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NCAA Hockey 101: Which teams with early success are legit?

Cornell has been both very good and very lucky this season. (Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

Difficult though it is to believe, we’re already a third of the way through the college schedule for everyone but the Ivy League teams.

As such, now is the time to really start forming more concrete opinions about which teams have legitimate claims to the national tournament, and which are merely pretenders waiting for the bill for all their early-season success to be dropped on their tables.

It should go without saying that when you’re only playing 36 or 38 games before the NCAA tournament starts, weird stuff can happen when teams get surprisingly hot, or go inexplicably cold for stretches of even seven or eight games. It happens all the time that otherwise just-okay teams end up making some serious noise in their conferences for a good chunk of the season, or even advance through their league postseasons with ease, only to be found out when they actually have to play nothing but good teams for four or five straight games.

Are there any teams like that this year? You bet there are.

But not as many as you might expect. And for some of the teams that are extreme outliers in terms of their percentages versus how much they’re actually shooting the puck, you have to say they’ve been a combination of good and lucky, rather than just being lucky.

Chief among them are, I think, Cornell and St. Cloud. The former more so than the latter. These are two very good teams taking the majority of the shots in their games, which is good to do. But it’s not really a coincidence that they have the two highest winning percentages in the country, as well as the second- and third-highest PDOs.

Which is to say that these are good teams who shouldn’t count on anything close to this level of success for the rest of the year. Do they both have goalies who can be .920-plus as they have been so far? Yes. Do they both have talent levels conducive to shooting 12 percent all year? Of course they do not. This is because almost no one does; just three teams did it last season, and only two did it the year before. One of those teams in 2015-16 was St. Cloud, interestingly enough, but last season they only shot 9.5 percent, so this really does just seem like one of those things that happens.

It should be said here that the truly good teams in college hockey will almost always have all-situations PDOs above 100 — after all, they should attract great goalies and have great skaters — but when things get out to the extremes at one end of the spectrum or the other, that’s where you start looking for regression.

Some other teams out on the farther end of the PDO spectrum which we can expect to regress far harder than actual good teams like Cornell and St. Cloud are just below the red dotted line from them: Clarkson (who I talked about here a few weeks ago), Notre Dame and UNH. I’ll get to why Lowell is also labeled in a minute.

Notre Dame is maybe the most interesting of this group because this is a team moving from a conference that historically has high save percentages relative to the rest of the country, to one where the league average goalie is well below the national standard. Right now, it seems as if the Irish have carried over that Hockey East goaltending quality (.930) while maintaining a high shooting percentage befitting what you’d normally expect from the Big Ten. If they can even kinda keep that up for much of the season (they can’t sustain a 104 PDO, in all likelihood) it isn’t going to matter that they take fewer than 48 percent of their shots. And because this is Notre Dame, with a strong track record of bringing in and developing good players at every position, I think they’re more likely to do it than Clarkson or, jeez, UNH.

The good thing about the Wildcats is that we can finally be honest about them after they started out 5-0-0 and had almost every college hockey media dweeb weeping with joy at how great they had been to start the season. Since that impressive start (mostly against unimpressive teams, save for a surprising sweep of UMass Lowell), they’ve gone 1-4-1, which feels just about right, and the only win came against perennial doormat UMass Amherst.

All the winning and losing still leaves them two games above .500, but you’ll never guess how they built that success. Through the end of October, they were shooting 12.8 percent, and getting .928 goaltending (that’s a 105.6 PDO) despite getting narrowly outshot. So far in November? They’re shooting 6 percent and getting .922 goaltending (98.2 PDO) with worse possession numbers. Given what we know about UNH from last season, this isn’t a very good team and never was, and once the shooting success dried up, so did the results. Not a surprise, really. Dick Umile better hope no one tells Danny Tirone he’s like a .911 career goalie, either.

Along similar lines, I’m not really sure what to make of Lowell, which started out 0-3 but is 8-3 since then. They have a similar profile to UNH in terms of getting consistently outshot and winning a lot due to a high PDO, but Lowell’s track record in recent years is more or less the polar opposite of UNH’s: they win constantly, get great goaltending constantly and have a high shooting percentage constantly. But they don’t get outshot like this, and they’re not so dependent upon goaltending as they have been this year. Chris Hernberg is often the only reason they win games, thanks to his current .946 save percentage, and that’s not his talent level because it’s no one’s talent level. Meanwhile, Rangers draft pick Tyler Wall, who was a little better than the national average last season, isn’t an .825 goalie either, so the River Hawks represent another team to watch closely.

But I mentioned the other side of the spectrum, and there you see three teams that are objectively good when it comes to outshooting their opponents, but getting horrific percentages. For Penn State, unfortunately, I think we just have to accept that Peyton Jones is awful. He’s .876 for the season after .904 last year, and if that puts him right around .897 for his career, that’s something that’s going to hold his team back no matter how often, or by how much, they outshoot the other team.

We might be in a similar situation with Minnesota-Duluth, which has likewise suffered from horrific goaltending from Hunter Shepard and Nick Deery (both below .895). Both were relative unknown quantities coming into the season, and even if they were playing to their career averages, this team would still be in a lot of trouble. To make matters worse, though, the team in front of them is only shooting 7.5 percent, which is well below the national average of 9.6. That leaves them a very slim margin for error, and even if they do everything right in any given game, they’re going to be in tough to pull out a W because of the goaltending, full stop.

UConn, meanwhile, is an interesting team. They’re not great, but they’re certainly above-average in terms of process. But unlike Duluth or Penn State, we know their goalie is supposed to be good, and he largely hasn’t been to this point. Adam Huska is drafted and went .916 on an okay team last year. This year, the team seems to be better (if less talented up front) but he’s been much worse, at .898, and Tanner Creel has’t held up his end of the bargain as a backup.

Obviously a lot can change with any of these teams, even before the holiday break, but if any of these teams start to come back toward the middle of the pack, no one is allowed to express surprise.
A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. Denver (split with North Dakota)
2.
St. Cloud (swept Colorado College)
3.
Minnesota (swept Harvard)
4.
North Dakota (swept Colorado College)
5.
Northeastern (beat Vermont, lost to BC)
6.
Cornell (beat St. Lawrence, lost to Clarkson)
7.
Clarkson (won at Colgate and Cornell)
8.
Notre Dame (swept at RPI)
9.
UMass Lowell (swept a home-and-home with UConn)
10.
Western Michigan (swept Omaha)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and is the ONLY HOST of the NCAA hockey podcast Hockey Goes to College (the other guy is only his sidekick). His email is here and his Twitter is here.