It's finally here... The return of college hockey, and the Alaska Nanooks as the "greatest game on the planet" nears its first puck drop of the collegiate season. Three seniors, seven juniors, nine sophomores, and eight freshmen seek their stamp on Alaska Nanooks history in the inaugural season as a member of the WCHA.
For those of you that don't follow me on Twitter, the government shutdown has left the Air Force Academy (all of the service academies, really) without an operating budget. Meaning all travel had been officially cancelled. Just last week, the Air Force/Navy football game in Washington D.C.--a nationally televised rivalry--was on the brink of cancellation until United Airlines stepped in and donated a jet to get the Falcons to D.C.
Obviously football is not their only sport, and their hockey team found themselves in a similar situation until our friends at UAA stepped in to help split the cost with the Air Force Academy Athletics Corporation, a non-profit that operates financially independent of the Academy to the tune of about $11,000.
So with Air Force officially in town, we are all systems go for tomorrow. The Blog packs up and ships down south to cover the tournament in the morning. Promptly after the routine Buffalo Wild Wings trip, I'll head to the rink for a pre-game post as we get set to face Air Force in a rematch from last season's 3-3 tie at the same tournament.
I'm not really sure why the Nanooks are playing Air Force first instead of Quinnipiac on Friday evening. I guess the folks down south think it gives them a fighting chance thinking they have an edge playing them first. Typically you would schedule them on a Saturday to statistically draw more fans. But since that's been enough of an issue lately to close over 50% of the seating in the arena due to attendance, I'm not really sure where their minds are.
But that said, I'm looking forward to this tournament. As I alluded to with the exhibition win, there is just something about this year's Nanooks that has me excited for these first couple of weeks and what they have in store for us. Three of the first four games this season are against top 20 teams according to USCHO, and will be a great way to get this season rolling.
And don't count Air Force out. They are a gritty team. They work hard, and they press hard defensively. They don't give any space, and if the Nanooks are going to make plays on this team, they need to create those chances in transition game and make those stretch passes cleanly. The 'Nooks should be the better team here, but by no means should Air Force be overlooked. That's not going to happen tomorrow. I think our guys' heads are in a better place, and I think they have the confidence to dictate the flow of the game.
After Air Force comes Quinnipiac on Saturday night. Officially the 2nd best team in college hockey last season, losing to Yale 4-0 in the National Championship. Ironically just three weeks after the Bobcats took out Yale 3-0 in the ECAC championship, and their two meetings in the regular season. But after losing 12 seniors (yes, that was not a typo) from last season, Quinnipiac has a lot of doubters in the college hockey media world. But 12 guys does not make a full roster, and there is a lot of talent still there. Matthew Peca and Kellen Jones to name the two top returning scorers, both NHL draft picks, along with Connor Jones contributed a combined 25% of the total offensive production for the Bobcats last season.
Quinnipiac finished last season 30-8-5, and put together one of the greatest unbeaten streaks in history, a run of 21 straight games before St. Lawrence and goaltender Matt Weninger put together a defensive shell in the 3rd period that Steven Stamkos couldn't crack. I watched a replay of that game on FCS last season, and was one of the better hockey games I've seen in a while.
The Nanooks have their first tests of the regular season this weekend, and its going to be some fun hockey to watch. Fox 7 is airing the Air Force game live tomorrow at 5PM and replayed at 10PM. Then the Quinnipiac game will be tape delayed at 10PM due to college football obligations. The games will also be streamed online I'm told, but I believe details are still being worked out on that front. More to come on that later.