By Ray Biggs & Matthew Webb
We usually don't spend too much time serving up our opinions but it's that time of year so it's time for our own State of the Union address, in which Managing Editor Ray Biggs and Senior Writer Matthew Webb size up the season thus far and take a look at what might transpire between now and the end of March.
|The men's race still looks to be wide open, but David Richer and No. 4 Oswego State are squarely in the hunt.
Photo: Oswego State Athletics
This year, we discuss our overall impressions of the season so far, some recent NCAA legislation, the potential of the Commonwealth Coast Conference, our surprise teams, those teams we expected a bit more from, our NCAA dark horses, and some random thoughts. So sit back as we size things up all at once as starting next week the intensity ramps up with the NCAA regional rankings, bracketology, and, of course, teams from all across the nation ramping up for what they hope are seasons that run well into March.
What's your impression of the men's season thus far?
B: Well, I can't exactly peg who I think will win the national championship so far and I guess that's the way to be as we hit the home stretch. The first judgment day is coming up with the compilation of the regional rankings and that will give us a baseline and some much needed order given how wacky the poll voting has been lately with the number of really, really good teams bunched together.
W: My impression is that I'm still not quite sure what my impression is. It's been a very odd season thus far, and I mean that in a good way as it's proven extremely interesting. It seems a wrecking ball has smashed its way through the Men's Top 15 on an almost weekly basis and in my opinion no team or small group of teams have thus far stepped up and established themselves as clear frontrunners for the national title.
Rather it seems like there's a group of about a dozen teams that are all about at the same level right now, which is what you get at with your last point -- and that's the thing this year: the Top 15 is always going to be the Top 15 but this year the variances in quality between teams in that group appear to be much smaller than usual. We're just a week away from the playoffs in some leagues and 13 of 15 ranked teams have either three, four or five losses -- that tight bunching just isn't something we usually see at this point of the season. Surely some teams will ultimately rise to the top, but in atypical fashion we're into February and it hasn't happened yet. Upshot is that this means there are still a lot of teams that are in a spot to finish strong and earn a spot in NCAA's. A lot. To me, that's the real story of the season at this point.
What's your impression of the women's season thus far?
B: Good lord are we in for a fight to the finish. So often at this time of year I think we've felt rather confident that Plattsburgh was going to just rule the title picture with an iron fist, and you kind of earn that right when you're playing well after winning title after title. This year just feels different. Adrian coming within moments of the national title last season was a wakeup call, and this season there's evidence to suggest the title picture is now at least five to six teams deep. Plattsburgh remains the favorite, but they're in for a fight now with Norwich and Elmira both having their day, and slim wins over Adrian and Middlebury suggest they're also in the hunt. Add in Gustavus, River Falls, Hamline, Amherst, Connecticut College, and you've got yourself a dandy of a title chase. All bets are now off. Buckle up.
|Adrian and Plattsburgh State faced off for the 2017 title, but which two will it be this year? Right now we think it's anyone's guess...
W: About as expected, sort of. I agree with you that Plattsburgh is the favorite as, after all, when it has won four titles in a row it's earned that label until someone steps up and proves otherwise. However, the Cardinals have looked a bit more beatable this season and have indeed already been taken down twice, once each by Norwich and Elmira, tied Amherst and were just played pretty evenly by Oswego State in a game that also ended in a tie. That said, when we look at the teams that appear to be bonafide national title contenders I always hope we get a breakout team that surprises everyone, but to me it's the same group as usual: Plattsburgh, Norwich, Elmira, Adrian, UW-River Falls, Middlebury...
I also agree with you that the battle between those contenders should be really interesting as, based on results so far, I also think it's a bit more wide open than in past years. As mentioned, I do think Plattsburgh gets the nod as a slight favorite, but I mean slight, and the Cards have already lost to two likely contenders, while among others Norwich has beaten Adrian and tied River Falls and Elmira, Adrian has beaten UW-River Falls and Middlebury, Elmira has beaten Adrian and Middlebury, and on and on -- and now Norwich and Middlebury just tied 72 hours ago, so there you go. The results between that group have been fairly circular which tells us they are all capable of beating each other -- but which one is going to string three or four in a row in the NCAAs? Tough call, which from a fan standpoint is great compared what has been a (warranted) assumption over the past few year's that the title was Plattsburgh's to lose.
