Archive for the 'NCHC' Category

PairWise Possibilities

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

With the conference tournaments approaching, I’ve been running a lot of scenarios through CHN’s PairWise calculator. It started with my interest in Minnesota’s chances (since I cover Big Ten hockey) but has expanded since then.

According to the Pairwise Probability Matrix, there are about nine teams that are locked into the NCAA tournament, and two others (Providence and Quinnipiac) that have very high chances of making it. North Dakota, Minnesota State, Boston University, Denver, Michigan Tech, Minnesota-Duluth, Miami, Nebraska-Omaha and Boston College are all most likely making the NCAA tournament.

Regardless of the results this weekend, the NCHC will have five teams make the NCAA tournament -North Dakota, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Miami and Nebraska-Omaha. Very few scenarios have Nebraska-Omaha – the lowest-ranked NCHC team – moving to ninth on the PWR list. I’ve encountered none that have the Mavericks dropping below ninth.

So below I ran through some points of interest, different scenarios, the likelihood of certain teams making it and what they need for that to happen. I will periodically add to this as I calculate more scenarios.  (more…)

NCHC Weekend Preview: Jan. 30-31

Friday, January 30th, 2015

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.


Three Things I Think: NCHC, Jan. 29

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

McIntyre preserves both UND wins vs. CC

It seems odd to even suggest that, with North Dakota, it’s easy to forget about North Dakota goaltender Zane McIntyre. But in this case, that’s meant as a high compliment — for a goaltender that backstopped UND to the Frozen Four last season and now has the fifth best winning percentage among goaltenders this season. He also ranks in the top 10 nationally in save percentage and goals-against average. Clearly, there’s plenty of room for praise. But with such a versatile offense and balance defense, it can be easy to forget about the steady and technically sound junior netminder — until, of course, he simply forces you not to.

Last weekend in UND’s weekend sweep over CC — essentially a pair of one-goal wins when discounting a Saturday night empty-netter — McIntyre made last-minute saves in each game to preserve the wins for UND. Sure, most goaltenders are forced to make saves to preserve one-goal wins, but McIntyre — especially on Friday — made saves that most others might not. On Friday, having already used his right leg pad to thwart Cody Bradley with about 8 minutes left in the third, McIntyre’s instincts took over in the final minute, when the Tigers (who by the way continued to show team improvement despite the losses) were buzzing with their net empty. With traffic clouding his view, McIntyre slid to his left, covering a previously empty portion of the net and in doing so made a game-saving stop on CC’s Sam Rothstein. North Dakota won the game 2-1.

The next night, with UND up 4-3, a key left pad save by McIntyre on the Tigers’ Jaccob Slavin with about 1:40 left in the third, solidifed UND’s first NCHC weekend sweep since Oct. 17-18 (also against CC). Overall, North Dakota has won five straight.

Touchdown, St. Cloud

When St. Cloud and Western Michigan faced off on Friday night, the matchup featured a St. Cloud team struggling on offense after being swept a week earlier by Denver and a Western Michigan team that headed to St. Cloud with a five game winning streak. So Friday’s final score, 7-0 in favor of the Huskies, was one of the more surprising conference results of late — on one hand, reflecting the parity in the league, but on the other, calling into question just how much progress Western Michigan had made of late. The Broncos bounced back the next night for a 3-2 win, though not before falling into a 2-0 hole heading into the third period. WMU looked stale on Friday, while St. Cloud was inspired, but the take-home points for the Broncos seemed to be that:

a) they rely heavily on the power play to jump-start their offense (Western’s power play, converting 23.5 percent of the time, is fourth-best in the country, and a power play goal on Saturday proved to spark the comeback), and

b) Andy Murray seems to have maintained confidence in goaltender Lukas Hafner. Hafner started Friday’s debacle and was pulled after allowing two goals in the first 14:30. Of course, backup Frank Slubowski wasn’t much better, allowing five the rest of the way, as the Broncos were noticeably slow to acclimate to St. Cloud’s Olympic-sized ice sheet, which the Huskies used to their full advantage. Hafner rebounded Saturday night in the Broncos’ 3-2 win, stopping 33 shots.

