Back To Class: The WCHA did the right thing for Alabama-Huntsville

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We’re taking you “Back To Class” for our roundup of the weekend’s action in college hockey. Look for more college hockey on NBCSN this Friday night as No. 12 Yale takes on No. 16 Cornell. 

Back in the fall of 2011, the University of Alabama-Huntsville interim president was set to cut the hockey program entirely only to see it saved by alumni and fans of the program alike. Their only problem was they didn’t have a conference to play in. They were the only school to play as an independent the past  few seasons. They wanted into the CCHA after the CHA closed up shop only to see that conference vote to keep them out.

Fast-forward to today and we see the CCHA will no longer exist thanks to the creation of the Big Ten Hockey Conference as well as the NCHC and those left behind there are joining the new WCHA. Funny thing about the WCHA is they had an odd number of teams and it made too much sense not to approve bringing UAH aboard. That’s precisely what they voted to do last week, saving the program.

It was the right move by the WCHA to extend the invite and while it comes with some big risks, making the effort to save a program in desperate need of partnership was needed. College hockey is as niche as it gets amongst big time NCAA sports. With 58 programs participating, losing teams does the sport no favors and allowing one to wither and die would’ve been egregious.

Yes, the travel will be rough in the new WCHA with not just UAH but also both Alaska schools there. The costs will be high and that’s where the risk comes into play. But they had to try and make it work. The travel costs can and will be covered and college hockey saves a supported program in need. It’s the feel-good story folks in Huntsville have been praying for, now we can just hope it all turns out for the best.

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Minnesota-North Dakota rivalry ends in a thrill: The Golden Gophers and formerly Fighting Sioux duked it out in classic fashion in the Twin Cities as the Gophers came away with a big win Friday and a classic 4-4 draw on Saturday. With each team heading to different conferences next season, they won’t see each other for at least the next three seasons putting a sad end to a classic rivalry. Here’s to hoping they’ll meet in the NCAA tournament the next three seasons instead and save Don Lucia a bit of grief.

River Hawks are flying: Look out for UMass-Lowell in Hockey East. They’re winners of nine in a row including a big win over BU on Saturday night. They were an NCAA tournament team last year losing to Union in the East Region final. Sophomore forward Scott Wilson has been lighting it up and goalies Connor Hellebuyck and Doug Carr have buckled down. With UNH cooling off and BU riding a roller coaster of sorts, Lowell is poised to shake things up.

Speaking of roller coasters, the ECAC: What a wild weekend in the ECAC. Yale continues to play strong sweeping Harvard and Dartmouth. Cornell dealt Union a harsh blow to their hopes of making a run at first place beating them on Friday, but then stumbled themselves losing 3-2 to RPI on Saturday. RPI’s weekend sweep over Colgate and Cornell got them up to 7th in the standings. Meanwhile, Quinnipiac is in first by eight points with Yale lurking behind them.

Remember how I said this conference would cannibalize itself? It’s dinner time now.

(Photo: Jim Rosvold – USCHO.com)

Eddie Lack expects to be released from hospital on Monday night

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As scary as the situation was for Carolina Hurricanes goalie Eddie Lack, the good news continues to pour in.

First, the Hurricanes provided an update that he had “full feeling in his extremities” while under observation at a hospital. This followed the promising sign that he was able to give a “thumbs up” gesture while being taken off the ice on a stretcher after the Hurricanes’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

The best news came late on Monday night, however, as Lack himself tweeted that he expects to head back home as early as this late evening/early morning:

That’s fantastic news. Video of that scary collision with Andreas Athanasiou can be seen in the video above this post’s headline.

Blues, Flames take care of business (Islanders … do not)

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For a while there, it seemed like the idle Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs would be Monday’s “winners.” That changed when the Carolina Hurricanes salvaged a standings point and the Tampa Bay Lightning stormed back to beat the Blackhawks.

Still, there were some teams who came through (beyond the Lightning) and those who fell flat, so let’s cover some of the results in short.

West teams get it done

Unlike their counterparts out East, West teams jockeying for position avoided “unforced errors” in losing to non-playoff teams.

