College hockey has reached the unofficial halfway point of the season.
With the holiday season among us, it's time to look back at the first half of the 2019-20 campaign.
After a season where “new” was in vogue — Massachusetts made the national championship game, Arizona State and AIC made their first NCAA tournament and several typical contenders spent March and April on the outside looking in — the theme during this year’s first half for men’s hockey seems to be experience.
Players that returned for their junior and senior seasons are paying off for several teams, while some big-name underclassmen continue to find their way. For the most part, experienced teams can be found in the top of the rankings. This includes several blue bloods looking to return to the NCAA tournament.
Still, those new schools continue to shine. Massachusetts, without 2019 Hobey Baker Award winner Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro, continue to play top-10 hockey.
Arizona State lost its star goalie but is not missing a beat, thanks in part to Johnny Walker and James Sanchez.
Penn State returned almost everyone from its 2018-19 team. The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten, mainly due to their defense cutting opposing offense goal totals down more than a goal per game than 2018-19.
Talented underclassmen have made themselves known as well, whether it’s Wisconsin freshman Cole Caufield, Providence sophomores Jack Dugan and Tyce Thompson, or Minnesota State goaltender Dryden McKay.
Most importantly, each conference appears to be up for grabs as the second half begins. No first-place team is more than a weekend ahead of second place. In three of the six conferences, the result of a single game can change the order.
There’s plenty of time to see what happens, and whether Minnesota Duluth can become the first men’s hockey team to three-peat since Michigan did so from 1951-53. But first, it’s time to hit pause and celebrate the highlights of an entertaining first half of college hockey.
North Dakota, Minnesota State and Cornell each went through the first two-plus months of the season with two losses or less.
Of the three, the biggest surprise would be North Dakota, which ends the first half on a 13-game winning streak. Both the Mavericks and Big Red return the majority of their lineups from the 2018-19 teams, which were national title contenders. Meanwhile, the Fighting Hawks statement comes on the heels of missing a second consecutive NCAA tournament.
Still, there were signs that North Dakota could reestablish itself among the nation’s elite. Last season, the Fighting Hawks lost 12 games where they outshot their opponents. Going from 52nd in shooting percentage to leading the country with 4.18 goals per game, North Dakota is also getting outstanding goaltending from a healthy Adam Scheel (1.56 goals against average and .927% save percentage).
Boston College (11-4-0) used a combination of high-profile rookies and a large group of upperclassmen to finish the first half on a nine-game winning streak. Spencer Knight, the 2019 first-round pick of the Florida Panthers, has shown why he’s viewed as a future cornerstone at goalie. After a season where David Cotton was a lone bright spot offensively, the Eagles senior is joined at the top by a pair of juniors in Logan Hutsko and Aapeli Rasanen.
Across Commonwealth Avenue, David Ferrance nearly doubled every other blue liner in the nation in goals. The Boston University junior has been a force on the power play, scoring eight of his 10 goals with the man advantage to help the Terriers find their way.
While 2019-20's first half has not been the “Year of the D Part 2,” defensemen continue to stand out. Returning for his junior year, Scott Perunovich has been a catalyst for two-time defending champion Minnesota Duluth. The same can be said with Alec Rauhauser at Bowling Green, whose 2019 NCAA Tournament appearance after a 29-year absence does not appear to be a one-off.
Besides McKay and Knight, whose .940 save percentage leads all freshmen, college hockey’s first half has been chock full of goaltending highlights.
UMass Lowell’s Tyler Wall continues to live up to his name. Justin Kapelmaster, whose 2018-19 season at Ferris State was cut short due to injuries, appears rejuvenated with Robert Morris as a graduate transfer. Former Colonials goaltender Frank Marotte has done the same with Clarkson, flawlessly replacing Jake Kielly and helping Casey Jones’ Golden Knights keep pace with Matt Galajda and Cornell in the ECAC. Tommy Napier is making the most of his opportunity to be the number one goaltender at Ohio State.
