This week in college hockey: Arizona State inches toward NCAAs
Arizona State will very likely be in the NCAA tournament this season.
The Sun Devils’ sweep of RIT over the weekend has them at No. 8 in the Pairwise Rankings with just four regular-season games to go.
Arizona State hosts American International on Feb. 15-16 and plays at Minnesota on March 1-2.
If the Sun Devils (19-10-1) sweep American International, it will be virtually impossible for them to fall far enough in the Pairwise Rankings to miss the tournament. If they go 1-3 in the final four games, there’s still a good chance they’ll be in. An 0-4 mark would likely bump them out.
Arizona State is looking to become the first independent since Alaska Anchorage in 1992 to make the NCAA tournament.
Anchorage made the NCAA tournament as an independent three years in a row (1990, 1991, 1992), then moved into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in 1994. The Seawolves haven’t made the NCAA tournament since then.
Arizona State is presumably waiting for an invite into the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The Sun Devils have already applied once and haven’t jumped at the WCHA’s passes.
This season will go a long way into making NCHC programs comfortable with Arizona State’s competitiveness -- an NCHC concern the first time ASU applied -- but the arena issue still exists.
Arizona State’s home facility, Oceanside Ice Arena, is not a viable facility longterm. It is too small (capacity: 747) and outdated. Rumors of new arena options have persisted over the last couple of years, but NCHC teams going to believe the rumors until a shovel is in the ground.
In the meantime, this season should make Arizona State even more likely to hold out as an independent until it gets the conference affiliation it truly desires.
Scheduling is more difficult as an independent, but Arizona State has been able to continually bring more teams to the desert each year. The Sun Devils had three Division I home games in 2015-16. They had 11 in the following year, 14 last season and 16 this season.
Arizona State now has proof that it can make the NCAAs as an independent, too. It is more than likely two wins away from doing so.
Arizona State’s season could have an even more wide-ranging impact on college hockey.
There is now even more evidence out there that it doesn’t take long for potential new programs to become viable on the national scene.
Penn State made the NCAA tournament (and inched within one game of the Frozen Four) in its fifth season of existence. It made the tournament again in Year 6. Arizona State is on the verge of making it in Year 4.
Any school looking to start a program will take note of that.
AN IMPROBABLE ENCOUNTER
NCHC official Dan Dreger returned to Omaha's Baxter Arena last weekend for the first time since suffering a gruesome injury last season.
On Jan. 26, 2018, Dreger took a puck to the face on a deflected slap shot by 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior Grant Gallo. The injury required doctors to install four permanent plates in his face, two temporary brackets in his mouth, eight screws in his gums and 36 stitches above his lip.
The weekend wasn’t just ironic because it featured the same two teams (Western Michigan and Omaha) on nearly the exact same weekend (six days apart) as last year.
Dreger had an improbable encounter while in Omaha, too.
Dreger was sitting at a pizza place when a man walked up to his table and introduced himself.
“Hi, I’m Grant Gallo. I shot a puck that hit you in the face. I wanted to apologize and let you know I didn't mean to.”
Yes, Gallo happened to be at the same pizza joint at the same time, recognized Dreger, introduced himself and apologized to him.
BC STREAK ENDS
Boston College’s 2-1 win over Harvard on Monday wasn’t just notable because it came in the Beanpot semifinals.
It ended Boston College’s four-season, 25-game winless streak in regular-season nonconference play.
It was BC’s first win against a team outside of Hockey East since Nov. 13, 2016, when the Eagles beat an Arizona State team that was in its second year of Division-I play.
Boston College was 0-8 in nonconference games this season prior to Monday afternoon with losses to Wisconsin, Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State, Bentley, Notre Dame and Arizona State.
A POOLMAN RETURN?
The week off comes at a good time for UND.
With captain Colton Poolman sidelined with an undisclosed injury -- one that he battled in the week prior to UND’s home series against St. Cloud State and became too problematic to play last weekend in Denver -- it just might be enough time to get him back for the next game Feb. 15 at Western Michigan.
“It’s two weeks from now, so, he’s made some progress -- I hear he has -- and hopefully, we’ll have him back here,” UND coach Brad Berry said Saturday night.
In Poolman’s absence, UND’s defensive corps of Hayden Shaw, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Matt Kiersted, Gabe Bast, Jonny Tychonick and Andrew Peski played additional minutes against Denver, and helped slow down the Pioneers’ offense. Denver managed just three goals on the weekend, though it was good for a win and a tie against the Fighting Hawks.
“I thought they did a good job moving pucks,” Berry said about the defensive corps after Friday’s game. “Any time you have a guy out who plays the minutes that Colton does, you wonder what will happen to your corps, but I thought guys like Matt Kiersted and Gabe Bast and those type of players, and even our younger guys, they took a step. That’s a way you gain experience on the fly.”
A SECOND-HALF TUMBLE
Miami’s top center, Josh Melnick, returned from a six-game injury absence this weekend, but it didn’t help the RedHawks avoid a pair of 5-1 losses at top-ranked St. Cloud State.
For the third year in a row, Miami’s season is slipping away in the second half.
The RedHawks are winless in 14 games (0-10-4) dating back to 3-2 win over Colorado College on Nov. 17.
Miami has mustered just five goals in the last six games, and only two at even-strength in losses to St. Cloud State, Colorado College and Minnesota Duluth.
Last season, Miami started 9-8-2 and went 3-12-3 down the stretch. In 2016-17, the RedHawks started 8-8-5 and went 1-12-2 down the stretch -- a season that was derailed when star defenseman Louie Belpedio went down with an injury.
The RedHawks close the regular season at home against Omaha, at Denver, at Minnesota Duluth and home against Western Michigan.
WMU FINALLY DROPS GAME WITH ALLISON
For the first time this season, Western Michigan lost a game with junior standout Wade Allison in the lineup. It happened Saturday night, when Omaha topped the Broncos 6-3 in the series finale in Baxter Arena.
Western Michigan is 10-1-1 with Allison in the lineup this season, 6-8 without him. In the last two seasons, the Broncos are 22-10-2 with Allison and 9-18-1 without him.
Allison, a second-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers, has three goals and six points in 12 games.
The Broncos were missing one key player for that series finale against the Mavericks. Leading goal-scorer Josh Passolt served a one-game suspension for an illegal hit in the series opener.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULES
According to KRACH, Minnesota Duluth has played the most difficult schedule in the country. UND’s strength of schedule ranks seventh. Because the NCHC has the best out-of-conference record, its teams are stacked near the top of strength of schedule listings.
The teams who have played the toughest schedule in each conference are Minnesota Duluth (NCHC), Ohio State (Big Ten, fourth overall), Boston University (Hockey East, eighth overall), Princeton (ECAC, 16th overall), Northern Michigan (WCHA, 31st overall), RIT (Atlantic Hockey, 50th overall).