The idea that the things happening in college hockey now will in any way resemble the things that happen in January or beyond is not that broadly shared.
Everyone understands, on a fundamental level, that these teams basically have no preseason, and it takes everyone a little while to get up to speed. Add in the fact that weird results seem to proliferate at this time of year and most people will accept as fact the concept of, “It’s early.”
But much like the NHL or any other sport, early or not, these games all count. Points lost on Oct. 21 are just as valuable as those gained on Feb. 8, and for conferences in particular, the ability to wring results from early-season action is vital.
After all, that’s when the vast majority of non-conference games take place.
Non-conference games are incredibly important in college hockey, though not necessarily for the teams themselves. A team like BU can likely afford to suffer even two losses to Minnesota State because, well, both teams remain very likely to win 20-plus games and therefore in the end, the negative effect won’t be too significant. But taken as a whole, all non-conference games matter when it comes to stealing one of the 10 at-large bids for the NCAA tournament from other conferences.
The reason this comes up is that Hockey East just had a slate of 18 non-conference games this past weekend, and did terribly, going just 5-12-1. That dropped the league’s record against non-conference opponents to 20-22-4. A lot of the losses were at least to teams one can reasonably expect to finish well above .500, and probably make the NCAA tournament (Northeastern getting swept by Quinnipiac, BC getting swept at St. Cloud, Providence losing at Clarkson, etc.) but the sheer weight of the weekend might be enough to keep Hockey East relatively quiet on the national stage come tournament time.
In fact, what’s interesting so far this season is that two leagues are absolutely cleaning house in non-conference action, to the extent that every other one is below .500. The NCHC (no surprise) and Big Ten (kinda surprising!) are both above the break-even by 10 and eight wins, respectively, and a surprising chunk of those losses have actually been to each other. The Big Ten, for instance, has just 10 losses in 31 games, and four of them were to NCHC opponents.
Obviously there’s still plenty of runway for Hockey East or the ECAC to make up some ground here and get back above .500. The ECAC also has the benefit of getting all the Ivy League teams, of which there could be a couple wrecking crews (Harvard for sure and maybe Cornell), and Union isn’t bad enough to keep up all its losing so far. Neither, for that matter, is 0-6 St. Lawrence.
But again, these are losses that aren’t coming back. The fact that Northeastern had two third-period leads against a very good Quinnipiac team, in two wildly different games, is immaterial. Moreover, that fact will be long forgotten by the time they sort out their defensive and goaltending troubles (big “if” there, I guess) and tournament time rolls around. All anyone will see is the two Ls on the schedule. They might not matter much in the grand scheme of things, but a little debris here and there turns a snowball into an avalanche pretty quickly if the conference at large doesn’t get its act together.
It goes without saying that the conferences with the best win percentages in non-league games are the ones that get the most at-large bids. You can only ever go .500 against yourself, so you have to also make hay against everyone else. And because there are only 10 non-autobids now that the Big Ten exists and is actively improving, it becomes tougher for the other traditional power conferences to count on more than, say, two at-large berths unless everything goes right for them.
It’s all about setting yourself up for having the best possible out-of-conference record so you can go into league play with a strong strength of schedule, meaning that everyone in Hockey East benefits from, say, UMass Lowell going 3-1 so far against non-conference foes. The fact that UNH is in the driver’s seat here is a surprise, but certainly the conference will take it.
However, most would have said coming into the season that Hockey East was set up well to get all of its top four teams into the tournament, at least if those top four teams were some ordering of BU, Lowell, Providence and Northeastern. Now? They’re all at least .500 or better out-of-conference, but the struggles of teams like Vermont, Merrimack and BC (a combined 2-10-3) and the general mediocrity of the rest of the conference could hold Hockey East to being a three-bid league, especially now that Notre Dame left it for the Big Ten, which could send three or perhaps four of its seven teams to the tournament.
No surprise here, but it’s starting to look like Atlantic Hockey and the WCHA are probably going to be one-bid conferences again, which is what usually happens anyway.
So let’s say right now we’re looking at about three Hockey East teams making the tournament as at-large teams, but one would likely be an autobid unless something really weird happens in the conference tournament. Another three or four from the Big Ten. That’s up four or five at-large slots gone right there. Then the NCHC gets probably another three or four. So now we’re talking about nine, which probably puts the squeeze on someone from the ECAC; Clarkson’s off to a surprising start, but so too is Quinnipiac. The collective poorness of the rest of the conference will probably ruin at least one of those teams’ chances to make the tournament at-large unless an outside team wins the conference.
Teams usually have all their issues, whatever they may be, sorted out by November, but by then most teams only have a max of three or four non-conference games left on the schedule. So while you should never freak out if conference favorites struggle out of the gate, you should keep in mind that every extra loss they give away hurts their conference in ways that are as yet invisible to us.
A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer, too?)
1. Denver (took three points from Lake State)
2. St. Cloud (swept BC)
3. Wisconsin (split with Northern Michigan)
4. Harvard (won an exhibition against the US U-18s)
5. Minnesota (split at North Dakota)
6. Boston University (took three points in a home-and-home with UConn)
7. Quinnipiac (swept Northeastern)
8. UMass Lowell (won at Clarkson and St. Lawrence)
9. North Dakota (split with Minnesota)
10. Minnesota State (split at Bowling Green)