It's hockey day!
Boston College has a stiff test in their season opener: the first game of the Hockey East-Big Ten Challenge at Michigan, at the Wolverines' famous Yost Arena. The Wolverines are coming off a disappointing 18-19-3 season which saw them miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in over 20 years. However, they ended the season on a major hot streak, and as usual, have a loaded freshman class this year.
Brian Cook of MGoBlog.com chatted with me about the upcoming matchup.
BC Interruption: I know everyone's probably sick of talking about the Big Ten at this point, but here we are, poised to start the league's inaugural season. How did you feel about college hockey realignment when it was first announced, and how are you feeling about it now that it's a reality?
mgoblog: I thought it was necessary if the sports was going to grow at all. The CHA never found any solid footing and with both western conferences at 12 teams there was nowhere for a new program to go. Now there's a carrot for Big Ten teams to add hockey and room for the new WCHA and NCHC to add teams. There are costs--goodbye reasonable road trips, hello inane conference tourney format--but it had to happen.
BCI: What are you basing this season's expectations for Michigan on? The horrendous middle of the year, which led to your blog ripping the team to shreds, or the surge at the end of the season that nearly catapulted them into the NCAA tournament, falling just short in a CCHA title game loss to Miami?
mgoblog: More the latter than the former. Michigan started turning it around once Andrew Copp was elevated to the #1 C, and his infectious energy is now bolstered by an incoming class of freshmen who are high-energy effort players. That was the biggest problem with last year's team... that wasn't goaltending. That remains a question mark. Starter Steve Racine finished the year on a .921 tear, but started it well under .900. He's probably somewhere in between those extremes.
BCI: Michigan always seems to have a tremendous recruiting class, due to 1) being Michigan, 2) playing in one of the nation's top hockey states, and 3) the US national development program playing in Ann Arbor. How do you feel about this year's class? Any particular names we should be looking out for?
mgoblog: As mentioned, this year's class is low on electric skill but high on guys who make a lot of small effort plays. Second line center JT Compher is the guy to watch, especially if you like thinking "wow, that little thing was really smart" about six times a shift. Michigan will also rely heavily on freshman defensemen Nolan De Jong and Michael Downing.
BCI: Michigan lost its preseason tune-up game against Waterloo. Did you see the game? What the hell happened?
mgoblog: They ran into a hot goalie and didn't capitalize on a few different opportunities. They outshot Waterloo significantly and probably win that game 8 of 10 times. I'm a bit worried that Michigan didn't seem to get many opportunities off the rush, but they're just going to have to grit out a lot of goals this year. They don't have guys with epic skill.
BCI: Michigan coach Red Berenson is a legend, but based on what I see on fan sites, many feel like it's time for him to go, sort of how many BU fans felt about Jack Parker in recent years. Where are you on that debate - and more importantly, where do you think the University is? Are they content with the current level of the program or do they think changes need to be made?
mgoblog: Berenson's earned the right to go out on his terms, especially since he's not a Mack Brown kind of guy who's going to hang on by the tips of his whitened fingers. He considered retiring after last year, in fact. He's still untouchable; he'll remove himself long before anyone is forced to do it for him.
BCI: Many of the east's top hockey programs - including BC, BU, UNH, and a number of ECAC powers - also have successful women's hockey teams. Four B1G teams do as well (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State). Do you foresee Michigan or Michigan State adding a women's hockey team in the near future?
mgoblog: If they were going to they probably would have done so when Michigan added men's lacrosse. To balance those title IX issues they added women's lax instead.
BCI: Finally, give me your predictions: first, for Thursday night's season opener between Michigan and BC, and second, for how you think Michigan will fare in the Big Ten's inaugural season.
mgoblog: I don't have a whole lot of hope Michigan will be able to hold off BC with a very young defense corps that has one really good player (senior captain Mac Bennett) and a lot of question marks. Someone is getting skinned by Gaudreau, maybe multiple someones. It'll be relatively tight but BC should win by a goal or two.
For the season, Michigan should return to the tourney as a three-seed or so and finish second or maybe third in the Big Ten; Minnesota's the favorite but everyone else save Wisconsin is at a clear talent deficit relative to Michigan, and now that they're driven again they should outdistance the rest of the league.
Thanks to Brian for answering our questions. Check out one of the best college sports blogs on the internet at MGoBlog.com.