Scoring from the blue-line

Here’s a look at the top 10 scorers in the nation among defensemen (courtesy:

Points Per Game (Defensemen):                               GP    G- A- P    P/GM
  1 Mike Reilly (CLB)          Minnesota         JR D       22    4-20-24    1.09
  2 Patrick McNally (VAN)      Harvard           SR D       15    4-12-16    1.07
  3 Jeff Taylor (PIT)          Union             SO D       24    4-21-25    1.04
  4 Robbie Russo (NYI)         Notre Dame        SR D       26   11-14-25    0.96
  5 Joey LaLeggia (EDM)        Denver            SR D       22    8-13-21    0.95
  6 Mike Paliotta (CHI)        Vermont           SR D       25    7-16-23    0.92
  7 Zach Werenski              Michigan          FR D       20    5-13-18    0.90
  8 Casey Nelson               Minnesota State   SO D       25    5-16-21    0.84
  9 Jordan Schmaltz (STL)      North Dakota      JR D       25    3-17-20    0.80
 10 Nolan Zajac                Denver            JR D       23    5-13-18    0.78

Certainly, one thing to notice is that three NCHC blueliners — North Dakota’s Jordan Schmaltz and Denver’s Joey LaLeggia and Nolan Zajac — are featured. The other is that there are seven NHL draft picks on the list, including each of the top six. Compare that to the top scorers overall in the nation (3 of the top 10 and 6 of the top 20 are NHL draft picks). Obviously, there are plenty of factors that partially explain this (e.g. some of the nation’s top scorers, most notably BU freshman Jack Eichel, haven’t been drafted yet but certainly will be), but it’s worth noting that top-level defensemen prior to college seem to a) be bigger/stronger (and more appealing to NHL teams), and b) translate their offensive skills to the college game a little bit more easily. Another reason for the trend is that these players tend to score a lot on the power play, placed at the ever-important point positions to “quarterback” power play units.

Either way, beyond this trend,  it’s worth noting that North Dakota and Denver rely heavily on scoring from defensemen, but it’s often said of UND and Pioneers that their success is tied to offensive production form the blueline. Suggesting that, though, might be a mistake. After all, one reason UND (No. 2 in the current Pairwise) and Denver (No. 11) have been so successful this season is that the scoring from the blueline complements well-balanced scoring lines up front, and that’s been a dangerous combination for opponents to face.

Each team (UND at Omaha, Denver vs. UMD) now have big tests this weekend, which we’ll preview here, along with all this weekend’s NCHC series, tomorrow.

NCHC Weekend Preview, Jan. 23-24

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

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

NCHC Weekend Preview, Jan. 16-17

Friday, January 16th, 2015

A busy weekend in the NCHC officially kicks off in less than 2 hours. Before a quick look at all the weekend’s series, here are links to all the NCHC stories on CHN from the last 48 hours. Check them out:

Beggars Can Be Choosers – Nick Marek’s look at UNO star and California native Austin Ortega

A Bug’s Life — Kara Hille’s feature on Minnesota-Duluth’s Austin Farley, nicknamed “Bug,” having a strong comeback season

Tigers, by the Tail — My look at Colorado College, as they finally return home after a tough and lengthy road stretch

Pair of Aces — Tony Jovenitti’s look at Minnesota-Duluth’s defense

(St.) Cloud Lifting — Joe Meloni’s look at the expectations at St. Cloud and a tough first half for the Huskies

Denver (11-7-1, 4-5-0 NCHC) hosts St. Cloud State (9-10-1, 4-5-1 NCHC): Denver enters the weekend after being swept last weekend by Nebraska-Omaha, including the Pioneers’ first shutout loss on Saturday night in over two calendar years. The Pioneers’ strength, aside from an active defense corps and steady goaltending, has been special teams play, which will likely be a key factor this weekend, as time and time again this season, Denver’s power play and penalty kill have both provided momentum for the Pioneers. Denver’s penalty killing percentage (24.4 percent) and power play efficiency (25.6 percent) are both among the best in the nation. St. Cloud, meanwhile, comes to town with momentum after sweeping Miami last weekend. As I wrote in this space earlier in the week, a key for the Huskies was the play of St. Cloud goaltender Charlie Lindgren in the first few minutes of last week’s series, where he had 17 first period saves (including a dozen or so in the first 10 minutes) to help set the tone. But another important factor was senior forward Joe Rehkamp, who joined the top line with Jimmy Murray and Jonny Brodzinski and earned NCHC Offensive Player of the Week after scoring the game-winning goal in both games. Prediction: St. Cloud wins Friday, Denver wins Saturday.