Any thoughts on the recent Division III legislative changes that now allow DIII-to-DIII graduate transfers and also bumped up the date of first allowable practice by one week?
B: I believe both are tremendous positives for the benefit of our student-athletes and coaches. The expanded practice time should further advance the competitive balance in the game while also allowing coaches to better manage their preseason ice time and get way more out of that time before the first game date hits. There's a lot of new programs popping up, and that practice time is so, so valuable for them as they try to get a group together that has never played before, and for everyone else it should shake a bit more of the rust off prior to game one. In a sport where the at-large pool for NCAAs is so, so, so exclusive, many teams can't afford a slow start because of who they're loading up on the front end of their schedule, so to be as close to their best as possible at the given time is where teams want to be.
Physically, it also enables you to better manage your preseason on-ice conditioning and add an extra layer to that program in your practice plans knowing you've got some extra time. I've always questioned why a sport played on foot (basketball) gets more preseason time than a sport played on skates, where the sport specific movement requires more time to adjust to the in-season workload. Some high school federations allow hockey to practice earlier than other winter sports for exactly that reason, so a better balance in college is something I see as beneficial.
The transfer rule is also something I'm a proponent of, and I believe they got it right with the restrictions. The Division I level has turned into full blown free agency with graduate transfers, and while that may work towards the general philosophy there, the focus at Division III institutions is primarily to get your degree. I see it this way. At the Division I level, players are frequently redshirted on purpose, and alongside the medicals, it's a farming out to the highest bidder for sometimes non-academic reasons. At the Division III level, redshirts really only happen due to hardship. This is going to benefit the kid who may have gotten hurt in their undergraduate career, who needs to switch schools for graduate classes due to degree offerings, etc, because not everyone offers every program at the masters and doctorate levels. Under their circumstances, should that student have to take a major they don't want, just to continue playing? I don't believe they should. If they want to play hockey as a benefit to pursuing their graduate education, they should be allowed to do it on their terms, getting the degree they want.
W: I like them both. I don't have too much to say about moving the first practice date up a week as it's really just undoing a fairly recent change that never made much sense to me to begin with. So now it's right back where it's historically been, which is fine with me. It always seemed to me that when they pushed it back a week it was a classic case of looking for a cure to some problem that didn't even exist.
Also have no problem with the new graduate transfer rule, and I don't even really care about the restrictions you mention as I'm not even sure they were necessary. An undergraduate Division I player can already transfer to a DIII school and play immediately so long as he/she has remaining eligibility, so I'm not even sure why a restriction should be needed in the event the Division I player happened to be a graduate student.
That said, I am indeed aware that was a sticking point when a similar piece of legislation was introduced last year and it was one that ultimately contributed significantly to the downfall of the proposal. So if limiting that assuaged concerns on behalf of DIII institutions, fine with me, though I think it addresses a potential "problem" that never would have manifested at any sort of significant level.
For similar reasons I have no issue with the now-allowed DIII-to-DIII graduate transfer as, with just a few exceptions (WIAC to WIAC transfer, for example), a DIII player can transfer to another DIII school and play immediately. So long as there is remaining eligibility, I don't know why it matters whether the player is an undergraduate or graduate student. Perhaps I'm missing something, but best I can tell this is all fine by me.
How good, really, do you think the CCC is?
B: Well, its depth is as good as anyone's right now, so I'd have to say pretty good. Three teams are ranked right now among this bunch, including a Salve program continuing the work of the tremendous Andy Boschetto under the new leadership of Zech Klann. They've just been launching torpedoes at the poll this year every chance they get, and are as big a reason as anyone why the polls have been in such upheaval because they keep dealing losses to some really, really good teams. Endicott opened eyes last year with a great NCAA tournament run, and are bordering on elite as well, and UNE continues to blow teams away with a power play that practically makes taking penalties a death sentence, and they're so, so young too, so they're going to be a headache for everyone in the nation for years. Add in Nichols and Curry having rather presentable seasons and yeah, I think the league is becoming one that is that good. Also, I don't want to have to decide who gets the league coach of the year there, because choosing between Klann and Kevin Swallow is going to be a really tough decision.
|Curry sits at fifth in the CCC standings but in the last three weeks has beaten both No. 6 Salve Regina and No. 10 University of New England.
