Half the league’s teams are in action this weekend (Denver, CC, Miami, and Minnesota-Duluth, meanwhile, enjoy the Thanksgiving week off).
Here’s a look at this weekend’s sole conference series, as well as St. Cloud State’s and Western Michigan’s non-conference forays:
North Dakota (9-3-1 overall, 4-2-0 NCHC) hosts Nebraska-Omaha (7-2-1 overall, 3-1-0 NCHC)
This is the NCHC’s best Black Friday deal — a matchup featuring two of the top three league offenses and two of the top three league defenses. UND and UNO are both coming off weekend splits a week ago (North Dakota against St. Cloud State, and Omaha against Minnesota-Duluth) and enter the weekend looking for an opportunity to distance themselves from the rest of the top league teams. Of course, the coaching staffs know each other well, with UNO coach Dean Blais returning to Grand Forks this weekend, where he resided as head coach of UND from 1994 to 2004, including four seasons with North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol as an assistant. Hakstol’s teams have traditionally started slow and picked things up right around the Thanksgiving break. This year’s been different, led by a balanced offense and predictably strong goaltending from Zane McIntyre. Earlier this week, Drake Caggiula — UND’s leading scorer — offered his thoughts on why North Dakota has been better in the early stages of the season this year, compared to seasons past.
“We changed the way the way we started off our preseason,” Caggiula told me. “My first two years here, we did a lot of hard conditioning, and guys were getting tired heading into the season. So we made some adjustments off the ice in terms of that. I think that’s given us more of an opportunity to perform well on weekends. The biggest thing though is that we have a lot of returning guys to lead the way, and we know what it takes to be competitive.”
UND will have to deal with an equally strong Omaha team boasting a senior goaltender in Ryan Massa who has, simply, been outstanding so far. His .951 save percentage is second-best in the nation. Sophomores Austin Ortega and Jake Guentzel have led the way for the Mavericks’ offensive output, but freshman Tyler Vesel has emerged in recent games as well. The reigning NCHC Rookie of the Week, an Edmonton Oilers draft pick, had three points in last weekend’s split with UMD. This is usually the time of year that the top freshmen in the country prove themselves as able to produce consistently (yes, we know BU’s Jack Eichel has been doing that from day one) — with the type of game-to-game output that we see out of the veterans on these teams. UND freshman Trevor Olson, who scored the first two goals of his career last week, will be looking to do the same. Prediction: A weekend split
And in non-conference action:
Bemidji State (3-9-0 overall, 2-6-0 WCHA) hosts St. Cloud State (5-6-1 overall, 2-3-1 NCHC): Bemidji State is winless in its last six games as the Beavers prepare to host a Huskies that split its series with North Dakota last weekend. St. Cloud has the clear edge in this series, especially if they can limit Bemidji sophomore center Brendan Harms, who has a four-game point streak entering the weekend. That hasn’t been an easy task, though. Harms had two goals in the season’s first game, a win over North Dakota. St. Cloud comes in with the usual suspects (Jonny Brodzinski, Joey Benik, and the rest of its junior class) playing well in front of sophomore goaltender Charlie Lindgren. Curiously, the top lines have been prone to occasional defensive lapses, and that’ll likely be a focal point in the week of preparation for the Huskies. The aforementioned juniors are great two-way players, and they’ll be expected to play just as well defensively as offensively. Prediction: St. Cloud State sweeps.
Western Michigan (3-8-1 overall, 1-6-1 NCHC) at the Shillelagh Tournament: The Broncos are winless in their last four games and face an Ohio State team in South Bend this afternoon that, overall, has been struggling as well — though put together a nice game last weekend, a 3-0 shutout of Michigan State. WMU has yet to play well both offensively and defensively in a single game, struggling to score goals most of the time — and when they do, their defense and goaltending has let them down. Western Michigan will take on either Notre Dame or Union tomorrow. Prediction: WMU wins Friday, loses Saturday