The college hockey season is officially underway with the vast majority of Division I teams having played at least one regular-season game. As always seems to be the case, Week 1 was full of shocking upsets and entertaining hockey.
After an offseason with early departures, decommitments, lawsuits and heavy-handed NCAA sanctions, it’s nice to have some real games to watch and talk about. It only takes a few minutes to remember what makes the college game so fun to follow.
Coming up after the jump a look at some of the storylines coming out of college hockey’s first week and what we learned about some of the top teams in the country.
Minnesota Sends Week 1 Message
In the coaches’ poll, the University of Minnesota was listed as No. 1, receiving 14 first-place votes. In the media poll, the Gophers were second, receiving 12 first-place votes behind Boston College’s 37. Now polls don’t necessarily mean anything, especially not this early, but expect there to be a clear No. 1 in both polls after the weekend.
Welcoming future Big Ten foe Michigan State to Marriuci Arena, Minnesota blew the barn doors off the Spartans in both games. Having outscored MSU 12-2 over the weekend and making it look relatively easy in the process was a convincing way to start the season.
Goaltending was a bit of a concern coming into the season, but certainly not over the weekend with Michael Shibrowski and Adam Wilcox splitting the duties.
However, if Minnesota keeps playing like it did over last weekend (it also defeated Lethbridge 7-0 in an exhibition game the week before), they may not need goalies anyway.
The top line of Nick Bjugstad, Kyle Rau and Christian Isackson should put up a lot of points, and did so against MSU, each notching three points. However, the next line featuring Erik Haula, Zach Budish and Sam Warning could end up being just as potent. Budish came out of the weekend as Minnesota’s top point-getter with four, all assists.
Minnesota’s defense also looked improved from a season ago, made all the more impressive based on the youthfulness of the D corps. Freshmen Mike Reilly and Brady Skjei immediately made their presence felt, while Ben Marshall, Nate Schmidt and Justin Holl reminded the country that they’re pretty all right too.
The Gophers are going to be tough to contain with great team speed and the ability to create in transition. They made a pretty decent Michigan State squad look like the JV out there. That weekend series sent a message to the rest of college hockey.
Notable Results from Week 1
Ok, so that thing about polls not mattering and all that? Well, they don’t matter much still, but they’re supposed to be some sort of guide to who the top teams are, right?
The big shocker of the weekend was defending national champs Boston College, ranked No. 2 (USA Today) and No. 1 (USCHO) in the country, falling to Northeastern in a conference game Saturday night. The Eagles took a 3-1 loss on the road. Now Northeastern is no slouch, but with such lofty expectations surrounding the Eagles, this was a big surprise. Only scoring one goal in a season-opener, where emotions and energy levels run high, is a little more than disappointing.
It’s hardly panic time for the Eagles, but this is a stumble out the gates that few could have seen coming. Expect Jerry York to regroup his team for a pair of Hockey East tilts this weekend, including a Saturday night rematch with the Huskies at Conte Forum.
No. 3 (in both polls) Michigan also was stunned in its season opener, by Atlantic Hockey power RIT. At one point the Wolverines led the game 3-0, but some defensive and goaltending miscues left the door open for the Tigers, who skated away with a 5-4 overtime win. Michigan must’ve been playing angry Saturday night as the Wolverines bounced back with a convincing 7-2 victory, out-shooting RIT 51-23.
Jon Merrill will certainly be missed while recovering from a pretty serious injury, but Michigan can take solace in the fact it has one of the best freshmen in the country in Jacob Trouba. The Winnipeg first-rounder had a pair of goals and one assist on the weekend to pace the Wolverines. By all accounts the big defenseman showed maturity and strength, showing why he could have a relatively short stay in college hockey.
It wasn’t a loss, but with such big things expected out of UMass-Lowell this year, a 1-1 tie with Vermont in front of a sellout crowd at home might be a little disappointing. This squad returns a lot of offensive firepower from its NCAA Tournament team and should be able to do better than a goal against a squad that only managed to win six games all of last season.
Another surprising result was that of Western Michigan losing its home opener to St. Lawrence, 4-3 in OT. The defending CCHA tournament champs were able to earn a split with a 3-2 win, but to stumble in front of the home crowd is a little disconcerting. One thing Western will have to prove this year is its ability to score at a consistent clip. It has strength in net and on the blue line, but the forward corps isn’t as dynamic as other top teams. True to form, WMU’s top four point-getters over the weekend were defensemen, with sophomore Garrett Haar scoring twice in the series.
In related news, St. Lawrence’s Kyle Flanagan could be this year’s Austin Smith. He had four points over the weekend, including three goals and is coming off a 37-point campaign as a junior. His experience and productivity could make the Saints a team to watch in the ECAC this year.
Earlier in the week, Union, a Frozen Four team last year lost to Merrimack 4-1 at home. The Dutchmen bounced back in a big way against Bowling Green, outscoring the Falcons 9-3 on the road. Defenseman Mat Bodie now has five points on the year, including a pair of goals. He’s one of the more underrated offensive defensemen in college hockey, but I’d expect that to change this year.
Ice Breaker Turnout Worse Than Expected
Notre Dame defeated Nebraska Omaha 3-2 to claim the Ice Breaker “championship” on Saturday night in front of a live television audience and apparently family and friends inside the Sprint Center. In the 17,500-plus seat building, only 2,254 fans were in attendance for the final, while just 2,200 were in the building for the Day 1 games.
Perhaps the neutral site Ice Breaker is dead, or at least it should be. College hockey’s early season showcase, as expected, had dreadful turnout. However it was even worse than expected, as an official from the Kansas City Sports Commission said 3,000 ticket books had been sold for both days. Guess not.