Photo: Curry Athletics
W: It's legitimately good. Quite good, in fact. National championship good at this point? We'll see. You mentioned Endicott's NCAA tournament performance last year and I think that is something that not only was eye opening, but it wasn't a fluke. I watched that entire game and they were slightly better than Hobart and then went back on the road and took Trinity to double overtime before falling, 2-1. To me that established bonafide credibility and now we've seen Salve Regina and University of New England rise up to the same level, at least based on this year's results. As a result all three have spent time or currently are sitting in the top ten.
In a way I don't think this should really come as too much of a surprise. From tracking recruits, all three of the aforementioned CCC teams have been recruiting close to as well as anyone in the country. Maybe not at the very top, but definitely in the upper echelon, and they've straight up been outrecruiting many teams that have been historically pretty strong. This isn't 1994 -- and it's not even 2014 anymore. I'm not going to run down all the rosters, but anyone who wishes can go through them and take a look at what many of the more recent recruits have done in juniors. It's no joke.
Pair that up with some quality coaching, which that league has quietly stacked up, and on top of Endicott's showing last year what have we seen this year from these three? Two wins over Norwich, along with victories over Geneseo, Adrian, UMass Boston and Amherst, among others. Those are real results and in some cases the results have been eye opening, such as when UNE ran out to a 7-2 lead on Geneseo en route to a 9-5 win. An off day for Geneseo? Maybe. But you can only line so many of these tangible results up before the reality is just what it is and there's no point trying to rationalize otherwise.
Nichols and Curry are no joke, either. Nichols has knocked off St. Thomas, Manhattanville and a surging Elmira in non-conference play and Curry has taken down both Salve Regina and UNE in the past three weeks alone. Not bad for the teams in the 4/5 spots in your league standings.
I've been watching a lot of CCC games lately in attempt to get a real good read on the league, and one other thing I'll mention is that it's a very entertaining league. Lot of offense but not at the sacrifice of solid defense, and is just a lot of fun to watch. And the UNE power play is ridiculous. Highly recommend to anyone.
So yeah, I find this league completely credible. How far has it come in a short time? We'll find out in the NCAA tournament, especially as there's legitimate potential for it to be a multiple bid league as of right now. Will I guarantee a CCC team makes a trip to Lake Placid or brings home a national title? No, but I do think its top three teams are in the rather large group of teams that have the potential to pull off one or both.
Fun stat: The combined record of the top five CCC teams is currently...80-25-10.
Which teams have exceeded your expectations this season?
B: If you asked me a couple of months ago I probably wouldn't have said Connecticut College. It's had a rough go in the past two seasons, and this one wasn't looking much better with a 3-8 start up to January 6. But the Camels are doing something right lately in front of elite goaltending play. The Camels have been dropping NESCAC opponents like flies lately, and are 5-1-2 since the holiday break against conference opposition while seemingly going to overtime or winning with exactly three goals on the board every time. How do you pull that off? Goaltending is a place to start. Connor Rodericks has been simply unconscious in net for head coach Jim Ward, posting a .940 save percentage for the year and standing on his head while the Camels have been outshot in all but one of their league wins since the turn of the year. He could be a dark horse for NESCAC Player of the Year.
Oswego was expected to be good, but how its handled the year-to-year lineup turnover its faced has been terrific. A lot of players in this lineup were healthy scratches last year behind an experienced bunch, and there's been hardly any lag with the players who have filled in the gaps. I'd like to see a bit more scoring from the blue line, but that's generally on my mind with every team in the country. Remember, I'm also the guy who wanted UW-Stevens Point's Kevin Gibson to get a better shake at the Sid Watson Award a few years ago, so that notation is fairly commonplace with me. Please note I also think Logan Day will be the next great pro out of the Division III level filling that role. But anyway, back to how this all relates to Oswego... Defensive scoring is how you create playoff leverage, especially when you haven't been doing it in the regular season, as it adds an extra dimension to the attack. On better terms, Josh Zizek has been incredible with expanded ice time, Mitch Herlihey was a great choice for the captaincy, and their transfer help has been really, really good.
