Welcome back to THG’s western power rankings, now with a new host! Here, we will throw caution to the wind, get some Fighting Hawks fans riled up for no good reason, and hopefully get some angry comments from readers.
Note that these rankings will not track teams’ win-loss records, thus I am not including team records as is customary in other articles we produce. Nor will it be a simple recreation of the current Pairwise, although that may track generally with these rankings as the Pairwise is not bad at establishing power itself. Finally, because these are about ‘power,’ there is some necessary recency bias in that a win from last night is more illustrative than one from October.
The format may change from week-to-week, but the basics will stay the same: 26 teams from the three western conferences (plus lonely Arizona State) compiled into one official ranking that you can take to the bank. *
(*until next week when teams play again and the rankings change.**)
(**or possibly until just Tuesday night, after this was written but before it was edited. -Ed.)
The “Come Back Again Next Year” Tier
24. Ferris State
The “Not Quite Horrible but Not A Threat” Tier
22. Michigan State
20. Northern Michigan
19. Bemidji State
The “I Am Frustrated Watching You Most Nights” Tier
17. Colorado College
16. Michigan Tech
For the third year in a row, MTU coaching waited too long into the season to go to their youngest goalie in a quest for consistency. This season, however, feels most unforgivable considering Robbie Beydoun is a known quantity. He is the best option in net by a wide enough margin that I cannot help but wonder if he disappoints in practice: why else would the coaches be so hesitant to hand him the reigns? Either way, a disappointing two weeks ends with no wins, a tie, and three losses, all of which were quite winnable. Talk about frustrating.
Tech might have won the shootout, but these power rankings (and the pairwise) viewed that as a tie between the cross-state rivals, giving no credence to automatically ranking Tech higher. Michigan’s win against Notre Dame should be taken with a grain of salt as I will explain more later, but it was still impressive considering Michigan won without Quinn Hughes and Josh Norris, their two best players. The Wolverines’ blistering second half run to the tournament and Frozen Four is well-documented, so it would be foolish to count them out just yet.
13. North Dakota
The Fighting Hawks were a late addition to this tier as they completed one of the worst weekends in recent memory, getting swept in Buffalo against Canisius, who entered the weekend in the 50’s in the Pairwise. They are now at serious risk of missing a second straight NCAA tournament with a brutal NCHC conference schedule ahead. Dave Hakstol is available for hire…
The Borderline Contenders Tier
12. Lake State
This was the hardest team to rank, ending up here in part because of how other teams around them performed but also because they are currently not a team I would want to play against. The Lakers are rolling having won six straight, including sweeping two separate weekends in Alaska by a total margin of 11 goals. While they may not finish the year here, they certainly belong right now.
Imagine where Miami might be if they didn’t ever play Providence? Recent failures against the Friars in the national tournament and now two losses and a tie in three games against the unlikely rival is preventing greater success for the RedHawks. Still, Miami is not far from making the national tournament where they could make some noise.
10. Minnesota State
The Mavericks answered the question of whether they only have success with Mike Hastings (the head coach was in British Columbia coaching the US World Juniors team) with an impressive sweep of Michigan Tech. This will be another spring filled with expectations in Mankato.
9. Bowling Green
The Falcons followed up their sweep of Minnesota State with a split against a desperate Bemidji State team, which feels like a relatively successful weekend for BGSU. They are in good position to make the national tournament (12th in the Pairwise as of this writing) and have a favorable schedule down the stretch: four games against Alaska and no more against MSU, with only a trip to Houghton as a weekend where they might not be favored.
The Frozen Four Contenders
8. Western Michigan
Western is red-hot right now, winners of their last eight, and frankly could be ranked much higher than this except for the brutal conference that they are in will make it hard for them to make the national tournament. Nonconference losses to Bowling Green and Michigan in October has slightly depressed their Pairwise, putting them in a perilous position as they enter the heart of NCHC play. This team might be the one in the 5-15 range with the most ability to move up or down depending on how they play the likes of St. Cloud (January 18-19) and Denver (January 25-26), making them possibly the most interesting team to follow over the coming weeks. I am therefore reserving judgement on the Broncos until we see how they handle January.