Colorado College (4-13-1, 0-8-1 NCHC) hosts Nebraska-Omaha (14-5-3, 8-3-1-1 NCHC): Yes, the Tigers are winless through nine league games this year, but in talking to Mike Haviland earlier this week, it’s reasonable to expect much more from CC this second half, as the Tigers now begin a stretch where they play 10 of their next 13 at home. CC is coming off an important win at UConn last week and despite the tough opposition this weekend could produce a winning result by matching its defensive performance against the Huskies, and by continuing its recent power play success. Tonight is CC’s first official home game since November 21. Nebraska-Omaha comes in after sweeping Denver last week, and the Mavericks — led by sophomore Austin Ortega and his eight game-winning goals — is playing as well as any team in the nation. A big question mark after last Friday’s game (despite the win) was whether sophomore goaltender Kirk Thompson could fill in well for injured starter Ryan Massa. Thompson was pulled on Friday, and UNO won 5-4. Still, the sophomore rebounded the next night, stopping all 39 Denver shots to earn a 1-0 shutout win. Prediction: CC wins Friday, UNO wins Saturday.

Minnesota Duluth (13-7-0, 8-4-0 NCHC) hosts Western Michigan (9-9-2, 2-6-2-2 NCHC): In last year’s NCHC quarterfinal round, Western Michigan headed to AMSOIL Arena in Duluth and swept the Bulldogs out of the playoffs. This is the Broncos’ first trip to Duluth since that meeting and come into the weekend with momentum after sweeping Notre Dame last year. The Broncos are playing more consistently in front of goaltender Lukas Hafner, who will have to deal with a versatile UMD offense this weekend — led by leading goal-scorer Dominic Toninato. These are arguably the two most physical teams in the league — the makings of an entertaining series this weekend. Prediction: UMD sweeps.

And in non-conference action:

North Dakota (14-5-2, 7-4-1 NCHC) hosts Niagara (3-15-2, 3-11-1 AHA): Niagara heads to Grand Forks winless in its last eight games and will be without junior defenseman Matt Dineen, who was suspended for a checking from behind major penalty during the Purple Eagles’ game against Air Force last Friday. Still, Niagara will try to take advantage of a strange trend for North Dakota, a team that’s started weekends slowly of late, winning just one of its last six Friday night games. Niagara had a third period lead in both games against Air Force last weekend and will look to have more complete efforts this weekend. North Dakota, meanwhile, finished last weekend strong, rebounding from a Friday night loss to UMD to come back with a 5-2 win on Saturday. Senior Brendan O’Donnell led the way with his first career hat trick. O’Donnell now has eight goals this season after scoring just nine combined over his sophomore and junior seasons — reflecting North Dakota’s versatile offense, where seemingly someone new each weekend keys UND’s wins. This is the first meeting between North Dakota and Niagara since UND topped the Purple Eagles 2-1 in the first round of the 2013 NCAA tournament. Prediction: North Dakota sweeps.

Three Things I Think: NCHC, Jan. 14

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

Lindgren set the tone for the Huskies’ sweep

Considering the season trajectories of Miami and St. Cloud State heading into last weekend’s series (Miami had won 9 of 12 heading in; SCSU had won just 4 of 13), it was hard to imagine that St. Cloud would become the only team this year to score 3 goals against the RedHawks in back-to-back games. Sure, there were plenty of highlights for the Huskies — among them, Joe Rehkamp making the most of a new opportunity to play on the top line with Jimmy Murray and Jonny Brodzinski, and a strong weekend performance from David Morley. On Friday night, Morley’s 5-on-3 goal kicked things off for St. Cloud, and on Saturday night, his exceptional pass from behind the net set up Patrick Russell for a power play goal in the closing stages of the first period.

