A wiseman once famously said, "November brings three great things: Thanksgiving, Black Friday and the start of inter-conference play in college hockey." His words, not mine.
In all seriousness, November is a great time in college hockey because we get an early look at how teams stack up against conference rivals. Through one month, we know the NCHC is on another level, the Big Ten has some surprise teams and Hockey East is falling behind a bit. Arizona State, Lake Superior and St. Thomas ended the month with the most games played at 10 apiece.
Now things even out.
1. Can St. Cloud State hold off Michigan for No. 1 in the country?
St. Cloud State took the No. 1 spot from Michigan after the Wolverines fell to Western Michigan midway through the month. The Huskies haven't given the ranking up since, holding it for two straight weeks.
Michigan is stacked and its skill is evident to the naked eye. But it ended October with two splits — one with Western Michigan (which we'll get to later) and one with Wisconsin. For the first time in their young season, the Wolverines encountered scoring troubles. Despite all of that, Michigan is still the No. 3 team in the nation and a favorite come the tournament in the spring.
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The difference between these two squads is experience. While Michigan is young and full of top NHL draft picks, the Huskies are battle-tested.
Michigan has series with Michigan State, No. 16 Penn State, No. 17 Notre Dame and Niagara over the next month. St. Cloud State counters with Colorado College, No. 9 Omaha and No. 10 Western Michigan. Neither schedule is easy. Consistency will be necessary for Michigan to take back the No. 1 spot. That won't be simple, however, as consistency is one of the hallmarks of this St. Cloud State team.
2. Will UMass turn it around?
The Minutemen opened their season in a less-than-ideal way, getting swept by Minnesota State at home right after raising the national championship banner. They weren't happy about their performance and spent two weeks preparing for a set with AIC. They won both of those games. After an exhibition loss, they edged out Merrimack two straight nights. Even with those wins, they still finished October ranked No. 12 — 11 spots back from where they opened this campaign.
It's clear the losses of Zac Jones and Marc Del Gaizo hurt on the backend. Defensively, UMass isn't as stout as it was a year ago. But there's good reason to believe that will change over the next month.
UMass has high expectations for freshmen defensemen Ryan Ufko and Scott Morrow to help shoulder some of the load left behind by Jones and Del Gaizo. They've now had six games (plus one exhibition) to get used to the college game. It's quicker, it's harder, it's more complex. In most cases, it takes time for freshmen blueliners to adjust. They'll be much better in month No. 2.
It won't be easy though. This month, the Minutemen have home-and-homes with No. 7 Providence, Boston University and New Hampshire.
3. Is Providence the best team in Hockey East?
Hockey East did not have the month of October it would've liked to. UMass and Boston College both slipped down considerably in the USCHO poll. BU and Northeastern both fell off the poll completely and enter November unranked. UMass Lowell, however, did sneak in on the first poll of November, coming in at No. 19.
The conference went 19-21-3 in games against the other five conferences. That record was beefed up by going 10-3-1 against the Atlantic. A poor record against other conferences may not help Hockey East get as many teams as possible into the tournament in the spring.
The highest-ranked team to begin November: Providence, and rightfully so.
The Friars consistently took care of business in their first month, finishing 6-3. They beat who they were supposed to beat (except losing to UNH, 2-1, in overtime, but it was their third-straight matchup with them), got a quality win in beating then-No. 8 Denver, 6-5, and lost to then-No. 1 Minnesota State and then-No. 5 Minnesota Duluth in the heavy-hitter Ice Breaker Tournament. All in all, a good month for them.
Sophomore forwards Brett Berard and Nick Poisson have stepped up in Year 2, posting 11 and 10 points, respectively. Their top six have been great, helping Providence tie for second in the nation in goals with 36.
4. Quinnipiac's spot in the top 10
The Bobcats survived their tough early season schedule with a win over then-No. 18 Northeastern, a split series with then-No. 6 North Dakota and a tie with then-No. 6 Boston College. That should be the toughest stretch of their schedule all season.
Their schedule over the next month goes as follows: Yale, Brown, a set with Arizona State, Clarkson and St. Lawrence. Clarkson and Arizona State should be tough tests. But at No. 6, are wins over those two schools, plus the others, going to get them that much higher than No. 5? I'm not sure.
It easily could. If things go wrong for any of the teams currently ranked in the top five, the Bobcats will have a very nice route up the mountain. Also, if they continue to shut down opponents the way they've been doing, they'll rise higher. Quinnipiac is currently tied for third in goals against (1.50) among teams with at least five games played. The goaltending tandem of Dylan St. Cyr and Yaniv Perets has caused fits for opponents.
If it continues to work wonders at keeping the other team off the scoreboard and raise its own scoring, Quinnipiac will have a great month of November.
5. The start of ECAC play
While we're talking about Quinnipiac, let's discuss the ECAC.
It's back. It's finally back after all but four teams opted out of last season. All schools will be playing consistent schedules in November, allowing us to get a peak at Harvard's top-tier recruiting class, how Cornell bounces back after having its incredible season cut short in March 2020 and where Clarkson fits in all of this.
Clarkson is 4-2-1 through seven games and looking to find its footing. Harvard looked outstanding in its first weekend of games with star recruit Matthew Coronato posting three goals and six points over the two wins. Cornell didn't look as solid, slightly edging out Alaska Fairbanks over two games.
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All three teams mentioned above will spend the next month facing mostly ECAC foes.
We'll also get to see if any teams can break into the top four of the conference. Rensselaer, Dartmouth and St. Lawrence could play spoilers for those premier squads.
6. Jack LaFontaine and Minnesota
Alright, that's enough with teams out East. Let's look out (mid)west.
Minnesota had a solid month of October, but stumbled in the toughest stretch, losing three of four to St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth. Those losses won't help in the eyes of those putting together the tournament bracket this spring.
One of the odd parts of Minnesota's first month was inconsistent play from goalie Jack LaFontaine — last season's Mike Richer award-winner. He leaves October with a save percentage under .900 (.890) and a goals against average of 2.78. He did put up a good bounce-back performance when he stopped 54 of 57 shots in a weekend sweep of Notre Dame.
It goes without saying that LaFontaine will need to be much better if Minnesota is to beat Michigan for the Big Ten title. November brings weekend sets with Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State and North Dakota. All four series will be legitimate tests for Minnesota. It's not absurd to say those could be tone-setters for its entire season.
7. Western Michigan's rise
The big surprise of October was Western Michigan. Not that people didn't think the Broncos were good — they are. But to beat the then-No. 1 team in the nation in Michigan, come oh-so-close to sweeping the Wolverines the next night and then come back from down 5-0 to win at Colgate the next game? Oh boy.
They enter November as the No. 10 team in the nation, but that will change after a set with Minnesota Duluth this weekend. Then there's Denver the next weekend and St. Cloud State the weekend after that. If there was ever an example of life in the NCHC, that, folks, is it. The Broncos will either rise a bunch if they come out of that with a winning record, or fall quite a bit if they stumble through that ridiculously hard gauntlet of schools.
There's good reason to believe Western Michigan will hold its own throughout that. The Broncos returned most of their solid team from last season, including defenseman Ronnie Attard, who was a member of the First Team West in the All-Americans. He already has eight points in six games, including a hat trick.
The Broncos' offense is led by graduate student forward Ethen Frank and senior forward Drew Worrad. Among teams with at least six games played, they rank ninth in the country in average goals per game with 3.83.