I'm also going to plug away quite a bit at the UCHC here. Utica is exactly where I reasonably thought they'd be overall, but they're in a battle for the outright lead with a game or two in hand. The teams tied with them, Stevenson and Lebanon Valley have both jumped off the page to me as teams running well ahead of schedule. The Mustangs still show some signs of youth, as they've come up just short of padding their win total significantly with an astounding six ties, leading me to believe that they may have the most deceptive win total in the nation because it could very well be much higher. Make no mistake about it, that team is a solid, solid club, and they're doing it right now while All-American forward Mike Davis, a known goal-scorer, has been ice cold as he has not scored since November 25. Without his presence Stevenson is still giving itself a chance to win almost every night, and is also tied for first at the moment. That's a team effort if I've ever seen one, and if Davis can find his groove again that's a weapon every team is going to worry about. They're also the inaugural MAC regular season champions, which kind of cements them as the current best of the best among some of those programs to the south that have come up.
|After finishing 12-15 last season, the UW-Superior women currently stand at 14-7-1.
Photo: Ryan Coleman for d3photography.com
I also want to shout out Lebanon Valley's men. What if I told you that as of me writing this, the Dutchmen have a winning record? That's right, they're 9-8-2, and tied for first in the UCHC. The persistence and guidance of head coach Don Parsons gets a lot of credit for getting them to this point. Years ago, he took over a team that had well-documented struggles to gain traction in the old ECAC West and was moved to the ACHA to start building towards what they hoped would be a competitive future. Years later, it's evident that all the right moves were made. Parsons built a legitimate ACHA power, and now in year two of their re-elevated status his charges are going toe-to-toe with the best the UCHC has to offer. This is worthy of acclaim as one of the great success stories in Division III lately.
On the Women's side, I think the convincing choice for top billing is UW-Superior. The Yellowjackets didn't have the results they wanted against UW-River Falls last weekend and are 3-3-1 in the league, but across the board Dan Laughlin's team has been able to step up alongside UW-Eau Claire as a legitimate competitor in the WIAC. That league is the most balanced it's been in some time with everyone posting a winning record, and getting last year's fourth place team in motion is huge for the conference. Sky Brown and Saige Patrick are two really good candidates if we're talking about most improved players. They've stepped up big alongside a growing core on this team.
Next is Hamline. A MIAC also-ran just a few years ago has blossomed into a national force under Natalie Darwitz. Offensively they've been very difficult to stop, averaging over four and a half goals a game, their power play is top flight and gets a really good balance, they have three forwards over 40 points already, and Annie Juergens has taken a huge step forward as a sophomore goaltender. Add in some quality transfer help from former Lindenwood skater Sarah Bobrowski, among others, and this is a good team that is getting results right now. There's a significant lack of bad losses, to their credit, with two of their three losses coming against teams that were ranked or receiving votes this year, and they've also split with Gustavus, which tells me they're ready to pluck the MIAC crown right now if the opportunity presents itself. It should.
I'm going to also bring in William Smith to the conversation. As a coach building a program, you're partially judged on how well your team looks in year four. That's four years of recruiting in the bag, plus a legitimate opportunity to develop your own talent. To say Jaime Totten has done that would be an understatement. The Herons are talented and they're well balanced for the future. Seniority rules with Krista Federow tearing it up as a senior, and Maggie Salmon a co-frontrunner alongside Kelcey Crawford for the top all-conference spot in net, but the Herons are getting a lot out of their other classes as well as they prepared to battle for first last weekend. While they didn't get a win over Elmira, those games went fairly well with the Herons earning a loss and a tie, both in overtime.
W: You cover a ton of ground there so for once I'm going to keep things short. I'm also going to twist this a little bit and just mention a few teams that have fared better than I expected and/or are not yet a major threat but I believe are headed in the right direction.
- Men: Concordia-Wis., Curry, Elmira, Lebanon Valley, Marian, UW-Superior
- Women: Buffalo State, Hamilton, Hamline, UW-Superior, William Smith
Which teams were you expecting more from this season?
