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)

What’s driving the Coyotes’ hot streak

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To steal Zoolander parlance — only appropriate for a team that once employed Martin Hanzal — the Arizona Coyotes are so hot right now.

The Coyotes are on a four-game winning streak following Tuesday’s overtime win against the Rangers, and are 5-0-1 in their last six, erasing the discomfort from an 0-2-0 start where they only managed a single goal.

If the playoffs began right now, the 5-2-1 Coyotes would be the second wild-card team in the West. Could this be a sign that this is finally the year?

Let’s look at what is working so well so far, and how much of it is sustainable, with help from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

Glorious goaltending

Darcy Kuemper played at such a high level from January on in 2018-19, it seemed like he might just drag the wounded Coyotes to a playoff spot. Even so, it seemed a little hasty when the Coyotes handed Kuemper a two-year, $9 million extension in early October.

Well, if the 29-year-old can stay anywhere near the level he’s been at lately, that could be a mega-steal.

Kuemper’s only allowed 10 goals over six appearances, going 4-2-0 with a sparkling .944 save percentage to begin the season. He’s the first goalie in Coyotes franchise history to allow two or fewer games in 13 consecutive starts, carrying over last season’s red-hot work.

Delightfully for the Coyotes, Antti Raanta‘s shown signs of the sharp goalie he was pre-injury nightmares, as Raanta’s 1-0-1 with a .926 save percentage through two games.

Even if Kuemper is the real deal, one would expect the Coyotes’ league-leading team save percentage of .9388 to cool off; last season, the Islanders topped the NHL with a .9247 mark that would already be tough to match.

It’s plausible that goaltending could remain a strength for Arizona, though, particularly if they maintain their strong start when it comes to possessing the puck and limiting high-danger scoring chances against.

Luck and other peculiarities

As always, it’s important to take any eight-game sample with a grain of salt.

Nick Schmaltz is a good example, alongside goaltending, of “could be good, probably won’t be that good.” He already showed signs of flourishing in a bigger role in Arizona after being traded from Chicago last season (14 points in 17 games before injuries derailed things), but Schmaltz’s nine points in eight games is inflated by puck luck, including a 21.4 shooting percentage. There’s evidence that he might be a strong shooter in general (14.2 shooting percentage in 187 career games), but he’s likely to cool down to some extent.

It will also be interesting to track their power play. Last season, their 16.3 power-play percentage ranked sixth-worst in the NHL. Of course, they added Phil Kessel during the summer, and he’s been part of a unit that’s scored seven goals on 27 opportunities, good for a 25.9 percent success rate that ranks seventh overall.

PDO is a helpful metric for measuring luck (it’s merely save percentage plus shooting percentage), and so it’s worth noting that the Coyotes’ 1.030 mark ties them for fourth-highest at all strengths in this young season.

There’s at least one way where things could get tougher if the Coyotes are perceived as more of a threat.

Five for Howling recently pointed out an interesting trend: so far in 2019-20, the Coyotes have frequently faced opposing teams’ backups. That might be a coincidence, but if it continues to even a subtle extent, it could be helpful in a league ripe with parity.

Fewer trips to the trainers

Last season, the Coyotes were absolutely ravaged by injuries, to the point that it’s tempting to give them a mulligan. So far in 2019-20, Arizona’s been healthier, although it remains to be seen if they can can continue to thrive so much defensively with Niklas Hjalmarsson on the shelf.

Like with most NHL teams, injury luck (or a lack thereof) could be pivotal for Arizona.

***

Yes, it’s too early to know for sure, but which way do you lean: could this be the year the Coyotes put it together, or will 2019-20 end in another disappointment?

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Avs get mostly good news about Rantanen’s injury

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When you first see footage of Colorado Avalanche star Mikko Rantanen‘s injury from Monday, you’ll probably say “gah!” and maybe feel a little sick to your stomach. Then you’d assume that he will be out for quite a long time.

All things considered, then, the Avs’ Wednesday update is about as close to good news as you could reasonably expect.

Coach Jared Bednar announced that Rantanen is week-to-week with a lower-body injury, and that the Avs might know more about the 22-year-old’s status early next week.

