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Nathan Wells | NCAA.com | January 22, 2020

Mailbag: Answering college hockey fans' questions for this season, so far

Check out the top rivalries in men's ice hockey

What rules will be addressed this summer? What’s wrong with the Wisconsin men’s team of late? How can the Ohio State women’s team consistently compete against the top of the WCHA?

All those questions and many more are answered in this week’s college hockey mailbag. To ask a question of your own, tweet @gopherstate. Who knows, your question might be answered in the next edition.

Men's hockey questions

Q: Where do you think UMass ends up in the regional? Also can they make the Frozen Four again? — @mattengdahl

A: A few of you asked whether Massachusetts could return to the Frozen Four without Cale Makar. Credit to Greg Carvel and his staff for putting the “what’s next after Makar?” question to bed because the Minutemen are likely to return to the top 10, though several elite players remain to take the next step. John Leonard and Mitchell Chafee are both having solid seasons. Zac Jones looks to be developing into another top Hockey East defender, as UMass begins a stretch against the top three teams in Hockey East.

If the season ended today, the Minutemen would be in Allentown facing home team Penn State. As it is, UMass finds itself in the 6-12 range where any regional makes sense depending on the week. It’s hard to see the team getting any higher than its current sixth overall seed, however.

As far as the big question goes, there are some red flags with Massachusetts’ record against the top teams and the amount of goals going through defenders. Still, this is a team with Frozen Four experience throughout its lineup and solid goaltending. In a single-elimination tournament, that helps.

BRACKETOLOGY: How things look less than three months from the Frozen Four

Q: If [Marc] Michaelis is out for an extended period of time, do the [Mavericks] fall off a bit even with their depth?  — @BobblinMavs

A: Minnesota State remains among the top teams, though missing a potential Hobey Baker top-10 pick in Michaelis — who was injured Friday and missed Saturday’s game — for an extended period of time would be cause for concern. That’s true of any team. Michaelis brings both experience and consistent scoring — no player in college hockey entered the season with more goals or points — and a key member for a Mavericks team looking to contend for a national championship. That’s a player who can make a difference come NCAA tournament time.

For the interim, Minnesota State can survive without him. The team continues to use its depth to its advantage in the WCHA and has one of the top goalies in Dryden McKay. It speaks volumes the Mavericks were able to come back and beat Bowling Green in overtime without Michaelis.

Q: How long until [coach Bob] Motzko’s system begins to work at Minnesota? I’ve noticed their goals against is beginning to go down. And scoring is gradually going up. When will the first big step be? — @cartermoss00

A: It looks like the first big steps are being taken. Minnesota and “rebuilding year” do not go together often, but that’s the case this season. Motzko lost a large senior class plus a top goalie and an All-American. He’s replacing them with players who fit into his system yet need more college hockey experience. Sammy Walker is a sophomore captain. Only two players in the top-nine forwards can legally able to buy a beer... and one is a freshman.

Taking a step back, the Gophers are getting more experience. To take the next step, Minnesota’s stretch run is going to be one where the close losses and bad goals against late get turned into more competitive games. Whether it’s now or next season, the Gophers need a player or two to turn a performance like Scott Reedy has during his junior year, going from 11 points as a sophomore to 10 goals already. That only comes with age and experience.

SCOREBOARD: Scores, live stats, schedule

Q: Please provide your analysis concerning Wisconsin’s record after a very good start. Thank you. — @rdk1212

A: When the season began, I figured Wisconsin would need to be asking some tough questions if the Badgers missed the NCAA tournament. It’s nearing that time. The Badgers sit in last place in the Big Ten, despite adding an exceptional freshman class to an underclassman group who returned the second-most goals per game.

Not much has changed with Wisconsin after some early success. Coach Tony Granato’s team continues to struggle defensively, allowing 3.22 goals per game (52nd of 60 schools), as teams have found ways to slow down Cole Caufield (4 goals in his last 11 games) and the fast-moving Badgers PP (3 for 30 in its last 10 games). Both goaltenders are hovering around .900% save percentage.

This could be an entire article in itself, but the quick answer lies in the defense. When Wisconsin can hold teams to two or fewer goals, the Badgers are 8-0-0. Unfortunately, that’s eight of nine wins. As young as the team is, the talent is there at Wisconsin. Questions need to be asked about why the defense and goaltending has not risen to the same level regardless of who is there.

Q: Got two questions for you Nate. First, for the East, is there a team in your opinion that needs to have a big weekend at CT Ice? Whether it’s for momentum purposes or to kick start their second half? — @JJDuke21

A: This weekend marks the inaugural Connecticut Ice tournament between the four Nutmeg State schools. I’ll be curious to see how the tournament goes and its turnout for the festival celebrating CT hockey. 

Quinnipiac enters as the favorite. However, no school needs a bigger weekend than Sacred Heart. The Pioneers enter off a loss and tie to Cansius. Competing for its first Atlantic Hockey regular-season title, Sacred Heart ends the regular season with six of its final eight games against the top four teams in Atlantic Hockey. There’s an urgency to get back to winning ways.

