By Ryan Stieg, AllPuck.com
Hockey season is a little more than a month old, and things are proceeding as expected. The NHL players are still locked out, negotiations continue to move at a snail’s pace, and Commissioner Gary Bettman seems hell bent on establishing himself as the worst professional sports commissioner ever.
Seriously, you have to give it to Bettman. It takes a lot of talent to have two work stoppages in one decade. Grantland’s Bill Simmons offered a great way of describing Bettman’s tenure as commissioner, but I think I found a better analogy.
Let’s say the road you drive every day to work is under construction. The state legislature approved a total overhaul, and the head of the Department of Transportation is personally overseeing the project. They are expanding the road into three lanes on each side, putting in new exit ramps, expanding the shoulder, putting in a higher speed limit, the whole shebang. Unfortunately, it ends up taking a lot longer than expected. Problems with the foundation, minor disputes with the union, a tough economy and some rough winters keep the road from being finished. Construction drags on for seven years before, finally, the first stretch of the road is finished. Things are running smoothly and you’re actually getting home faster during rush hour. Then out of the blue, the road shuts down again completely. Angry citizens demand answers. The head of the D.O.T. holds a press conference to announce that the legislature thinks that this was a bad idea, wants to reign in government spending and is shutting down the rest of the road. When asked why didn’t they think this through before starting the project, the head of the D.O.T. shrugs and ends the conference.
As the two sides vacillate about being close to an agreement — it seems like a daily occurrence — let’s switch our focus to college hockey, which has never been as popular as it is now. Yes, the Frozen Four sells out every year, but now regular-season games are selling out too. North Dakota has the highest attendance in North America at 11,730 per game. Minnesota is third (9,678) and Wisconsin is fourth (9,668). The WCHA is also the best-attended league in the continent at an average of 6,031 fans per game.
The polls offer no surprises. Defending national champion Boston College (9-1) is number one. Denver and New Hampshire are right behind them, both of them only with one loss. Frozen Four representative Minnesota and Miami round out the top five, while Notre Dame, North Dakota, Union, Western Michigan and Boston University fill out the top 10. All of these teams, with the exception of the Fighting Irish, made the NCAA Tournament last year; Notre Dame reached the Frozen Four in 2011.
If you are looking for an underdog to follow early on, check out Dartmouth or Niagara. The Big Green currently sit 11th in the USCHO poll while the Purple Eagles are 20th. Dartmouth was predicted to be a dark horse in the ECAC and so far they’ve earned an upset victory over Union, but they could surpass that with a win over top-ranked BC this weekend. Niagara can’t brag about a marquee win yet, but nearly tied Michigan State and has shut out five of its last eight opponents.
Holy Cross (North Dakota fans’ other favorite team) is also off to a decent start. The Crusaders have picked up wins over Atlantic Hockey frontrunners Air Force and Bentley, and almost picked up a sweep over RIT. A win over Brown this weekend combined with a solid performance next week against Robert Morris should push Holy Cross into the Top 20.
Ever wonder if college hockey games are on TV? If you have a satellite, you can usually find games on networks like Fox Sports (WCHA and CCHA), NESN (Hockey East), NBC Sports (usually the marquee game of the week), CBS College Sports (should occur more often now that college football is almost over), MSG (ECHC), Time Warner (Atlantic Hockey) and on rare occasions, the Big Ten Network. Cable is a little more iffy so check with your provider if you can get any of these channels.
Now let’s shift gears to the American Hockey League, which is also getting a closer look from many fans. Thanks to an influx of talent from their NHL affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons currently boast the two leading scorers in the AHL — Justin Schultz (23 points) and Jordan Eberle (21 points) — along with fourth place scorer Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (19 points). However, the Barons currently sit second in the Western Conference South Division behind the AHL-leading Charlotte Checkers (26 points). The Checkers have the AHL’s top two goal-scorers in Drayson Bowman (11) and Zach Boychuk (10), both of whom have seen their share of action with the NHL’s Hurricanes the past three seasons.
The league’s leading goaltender is former Colorado College standout and longtime Calgary Flames backup Curtis McElhinney. He has nine wins, a 1.41 GAA and a .953 save percentage for the Springfield Falcons, a Columbus Blue Jackets affiliate. Jeff Frazee of the Albany Devils, famous for allowing a 180-foot goal in college with Minnesota, seems to be past that moment. He’s having a solid year so far with a 2.12 GAA and a .921 save percentage.
Other teams off to a good start are Springfield (22 points), the Abbotsford Heat (23 points), the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (20 points) and the Syracuse Crunch (22 points).
As you clean up those Thanksgiving leftovers, take solace in the fact that even though the NHL is wasting everyone’s time, there’s still some quality hockey being played.