But almost lost in all of that may have been St. Cloud goaltender Charlie Lindgren’s performance in the first period of Friday night’s game, when Miami players accounted for 10 of the game’s first 12 shots. The RedHawks ultimately outshot the Huskies 17-8 for the period — a common trend for a team ranked in the top 5 nationally in shots on goal per game. Miami’s 17 shots was its most in a period since putting up 24 in the second period of a Nov. 8 game vs Colorado College. Lindgren was able to stop all 17, and his dozen or so saves in the first 10 minutes of the game clearly propelled his teammates to a successful Friday night. After a busy evening for the Lakeville, Minn., native, it was backup netminder Rasmus Reijola who earned his first win of the season on Saturday night as St. Cloud completed its first weekend sweep so far this season.

Not McKay’s year?

Last season, in obviously a ‘down’ year for both goaltenders, Ryan McKay seemed to outplay classmate Jay Williams down the stretch, starting all of Miami’s postseason games and turning in a memorable NCHC semifinal performance, a 32-save shutout, to lead the RedHawks to an improbable tournament title game (ultimately losing to Denver). McKay, who had a strong freshman season before that, has plenty of talent, and (as usual) having two No. 1 caliber goaltenders is a good problem that Enrico Blasi has enjoyed, for the most part, over their careers. But for whatever reason, McKay hasn’t found the same results this year that his counterpart Jay Williams has. McKay has just one win in six appearances, while Williams (tied for the NCAA lead with four shutouts this season) is fourth nationally in win percentage (.812) with a 13-3-0 record. McKay got the start on Friday against St. Cloud, a  3-1 loss, before Williams (who had a shutout streak of over 120 minutes heading into the game) started Miami’s 3-2 defeat on Saturday. McKay has started two consecutive Friday night games now, having won at Rensselaer the previous week.

We’ll see if Blasi sticks with the rotation or rides the hot hand in Williams for the rest of the winter. If indeed Blasi does continue to play McKay, the clear fact is that RedHawks defense will have to limit opponent shot opportunities more than they have thus far this year. A curious stat, noted in the league’s release this week, is that McKay has been in goal for each of the four instances this season when Miami has allowed 30 or more shots in a game. The RedHawks are 0-4 in those games. And the difference isn’t entirely rebounds, either, as McKay has been strong in that area.

No love lost

In a pair of games in Duluth last season, UMD and North Dakota combined for 88 penalty minutes, so by comparison, Friday night’s 4-1 win for the Bulldogs, with just 12 combined penalty minutes, seemed tame. The two former WCHA foes, now in a real battle for both league and national positioning, more than made up for it on Saturday though. After all the goals were scored in North Dakota’s 5-2 come-from-behind win, paced by Brendan O’Donnell’s hat trick, the final 10 minutes included five different mini-brawls that produced 52 combined penalty minutes. And really, it could have been much more, with officials Derek Shepherd and Todd Anderson opting for a slew of roughing and slashing calls instead of game misconducts (or, if they had interpreted some of the action in those scrums as punches, major penalties and game disqualifications). The takeway point, though, from all that action, is that each team knows that the other is a legitimate challenge standing in the way of accomplishing a series of attainable goals — on one side, a North Dakota squad that seems intently (and intensely) focused on returning to the Frozen Four to complete last year’s unfinished business, and on the other a Minnesota Duluth team that has been rolling since the beginning of November, led in terms of leadership by a senior class that came to Duluth as freshmen just a few months after the Bulldogs won a national title. There are no more scheduled game between UMD and UND this season, but a postseason meeting is certainly possible. Still, after the dust settled last weekend, both teams found themselves looking up at Nebraska-Omaha, sitting in first place in the NCHC heading into this weekend.

Coming soon: Check CHN before the weekend’s games. We’ll have features in the next few days on what lies ahead for Colorado College, and on Omaha’s Austin Ortega, who leads the country with eight game-winning goals.

NCHC Weekend Preview: Jan. 9-10

Friday, January 9th, 2015

As the second half of the season begins in earnest tonight, all NCHC teams with the exception of Colorado College (coming off a mid-week win at Connecticut) kick off big weekend series that have the usual broad implications (for national rankings, conference standings, and so forth) but also plenty of short-term meaning as well. Here’s a look at each series:

