Colorado College hit the regular-season halfway mark Friday against Miami. Thus far it’s been a mixed bag.
With Denver pulling away from the pack at the moment, four points separate fourth and eighth in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Each of those five teams has three conference wins. Any team that catches fire has a good shot at home-ice advantage in the first round of the NCHC playoffs, among other benefits.
“There’s only 30, 40 games and we’re more than halfway,” CC forward Bailey Conger said. “We need to start bearing down for sure.”
As crunch time begins, we reflect on some issues the Tigers (8-9-2, 3-6-1 NCHC) should address in the second half.
Chris Wilkie has become the player the Tigers hoped for, and perhaps more, when he transferred from North Dakota after his sophomore season. He leads the NCHC in goals with 15 (eight assists) through 18 games. Even as he's drawn more coverage, his numbers have gotten better as the season’s progressed.
At this time last season, fellow senior Nick Halloran was out for good, hampered by another hip injury. He’s rallied as well (seven goals, 10 assists) and has worked well with Wilkie.
It’s a drop-off from there. Even the players benefiting from being around Wilkie and Halloran — at the start of the season it was sophomore Ben Copeland, for a while Conger — haven’t produced regularly. The Tigers need more consistent scoring throughout the lineup.
Troy Conzo, who has five points in six games since returning from a foot injury and was named NCHC forward of the week after a three-point effort against Miami, is showing signs of being the next man up.
Consistency is key
Record-wise, CC is at a similar spot compared to last season. When it looks like the Tigers are on the right track, they turn in a total misfire or two. They’ve lost to teams that, on paper, they should have at least hung around with. They are 3-6-1 in conference, one point out of last place and three out of fourth. A couple of sweeps and they’re no longer looking up in the standings.
There’s enough time to make moves, but so far, they haven’t been opportunistic.
Consistency is not just one of the Tigers’ woes. Every team not named North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth has struggled with it in NCHC play.
But the disparity between when the Tigers are off and on has been dramatic. The best example of that is the most recent one against Miami, where CC turned in its worst performance of the year in a 6-1 loss, took the night to reflect and correct and rallied for the split.
Coach Mike Haviland hopes after Miami, the switch flipped. This time perhaps it will stay on.
“A light went on for them to see themselves a little bit” in individual meetings, he said.
They’ve maintained they’re better than this, that they’re on the verge, that they just need to play 60 minutes. But one good effort per weekend isn’t good enough to move up, or for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
“We do believe that we have the guys in the room to do it,” co-captain Grant Cruikshank said. “Just kind of working at it day by day in practice.”
Colorado College is dead last in 60-team Division I in at least two statistics — penalty killing (66.7%) and faceoff percentage (40.7%). It’s hard to win when you don’t have the puck, and harder when you’re down a man — though at least the Tigers are continuing a trend in place since 2016, averaging fewer penalty minutes than their opponents.
The power play has been a little better, but is still in the bottom third of the country (15.8%).
The Tigers have gotten in trouble when they chase the puck, press too hard and get out of position. “Details” of the game needing to be worked on has been a recurring theme.
No freshman has distanced himself the way conference all-rookie team selection Bryan Yoon (10 assists, tied for team lead, plus-6) did last season. Connor Mayer has been solid for a first-year blue liner out the gate, and Josiah Slavin has shown improvement, especially recently.
The Tigers are still waiting on several players spread between all classes to take a step forward. Copeland was expecting to contribute more, but his goal slump has hit a jersey-matching 12 games. Sophomore Cruikshank and junior Christiano Versich will have big games and then go dormant for a while. Touted freshman Patrick Cozzi has appeared in every game but is waiting on his first goal.
Timeshare in net
True freshman Matt Vernon has the edge in appearances, 13-8, and has dazzled at times, but graduate transfer Ryan Ruck is still earning his chances. As of a few weeks ago, Haviland was still waiting for one goaltender to distance himself for the stretch run.
Colorado College returns to Lawson Arena, the site of last spring’s NCHC first-round upset of Western Michigan, for the first time this weekend. The Broncos beat and tied the Tigers when the teams met earlier this season. Injury-hit Western Michigan has won one game since Nov. 16.
But as CC learned the hard way in a home-and-home sweep courtesy of Denver, beware a frustrated, slumping team.
“They’re a good hockey team and they’ve got everybody healthy,” Haviland said.
The Tigers have been slightly better on the road at 4-4, and hope to build on that Saturday turnaround against Miami.
“When you’re on the road, it’s just hockey,” Haviland said. “I think it really dials them in.”