A busy weekend in the NCHC officially kicks off in less than 2 hours. Before a quick look at all the weekend’s series, here are links to all the NCHC stories on CHN from the last 48 hours. Check them out:
Beggars Can Be Choosers — Nick Marek’s look at UNO star and California native Austin Ortega
A Bug’s Life — Kara Hille’s feature on Minnesota-Duluth’s Austin Farley, nicknamed “Bug,” having a strong comeback season
Tigers, by the Tail — My look at Colorado College, as they finally return home after a tough and lengthy road stretch
Pair of Aces — Tony Jovenitti’s look at Minnesota-Duluth’s defense
(St.) Cloud Lifting — Joe Meloni’s look at the expectations at St. Cloud and a tough first half for the Huskies
Denver (11-7-1, 4-5-0 NCHC) hosts St. Cloud State (9-10-1, 4-5-1 NCHC): Denver enters the weekend after being swept last weekend by Nebraska-Omaha, including the Pioneers’ first shutout loss on Saturday night in over two calendar years. The Pioneers’ strength, aside from an active defense corps and steady goaltending, has been special teams play, which will likely be a key factor this weekend, as time and time again this season, Denver’s power play and penalty kill have both provided momentum for the Pioneers. Denver’s penalty killing percentage (24.4 percent) and power play efficiency (25.6 percent) are both among the best in the nation. St. Cloud, meanwhile, comes to town with momentum after sweeping Miami last weekend. As I wrote in this space earlier in the week, a key for the Huskies was the play of St. Cloud goaltender Charlie Lindgren in the first few minutes of last week’s series, where he had 17 first period saves (including a dozen or so in the first 10 minutes) to help set the tone. But another important factor was senior forward Joe Rehkamp, who joined the top line with Jimmy Murray and Jonny Brodzinski and earned NCHC Offensive Player of the Week after scoring the game-winning goal in both games. Prediction: St. Cloud wins Friday, Denver wins Saturday.
Colorado College (4-13-1, 0-8-1 NCHC) hosts Nebraska-Omaha (14-5-3, 8-3-1-1 NCHC): Yes, the Tigers are winless through nine league games this year, but in talking to Mike Haviland earlier this week, it’s reasonable to expect much more from CC this second half, as the Tigers now begin a stretch where they play 10 of their next 13 at home. CC is coming off an important win at UConn last week and despite the tough opposition this weekend could produce a winning result by matching its defensive performance against the Huskies, and by continuing its recent power play success. Tonight is CC’s first official home game since November 21. Nebraska-Omaha comes in after sweeping Denver last week, and the Mavericks — led by sophomore Austin Ortega and his eight game-winning goals — is playing as well as any team in the nation. A big question mark after last Friday’s game (despite the win) was whether sophomore goaltender Kirk Thompson could fill in well for injured starter Ryan Massa. Thompson was pulled on Friday, and UNO won 5-4. Still, the sophomore rebounded the next night, stopping all 39 Denver shots to earn a 1-0 shutout win. Prediction: CC wins Friday, UNO wins Saturday.
Minnesota Duluth (13-7-0, 8-4-0 NCHC) hosts Western Michigan (9-9-2, 2-6-2-2 NCHC): In last year’s NCHC quarterfinal round, Western Michigan headed to AMSOIL Arena in Duluth and swept the Bulldogs out of the playoffs. This is the Broncos’ first trip to Duluth since that meeting and come into the weekend with momentum after sweeping Notre Dame last year. The Broncos are playing more consistently in front of goaltender Lukas Hafner, who will have to deal with a versatile UMD offense this weekend — led by leading goal-scorer Dominic Toninato. These are arguably the two most physical teams in the league — the makings of an entertaining series this weekend. Prediction: UMD sweeps.
And in non-conference action:
North Dakota (14-5-2, 7-4-1 NCHC) hosts Niagara (3-15-2, 3-11-1 AHA): Niagara heads to Grand Forks winless in its last eight games and will be without junior defenseman Matt Dineen, who was suspended for a checking from behind major penalty during the Purple Eagles’ game against Air Force last Friday. Still, Niagara will try to take advantage of a strange trend for North Dakota, a team that’s started weekends slowly of late, winning just one of its last six Friday night games. Niagara had a third period lead in both games against Air Force last weekend and will look to have more complete efforts this weekend. North Dakota, meanwhile, finished last weekend strong, rebounding from a Friday night loss to UMD to come back with a 5-2 win on Saturday. Senior Brendan O’Donnell led the way with his first career hat trick. O’Donnell now has eight goals this season after scoring just nine combined over his sophomore and junior seasons — reflecting North Dakota’s versatile offense, where seemingly someone new each weekend keys UND’s wins. This is the first meeting between North Dakota and Niagara since UND topped the Purple Eagles 2-1 in the first round of the 2013 NCAA tournament. Prediction: North Dakota sweeps.