North Dakota (13-4-2, 6-3-1 NCHC) hosts Minnesota-Duluth (12-6-0, 7-3-0 NCHC): North Dakota, fresh off its strongest first-half in coach Dave Hakstol’s 11-year tenure, has won just one of its last five Friday night games heading into this weekend’s matchup against a Bulldogs squad that’s quietly played as well, in stretches, as any team in the nation so far this season. Certainly, traveling to Grand Forks to play a UND team that’s been strong at home likely won’t bother UMD very much, as the Bulldogs played the toughest schedule in the country through December, having already completed series against Minnesota, Michigan Tech, Miami, and Denver. UND’s balanced offense — though led by a line featuring the league’s leading scorer Drake Caggiula, paired with seniors Michael Parks and Mark MacMillan — will look to overwhelm UMD’s freshman goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo. Of course, that hasn’t been an easy task for opponents this season at all, as the freshman netminder has only one road loss all season. An experienced defensive pairing of Andy Welinski and Derik Johnson have played well against top opponent lines all season. On the other end, North Dakota goaltender Zane McIntyre has allowed two goals or less in six of his last seven appearances. Saturday night’s game is televised nationally on CBC Sports Network. Prediction: UMD wins Friday, UND wins Saturday.

St. Cloud State (7-10-1, 2-5-1 NCHC) hosts Miami (14-6-0, 7-3-0 NCHC): Unlike the UND/UMD matchup, this series features two teams that have played meaningful games much more recently — Miami is coming off a weekend sweep of RPI while St. Cloud split with Quinnipiac. The Huskies have surprisingly struggled to develop momentum through the first half, plagued by scoring difficulties and inconsistent goaltending. Meanwhile, Miami is rolling behind an offense that has consistently outshot its opponents, a trio of centers that are arguably the NCHC’s best faceoff men, and goaltender Jay Williams, who enters the weekend with a shutout streak of 121:59. For St. Cloud, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Huskies will have to rely on more than just the big names of its junior class —  players like forwards Jimmy Murray, Jonny Brodzinski and David Morley — to build success in the second half of the season. Freshman Judd Peterson scored the game-winner last Friday against Quinnipiac and will be among those who need a strong January. Prediction: Miami sweeps.

Nebraska-Omaha (12-5-3, 6-3-1-1 NCHC) hosts Denver (11-5-1, 4-3-0 NCHC): Plenty of young talent will be on display in Omaha in this weekend, between a pair of teams that have the capability to make a run for the league’s regular season title. You may have heard that there’s a freshman at BU named Jack Eichel who leads the nation in points per game. The second highest freshman scorer in Division I hockey is DU rookie forward Danton Heinen, who tallied five points against Dartmouth and Brown last weekend alone. Beyond Heinen, it’s difficult to understate how valuable the goaltending for DU has been this season. The storyline, of course, had been the departure of Sam Brittain, but the duo of sophomore Evan Cowley and freshman Tanner Jaillet have been exceptional thus far. Cowley’s save percentage (.935) is among the best in the country. UNO has no shortage of impressive young players as well — led this year by sophomores Austin Ortega and Jake Guentzel and freshman Jake Randolph. Ortega was the NCHC Player of the Month for December, while Randolph is part of a Mavericks freshman class that has amassed 60 points this season, second best in the nation. Prediction: Denver wins Friday, UNO wins Saturday.

And in non-conference action:

A home-and-home series between Western Michigan (7-9-2, 2-6-2-2 NCHC) and Notre Dame (9-9-2, 4-2-2 HEA): The puck drops for this one in less than two hours from now. It’s a matchup between old CCHA foes and a pair of well-respected coaches in Andy Murray and Jeff Jackson. For more, check out this preview from Dave Starman, who will be part of the CBS Sports Network’s TV coverage for the game tonight. Prediction: A weekend split, with each team winning at home.

NCHC Weekend Preview: Jan. 2-4

Friday, January 2nd, 2015

This weekend includes four non-conference series involving NCHC teams, with St. Cloud State set to host Quinnipiac in a two-game set starting in less than two hours from now. Meanwhile, Denver, Miami, and Colorado College all travel east for their weekend games.

