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Hockey: Conference conundrum

Matthew DeFranks | Monday, December 5, 2011

For something suffering a slow and painful death, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) looks pretty healthy — in the rankings, at least.

The CCHA currently boasts nine teams — Ohio State, Notre Dame, Western Michigan, Ferris State, Michigan State, Lake Superior State, Michigan, Northern Michigan and Miami — in the top 25 of the USCHO.com poll. The league also claimed the top two teams in the preseason polls.

“Our conference is pretty good top to bottom,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “There’s not many weak links. There are eight teams in the league that could compete for the top spot, maybe more.”

Surprise teams like Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Ohio State and Michigan State have added to the perceived strength of the CCHA. Preseason No. 2 Miami, meanwhile, has started to play better while perennial powerhouse Michigan has struggled.

The conference also houses five of the top 10 schools in both the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and PairWise rankings. The PairWise rankings are used to determine the field for the NCAA tournament.

“It may be the strongest this league has been in a long time,” Jackson said. “It may be the strongest conference in the country.”

Because the league is home to many highly ranked teams, each school’s schedule is tough. Nine of the 12 toughest schedules hail from the CCHA, using the strength of schedule provided by the RPI.

Notre Dame’s schedule is particularly tough. Of the top 15 in the USCHO.com poll, the Irish have played or will play 10 of those teams. Notre Dame has already played No. 1 Minnesota-Duluth, No. 3 Boston College and No. 4 Ohio State. The Irish will play No. 2 Minnesota on Jan. 7.

The CCHA, Notre Dame’s hockey conference for 12 years, will dissolve following the 2012-13 season. After Penn State and, subsequently, the Big Ten added hockey, the teams of the CCHA and Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) were forced to realign.

“I kind of find [the depth of the CCHA] coincidental in the fact that the league is going to disband in two years,” Jackson said.

Notre Dame (10-5-3, 7-2-3-0 CCHA) decided to join Hockey East for the 2013-14 season.

The No. 7 Irish are 1-2 against Hockey East teams this year, beating Boston College but dropping two games against Northeastern.

“There’s a lot of Hockey East flavor in our schedule this year,” Jackson said.

He said Hockey East teams play a much more up-tempo, entertaining, fan-friendly game than the ones found in the CCHA.

In the meantime, however, fans will just have to settle for a loaded CCHA.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu