Tight race for men

With only five weeks remaining in college hockey’s regular season, teams around the nation are busy jostling for position within their respective leagues.

Although there has been a certain amount of parity during the 2000-01 campaign, there have been plenty of surprises to talk about. Out west, the rise of St. Cloud State and the struggles of pre-season No. 1 Wisconsin have been hot topics. Closer to home, the lack of a front-runner in the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference and the tumultuous campaign that Maine is enduring remain on the tips of the critics’ tongues.

However, there is no dispute as to what the biggest story has been throughout the first four months of the season – the emergence of Ron Mason’s Michigan State squad. At press time, MSU had posted a 19-0-3 mark in its last 22 games. They haven’t lost since a 2-1 setback to Nebraska-Omaha back on November 20.

Needless to say, Michigan State has clearly established itself as the early favorite for the NCAA title. The Spartans boast a pair of Hobey Baker Award candidates in goaltender Ryan Miller and senior sniper Rustyn Dolyny. The Central Collegiate Hockey Association leaders also have a talented defensive unit that only allows 1.2 goals per contest.

‘We’ve proven why we have ‘staying power’ as the No. 1 team,’ said Mason in an interview with US College Hockey Online. ‘We may not have a Mike York or Shawn Horcoff, but we have a team that works together and our strength is in the net.’

And just like Mason alluded to, the Spartans know exactly where their bread is buttered. Miller is 19-1-4 on the season and recently moved past Marty Turco to set a new modern-day record for career shutouts with 15.

However, Miller’s backup isn’t too shabby, either. Senior Joe Blackburn is a returning All-American between the pipes, but Miller’s outstanding play has relegated him to a spectator’s role for the majority of the season. Ironically, Blackburn shut out Yale back on Jan. 5 in his only start of the year.

Keeping things out west, reigning national champion North Dakota has continued its winning ways this season, and currently holds the No. 3 spot in the nation. However, St. Cloud State [17-4-1] and Western Michigan [16-4-3] are two clubs that are exceeding expectations.

It was only two years ago that WMU endured an internal investigation and ended up the season as the doormats of the CCHA. However, with a new attitude that has been instilled by former Broncos standout Jim Culhane, Western Michigan is looking to climb its way up the national ladder.

‘When I took over, we didn’t have a timeline or a blueprint of when we could be back on the national scene,’ told Culhane to USCHO. ‘You’re just looking at trying to build your program. Obviously we’re very pleased about our start, but there’s still half a schedule left. We’re trying to, as a program, get better. That happens in practice.’

Meanwhile, St. Cloud has built off last year’s NCAA tournament appearance and is battling with North Dakota for the WCHA lead. The final five weeks of the season should go a long way in determining whether or not the Huskies are for real. They hit the road for a pair of weekend series at Alaska-Anchorage and at Wisconsin, as well as one road game at Minnesota.

Two of the more competitive races in the country are developing right in New England. In Hockey East, Boston College and New Hampshire have managed to stay one-two for most of the year, but the seven other teams in the league were separated by a mere five points at press time.

Over in the ECAC, parity is also the norm. Harvard and Cornell have established some sense of superiority, much like BC and UNH, but the league is a toss-up from there. The difference between third place and ninth place was only two points, while the bottom three teams were only one point apart.

The regular season champion in both Hockey East and the ECAC are awarded an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The competitive fire burns even in the smaller Division I leagues, such as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Two-time defending regular season champion Quinnipiac finds itself stationed in third place, while a pair of upstart programs – Mercyhurst and Iona – reside in first and second, respectively. The first-place Lakers also made a case for themselves as the league’s best team when they spanked QU 6-0 on the Braves’ home ice in mid-January.

One of the reasons why the race is so tight is likely the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament that awaits the MAAC tournament winner. Even though the regular season champ is not assured of a berth in the final field of 12, it still can help its cause by taking the title.

‘This year, there’s pressure on everyone because of the automatic bid,’ Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. ‘One of the things that we did in the past two years, was that, for the most part, we showed up to play every game. ‘We didn’t take too many off nights, which we’ve already done a few times this year. You can’t just show up to play and expect to win.’