HAT TRICK | Holiday transition time big on rivalries

This holiday period not only signals the end of the year, it also signals college hockey’s transition into conference play.  Starting in December, teams’ schedules become heavily sided toward their own conferences, a bit of preparation for the mad dash that begins in January and stops when someone lifts a trophy at the Frozen Four.

With that in mind, let’s look at three conference matchups this past weekend that could inform us a great deal about the college hockey landscape.
A relative newcomer to Hockey East, Connecticut has found some difficulty gaining their footing in one of the country’s power conferences.  This year, the consensus coming into the season was that they should be improved, and might play spoiler, but would still be lucky to find themselves in the top half of the conference for much of the season.  That outlook might change a bit after this weekend.

The Huskies went into the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell and beat one of the top five teams in the country on Friday night, 3-2.  Tage Thompson had two goals for Connecticut in the win, including the game-winner in the third period.  Goaltender Adam Huska tallied 31 saves on the evening to make up for Lowell’s considerable shot advantage.

In the home leg of the weekend series, Huska and Garrett Metcalf of the River Hawks found themselves in a goaltending duel.  Both netminders made 34 saves, both allowed two second period goals, and the two teams skated to a 2-2 tie.

That gives Connecticut three points against the No. 4 team in the latest USCHO poll, evens their conference record at 3-3-2, and bring themselves even with Boston University in terms of conference points (8).  The emergence of this Connecticut squad only adds to the depth of the already frightening Hockey East conference.
When listing the best rivalries in college hockey, it is impossible to ignore Denver and Colorado College.  The two Centennial State schools are natural rivals and have a rich history with one another.

Recently, these rivalry games have been the bulk of what Colorado College fans look forward to come hockey season, as the program has hit a tough stretch. Denver meanwhile, was a Frozen Four participant last season and the N0. 2 team in the country as of this weekend.  However, even though their rival may be a bit diminished, that Colorado College continues to be a rival for the Pioneers made this weekend’s home and home difficult.

The Pioneers rose to the occasion, trailing for exactly 25 seconds across two entire games and beating the Tigers 3-1 in both contests.  Denver controlled the action tremendously, out-shooting Colorado College in four of the six periods and generally made it a long weekend for Tigers netminder Alex Leclerc.

This is a good warmup for Denver, as their next two games are a home set with No. Minnesota-Duluth, who was idle this week.  Still unbeaten in conference play, Denver will have an opportunity to take the top spot in the country next weekend.
It has been a big weekend for Penn State.  The megacampus in the middle of the Pennsylvanian Outback just saw their prized football team win a thrilling Big Ten championship on Saturday night in Indianapolis.  Yet with the Nittany Lions almost certain to be left out of the College Football Playoff, the school’s best shot at a national championship might be their surging hockey team.

Right now, Penn State has the best record of any college hockey team.  Their schedule is not overly intimidating, so that leads to a ranking outside of the top five teams, but the Lions can score.  In fact, they’ve scored at least three goals in every single game they’ve played this season, including twice where they’ve lit the lamp eight times.  Pegula Ice Arena has been a loud place this year.

It should be no surprise, then, that the Nittany Lions scored eleven goals in their two home games this past week against the University of Michigan.  They took 106 shots across those two matchups.  In short, they are a relentless offensive hockey team.  Beating them will involve withstanding an onslaught of shots.  Peyton Jones, the PSU goalie, made 50 saves in the two games to hold Michigan to one goal each night.

Of course there were teams rated higher coming in, and teams that may be more talented overall than Penn State.  Still, nobody is playing better hockey right now, and nobody is coming close to playing it in as entertaining a fashion.

This concludes the 2016 calendar year for Penn State hockey.  They don’t play again until January, where they’re at Ohio State for a pair on the 6th and 7th, one of the longest holiday breaks in the country.

So long as that break doesn’t stall their momentum, it may be time to take the Penn State Nittany Lions seriously as a national contender.

Photo courtesy UConn Athletic Communications

Share This Story