B: For the men I'm going to say Manhattanville. No doubt its had some tremendous moments, such as taking St. Norbert into overtime (twice) and winning the Pathfinder classic, but they've been mind bogglingly inconsistent. The Valiants didn't have a win in their last five before a win over King's, and they trail slightly back from the middle of the UCHC standings in a tie for the final two conference playoff spots, which they hold over a solid Nazareth team by one point. They're a good team, heck, a terrific team when they want to be, but they're in a spot where they're in a sink-or-swim scenario alongside half of the other teams in the conference, and they may sink if they don't start churning out wins consistently. They should be contending for a conference championship with this team but they need to get rolling fast with just eight available standings points remaining.
|Will an injury to reigning Sid Watson Award winner Evan Buitenhuis hinder Hamilton's quest to make a second-straight NCAA tournament?
Photo: Hamilton Athletics
And as complimentary as I've been of Hamilton over the past few years, and I really love the depth in that lineup, I'm a bit worried about it without 2017 National Player of the Year Evan Buitenhuis. This is the same situation St. Norbert got put in a few years ago: losing the reigning national player of the year in goal and, if you'll remember, the Green Knights the tournament that season after winning the national title. Hamilton is trying to find a way to avoid a similar fate. They have had struggles at times recently, but perhaps a recent three game win streak is a sign that the Continentals chase for a NCAA berth is far from over. They were arguably the most efficient team in the country at transitioning to the offensive zone in the few times I saw them play in the first half of the season, so it can still very much come together for a NESCAC title run, but on paper the Buff and Blue has been a step behind where I thought they'd be right now.
Also, Plattsburgh. A largely intact tournament team tumbling to .500 is not unheard of, but definitely an uncharacteristic occurrence in Cardinal Country. Crunch time has arrived early for the Cards and I don't think too many folks thought that would be the case before the season began.
W: Going to stick to the men's side here and while I don't want to beat up on anyone too much, I was again expecting bigger things from UW-Eau Claire. The Blugolds stand at 14-9 right now and it's quite likely their NCAA hopes are already dashed. While we're a year plus removed from its roster having anyone left from the 2013 national championship team, Eau Claire has been good to very good since and maintained one of the most talented rosters in the country.
With nine seniors this year, six of which are currently the top six scorers on the team, I really thought this could be the Blugolds' year -- and I even thought that after watching them lose to St. Norbert earlier in the season. Despite the loss, the Blugolds outshot the Green Knights 38-17 and looked to me like a team that should be competing for a national title The roster is littered with experience and talent, including three Division I transfers and four others that played in the USHL. While young in goal, it hasn't proven a major liability as they've allowed just 2.26 goals per game, but scoring has been an issue as Colton Wolter leads the team with just 19 points in 23 games and the next highest scorer has just 15. Long story short, I thought this was a team that had everything it needed to make a run at another title but at this point it appears that even if it wins out the rest of its season it might still come up short of the NCAAs.
Runner-up: UMass Boston. The Beacons have the same 14-9 record as Eau Claire and land in this boat for me for largely the same reason -- I simply was expecting more out of them considering the talent they have. They do have four 30-point scorers and senior forward Colin Larkin is in the midst of another tremendous season with 38 of his own, but they've been inconsistent and are just 9-7 in NEHC play. UMB has lost its last three and five of its last six after starting the year 14-4 and, like Eau Claire, might have dug itself a hole too deep. It's likely NEHC playoff championship or bust at this point which just isn't where I expected this team to be.
Think there are any dark horses worth keeping an eye on down the stretch?
B: The Buffalo State men could still get there, even after a loss to Oswego I still think they're a threat to cause trouble in the SUNYAC postseason. The Elmira men are apt to play really well against ranked teams, and the UW-Eau Claire women will land one more big fish of a win before the year is out if I had to guess.
|Hamline senior forward Sarah Bobrowski has posted 16 goals, 33 assists and 49 points to currently lead the nation in scoring.
Photo: Ryan Coleman for d3photography.com
W: I think if we're looking at the men that's about how far down the ladder we need to go -- to a team like Buffalo State. The Bengals are ranked 13th at the moment and if we go any higher we run into Hobart and Norwich, and would anyone be surprised if either of those two made a run? Considering how close I think the top dozen or so teams are -- probably not. Which leaves us with the likes of Buff State, Marian, St. Thomas, etc. Some good teams but do I think any of those will make a legitimate run for a title? Not likely, if I had to wager, but that's the group we'd have to look at.
