With a 36-17-2 record, the NCHC has the best non-conference record among all Division I conferences (the ECAC a distant second), but much more important this weekend in the NCHC, aside from Minnesota-Duluth’s intriguing trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is which league teams can separate themselves from each other in three big conference showdowns.
Denver (9-4-0, 3-2-0 NCHC) hosts North Dakota (12-3-2, 5-2-1 NCHC):
The potential storylines for this monumental series in Denver this weekend abound, with both teams enjoying exceptional first halves of the season. North Dakota is coming off a sweep of Lake Superior State, while Denver split a two-game set in Ithaca, N.Y., last weekend against Cornell. The amount of high-level explosive talent on the ice at any given time in this game will be enjoyable to watch and at times may seem like an NHL futures exhibition — from the league’s top two scoring rookies (Denver’s Danton Heinen and UND’s Nick Schmaltz), to two of the most accomplished groups of defensemen in the country, to two of the top 10 power play units in the nation.
Both defensive corps are known to contribute offensively, and indeed, each team has three defensemen in its top eight point-scorers, including dynamic blue-liners Joey LaLeggia (Denver) and Jordan Schmaltz (UND). The key to the series, though, may be whether the visiting North Dakota can limit the output of Denver’s top trio of forwards, which includes Heinen in addition to senior Daniel Doremus and sophomore Trevor Moore. Playing on the Pioneers’ top line for most of the time lately, these three lead Denver in scoring, and Doremus enters the weekend with an eight game point streak that has produced four goals and nine assists. All three are typically deployed in power play situations as well, and this weekend they’ll face a North Dakota power play that has killed 21 consecutive opponent chances, a feat of course made possible in part by steady play from reigning NCHC goaltender of the week Zane McIntyre. For Denver, it was rookie Tanner Jaillet who picked up the one win at Cornell last weekend, but I’d expect sophomore Evan Cowley to start the weekend in goal for the Pioneers. Prediction: A weekend split (Denver wins Friday, North Dakota wins Saturday).
Nebraska-Omaha (8-4-2, 4-3-1-1 NCHC) hosts St. Cloud State (6-7-1, 2-3-1-1 NCHC): Like Denver and North Dakota, the net balance for the season’s first few months has been positive, but it didn’t feel like that late Friday night last week, after the Mavericks lost for the third time in five games and did so drastically, 8-2 at Miami. On Saturday, UNO showed its ability, as a young team that has three freshmen and two sophomores comprising its top five point scorers this season, to quickly respond to adversity — and it was a performance that bodes well for UNO’s stretch run following the holidays. Just 24 hours after Friday’s shellacking, UNO toppled Miami 5-2, behind strong goal efforts from Austin Ortega and Jake Randolph, both of whom had registered dismal minus-3 ratings a night earlier.
The Saturday evening showing was notable for its reflection of maturity, despite relative inexperience, and has undoubtedly given the Mavericks some confidence as they welcome an up-and-down St. Cloud State team that, when we last saw them two weeks ago, had split a pair of contests at Bemidji State. The talented Huskies have been in search of building some week to week momentum, the kind that teams like Miami and Minnesota-Duluth have been able to develop recently. Back to back overtime losses to start November (at Minnesota, vs. Minnesota-Duluth) really seemed to set St. Cloud back, but simply put, the Huskies’ top forwards need to be better defensively in front of sophomore goaltender Charlie Lindgren, who is still getting used to playing back to back games every weekend. Prediction: A weekend split (St. Cloud wins Friday, Omaha wins Saturday).
Western Michigan (5-8-1, 1-6-1-1 NCHC) hosts Colorado College (3-10-0, 0-7-0 NCHC): This matchup pits the smallest NCHC school (in terms of enrollment), Colorado College against the largest, Western Michigan. The Tigers’ long road stretch continues, and “long road” is the appropriate term for this CC team that hasn’t yet won a road game (0-8-0), is in the midst of a brutal stretch of 13 out of 14 NCAA games away from Colorado Springs, and is still looking for its first league win of the season. As the records above indicate, however, the Broncos haven’t fared much better in NCHC play this season and look to build on the momentum they generated with back-to-back blowout wins at the Shillelagh Tournament in South Bend, Indiana, just after Thanksgiving.
That weekend, better play from netminder Lukas Hafner and a 5-of-10 performance on the power play propelled Western Michigan to an 8-2 win over defending national champion Union. A subplot this weekend is the individual matchup between the Stoykewych brothers — both defensemen, Peter is CC’s senior captain, while the freshman Paul has played four games for the Broncos this year so far. This week, Peter told Joe Paisley of the Colorado Springs Gazette, “We’re playing for bragging rights over Christmas. Not many people get to play hockey against your brother at this level. It definitely adds to the excitement for this weekend.” Prediction: A weekend split (CC gets its first league win of the year on Friday, WMU rebounds on Saturday).
And in non-conference action:
Michigan Tech (12-2-0, 10-2-0 WCHA) hosts Minnesota-Duluth (11-5-0, 7-3-0 NCHC): UMD is 8-1 in its last nine games and it’s not just because of freshman goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo. This year’s Bulldogs are deeper in terms of offense, more committed in terms of shot-blocking and limiting opponent opportunities, and have found productive roles for players like junior defenseman Andy Welinski (contributing six goals from the blue line) and freshman Karson Kuhlman (five goals already as a rookie). Simple adjustments have allowed UMD to move from a middle-of-the-pack offensive team last year into the No. 12 highest scoring team in the nation this season. They’ll be tested though this weekend at Michigan Tech in this matchup of two of the top three teams in the KRACH ratings and two of the top five in the early volatile Pairwise.
The Huskies have won all but two games this season, but those two were against the WCHA’s other top team, Minnesota State, who split with UMD earlier in the season. Michigan Tech’s only other nonconference opponent before this weekend was a Michigan team early in the season that hadn’t yet found its top form, so for the Huskies, this is a big test to see if they are deserving of the hype that their record has generated. Tanner Kero and Alex Petan have produced consistently for Michigan Tech, typically playing on a line together, and will likely be the focal point of the Bulldogs’ defensive efforts. Prediction: Minnesota-Duluth wins Friday. Tie on Saturday.
Coming soon: Check CHN for features on Denver and North Dakota next week following this weekend’s series.
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