The St. Louis Blues beat the Arizona Coyotes 4-1 while the Calgary Flames topped the Colorado Avalanche 4-2. Johnny Gaudreau generated his 200th point (and 201st) in Calgary’s win, while Alex Steen generated four assists. (Vladimir Tarasenko also enjoyed a three-point night.)

This keeps the Blues and Flames in position to advance. St. Louis is one point behind the Nashville Predators for third in the Central while the Flames are a point behind both the Sharks and Oilers for second and third in the Pacific (while remaining in shouting distance of the division title).

East teams stumble, some get over it

Again, the Lightning fought through hurdles to win and the Hurricanes managed that “charity point.”

Overall, East teams struggled. The New York Islanders fell to the Predators by a score of 3-1. Your mileage may vary on the Florida Panthers’ chances, especially after they fell 4-2 to the Buffalo Sabres.

Brian Gionta scored in his 1,000th game as Buffalo won, by the way.

Here’s what the race for the final spot in the East looks like after tonight:

Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

Victor Hedman might just force his way into the Norris argument

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For quite some time this season, the Norris Trophy race felt a bit like “Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and [insert token finalist].” As it turns out, Victor Hedman is making it a pretty interesting three-horse race.

With Burns and Karlsson idle on Monday, Hedman continued to go on the best offensive tear of his already-impressive career, contributing three assists to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 5-4 overtime win against the Chicago Blackhawks.

As much credit as forwards Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin deserve in pushing Tampa Bay in Steven Stamkos‘ absence, Hedman has been an all-world blueliner for a Lightning team with a defense that isn’t really surrounding him with great talent.

He’s serving as a workhorse when his team needs him the most:

Now, when you look at the numbers, it’s probably fair to say that Hedman comes in third among the likely finalists in simple categories:

Brent Burns: 27 goals (!), 72 points in 75 games, +16 rating, 24:52 time-on-ice average

Erik Karlsson: 14 goals, 67 points in 74 games, +7, 26:53 minutes per game (fourth highest average in the NHL)

Victor Hedman: 15 goals, 65 points in 72 games, +2 rating, came into Monday with average of 24:15 minutes per game.

Looking at those breakdowns, you might wonder why someone wouldn’t just flippantly hand Hedman the “bronze medal” and a pat on the back … but things get more interesting if you ponder the all-around impact of those three.

Now, traditional-thinkers who slam risky defensemen for their mistakes often overstate such arguments. Both Burns and Karlsson tilt the ice in their teams’ favors, usually to profound degrees.

Still … Hedman locks opponents down to a truly elite degree and scores at a similar rate. Hedman could very well own the “two-way” argument; you could perhaps see his case most clearly when you compare his “HERO” chart to those of Burns and Karlsson, especially from the perspective of conceding shots.

Again, Burns remains the likely winner, and he would be a deserving one. You could make a solid Hart Trophy argument for Burns, in addition to tabbing him as the Norris frontrunner.

Even so, voters would be wise to take Hedman’s case seriously, especially as the Lightning continue their improbable playoff push.

Lightning storm back against Blackhawks, finish one point out of playoffs

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Who would have thought that the Tampa Bay Lightning would rally back from a 4-1 deficit tonight? Then again, who expected them to be so close to a playoff spot mere weeks ago, when they were sellers at the trade deadline?

The Lightning continue to show that they won’t just roll over and die, scoring four unanswered goals to beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-4 in overtime on Monday.

While Jonathan Drouin was a catalyst for the second-period rally, it was an unlikely scorer who clinched the victory, as Yanni Gourde ended a thrilling run of 3-on-3 chances with the overtime-winner.

Really, it might have been fitting. Things looked glum when Tomas Jurco scored his first goal of the season against the Lightning, then the mood was totally flipped when Gourde’s second tally of 2016-17 grabbed a huge win.

With the Islanders losing to the Predators, the Hurricanes only managing a “loser point” against the Red Wings and the Bruins idle, Tampa Bay is a breath away from a playoff berth:

Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

Yes, all of a sudden, a long-shot postseason run seems quite attainable.

Maybe the Lightning would prefer it if we kept counting them out, though?