MEN'S RANKINGS: View the USCHO.com, USA Today/ USA Hockey Magazine and RPI rankings

Q: Who were your Frozen Four picks in preseason, and how are they looking now? — @RealFrankHanson

A: Not good. I didn’t make any preseason Frozen Four picks, or any picks at all. Making preseason Frozen Four picks is difficult because one weekend upstages five months of hockey. 

After previewing all 60 teams in the preseason, the biggest surprise so far remains Michigan State. I did not see the Spartans finding depth scoring and a career year from John Lethemon. I wasn’t sold entirely on Boston College bouncing back either. If I did make preseason picks, both would make me look foolish.

Women's hockey questions

Q: Ohio State [women's hockey] is right on the cusp of being elite. They can handle the juggernauts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, but not consistently. What do they need to do to elevate their program that final step to be a contender for WCHA and national titles? — @kcolelli

A: The key will be matching Minnesota and Wisconsin’s depth. Both teams can roll 2-3 forward lines that need to be contained by a top defensive pairing. When Presley Norby is on a third line, opportunities and mismatches are going to be created as teams pick which group needs to be shut down. It’s one reason why this weekend’s Border Battle will be fantastic hockey because each school matches the other line for line.

Ohio State is almost there, which is a testament to the job Nadine Muzerall and her staff have done. The Buckeyes match well with both Minnesota and Wisconsin with its top line, defense and goaltending. Emma Maltais might be the most underrated player in college hockey, and she’s a junior. It’s closer with the second group before the others pull away with the bottom six.

Still, with each season at the job, Muzerall continues to stock depth, turning a team with one or two elite players into one that can compete with the best and contend for national titles. This year’s team has more than the group who went to the Frozen Four two seasons ago, and next year’s recruiting class features a few top names, too.

Off topic: Ohio State’s and Minnesota’s sweaters for the outdoor Hockey Day Minnesota game? Fire. Both teams should put them in regular rotation.

Q: Who are the premier women's recruits coming in nationwide, and who should Gopher fans be extra excited about? — @tjsimplot

A: Two incoming players who I’ve been excited to see play college hockey for awhile now are Makenna Webster (Wisconsin) and Abbey Murphy (Minnesota). It’s been nearly 3 and a half years since Webster committed to the Badgers. She remains one of the top players in her age group and one hockey fans should get to know. Murphy, meanwhile, has already made the Sportscenter Top 10 with her moves.

The recent U-18 Women’s World Championship shines a light on college hockey’s future. Twenty-one different schools were represented on the US and Canada rosters. Golden goal scorer Kiara Zanon will be heading to Penn State. Lacey Eden (Princeton) had a fantastic run for the Americans while Ohio State commit Jenna Buglioni led the Canadians in scoring.

As far as the Gophers go, three key names to know are Murphy (F), Anne Cherkowski (F) and Maggie Nicholson (D). 

WOMEN'S RANKINGS: USCHO.com, USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine and RPI rankings

Q: And on the women’s side, which team currently outside the top 10 right now do you see getting hot over the final few weeks and possibly creating a bit of chaos in playoffs (ie UConn in 17-18 getting to WHEA final), and maybe even be a NCAA bid stealer? — @JJDuke21

A: I don’t know if it happens this year, but two teams outside the top 10 that seem to give others fits are Colgate and Bemidji State. The Raiders are on a roll of late, tying both Northeastern and Ohio State this season. Teams learned the hard way to not count out BSU, though beating both Minnesota and Wisconsin in the playoffs is a tough order for anyone.

Q: Should the NEWHA potentially get an autobid in the future, should the D1 women's tournament field expand, and by how much? Intro a play-in game, or expand to 12 or 16 teams? — @mattwellens

A: Assuming someone grants me college hockey czar powers, here’s how the tournament would look:

No play-in game. I’d expand to 12 teams when the NEWHA gets an autobid. There are over 40 schools competing for the title. At a similar size in the 1990s, the men’s tournament was at 12 teams. It’s overdue, and with a fifth automatic bid, the majority of schools coming from conference tournaments further punishes those with 3-4 top teams.

If possible, I’d let the top two teams host and get a first-round bye in a single weekend as a regular-season reward. If not, having an east and west regional bid upon by the schools would be an option. Either way, the NCAA tournament remains the same length at two weekends with single-elimination.

AWARD: Hockey Humanitarian Award Foundation Announces 2020 nominees during 25th anniversary celebration

Q: What rules do you believe will be addressed/adjusted this year? — @CGRadtke

A: 2020 will be a rules year where the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Ice Hockey Rules Committee evaluates the rules and has the opportunity to make changes.

Besides the regular tweaks and points of emphasis on slashing and hooking, which are heavily enforced every other October, it’s tough to see too many major changes. The previous rules year saw an added timeout in overtime, an additional skater on the bench and coaching challenges. This should be more tinkering than reinventing the wheel.

The one rule I believe will finally be addressed is a standardized overtime. More than half of the conferences using 3-on-3 overtime to decide points makes it feel like that option has been winning out slowly. However, it’s been attempted to be addressed each of the past two rules cycles without success. With different conferences using different overtimes and two separate overtime sessions, overtime remains a lesson in compromise for an event meant to definitely decide a winner.

And if all conferences want to put microphones on referees to explain goal decisions and penalties, I’d take that too.

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