Losing Rantanen for days is rough, so this isn’t necessarily cause for a full-on party, but worthy of a sigh of relief. Especially when you recall this gruesome sight:

/appetite loss warning

via Sportsnet/Youtube

“Week-to-week” is obviously a vague window, so this additional bit of insight from Avalanche play-by-play announcer Marc Moser provides comfort:

It’s never ideal to lose a star like Rantanen, but the Avalanche are positioned reasonably well to weather the storm. They’re off to a strong 7-1-1 start for 15 standings points, leaving them a four-point edge over the Predators for the Central Division lead. It’s early in the season, so hopefully Rantanen will get to heal up completely for when the games matter the most — and with the Avs off to such a blistering start, they must be thinking about the playoffs a bit already.

And, actually, that might provide another silver lining: Colorado is being forced to look at different combinations beyond Rantanen + Nathan MacKinnon (and usually Gabriel Landeskog).

Could someone like Andre Burakovsky or Joonas Donskoi flourish on the top line? Finding out could provide highly useful intel for the future. If the Avs run into a team that can slow their dynamic duo (maybe an opponent like the Blues with Ryan O'Reilly?), it might be good to have a Plan B where MacKinnon and Rantanen can run their own lines.

It’s been understandable that the Avalanche haven’t run such experiments in the past, as they made it into the playoffs in both 2017-18 and 2018-19 by slim margins. This strong start might just afford them the luxury of testing some hypotheses.

… But don’t get me wrong, it’s still bad to lose Rantanen for weeks.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Surging Sabres not fearing repeat of last year’s collapse

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — With a new coach, an influx of talent and this being a new season, Jack Eichel doesn’t buy into fears the hot-starting Buffalo Sabres are due for a familiar collapse.

Nine games in, the Sabres are leading the Eastern Conference with a 7-1-1 record to match their best start since 2009-10. And yet, it’s difficult to forget what happened last year, when Buffalo was leading the NHL with a 17-6-2 record following a 10-game winning streak before proceeding to win just 16 of its final 57 games.

”I think we’ve grown up a little bit,” Eichel said Tuesday before the Sabres hosted the San Jose Sharks. ”I don’t think we’re guarded at all. I think you can learn a lot from last year, but I don’t think we’re worried about that as much as just trying to be a good hockey team every night.”

Aside from returning players being a year older, the Sabres captain credited first-year coach Ralph Krueger for introducing an upbeat message and simplified system to a team that struggled during Phil Housley’s two-year tenure.

”I think it’s enjoyable to come to the rink every day with the environment that’s been created right now,” Eichel said.

”Yeah, winning takes care of a lot of stuff, there’s no way to sugarcoat that,” he added. ”But I think the overall environment’s been a good one this year. I think guys feel a little bit more relaxed. It’s not as high strung.”

The 60-year-old Krueger in many ways is Housley’s polar opposite. Where Housley demanded the Sabres play a complex positional system, Krueger wants his players to play a more up-tempo, free-wheeling style.

Though Housley is a Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman and was a first-time coach, Krueger brings with him an array of worldly experience. His resume includes coaching Switzerland’s national team, the Edmonton Oilers and spending the previous five years running soccer’s Southampton FC of the English Premier League.

Krueger was hired in May, and became Buffalo’s fifth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired a month into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and takes over a team in the midst of an eight-season playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak.

General manager Jason Botterill is impressed with what he’s seen from a team that has so far handled adversity. After opening a three-game California road trip with a 5-2 loss to Anaheim, the Sabres responded with wins against Los Angeles and San Jose.

”I think Ralph has come with a clear message of what he’s looking for from our players,” Botterill said. ”And I think our players have been very open to receiving that message.”

The Sabres are benefiting from a balanced offensive attack, in which seven players have scored three or more goals. Their power play is leading the league with 11 goals, six coming from rookie Victor Olofsson. And Buffalo’s goaltending has been sound, with veteran Carter Hutton enjoying a two-game shutout streak.

Though realizing the season is still young, Krueger referred to the Sabres’ successful start as validating the plan he and his staff implemented this summer.

