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Assessing the NCAA at mid-season

by Bob Snow
Boston Bruins rookie Blake Wheeler reflected about his three while at Minnesota; teammate Matt Hunwick about four as a Michigan Wolverine.

That would be the mid-season break for exams, holiday tournaments -- for some teams -- and most importantly, the focus on the second-half toward postseason play for the 58 NCAA Division I teams.

"It's a luxury to get away from the rink and playing games for a few weeks," said Wheeler, "take a breather and recharge your batteries. It helps a lot. I think you see that, especially with the younger guys who come out with a lot more energy and enthusiasm. Plus, they have a month to get into the weight room and shore up some of the conditioning areas."

"We got about two weeks off to get classes done," Hunwick remembered, "then the holiday tournament and then maybe another bye-week with some players at the World Junior Tournament. Then the second half, (where) you might only have one weekend off. That second semester flies by, so you need to be focused and ready each day. Michigan's thing has always been: 'Great second half.' You see a lot of the country's top teams really come into form that second half.

"[Coach] Red [Berenson] would say, 'Do well on your exams, and enjoy your Christmas, but don't have too much fun.' Because a couple days later ,we'd be back on the ice."

The six conferences and most of those 58 teams resume play this weekend. Here's a look at where all 58 stand as 2009 gets under way on the road to the Frozen Four in Washington D.C. April 9 and 11.

Atlantic Hockey -- At 11-1-0 in the league and 14-2-0 overall, Frank Serratore's Air Force Falcons are flying high over the Atlantic; a strong tailwind contributing to a 10-point lead at the break. RIT, the only team in the league to beat Air Force, sits in second. The Tigers appear the only team able to compete with the league leader. The winner of the Atlantic playoff tournament in March will become one of the 16 NCAA teams. After RIT, the 10-team league standing at the break is Canisius, Mercyhurst, Bentley, Holy Cross, Sacred Heart, Army, American International and Connecticut.

Central Collegiate Hockey Association -- The CCHA boasts the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the country in the mid-season power rankings. No surprise that Notre Dame and Miami are also the league leaders, respectively. Notre Dame, along with Air Force, leads the country with 14 wins thus far. What are some surprises? Alaska at No. 3, and shockingly, 2007 national champion Michigan State at No. 12 in the 12-team league. In order between Alaska and MSU are Nebraska-Omaha, Michigan, Ohio State, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Bowling Green, Western Michigan and Northern Michigan.

College Hockey America -- The four-team CHA chugs along on league life-support. No matter, the Bemidji State Beavers, Niagara Purple Eagles, Robert Morris Colonials and Alabama-Huntsville Chargers - in that order at the break - will send one among them to postseason play. Look for all four to display the same level of on-ice performance as a Notre Dame or a Miami the next three months, while the NCAA hierarchy decides a fair process to assign these teams a new home across the other five leagues after this season.

Eastern College Athletic Conference Hockey League -- Princeton was a preseason heavy in the league polls; Harvard and Cornell just behind in that order. At the break, the standings closely reflect such with Princeton and Cornell tied for first and each ranked top-10 nationally, compliment's of Princeton's Zane Kalembar's 1.50 GAA and Cornell's Ben Scrivens' 1.20. (Scrivens was named MVP of the Florida College Classic Tournament last weekend). But Dartmouth's Big Green is tied for third with Harvard after a No. 11 preseason status? "We turned over a large group of highly skilled players over the past few years," said Dartmouth head coach Bob Gaudet. "We are proud that four are currently playing in the NHL. We have a very good skill level and excellent depth. The work ethic has been outstanding on this team." After Harvard, the 12-team league scopes out with Quinnipiac, Yale, St. Lawrence, Colgate, Union, Rensselaer, Brown and Clarkson.

Hockey East -- How many puck pundits had Northeastern and Vermont ahead of any combination of the BU/BC/New Hampshire lock in this 10-team league at the break? Add that BU is loaded, that Maine appears back in the hunt for Hockey East supremacy, that Northeastern is a Beanpot-final contender in early February, and that BC will be motivated for a run at an unprecedented fourth consecutive national title game. It all adds up to some serious second-half competition in the league that has sent the most teams to postseason play the past decade. In order after the Huskies and Catamounts at the break are BU, BC, New Hampshire, Maine, Mass.-Lowell, Massachusetts, Merrimack and Providence.

Western Collegiate Hockey Association -- In the league with the most national championships at 36, no fewer than five potential suitors to win the last game of the season are in the WCHA. Count Denver, Minnesota and Colorado College among the top three; the same position each occupies in the league standings at the break. Wisconsin and North Dakota join this trio in the national picture. The Badgers, Minnesota-Duluth, the Fighting Sioux, Minnesota State, St. Cloud, Anchorage and Michigan Tech round out No. 4 - 10 at the break.

Top story of 2008 -- Boston College taking out Notre Dame, 4-1, in the national championship game in Denver last April. It was the Eagles' third consecutive title-game appearance, tying them with Minnesota, Wisconsin and Lake State for that honor, and setting the stage for possible and unprecedented fourth this April in Washington, D.C.

Top resolutions for 2009 -- By Michigan State and Clarkson to get back on track. The Spartans, currently in last place in the CCHA, won the national championship in 2007. In Potsdam, N.Y., the Clarkson Golden Knights are also cellar dwelling in the ECACHL after consecutive postseason appearances in 2007 and '08.
On Campus Clips -- Alaska-Anchorage continues the longest break of any team. The Seawolves lost their last two games to Wisconsin in mid-December, and won't play until Jan. 9-10 when they host those same Badgers in Anchorage. ... In holiday tournament action last weekend: Michigan topped Michigan State, 5-1, in the Great Lakes Invitational final; Colgate and Cornell skated to a OT 2-2 tie in the Florida College Classic before Big Red won in a shootout; Wisconsin and Lake State also went to a shootout in the Badger Classic final with Wisconsin prevailing after ending 1-1. Ditto in the UConn Classic where Air Force bested host Connecticut, 3-2, in that shootout final; in the Ledyard Bank Tournament in Hanover, N.H., host Dartmouth took out Bemidji State in that final, 4-2. 
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