AT THE BREAK | Conference storylines to watch in college hockey

There are some who say the college hockey season really doesn’t start until after the holiday break.

Don’t believe it.

In today’s world where interconference records can add to strength of schedule victories and help with at-large bids into the NCAA field of 16, the first half has set up some great storylines heading into the stretch run.

There are a handful of games on slate this week, so we’ll include some in our look ahead based on what’s happened to close out 2016.

BIG TEN | Showtime at the Pegula

Who’d have thought the most exciting offense in college hockey would reside at Penn State?

The Nittany Lions (above) are in uncharted territories with a Pairwise ranking of No. 2 and third in the ASN Elite EightUSCHO and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls.

The Nittany Lions’ lone blemish was a 6-3 loss to split the season-opening series against St. Lawrence on Oct. 7. They not only boast a 13-1-0 overall record, but outscored Big Ten rival Michigan 11-2 in their lone conference matchup thus far.

They’re doing it coach Guy Gadowski-style, with a high-powered offense that ranks No. 1 in the country (4.83 goals per game), nearly a half-goal better than No. 2 Ohio State (4.43). Last year it was Michigan that rode its CCM Line to the NCAA tourney.

This season, the Lions are averaging nearly 50 shots per game but also rank third in goals-against at 1.85 and they have the No. 1 penalty kill at 92.5%. Andrew Sturtz leads the high-powered attack with 13 goals (tied for second in the nation), while Denis Smirnov ranks fifth in assists with 17. He also has 10 goals.

The Lions have a true freshman in net in Peyton Jones (11-0-1, .920 save percentage, 1.97 goals-against), so the biggest tests are soon to come.

Penn State resumes Big Ten play Jan. 6-7 with a showdown at Ohio State, followed by Michigan State and then Ohio State again.

ECAC | Union rules

Union is another emerging power to watch heading into the holiday break.

The Dutchman are 12-3-2 overall and 8-1-1 and in first place in the ECAC having won their past four games.

Their next four games — all by Jan. 5 — could go a long way in determining how strong of team Union really is. The Dutchmen travel this weekend to surprise Hockey East power Vermont, which won the Friendship Four Tournament in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in late November and is tied for sixth Pairwise with 10-4-2 record.

On Dec. 31, Union hosts defending national champion North Dakota, but the Fighting Hawks will be without at least two of its top scorers in first-round picks Brock Boeser and Tyson Jost, who will be representing Team USA and Team Canada at the World Juniors. On Jan. 5, Union faces Boston University — which could be without SEVEN players who could be competing in the World Juniors.

The Dutchmen, 12th Pairwise and the USA Today poll and 13th in the USCHO poll, have the leading point, goal and shorthanded goal scorer in the country in senior forward Mike Vecchione (17 goals, 35 points, 3 shorthanders) and the nation’s leader in assists in junior Spencer Foo (19 assists), who is also third in the nation scoring with 30 points.

Union vs. Vermont is a great measuring stick for both teams.

The ECAC is top-loaded this season, with St. Lawrence, Harvard, Quinnipiac, Clarkson and Cornell all in contention, and Princeton proving to be a giant killer with sweeps over WCHA leader Bemidji State and Quinnipiac.

NCHC | Defending champs on the ropes

Wearing the preseason No. 1 tag seems more like a kiss of death recently than a christening of things to come. ?Last season Duluth was the prohibitive preseason favorite to win the NCHC and national title, but needed a late surge that included reaching the NCHC Frozen Faceoff title game to secure an NCAA Tournament berth.

This season the Bulldogs have been at or near the top almost the entire way and are living up to expectations.

North Dakota isn’t.

After winning the school’s eighth national title last season, UND came in as the prohibitive preseason favorite but after a 5-0 start hasn’t put together more than two consecutive wins and is 9-6-3 overall and 3-4-1-1 in conference play.

If the Fighting Hawks want to make their 15th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and have a shot at their fourth straight Frozen Four appearance, they’ve got to figure out their power play and penalty kill because six of the eight teams in the conference are ranked in the top 20.  North Dakota has struggled to a 1-4-1 record in the season-ending conference tourney.

A microcosm of the season was Saturday’s 3-1 home loss to Western Michigan. The Hawks were 0-6 on the power play that included two five-minute majors and have connected on just 14 of 81 chances (17%) while opponents are 16 of 80 (20%).

The parts are there, but where it all comes together remains to be seen.

HOCKEY EAST | Eagles, Catamounts flying high

Boston was a sexy pick to win the Hockey East title, but most pundits were talking Boston University, not Boston College.

And certainly few if any picked Vermont to be the darlings of college hockey this season.

But that’s college hockey.

BU’s freshmen recruiting class is one of the best in college with several first-round picks, but the Eagles have been slow to gel with a 10-5-2 overall record and 4-2-2 conference record before seven of its players leave for Team USA.

Clayton Keller, the eighth pick overall of the Coyotes missed seven games with a lower-body injury and  team junior co-captain Nik Olsson also missed seven games with an injury. Both are back and BU just split at Vermont, losing 4-2 on Friday and winning 4-0 on Saturday. They beat Yale on Tuesday, 5-2.

Boston College has been one of the most consistent teams at 13-6-1 and is off to its best Hockey East start ever at 8-1-1. It should make for one of the best Beanpot Tournaments and Hockey East races to see.

Vermont, however, has been the big surprise. The season started with the suspension of four upperclassmen for hazing, but the Catamounts are 10-3-2 overall and 5-2-1 in conference play, having won the Friendship Four tournament.

Goalie Stefanos Lekkas has been a rock in net and will get a test this weekend against ECAC emerging power Union.

WCHA | Leave it to the Beavers

Bemidji State’s claim to fame remains its improbable 2009 season when the Beavers were the first 16th seed to reach the Frozen Four.

Getting another shot this season is a real possibility.

The Beavers, 13-5-2 overall and 13-1-2-1 in league play, were swept early in the season on the road at then-No. 1 North Dakota and suffered a surprise sweep at the hands of Princeton.

Other than that, they’ve been a a model of consistency. Though they lead the nation in penalties per game, they also rank second in penalty killing (90.91 percent), and lead the nation in goals-against (1.52) behind Michael Bitzer, whose 1.46 ranks second in the nation while his .938 save percentage is third.

The WCHA, however, is a topsy-turvy league where teams rise and fall like waves in the ocean. Michigan Tech, 11-3-2-1 and 12-7-3 overall, is within striking distance but Bowling Green and Minnesota State could also make second-half runs. Nobody sleeps on Ferris State.

ATLANTIC HOCKEY | Air Force earns R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Army West Point (9-4-0, 9-6-1 overall) leads the Atlantic Hockey Conference, but Air Force (6-3-1, 9-6-3), has shown the nation its not wise to overlook the AH.

Air Force opened the season at the Ice Breaker Tournament with a 2-1 win against Boston College and a 3-3 tie against Ohio State, It also took Denver to overtime before losing, topped Colorado College, tied and lost at Western Michigan and swept RIT.

One of the best quotes of the first half of the season came from Denver goalie Tanner Jaillet, who praised Air Force following their series.

Jaillet said the second-ranked Pioneers had more talent than Air Force, but every team can learn from how AF plays: Relentless and disciplined.

Circle Jan. 27-28 on the calendars. After Army and Air Force split their first series in November, they meet again in Colorado on those days. The conference title could be on the line.

Photo courtesy Penn State Athletics

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