Three Things I Think: NCHC, Jan. 29

Posted by: Avash Kalra

McIntyre preserves both UND wins vs. CC

It seems odd to even suggest that, with North Dakota, it’s easy to forget about North Dakota goaltender Zane McIntyre. But in this case, that’s meant as a high compliment — for a goaltender that backstopped UND to the Frozen Four last season and now has the fifth best winning percentage among goaltenders this season. He also ranks in the top 10 nationally in save percentage and goals-against average. Clearly, there’s plenty of room for praise. But with such a versatile offense and balance defense, it can be easy to forget about the steady and technically sound junior netminder — until, of course, he simply forces you not to.

Last weekend in UND’s weekend sweep over CC — essentially a pair of one-goal wins when discounting a Saturday night empty-netter — McIntyre made last-minute saves in each game to preserve the wins for UND. Sure, most goaltenders are forced to make saves to preserve one-goal wins, but McIntyre — especially on Friday — made saves that most others might not. On Friday, having already used his right leg pad to thwart Cody Bradley with about 8 minutes left in the third, McIntyre’s instincts took over in the final minute, when the Tigers (who by the way continued to show team improvement despite the losses) were buzzing with their net empty. With traffic clouding his view, McIntyre slid to his left, covering a previously empty portion of the net and in doing so made a game-saving stop on CC’s Sam Rothstein. North Dakota won the game 2-1.

The next night, with UND up 4-3, a key left pad save by McIntyre on the Tigers’ Jaccob Slavin with about 1:40 left in the third, solidifed UND’s first NCHC weekend sweep since Oct. 17-18 (also against CC). Overall, North Dakota has won five straight.

Touchdown, St. Cloud

When St. Cloud and Western Michigan faced off on Friday night, the matchup featured a St. Cloud team struggling on offense after being swept a week earlier by Denver and a Western Michigan team that headed to St. Cloud with a five game winning streak. So Friday’s final score, 7-0 in favor of the Huskies, was one of the more surprising conference results of late — on one hand, reflecting the parity in the league, but on the other, calling into question just how much progress Western Michigan had made of late. The Broncos bounced back the next night for a 3-2 win, though not before falling into a 2-0 hole heading into the third period. WMU looked stale on Friday, while St. Cloud was inspired, but the take-home points for the Broncos seemed to be that:

a) they rely heavily on the power play to jump-start their offense (Western’s power play, converting 23.5 percent of the time, is fourth-best in the country, and a power play goal on Saturday proved to spark the comeback), and

b) Andy Murray seems to have maintained confidence in goaltender Lukas Hafner. Hafner started Friday’s debacle and was pulled after allowing two goals in the first 14:30. Of course, backup Frank Slubowski wasn’t much better, allowing five the rest of the way, as the Broncos were noticeably slow to acclimate to St. Cloud’s Olympic-sized ice sheet, which the Huskies used to their full advantage. Hafner rebounded Saturday night in the Broncos’ 3-2 win, stopping 33 shots.

Scoring from the blue-line

Here’s a look at the top 10 scorers in the nation among defensemen (courtesy: collegehockeystats.net):

Points Per Game (Defensemen):                               GP    G- A- P    P/GM
  1 Mike Reilly (CLB)          Minnesota         JR D       22    4-20-24    1.09
  2 Patrick McNally (VAN)      Harvard           SR D       15    4-12-16    1.07
  3 Jeff Taylor (PIT)          Union             SO D       24    4-21-25    1.04
  4 Robbie Russo (NYI)         Notre Dame        SR D       26   11-14-25    0.96
  5 Joey LaLeggia (EDM)        Denver            SR D       22    8-13-21    0.95
  6 Mike Paliotta (CHI)        Vermont           SR D       25    7-16-23    0.92
  7 Zach Werenski              Michigan          FR D       20    5-13-18    0.90
  8 Casey Nelson               Minnesota State   SO D       25    5-16-21    0.84
  9 Jordan Schmaltz (STL)      North Dakota      JR D       25    3-17-20    0.80
 10 Nolan Zajac                Denver            JR D       23    5-13-18    0.78

Certainly, one thing to notice is that three NCHC blueliners — North Dakota’s Jordan Schmaltz and Denver’s Joey LaLeggia and Nolan Zajac — are featured. The other is that there are seven NHL draft picks on the list, including each of the top six. Compare that to the top scorers overall in the nation (3 of the top 10 and 6 of the top 20 are NHL draft picks). Obviously, there are plenty of factors that partially explain this (e.g. some of the nation’s top scorers, most notably BU freshman Jack Eichel, haven’t been drafted yet but certainly will be), but it’s worth noting that top-level defensemen prior to college seem to a) be bigger/stronger (and more appealing to NHL teams), and b) translate their offensive skills to the college game a little bit more easily. Another reason for the trend is that these players tend to score a lot on the power play, placed at the ever-important point positions to “quarterback” power play units.

Either way, beyond this trend,  it’s worth noting that North Dakota and Denver rely heavily on scoring from defensemen, but it’s often said of UND and Pioneers that their success is tied to offensive production form the blueline. Suggesting that, though, might be a mistake. After all, one reason UND (No. 2 in the current Pairwise) and Denver (No. 11) have been so successful this season is that the scoring from the blueline complements well-balanced scoring lines up front, and that’s been a dangerous combination for opponents to face.

Each team (UND at Omaha, Denver vs. UMD) now have big tests this weekend, which we’ll preview here, along with all this weekend’s NCHC series, tomorrow.

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