beating top-ranked Minnesota 5-3, the Huskies played the Gophers even through the first 56 minutes of a 3-2 loss Saturday. (They nearly took the lead with a pair of back-to-back, grade-A chances early in the third period and almost tied the game shortly after Minnesota reclaimed a late lead.) Tech was opportunistic, scoring goals like this, but the Huskies also looked good overall. And it wasn’t just the pretty new sweaters (Friday, Saturday).

19. Minnesota Duluth
2-2-0 overall • 1-1-0 vs. my ranked teams • 1-1-0 last week
Last week: 20 • USCHO: 13 • USA Today: 13
20. Minnesota State
2-0-2 overall • 1-0-1 vs. my ranked teams • 1-0-1 last week
Last week: NR • USCHO: RV • USA Today: RV

The Mavericks have played four games and have lost none. That’s enough for a top-20 spot from me, especially after a hard-fought 1-0-1 weekend at Rensselaer, my No. 15 team last week).

I ran out of room for the Engineers in this week’s ranking and could not find a spot for UND-beater Alaska, defending CCHA champion Ferris State or Quinnipiac. The Bobcats fell out of my top 20 despite a 1-0-1 weekend against a tough team, Ohio State. They fared better than Minnesota Duluth against the Buckeyes, but UMD’s signature win, at Notre Dame, is worth more than Quinnipiac’s, at Maine. Fun QU fact: The Bobcats haven’t allowed a goal in 22 power plays against over the course of their five games.

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