Minnesota-Duluth has received plenty of attention on CHN over the past two weeks, with back-to-back Team of the Week honors, Nicole Brodzik’s look at the offensive contributions of the Bulldog defense, and Kara Hille’s look back on UMD’s sweep of Minnesota last week.
This weekend, with all NCHC teams in action on both nights, the Bulldogs go on the road for the third consecutive week, this time carrying a five-game winning streak into a two-game set at UNO (5-0-1 in its last six games) in a matchup between two of the top teams not just in the NCHC, but in the country.
Nebraska-Omaha (6-1-1 overall, 2-0-0 NCHC) hosts Minnesota-Duluth (8-4-0 overall, 4-2-0 NCHC)
Both teams have enjoyed timely offenses this season, each squad averaging over three goals a game and led in each case by a sophomore forward — Omaha’s Jake Guentzel, who’s bounced back nicely from an injury earlier in the season, and UMD’s Dominic Toninato. But the matchup to watch this weekend will be between the goaltenders. Duluth’s freshman netminder Kasimir Kaskisuo of course backstopped the Bulldogs to their sweep over Minnesota last week. The reigning NCHC Goaltender of the Week only had to make 41 saves all weekend, reflecting strong defensive play in front of him — but the saves he did make, in many cases, were huge, including a memorable handful on Gopher power play opportunities. He’ll face the more experienced senior Ryan Massa, who for the Mavericks is fifth in the country in goals-against average and a big reason Omaha has a penalty killing percentage approaching 90 percent. The other players to keep an eye on this weekend are a pair of Minnesota natives who play for the Mavericks — freshmen Jake Randolph (a Minnesota Wild draft pick) and Avery Peterson. The rookies, who play on different lines, combined for 9 points in Omaha’s sweep of Ohio State last week and have fit in nicely to coach Dean Blais’ offensive scheme. As a result, the Mavericks have three lines who have been scoring consistently, as opposed to two lines for UMD. That sets the stage for a chess match between veteran coaches Dean Blais and Scott Sandelin. Prediction: Nebraska-Omaha wins Friday, Minnesota-Duluth wins Saturday.
St. Cloud State (4-5-1 overall, 1-2-1-0 NCHC) hosts North Dakota (8-2-1 overall, 3-1-0 NCHC)
Last season, the Huskies and UND battled all season for the regular season title, and St. Cloud’s 3-1-0 record against North Dakota proved to be the difference in the Huskies taking that inaugural regular season crown in the NCHC. Last week, UND split with Miami, while St. Cloud followed a win over Western Michigan with a shootout loss the next night. Both teams enter this weekend with strong special teams play. The focus, for St. Cloud and sophomore goaltender Charlie Lindgren, has to be on stopping UND’s potent top line that has been difficult for opponents to contain so far this season. Junior forward Drake Caggiula, the NCHC Player of the Week after 5 points last weekend, centers the line, and he’s tied for the nation’s lead with 16 points so far. His linemates are seniors Michael Parks and Mark MacMillan (MacMillan returned from a wrist injury last weekend). The trio has combined for 40 points and is a combined plus-18. They also play in all situations, contributing four power play goals and five shorthanded goals so far this season. Last weekend, St. Cloud coach Bob Motzko, on the heels of a three-game losing streak, switched up his defensive pairings, most notably splitting up Ethan Prow and Andrew Prochno. No matter the combinations this weekend, the focus clearly will be on UND’s top line. Meanwhile, St. Cloud’s offense will look to get going, particularly juniors David Morley and Jimmy Murray, who as part of the Huskies’ exceptional junior class are off to slow starts so far. Prediction: North Dakota wins Friday, st. Cloud State wins Saturday.
Miami (8-4-0 overall, 4-2-0 NCHC) hosts Western Michigan (3-6-1 overall, 1-4-1-1 NCHC)
Lately, even in last Saturday’s loss at North Dakota, Miami has started games well, typically scoring first and earning the opportunity to play with the lead. Combine that with very few mental mistakes, and the RedHawks look unrecognizable compared to last season’s team. As we’ve mentioned here repeatedly, the success has come from Miami’s balanced offense. Check back next week for a feature we’ll have on junior forward Sean Kuraly, who is tied for the nation’s lead with nine goals (including, somewhat remarkably, six game-winners). Kuraly has been a force, along with Blake Coleman and Alex Wideman, who have helped shoulder the load for a Miami offense (obviously that also includes Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber) that puts plenty of shots on goal. On the other end, junior Jay Williams has been exceptional in goal. Ryan McKay, now winless at 0-3-0, started last Saturday and although he didn’t play terribly, we have to wonder if Miami head coach Enrico Blasi will stray away from his rotation and stick with Williams, who seems to have earned a pair of starts this weekend. Western Michigan dominated Miami (4-0-0) last year but have struggled with consistency this year. Still looking for consistent offense, another problem for the Broncos has been their goaltending, with junior Lukas Hafner outplaying senior Frank Slubowski so far. The two have alternated starts. I’d expect a Hafner/Williams matchup to kick off the series tonight. Prediction: Miami sweeps
And in non-conference action:
Denver hosts Air Force, Wisconsin: The Pioneers are going to face a tougher test Friday night against the Falcons than they did against Colorado College last week (when Denver beat CC 8-1). Denver enters the weekend after hearing advice from Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who visited the team’s practice on Wednesday prior to standing behind the bench for the Caps 3-2 win over the Avalanche the following night. Trotz stressed that success on the NHL level is all about keeping a focus on the details, and maintaining that focus for more than just two or three weeks. This 2014-15 Denver team has shown it can do that already, and it’s started with the play of sophomore Evan Cowley in goal, whose strong start has allowed the Pioneer defensemen to jump into more offensive rushes and complement a strong group of forwards, led again in scoring by Trevor Moore (12 points in nine games). Denver faces an Air Force team that has played three consecutive overtime games and then a Wisconsin team that is winless (0-6-0) to start its season. Prediction: Tie on Friday, Denver wins Saturday
Colorado College hosts Wisconsin, visits Air Force: Friday’s matchup is one between two teams desperate for a win. The old WCHA rivals have struggled mightily so far. CC lost 8-1 at Denver last week in a rivalry matchup and is 2-7-0 this year, losing seven straight after a pair of wins over Alabama-Huntsville. The Badgers, meanwhile, haven’t had much go right so far. Wisconsin has scored just seven goals in six games, all losses, while allowing four or more in four of those six games. Similarly, the Tigers have scored just a pair of goals over their last three games and have allowed 35 goals over six games. Only Niagara (1-9-0) has allowed more goals this season. The Tigers defense, simply, has to be better. I’d expect Chase Perry to get the start in goal for CC tonight. Prediction: CC wins Friday, loses Saturday