7. Arizona State
The feel-good story of the season (if feeling good for a power conference football school is your sort of thing), ASU continues to defy the odds and are now quite frankly a long shot to miss the tournament. With huge wins on the road at Penn State and Harvard and tie at Minnesota State, ASU has a strong enough schedule to take a few more losses and still chances to boost their Pairwise with roads series against Cornell and Minnesota. I’ve watched enough of their games to fairly say that they do not look outmatched against even the good teams they played so even if they have been lucky, which I’m not sure they have, they will be no pushover in a playoff setting. They are playing with house money at this point much like 2016 Penn State was, so no one should consider this to be a cushy first-round matchup in March. I’m not betting they make the Frozen Four or even win a game in the tournament, but no one should consider it too much of an upset if they do.
6. Penn State
Penn State once again is in the national tournament conversation on the back of the nation’s best offense shouldering the weight of suspect defense and even more suspect goaltending. This is probably their best offensive team ever and perhaps the deepest lineup of forwards in the country. Their nine goals against Notre Dame in December is one of the more impressive performances by any team this season, but the lack of consistent goaltending from Peyton Jones continues to drag down a team that has great potential. While they will likely make the tournament, they will once again be heavily dependent on getting a favorable postseason matchup: think, their waxing of Union in 2016 but lopsided losses to Denver each of the last two seasons. With the right regional draw (don’t forget they have home ice as the host of the Allentown “Midwest” Regional), this team could very well be in Buffalo in April.
5. Notre Dame
The Pairwise saw Notre Dame lose at home to then-30th ranked Michigan, but the boxscore does not accurately tell what really happened. The game was lost the second that the outdoor ice provided a terrible bounce for All-American Irish netminder Cale Morris, resulting in an early 1-0 lead for Michigan that they never relinquished as they took advantage of a rattled Morris in a 3-goal first period. If that game is played at Compton Family Ice Arena, who knows what the result might have been but I would bet the house that Michigan would not have scored from 150 feet away. While the Pairwise punished Notre Dame, I will not. I still see one of the country’s best defensive teams capable of scoring half a dozen goals any night, a scary combination. If it turns out that this fluky game against Michigan results in a tailspin we can revisit the ranking, but for now Notre Dame is top five.
4. Ohio State
The Buckeyes put together quite an embarrassing collapse on Friday night, giving up five goals in the third period to end up in a 7-7 tie with Michigan State. For a team that had found success based on defense, eyes were on how they would respond Saturday. The result? A 29-save shutout by backup goaltender Tommy Nappier answered the question about team defense, but potentially raises a different one about who belongs in the pipes. Something to keep an eye on moving forward. Either way, this is the best team in the Big Ten and a real threat to get back to the Frozen Four.
The National Championship Favorites
The defending champs have lost just enough games at the right times to stay under the radar, but there is no doubt that they can beat any team in the nation. Even so, the last month has been worrisome, winning only one of their last six games, of which that one required overtime. Scoring has been a problem during that stretch, and the remaining stars from last year’s team like Riley Tufte and Peter Krieger are struggling to replicate their scoring totals. Defense wins championships, but anemic scoring leads to early exits to lower seeds. Keep an eye on the offense over the next two months.
Denver looked strong in their series in Madison, sweeping the Badgers which included a come-from-behind win on Saturday that was very impressive. They are still a head below the top team, however, having been swept by St. Cloud in November and being outshot by 38 shots across the two games. The luck of the schedule draw means that that was the only regular season series between the two teams, leaving a long gap before they potentially face off in the NCHC tournament or beyond. One can only hope we get such a matchup.
1. St. Cloud State
A surprising loss to Union, a good team themselves, this weekend does not take two-loss St. Cloud out of the top spot as they had a rather large cushion on this ranking entering the weekend. They recovered with a strong third to beat Robert Morris on Saturday, and now enter a truly brutal stretch from now until February 2: two at Duluth, two vs. Western Michigan, two at North Dakota, and two vs. Miami. They can cement their status as the team to beat in the country or raise questions as to who the class of the NCHC is. Either way, they will be in the national tournament and will likely be a top-five team.
Featured image courtesy of Todd Pavlack and BGSUHockey.com