I heard from several local people who said the marketing for the event was non-existent and with far-flung participating teams, with the exception of UNO, the recipe for disaster was realized.
The lack of fans in the seats was somewhat distracting from the hockey being played, even on TV. Devoid of any atmosphere or anything remotely resembling a typical college hockey game, there were far more comments on social media about the crowd than anything else that was happening.
I’m all for experimenting with non-traditional areas. I actually liked the idea of playing in Kansas City when I first heard about, figuring it was great opportunity to see just how much the area would embrace hockey. Well… the experiment apparently failed miserably.
With college hockey’s opportunity to seize some of the hockey-related spotlight, what happened in Kansas City was unacceptable. The Kansas City Sports Commission has expressed a desire to attract the Frozen Four, but the worse-than-expected turnout for the Ice Breaker will certainly deliver a blow to those chances.
Alabama Huntsville Shown Support
Though the UAH Chargers have gone through hell and back as a program it seems, it’s still surviving for now as a Division I independent. That’s what made Friday night’s Division I home opener so special. The Chargers played in front of a record 5,106 fans at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville. The attendance record previously stood for 10 years.
Unfortunately UAH lost to Minnesota State 4-1, but the big crowd and the show of support must have been fulfilling for a team that was on death’s door just last year.
With new coach Kurt Kleinendorst, the Chargers managed a 2-2 tie on Saturday night (in front of a smaller crowd), a moral victory after a 28-loss season last year. The tie broke an eight-game Division I losing streak dating back to last season.
Hopefully those warm feelings of success at home, either in attendance or in the non-loss column will be able to carry the Chargers for a while. UAH will not play another home game against a Division I opponent the remainder of the season.
Notable Individual Performances
Minnesota’s Nick Bjugstad is going to get a lot of buzz as one of the best pro prospects in college hockey this year, and rightfully so. He certainly looked the part in the Gophers’ romp of Michigan State, scoring a goal in each game and adding an assist. It should be a big season for the big forward.
The aforementioned Mat Bodie and Kyle Flanagan could be a pair of intriguing follows throughout the ECAC season. Both are under-the-radar and both have strong track records. With Bodie collecting five points in Union’s first three games and Flanagan notching three goals against a ranked opponent on the road, both should garner more attention than they’re currently getting.
The nation’s incredibly strong freshman class was on display in the first week of the season. Here’s a snap shot:
Kevin Roy — Northeastern — The Anaheim draft choice and reigning USHL player of the year was an integral part in helping the Huskies start the year 2-0. He had a goal in both games and added an assist. His late change-of-heart could be huge for Northeastern’s chances going forward.
Mark Jankowski — Providence — Though held off the score sheet in PC’s 4-2 loss to Boston University, the Flames first-rounder notched two goals in his collegiate debut, an 8-2 win over Sacred Heart.
Jacob Trouba — Michigan — A goal in both of Michigan’s games this weekend stand out, but the reports coming back on Trouba’s defensive play and puck-moving ability are really impressive. The top draft pick among college freshmen is deserving of his preseason hype. Not having Jon Merrill on the blue line makes Trouba’s play all the more important for the Wolverines.
Brady Skjei — Minnesota — The Rangers first-round choice in 2012 scored one of the prettier one-timers you’ll see in the 7-1 route of Michigan State Saturday. He also showed a keen ability to shut down opposing forwards and his high-end skating was on display. The Gophers have a good one here.
Thomas Di Pauli — Notre Dame — Arguably one of Notre Dame’s best all-around forwards at the Ice Breaker, Di Pauli had a goal Saturday against UNO and did a lot well. He played physical, was strong in puck possession and made plays. He’s not getting the lauding of other freshmen across the country, but he’s a strong one.
Jon Gillies — Providence — Though Providence split its weekend games, Gillies was strong in his collegiate debut. The big netminder stopped 44 shots over the weekend and proved he’s more than just the goalie of the future for the Friars. He’s the guy right now.
Ryan McKay — Miami — The freshman netminder and reigning co-goalie of the year in the USHL notched a shutout in his first career start, making 20 stops to blank Colgate. He split the weekend with fellow freshman Jay Williams. Miami has split goalies to great results in the past, so I wouldn’t expect that to change, especially with such inexperience in net.
Cohen Adair — Northern Michigan — Adair made a huge impact for the Wildcats in his collegiate debut, scoring the game-winning goal in a 2-1 win over Wisconsin and notching another the next night. NMU started the season off on the right foot with a sweep of Wisconsin.
A WCHA referee was arrested after apparently making an off-handed comment about a bomb in his friend’s bag at the Anchorage airport. It made a huge mess of the airport, inconveniencing hundreds of travelers and causing a big headache for airport security. The ref also may not be allowed to leave Alaska until the situation is resolved, which could take more than a month. No word on whether any of the travelers started a “Ref, you suck” chant.
Old news, but Boston University defenseman Ahti Oksanen was suspended two games by the NCAA for having played in two games with a professional player while in the Espoo organization in Finland last season. BU was aware of the forthcoming sanctions, but here’s another example of just how ridiculous the NCAA’s amateurism rules can be.
Not trying to be all self-plugging here, but I’m covering college hockey for CBSSports.com’s Eye on Hockey Blog. I’ll be producing weekly content including a Top 10 power rankings and Hobey Baker Watch.
Here’s last week’s Power 10, which will run every Thursday, and the preseason Hobey Watch, which will run on Wednesday’s throughout the season. There’s also a new button on the menu under the banner to take you right to Eye on Hockey from USofH. Hope you’ll check it out.