The two major polls in college hockey, run by U.S. College Hockey Online and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine, came out with their 2020-21 preseason rankings over the past two weeks and had the Gophers men’s team 14th and 13th, respectively, and fourth among Big Ten squads.
On Monday, Big Ten coaches picked Minnesota, which returns the bulk of its lineup from 2019-20, to win the conference in their preseason poll. Why the difference?
Different groups voting, of course, but Mel Pearson has another theory.
“Go ahead and look at the Big Ten standings from last year,’’ the Michigan coach said during Monday’s first day of Big Ten video conferences with media members.
OK, those standings have been perused, and it shows an extremely balanced group. Penn State won the regular-season title with 41 points, while the Gophers, Michigan and Ohio State tied for second with 38. Notre Dame (37) and Michigan State (35) also were within two wins of the Nittany Lions’ total.
Monday’s preseason coaches poll has Michigan No. 2, followed by Notre Dame and Ohio State tied for third, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State.
Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, whose team opens the season at home against Wisconsin on Friday, sees more parity on the way.
“Our whole conference over the last three years has been close to .500 for the most part,’’ Jackson said. “We’ve had a few teams that have taken big steps – we did our first year. Ohio State did two years ago. Penn State separated a little bit last year. That’s probably how going to be this year, and you’ve got the five or six other teams that are going to be beating each other up.’’
Last season, Penn State captured its first Big Ten title but suffered substantial offseason losses, including defenseman Cole Hults, the conference player of the year; first-team All-Big Ten forward Nate Sucese; and second-team forward Evan Barratt. Still, pollsters thought enough of coach Guy Gadowsky’s team that it is No. 9 in both major polls.
On Monday, the Nittany Lions were picked last in the Big Ten. That didn’t faze Gadowsky
“I got a similar question last year when we were picked first,’’ he said. “The answer was, ‘When we were picked last before, we didn’t pay much mind, so it’s not really fair to pay much mind when we’re picked first.’ Now, we find ourselves on the other end, and the answer stays the same. The coaches were right about us last year. I hope they’re wrong about us this year.
“… When you have a team that’s picked top 10 nationally and seventh in your league,’’ Gadowsky added, “it speaks to the quality of the whole league.’’
Penn State captain Alex Limoges noticed his team’s ranking and tucked it away for motivational purposes.
“To me, I kind of like that,’’ said Limoges, whose team opens the season Nov. 19-20 against the Gophers at 3M Arena at Mariucci. “I hate where we’re ranked. Penn State’s always been kind of the underdog. That’s something where the guys can get behind it and play with a chip on their shoulder.’’
NCHC preparing for the Omaha 'Pod'
Of the differing approaches among conferences when playing the 2020-21 during the coronavirus pandemic, the NCHC’s method brings the most intrigue.
The conference, home of the past four NCAA men’s champions, will temporarily split into two divisions – Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State, Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan in the East; North Dakota, Colorado College, Denver and Nebraska Omaha in the West. The eight teams will meet in the Omaha “Pod,’’ where each will play 10 games from Dec. 1-20. To cut down travel, teams will play all of their cross-division games, plus two against one opponent from their division. Beginning Dec. 31, teams will return to campus sites to complete the final 16 games of the regular season.
The NCHC announced its 2020-21 schedule, and here is a look at the highlights for the two Minnesota teams, plus neighboring North Dakota:
* Minnesota Duluth opens Dec. 2 vs. Denver and meets the Pioneers again on Dec. 12.
* The two-time defending national champion Bulldogs and top-ranked North Dakota meet Dec. 10 and 19.
* Minnesota Duluth’s intradivision opponent is Miami, and the two meet Dec. 4 and 8.
* St. Cloud State opens against Western Michigan on Dec. 1 and meets the intradivision foe again Dec. 12.
* The Huskies and North Dakota play Dec. 12 and 16.
* North Dakota has rival Denver as its intradivision foe, and the Fighting Hawks and Pioneers meet Dec. 4 and 8.
When play returns to campus sites, North Dakota is back at Omaha to face the Mavericks on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.
St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth play three home-and-home series: Jan. 1 in St. Cloud and Jan. 2 in Duluth; Jan. 8-9 at Duluth, then St. Cloud; and the regular-season finale on Feb. 26 at St. Cloud and Feb. 27 at Duluth.
Getting to know each other well
Minnesota State was the unanimous selection as top team in the WCHA Men's League preseason media poll, with Bemidji State second. The Mavericks and Beavers will get to see who's better quickly this season, since they'll play four times in the season's first two weeks. Minnesota State visits Bemidji State for the opening series on Nov. 20-21, and the Beavers make the trip to Mankato for the Nov. 27-28 series.