Two months from today, the only college hockey games remaining in the 2014-15 schedule will be the games to be played at the NCAA Frozen Four in Boston — the national semifinals and the national championship game. As of now, five NCHC teams sit in the top 11 of the Pairwise, certainly well-positioned for an NCAA spot if they continue to play well, but of course, for all league teams, the stretch run to the NCHC tournament and the possibility of an automatic berth are inspiring factors during these final weeks of the regular season.
Still, before any of that, to remain in the conversation two months from now will require a strong upcoming six weeks, and this weekend, with 10 games remaining for each team in the regular season, one series in particular could end up having major implications for whether North Dakota or Nebraska-Omaha can position themselves for a No. 1 seed — not just in the NCHC tournament, but in the NCAA tournament as well.
Nebraska-Omaha (15-6-3, 9-4-1-1 NCHC) hosts North Dakota (18-5-2, 9-4-1 NCHC): North Dakota, No. 2 in the Pairwise, trials UNO (No. 4) by a single point for the NCHC regular season lead heading into this significant weekend series in Omaha. Tonight’s game — televised on CBS Sports Network — is UND’s first road contest since a Dec. 13 win at Denver, while UNO has been off for two weeks since a weekend split with Colorado College (whom UND swept in Grand Forks a week ago). The teams last met in a contested and physical late November series in Grand Forks, when UNO won a shootout following a 2-2 tie in the Friday night game and UND came back for a 3-2 win on Saturday. North Dakota’s game-winner on Saturday night was a Stephane Pattyn shorthanded goal — insult to injury after UND held the Mavericks scoreless on seven power play chances during the weekend.
Aside from the obvious storylines (e.g. a matchup of two of the nation’s top teams, UNO head coach Dean Blais returning to his former stomping grounds, where he won two national titles, etc.), consider this: in NCHC play, UNO is the league’s top-scoring offense, while UND is the best defense. It’s a matchup of two upperclassmen goaltenders, UNO’s Ryan Massa and UND’s Zane McIntyre, who are No. 1 and No. 2 in the league in save percentage. Think that means it’ll be a pair of low-scoring games? Not necessarily. This series also features four of the five NCHC players — North Dakota’s Mark MacMillan and Drake Caggiula and Omaha’s Austin Ortega and Jake Guentzel — who are averaging over a point per game in NCHC play this season (Denver senior defenseman Joey LaLeggia is the other). MacMillan in fact leads the league in goals in conference play. And it’s not just the upperclassmen who have stepped up for these teams — three of the league’s top five scoring rookies are also in action in this series this weekend.
So, clearly, there’s plenty to keep an eye on in this series. Omaha coach Dean Blais told Tony Boone of the Omaha World-Herald this week, “We could play our best game of the year on Friday night and not win. But if we play our best game of the year, all the pressure is on them, not us.” It’s a nice motivational tactic by the veteran coach, but for a team looking for the same legitimacy that North Dakota (a Frozen Four team last season) already has, and with UNO playing at home trying to distance itself from the visitors in the standings, there’s plenty of pressure on the Mavericks as well. Prediction: Omaha wins Friday, North Dakota wins Saturday.
Denver (14-8-1, 7-6-0 NCHC) hosts Minnesota-Duluth (14-9-1, 8-5-1 NCHC): Plenty has changed since these teams last met in October, which resulted in a weekend split in Duluth. First and foremost, DU sophomore Evan Cowley started both games for the Pioneers, which is unlikely to happen this weekend. Freshman Tanner Jaillet has emerged as the goaltender whom Jim Montgomery has called upon most often over the past few weeks, as Cowley hasn’t seen action since being pulled 18 minutes into the first period against St. Cloud on Jan. 16 (after allowing just one goal). Jaillet picked up three straight wins before a loss at Miami last Saturday. Now, the Pioneers host a Bulldogs team that is coming off a North Star College Cup appearance in Minneapolis last weekend, where UMD beat Minnesota on Saturday (its third win over the Gophers this season) after falling to Bemidji State a night earlier. Junior Matt McNeeley earned the win over Minnesota, starting in place of freshman Kasimir Kaskisuo. Kaskisuo played well in the first half of the season, but has been much more inconsistent of late — now with a four-game winless streak in his starts. Given the recent results, it wouldn’t be surprising to see McNeeley, Kaskisuo, Jaillet, and Cowley all play in some capacity this week. I’ll be at Magness Arena for both games this weekend. Prediction: Denver sweeps.
Colorado College (5-16-1, 1-11-1 NCHC) hosts St. Cloud State (10-13-1, 5-8-1 NCHC): In a matchup of the only two teams in the league with overall records below .500 this season, the Tigers start a six-game home stretch with their first meeting of the season with St. Cloud State. CC, despite just one win in 13 NCHC games this season, has played much better of late. After beating Omaha two weeks ago tonight, CC went to Grand Forks last weekend and lost two close games, 2-1 on Friday and 5-3 (with an empty-netter) on Saturday. The improved play has come thanks to a more creative and effective power play and on-ice leadership from senior Scott Wamsganz, who has points in five straight games. Without question, the Tigers look much better than they did in November but will still have their hands full against a St. Cloud team that, while sometimes maddeningly inconsistent, has the potential to be dominant. Last Friday, the Huskies used their own Olympic ice sheet to their full advantage, creating space and frustrating Western Michigan with a 7-0 win. It was arguably the best St. Cloud had looked all season, but the weekend was spoiled by blowing a 2-0 third-period lead the following night (ultimately losing 3-2). Of course, CC plays on the larger ice surface as well, and that will play to the strength of talented forwards like juniors Joey Benik and Jonny Brodzinski. Prediction: St. Cloud wins Friday, Colorado College wins Saturday.
And finally, in a one-game series on Saturday night:
Western Michigan (11-10-3, 4-7-3-3 NCHC) hosts Miami (15-9-0, 8-6-0 NCHC): The RedHawks swept the Broncos earlier in the season, and now, with the second game of this series set for next weekend (outdoors at Chicago’s Soldier Field), both teams come into this one-game affair in Kalamazoo after wins last Saturday (WMU over St. Cloud, Miami over Denver). For Miami, the win snapped a three-game losing streak during which the RedHawks struggled to find offense. WMU met the same problem in last week’s 7-0 shutout against St. Cloud. Without question, certain players will be the focus of each team’s defensive efforts this weekend — Miami, a bit more balanced thanks to the playmaking ability of Austin Czarnik, relies on Riley Barber, Sean Kuraly, Blake Coleman, and Cody Murphy to score goals, while WMU relies heavily on its top line of Nolan LaPorte, Sheldon Dries, and Colton Hargrove. LaPorte’s eight power play goals lead the nation for a WMU power play unit that is fourth-best (23.5 percent effective) in the country, so Miami (averaging 14.0 penalty minutes per game) will have to stay disciplined on Saturday. Prediction: WMU wins in a shootout.