Three conference series highlight the weekend schedule in the NCHC, and at this point of the season, many of the matchups are rematches of meetings from earlier in the season. Meanwhile, in nonconference action, the second inaugural North Star College Cup is already underway in Minneapolis (there, Minnesota-Duluth currently trails Bemidji State 2-0 at the end of the second period).
CHN’s Kara Hille is in Minneapolis covering the NSCC, and we’ll have more on UMD and all the teams over the next few days. So for now, here’s a quick look at the conference series that are set to start within the hour.
St. Cloud State (9-12-1, 4-7-1 NCHC) hosts Western Michigan (10-9-3, 3-6-3-3 NCHC): The Huskies return home after suffering a sweep at Denver last weekend, a disappointing result after earning an impressive home sweep over Miami just a week earlier. St. Cloud struggled offensively a week ago against a talented and physical Pioneer defense; the Huskies scored just twice all weekend and went 0-for-6 on the power play. St. Cloud has actually played fairly well in man-advantage situations this year (scoring over 20 percent of the time), and that should be a key factor against a Western Michigan team that is rolling in front of goaltender Lukas Hafner. We featured the Broncos’ one-two punch of Nolan LaPorte and Colton Hargrove earlier in the week, but beyond the improved offense (led by WMU’s top line), Hafner has been integral.
“I think it all started with him working hard to take over the lead role from Frank [Slubowski],” LaPorte told me while discussing the Broncos’ current 6-1-2 stretch. “That’s the great thing about having two really good goalies, is that they push one another. He’s been great for us since he took over that leading role.” Hafner’s last performance against St. Cloud came in a 21-save shootout win in mid-November. Prediction: St. Cloud wins Friday, Western Michigan wins Saturday.
Miami (14-8-0, 7-5-0 NCHC) hosts Denver (13-7-1, 6-5-0 NCHC): Tonight is Miami’s first game in Oxford since a December 6 loss to Nebraska-Omaha and their first game overall since being swept against St. Cloud two weeks ago. More notably, this is the first meeting between the RedHawks and Pioneers since the inaugural NCHC tournament championship game last March, which sent Denver to the NCAA tournament. The stakes may not be quite as high this weekend, but each team needs a strong weekend to try and provide some separation in the top half of the NCHC standings. The series figures to be low-scoring, with both teams boasting strong goaltending lately — Jay Williams (Miami) and Tanner Jaillet (Denver), both of whom have been involved in goalie rotations this season, will start the weekend in the crease for their respective teams. They’ll have their hands full with plenty of offensive ability on the ice, from Denver’s Danton Heinen (the NCHC scoring leader) to Miami’s duo of Riley Barber and Austin Czarnik. Prediction: Miami wins Friday, Denver wins Saturday.
North Dakota (16-5-2, 7-4-1 NCHC) hosts Colorado College (5-14-1, 1-9-1 NCHC): UND and CC met in October, and North Dakota swept the weekend after outscoring the Tigers by a 10-3 margin. UND’s offense has continued to roll (outscoring Niagara 12-1 in a pair of games just a week ago), but expect the Tigers to be more sound defensively this weekend than they were in October. CC upset Nebraska-Omaha last Friday night behind strong performances from Jaccob Slavin and Hunter Fejes, and the next night, the Tigers held UNO to just 14 shots on goal. I’d expect Tyler Marble (who was in goal for the win last Friday) to return to the goal for CC tonight, to be matched up with UND’s Zane McIntyre, who continues to be stellar (16-5-2 this season). Both games of this series are on CBS College Sports. Prediction: Tie on Friday, UND wins Saturday