Which leaves us with the women, where I think there's a better chance for a surprise and that takes me straight to the MIAC. Gustavus Adolphus (7), Hamline (8), and St. Thomas (10) are all currently in the D3hockey.com Women's Top 15 and have just two, three and three losses, respectively. Gustavus proved there's still some real good hockey coming out of that league last March when the seven-loss Gusties snagged a NCAA bid despite falling in their league semifinals and went on to beat UW-River Falls, lose to Adrian in overtime, and then beat Norwich to claim the third-place title. Not bad.
Gustavus and St. Thomas have been players on the NCAA scene for some time now, which makes Hamline a team I find quite intriguing. The Pipers are 16-3-2 and have lost just once since November 18. Their top line of Sarah Bobrowksi, Bre Simon and Darby Dodds are the top three scorers in the nation and have combined for 53 goals, 85 assists and 138 points. Heck, just last weekend Bobrowski set a women's DIII record when she scored six goals and added three assists for a rousing nine points in a 13-5 win over a Concordia-Moorhead team that's pretty respectable.
The Pipers close out the regular season next weekend with a series against St. Thomas so that should prove pretty telling, but last year's surprise came out of the MIAC so that's where I'm looking again this year. And in terms of a team that would be a legitimate newcomer to the national stage I think Hamline is at least one worth keeping an eye on.
Grab bag -- anything else on your mind?
B: While I have reason to believe that Trinity has the NESCAC regular season on lockdown after last season's insane fight to the finish, the MIAC just...fascinates me. Augsburg had the lead there but every single team behind it had games in hand, and St. Thomas just made the first move by pulling ahead last weekend. St. John's is coming up quickly as well. I'd also like to use my platform to nominate Max Milosek of Stevens Point for the World Beard and Moustache championships, and Augsburg's Hollywood Hermanson continues to have the best name in the country. I should also inform the West Region that I plan to visit a ton of MIAC and WIAC rinks this April. That covers it.
On a more serious note, congratulations to UW-River Falls goaltender Angie Hall on her NCAA wins record. It amazes me how quickly that record is changing hands and it's a credit to goaltenders who are arriving at school ready to play the collegiate game, just as Hall was three years ago.
Alright, I'm done being excessively verbose. I've written close to 2500 words and it looks like a script from the Merv Griffin show on this monitor right now.
W: Oh, I've always got some things on my mind. No, seriously speaking...here's a quickfire list:
- Look for a new tact in Men's Bracketology this year. Debut edition will be on Tuesday, February 13, and for those who have followed over the years they've seen me hem and haw over what the true purpose of the thing should be. Well I've finally settled on it, and for good reasons, so stay tuned as we're going to change things up a bit. I'm also interested to see how things play out with you on the women's side now that a ninth team has been added to the field...
- For a variety of reasons I really, really don't like that the Men's Frozen Four is returning to campus sites in 2019 and 2021. We'll get into this more next season as it's not overly relevant at the moment, but just to go on record...yeah, not a fan.
- Can anyone believe the Frozen Four is making its seventh trip to Lake Placid this year? Man, time flies...
- How funny and entertaining would a pro wrestling federation be if it were full of characters and storylines related to DIII hockey? Could call it D3WF or something.
- We never said much about this as we don't spend too much time editorializing here, but I'm sure many (some?) are well aware that multiple programs drew the ire of the NCAA and/or self-sanctioned themselves for incidents during last year's NCAA tourmanents. Please...just knock it off. Listen, anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm not always a big fan of rules, especially if I find them to be terrible or pointless ones, and that I also have little patience for what I'll call "incompetent authority." Point being that I'm not speaking as some sort of self-proclaimed Puritan here. However, and it's a big however, despite admitting that I firmly believe that when someone (including me) voluntarily signs on to represent a school, employer, institution or anything else in life, they are thus agreeing to abide by that entity's standards and they become a representative thereof. If one does choose to represent it, do it well and do it with character. Please. And if one choose to do otherwise, then quit and go do whatever it is you'd rather be doing...or at least, for the love of all things sacred, don't be stupid enough to take video of it or post it on social media.