As the finish line to the regular season begins to come into focus, so does the race for the MacNaughton Cup. Five teams are within five points of the WCHA lead, currently held by St. Cloud State, with many of those schools still having to play one another.
After the break,the effect of outdoor games in the conference race, a fan in Bemidji wears a bag on his head and Minnesota-Duluth sees their chances of home ice slip away.
Outdoor games will have an effect in the WCHA race but I’m not sure if that’s a good thing
In fact, this weekend features two different series between teams in the top five. Minnesota heads up to St. Cloud to play the Huskies while North Dakota – one point behind second-place Nebraska-Omaha – takes a trip to The Good Life when the two schools play an outdoor game at TD Ameritrade Park. The games themselves are great throwbacks to the nostalgia of skating on a pond playing shinny. More than anything, they have become events. It’s set up to be a great weekend for the fans in Omaha yet I also wonder if the late season outdoor games should play such a big role in the conference title race.
Having outdoor games in college hockey is nothing new, however, they aren’t just a late season event. UNO-UND along with Minnesota-Wisconsin February 17 at Soldier Field will be the first ones that count in the WCHA standings.
Given how tight the race is, an outdoor conference game does make a difference; especially in the final month of the regular season. It’s a change that each of the teams will have to keep in mind as they play a game that is different and less predictable than the 27 conference games that have a roof.
St. Cloud State will not be flying under the radar after this weekend
A couple weeks ago, Tony Jovenitti wrote an excellent article for College Hockey News on how the Huskies are happy to be flying under the radar as they come down the stretch.
And make no mistake they have. It’s nothing new for a team that finds themselves situated between two of the biggest fanbases in college hockey in North Dakota and Minnesota. Yet for a team that is in the top-10 and leads the league, we should be talking about them more.
Some of that has to do with a 3-5 non-conference record that knocks SCSU down a tier in the Pairwise, but St. Cloud State is 5-0-1 in their last 6 games which includes the first WCHA sweep of Denver in 4 years and 3 points against North Dakota in Grand Forks. Individually, fifth-year senior Drew LeBlanc is second in the nation with 38 points yet gets overlooked in the Hobey Baker race in favor of UNO’s Ryan Walters and UND’s Corban Knight.
That is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to St. Cloud State, who play at home this weekend against the top-ranked/#2 in the Pairwise Gophers. First place isn’t on the line thanks to a sweep of Bemidji State that saw the “fan of the game” for the Beavers (0-8-2 in their last 10) Friday night awarded to a person wearing a bag on their head. Those four points give the Huskies a 5 point lead over Minnesota in the WCHA (albeit the Gophers have 2 games in hand).
More importantly, the first-place Huskies have a good chance to get further national attention against a team that has gotten plenty of it.
Minnesota-Duluth blew both a 2 goal lead and their chances at WCHA home ice last weekend
Okay not officially but being swept at home by Denver and giving up 3 goals in a 1:31 span in the third period of Saturday’s game puts the Bulldogs at the bottom of a steep hill.
Although UMD entered the series against the Pioneers winning 6 of their last 8 league games, the team remains in 8th; 3 points behind Wisconsin for the final home ice spot. It’s a tough position for Minnesota-Duluth, who still face Minnesota State, Minnesota and Nebraska-Omaha in their final 8 games.
Bonus thought: Despite both UND head coach Dave Hakstol and WCHA supervisor of officials Greg Shepherd agreeing in a Grand Forks Herald article that diving needs to be addressed, that didn’t happen in the North Dakota-Wisconsin series.