”It definitely as a coach helps when you have confirmation. Nothing ever replaces winning in sports,” Krueger said. ”And we know the opposition will have more and more respect for us as we go on here, and we will need to be better every day to continue having success.”

ZACH SCRATCHED

Botterill dismissed fears of Zach Bogosian missing the entire season, though he didn’t have a timetable regarding when the veteran defenseman will return after having hip surgery in April. Bogosian has been skating on his own the past two weeks.

”It’s difficult for him right now because he wants to be back,” Botterill said. ”But it’s also imperative for him for not only us this year but his career long-term that we get this right.”

D-DEPTH

Botterill isn’t concerned about a potentially crowded blue line once Brandon Montour returns from a hand injury sustained last month. The Sabres are currently carrying seven defensemen and have already informed Henri Jokiharju he’s not going anywhere even though he’s the only defenseman who doesn’t have to clear waivers in being demoted to the minors.

Calling it a ”great problem” to have, Botterill said he still has time to decide. He also explained the team’s depth at defense will be tested with Buffalo set to play 11 games in 19 days next month.

Max Domi continues to excel in year two with Habs

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When the Montreal Canadiens acquired Max Domi from the Arizona Coyotes in the summer of 2018, they were landing a player that had nine goals and 38 and 45 points in his two previous seasons. But in his first year as a Hab, he took his game to another level. He finished the season with a career-high 28 goals and 72 points in 82 games while playing down the middle. What does he do for an encore in year two?

Usually, the leading scorer on a team will get to play with some of the better players on the roster, but Domi’s in a bit of a unique spot. Montreal’s “first” line is made up of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, who have played together since last season. They’re a very effective line and head coach Claude Julien likes having them together.

The “third” line is made up of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia (when healthy) and Jonathan Drouin, who spent a considerable amount of time playing with Domi last year (they weren’t overly effective together). So that doesn’t leave many options for the 24-year-old, who opened the season with offensively-challenged winger Artturi Lehkonen and rookie Nick Suzuki.

Lehkonen is a responsible winger while Suzuki struggled to get his footing early on. Paul Byron, Drouin and Jordan Weal have all spent time on that “second” line at five-on-five. Now that Suzuki has started producing on a different line, Julien is promoting him back to Domi’s line ahead of Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks. How have the rotating players affected Domi’s on-ice performance in 2019-20? It hasn’t affected him negatively at all.

As of right now, he’s picked up three goals and nine points in nine games. He has a CF% of 56.36, a SCF% of 57.14, a HDCF% of 63.41 and a very reasonable PDO of .994.

The Habs forward has also contributed to an improving Montreal power play that ranked 30th last season. He’s currently tied for the team lead in power-play points, with four. This is a Canadiens team that missed the playoffs by three points last year. If they can continue to get solid production from their special teams unit, that could be the difference between staying home in April and making it to the postseason.

[MORE: Q&A: Max Domi on the pressure in Montreal, getting Canadiens back to playoffs]

The once controversial trade of Domi for Alex Galchenyuk is no longer being questioned in Montreal. Domi has been so much better and healthier than Galchenyuk that this has become one of the biggest steals of general manager Marc Bergevin’s tenure with the Canadiens.

What makes his time in Montreal even more impressive is that he’s putting up these numbers while transitioning from wing to center. Yes, he struggled with defensive-zone coverage at times last year and he won just 44.9 percent of his face-offs, but those are two things that should improve as he gains experience. We’ll see if he can keep it up, but he’s already winning 50 percent of his draws through nine games.

If he had 72 points last year and he continues to improve, it’s fair to wonder just how high his ceiling is. Can he become a point-per-game player on a yearly basis? That’s entirely possible. Another interesting storyline to follow will be his next contract (he’s going to be a restricted free agent at the end of the year). When he was acquired by Montreal, he signed a two-year bridge deal worth $3.150 million per year. If he builds on last season’s numbers and stays healthy, it’s entirely possible that he could fetch upwards of $7 million or $8 million annually on a long-term deal.

Whatever the price ends up being, Bergevin will probably be happy to pay it given how well this trade has turned out for an organization that has been dying for a talented center like Domi for more than decade.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.