Each NCHC team has played at least five games, and every team in the league is over .500 at this early stage in the season, after another successful first few weeks of nonconference action.
Conference play is underway, too. Colorado College split with North Dakota last weekend in the first league play of the season, and there are three more league series this weekend — Denver at Western Michigan, CC at Miami, Minnesota-Duluth at St. Cloud State. Omaha is off, while North Dakota plays two at Wisconsin.
As a preview of this weekend’s action, here’s a brief look at each of the team’s starts to the season (teams listed alphabetically):
Colorado College: After a split against Vermont and a sweep against Alaska-Anchorage, all eyes were on the Tigers last weekend to see how they would fare in their first league games of the season — one of many areas in which the Tigers have struggled in recent seasons. CC responded in a big way with their split against North Dakota. In the Tigers’ Friday night win, they took advantage of their chances, stayed out of the penalty box (North Dakota had only one power play opportunity), and survived periods of pressure in the third… but I found their loss to be encouraging as well.
Despite defensive lapses in a 6-4 game, CC scored all four of its goals on the rush — an area in which they struggled last year. They showed plenty of speed getting behind the UND defense, and that will serve them well as the season goes on. CC already has five wins this season — incredibly, the earliest the Tigers have reached that mark since the fall of 2005. It’s the best start during the Mike Haviland era in Colorado Springs, and junior Mason Bergh has led the way with seven goals (tied for most in the country).
Denver: The defending champions are rolling — undefeated at 4-0-2 after sweeping Boston University and Boston College on the road last weekend. And as expected, the Pioneers’ trio of high-end forwards, Henrik Borgstrom, Troy Terry, and Dylan Gambrell, are leading the way. Borgstrom in particular has picked up where he left off last year, as the potential Hobey Baker candidate has a point in each game he’s played this season and leads Denver with five goals.
It will be interesting this weekend to see how Denver plays on Friday night against the Broncos, as the Pioneers have shown a tendency this season to start slowly before picking up momentum as the weekend goes along. Denver is 1-0-2 on Friday (allowing eight goals in those three games) and 3-0-0 on Saturday (allowing four goals in those three games). Even though Tanner Jaillet is the unquestioned starter in goal, I’d expect head coach Jim Montgomery to mix in freshman Dayton Rasmussen periodically as well. The rookie netminder earned the win for Denver’s first home victory of the season two weeks ago against Lake Superior State.
Miami: The RedHawks rebounded from an inconsistent weekend against Maine to pummel UConn last weekend, outscoring the Huskies 10-1 in a pair of games in Oxford. Miami hosts CC this weekend, and one story to watch will be whether the RedHawks can continue their strong power play efforts — after scoring 11 power play goals on their last 21 opportunities. Their 34.3 percent success rate is fourth best in the nation currently, and in years past, CC has struggled on the penalty kill.
Sophomore Gordie Green (11 points already) looks to be one of the NCHC’s breakout stars this season.
Minnesota-Duluth: Have the Bulldogs — who lost Hunter Miska in the offseason — struck gold in net again? Sophomore Hunter Shepard has been outstanding during the Bulldogs’ five game unbeaten streak (3-0-2) and was the NCHC’s Goaltender of the Week after sweeping Maine last weekend (including the first career shutout for the sophomore netminder). Obviously, UMD faces a big test this weekend heading to St. Cloud, but last week’s success on the road should help the confidence of Scott Sandelin’s young team — in particular, his group of freshmen who have already played well in the early stages of the season.
Nebraska-Omaha: In case you missed it, I spoke with head coach Mike Gabinet last week, and you can read that feature article here. Omaha, with a schedule that includes eight of its first 10 games on the road, gets a break this weekend before heading out of Nebraska again next weekend — this time, to CC. The Mavericks split on the road at Notre Dame last week. UNO continues to play fairly well on the man-advantage — 7 different players have scored PP goals this season – but I’d expect Gabinet to try and use the bye week to tighten things up defensively, after his team has allowed 13 goals over the last three games.
As expected, returning senior captain Tyler Vesel — second in points on the team last season (35 and the leader in power play goals (8) — has played well in the early going. And David Pope (3 points, 2 assists last weekend) was the NCHC’s Offensive Player of the Week. But I would watch for juniors Steven Spinner, Fredrik Olofsson, and Mason Morelli to be among the key players who the Mavericks will need to continue stepping up offensively as the season goes along.
Said Gabinet in our conversation last week, “With only three incoming freshmen this season, and losing two All-Americans, we’re going to rely on guys who were here the previous year who need to elevate the game and who are going to have increased responsibility on the ice — which as a coach, you’re excited for those guys to have the opportunity to earn more ice time and to play a bigger role with the team.”
North Dakota: I have said repeatedly that North Dakota’s team is deep this year, despite the (relative) absence of big, flashy names following departures in the offseason of multiple players who have already logged NHL minutes. Indeed, every player to have logged minutes this season for the Fighting Hawks (except for goaltender Cam Johnson) has registered a point. Johnson, of course, has done his part too, and UND’s defense is fourth best in the nation currently (1.62 goals per game allowed).
St. Cloud State: Defenseman Jimmy Schuldt was named the HCA National Player of the Month for October, as the junior is averaging two points per game for the perfect (5-0-0) Huskies. For players who have played in more than two games, Schuldt’s two points per game average is tied with Northeastern’s Dylan Sikura for the nation’s lead.
St. Cloud was off last week after sweeping a struggling BC team the week prior. This weekend will be the Huskies’ biggest test of the season so far, hosting Minnesota-Duluth in the NCHC openers for both squads. Each of the last two weekends, junior Jeff Smith and freshman David Hrenak have split the time in net. I would expect the trend to continue this weekend.
Western Michigan: The Broncos create a tough home environment for visiting teams, so it will be interesting to see how their series with Denver plays out this weekend. The Broncos snapped a three game winless streak with a 3-1 home win against Michigan State on Oct. 21 before a bye week last weekend. WMU won just once in five meetings with Denver last year.
Look for Colt Conrad to continue to lead the Broncos’ offense. The junior has a seven-game point streak to start the year.