NCAA Hockey 101: 2 teams emerging as definitively elite, 1 more could

Troy Terry’s Denver Pioneers have unsurprisingly emerged as front runners early in the Division I season. (Getty)

Before the season started, anyone with a brain looked at what Denver brought back both on the ice and behind the bench and declared them definitive favorites to repeat as national champions.

About a month later, there’s little evidence to suggest those predictions were wrong. The Pioneers are unbeaten in six games and just swept a weekend series at Bostons University and College by a combined score of 10-4. They’re currently top-nine in the country in goals per game (4.0, tied for fourth), goals against per game (2.0, tied for fifth), shots per game (42.7, first by a mile), and shots against per game (ninth). They’re also running at 30-plus percent on the power play (seventh).

In short, Denver is as-advertised — and fun as hell to watch, not for nothing — and a lot of the other teams in the country for which you would say, “Well they can be good if they sort out [fill in the blank],” has mostly failed to sort out what that blank was. BU still suffers from whatever disease has held back more success on the national stage, UMass Lowell is off to a terrible 0-4 start in-conference, Minnesota-Duluth is winning but getting pathetic goaltending, and a bunch of other teams have been up-and-down.

That leaves only St. Cloud as a proven team, at least in terms of what they’ve done so far. Which is a bit surprising. This is a team that got outscored last season due to some poor team goaltending (.897) and otherwise had some question marks. They fell very much into the “If they can sort it out…” category, but had earned less of the benefit of the doubt because even apart from the goaltending last year, they were pretty much middle-of-the-pack in a lot of respects.

With that said, this was a team with a lot of younger talent on the roster, so an improvement was likely. Everything seems to be going exactly to plan for the Huskies right now, though, and as a result they’re the only 5-0 team in the country, scoring 4.6 goals a game, allowing just two, and carrying a shot margin of plus-23, which is a very good number in five games. Anyone who had understandable questions about the goaltending have, to this point, been quieted; St. Cloud’s combo of Jeff Smith (.943) and David Hrenak (.921) are both performing at elite levels.

Six players are running at a point a game, three more are just below that level. The special teams have been great at both ends of the ice. You really can’t ask for any more than the Huskies have given so far.

Is the strength of schedule all that great? No. They picked up an impressive 4-0 win over a good Minnesota State team to open the season, but since then they’ve played four against some punching bags: 11-7 on aggregate against Alaska (2-2-2 otherwise), and 8-3 against BC (1-3-1 excluding the St. Cloud games). These are games the Huskies should win, and they are.

Moreover, these aren’t your slightly older sibling’s St. Cloud teams, where everyone is a 24-year-old taking exactly one class, and ends the season with somewhere between 35 and 42 points. They’ve gotten younger and are more talented. Their best players are certainly higher-end than they used to be.

The question, of course, is how “for real” this is, because the strength of schedule lends itself to strong results, and the NCHC will once again probably be the highest-end league in the country. Once they get into the teeth of that schedule with series against Duluth and Denver back-to-back the next two weekends, things likely get a lot tougher. Whether they can keep it up remains to be seen, but if you can and should beat weaker opponents, doing just that to great effect can’t be held against you.

So the thing for St. Cloud, until proven otherwise, is that the ceiling might be higher than some people thought.

The only other team that could be reliably counted upon to give Denver a run for its money in terms of top-to-bottom quality is a little harder to assess. The Harvard Crimson were one of the two or three best teams in the country for much of last season after years of playing well until they ran into actually elite teams. They made it to the Frozen Four and barely lost to the eventual runners up.

Then they lost a good amount of talent up front this past offseason, in Alex Kerfoot, Sean Malone, Tyler Moy, and Luke Esposito, all of whom were seniors with at least a point a game in that Frozen Four run. The big question for coach Ted Donato, then, was who was going to replace those lost goals.

At the same time, their blue line might be the deepest in the country, and they have a career .926 goaltender in Merrick Madsen returning for his senior year, so even if they didn’t score quite so many goals as last year’s 146, they could probably still finish with a huge goal differential (last year’s was plus-69!), and win another 25-plus games. The Crimson had plenty of talent coming back and coming in, so it was entirely possible.

Of course, Harvard has only played one game so far this season — those Ivy League teams love starting late — but dispatched a submediocre Dartmouth team 5-0 in short order. This after pasting a solid USA Hockey U-18 team 7-2 in an exhibition.

Not to read too much into those two results against clubs that are not as good as an average NCAA team, but in much the same way St. Cloud has all the pieces and would have to prove they could put it all together, Harvard will probably have to prove that its missing pieces simply are not good enough to follow up another great season.

There is, obviously, still a lot of time. BU and Lowell and Duluth aren’t going to stay mediocre or worse forever, and someone has to finish somewhere between fifth and 15th in the Pairwise at the end of the year. But for now, it seems like everyone’s just chasing these three teams. And since we’re like 15 percent of the way through the season, Denver and St. Cloud in particular seem to have a pretty strong head start on everyone else.

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 (won at BU and BC)
2. St. Cloud (idle)
3. Harvard (beat Dartmouth)
4. Wisconsin (split with St. Lawrence)
5. Minnesota (swept Clarkson)
6. Quinnipiac (idle)
7. North Dakota (split with Colorado College)
8. Providence (beat BC and BU)
9. Minnesota State (swept Michigan Tech)
10. Northeastern (swept Lowell in a home and home)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and is the ONLY HOST of the NCAA hockey podcast Hockey Goes to College (the other guy is only his sidekick). His email is here and his Twitter is here.