First Half Hobey Baker Winner: Jordan Kawaguchi, North Dakota
There are several outstanding options for this award. Providence sophomore Jack Dugan’s 33 points (six goals, 27 assists) sits on a table by itself. No one outside the Friars is within nine points of Dugan, whose 1.94 PPG nearly matches Johnny Gaudreau’s 2013-14 season as the best this decade. His 27 assists would lead the nation on its own.
Dugan’s teammate Thompson and Northeastern’s Tyler Madden are among the leaders with 13 goals. Penn State senior Nate Sucese stands out in the Big Ten. Perunovich can make a case on defense, in addition to the first half Mike Richter Award winner and best performance you might not have heard about, as seen below.
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However, Kawaguchi, a junior, stands out both for his individual performance and helping North Dakota to its 14-1-2 start. Kawaguchi sits third in the country with 27 points (seven goals, 17 assists). He has a point in 12 of 17 games this season, and the Fighting Hawks are 11-0-1 when scoring at least one. Only Minnesota State has kept him off the scoreboard in a weekend series. Kawaguchi has also stepped up in the spotlight, scoring three overtime goals in the calendar year.
First Half Mike Richter Award Winner: Dryden McKay, Minnesota State
Of the 16 games McKay started during the first half, only twice has an opposing team reached three goals. The Mavericks sophomore leads the nation in save percentage (.955), goals against average (1.09) and is tied for the lead with four shutouts. He’s been a difference maker for Minnesota State, as the Mavericks once again sit pretty in the WCHA.
Other worthy candidates include Matthew Galajda of Cornell, Tyler Wall of UMass Lowell, Justin Kapelmaster of Robert Morris and Spencer Knight of Boston College. In Galajda’s case, he returns from a season-ending injury that cost the Big Red its starting goaltender right before the NCAA Tournament.
Rookie of the First Half: Cole Caufield, Wisconsin
It’s cliche at this point, but the Badger freshman (who set the USNTDP record) can flat-out score. Caufield’s 12 goals are four ahead of any other first-year player, and one behind the NCAA lead.
But he’s not the only rookie shining under the bright lights. Trevor Zegras of Boston University is showing why the Anaheim Ducks made him the ninth overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. Shane Pinto is another key piece for North Dakota as well. Both Matt Brown and Carl Berglund are both performing for UMass Lowell, while across the commonwealth, Zac Jones has taken on major responsibility for Massachusetts.
Best Performance You Might Not Have Heard About: Jason Cotton, Sacred Heart
When the New York Islanders invited Cotton this summer to their prospect development camp, he became the first-ever Pioneer to attend one. The senior has not let up this season, being one of four players with 13 goals and putting Sacred Heart in position to win its first-ever Atlantic Hockey title. When Cotton scores for Sacred Heart, the Pioneers are 7-1-0.
We already mentioned North Dakota. However, the Fighting Hawks might not even be the most surprising team along US-2. Bemidji State sits second in the WCHA behind in-state rival Minnesota State. The best WCHA team outside the Land of 10,000 Lakes is one that's season appeared to be in jeopardy over the summer, Alaska. The Nanooks nearly matched their 12 wins from last season by December.
Atlantic Hockey ends the first half with two teams in the top 20 of the Pairwise rankings, which mimic the formula used to select the at-large teams to the NCAA Tournament. The first one, Sacred Heart, was a popular dark horse pick. The other, Army West Point, was 10th in the Atlantic Hockey Conference last season. The Black Knights continued their run of play this year, following up a 4-4-2 finish by going 12-5-1 in the first half.
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Picked seventh of the seven teams in the Big Ten, Michigan State has racked up some big wins (pun intended). Senior goaltender John Lethemon matched his previous career shutout total with four this season, helping lead the Spartans to a second-place finish. Most importantly, Danton Cole’s team has been getting secondary scoring beyond Patrick Khodorenko and Mitch Lewandowski, which eluded Michigan State in recent years.
Despite making the 2019 Frozen Four, Providence leads Hockey East at the moment following four early departures from key players, while also needing to replace its longtime starting goalie.
It’s the holiday season, meaning each of these teams will wish for their surprising first half to carry over into the second half. There will be plenty to watch when NCAA hockey picks up after the holidays. We’ll be there covering it.