A look at the four series, as 2015’s first weekend of college hockey gets underway:

Providence (11-6-1, 6-4-0 HEA) hosts Colorado College (3-11-1, 0-8-1 NCHC): This is a Saturday-Sunday series, a rematch of a pair of games last year in Colorado Springs, when Providence left with a 2-2 tie (which the Friars earned with a late third period extra-attacker goal) and a dominant 7-2 win. Jon Gillies was in net for Providence in both of those games and likely will be this weekend as well, against a CC team that’s playing its sixth and seventh consecutive road games this weekend. The Tigers’ last official home game was their November 21 win over Wisconsin — CC’s last win overall. Scoring goals has been a challenge for CC through the first half of the season, failing to score more than two in a game for 13 of the last 14 contests. On the other side, top forwards Trevor Mingola, Nick Saracino, and Shane Luke are starting to heat up for a Providence team that’s won seven of eight and three in a row — including a pair against Massachusetts and Vermont to close out 2014. Prediction: Providence wins Friday, CC wins Saturday.

Denver (10-5-0 overall, 4-3-0 NCHC) at the Ledyard Classic (at Dartmouth, vs. Brown): Denver will be without star sophomore defenseman Will Butcher, who despite a strong tournament in Montreal, was part of Team USA’s World Junior team that was eliminated earlier today after a 3-2 quarterfinal loss to Russia. Still, Dartmouth and Brown will have to focus on containing a defensive corps that is active in all game situations. In particular, Joey LaLeggia (who leads the nation in both shots and goals per game among defensemen) and Nolan Zajac are big reasons why Denver is ranked in the top 5 in the nation in both power play and penalty killing percentage. The key, really, for all teams this weekend will be how sharp they are coming off a lengthy break — Denver last played on December 13, Dartmouth last played on December 14, and Brown hasn’t seen game action since a December 6 win over Rensselaer, just the Bears’ third win of the year. Dartmouth’s Tyler Sikura comes into tonight’s game against Denver with a five-game point streak on the line. Prediction: Denver sweeps.

Rensselaer (6-13-1, 4-5-0 ECAC) hosts Miami (12-6-0, 7-3-0 NCHC): Miami heads to the capital district of New York to play its second consecutive ECAC opponent, after the RedHawks shut out Cornell 3-0 on Monday in Florida — a steady win that snapped a two-game losing stretch. In the game against Cornell, Miami captain Austin Czarnik added two more assists to bring his total to 20 for the season. Czarnik leads the nation in assists and is the only player in the top 100 in points per game who has not scored a goal yet this season. Veteran leadership — and continued strong play from goaltender Jay Williams — will be important for Miami, who are in the midst of a 12 game stretch in which the RedHawks play nine games away from home. The key for RPI this weekend will be whether the Engineers can display a renewed commitment to defense after a six game losing streak to end 2014, in which Seth Appert’s young team gave up a combined 29 goals. Prediction: A win and tie for Miami.

St. Cloud State (6-9-1, 2-5-1 NCHC) hosts Quinnipiac (12-5-1, 8-2-0 ECAC): This is the first meeting between the Huskies and Bobcats since Quinnipiac upended St. Cloud, 4-1, in a national semifinal game at the 2013 NCAA Frozen Four. In that game, Quinnipiac took control with three goals in the first 11:19 of the game, en route to an eventual national title game loss to conference rival Yale. Certainly, getting off to a good start will be important in this series as well. This year, St. Cloud is 3-1-1 when scoring first and just 3-8-0 when conceding the game’s first goal. The Huskies have also won just once in their last five games and enter this weekend with a three-game losing streak. The challenge towards the end of 2014 was the St. Cloud struggled gaining game-to-game, and certainly weekend-to-weekend, momentum, and now have a chance to develop that with a slew of home games over the next few weeks. The stingy defense of Quinnipiac, which held Princeton to back-to-back shutouts last week, will prove challenging though. Junior goaltender Michael Garteig is playing well, and contributions from freshmen like Landon Smith have bolstered the Bobcats, who sit atop the ECAC standings. Prediction: A weekend split.


NCHC Weekend Preview, Dec. 20-21

Friday, December 19th, 2014

In the only official NCAA Division I games scheduled for this weekend, reigning CHN Team of the Week Nebraska-Omaha (10-4-2, 6-3-1-1 NCHC), winners of three straight after sweeping St. Cloud State a week ago, hosts Alabama-Huntsville (3-13-2, 2-10-0 WCHA) in a two game series. Huntsville’s done well when scoring three goals this season (3-1-1 in those game), but unfortunately for them, the Chargers haven’t done that very often, scoring two goals or less in each of their last five games, all losses. Obviously, they’re faced with a tough road task against a Mavericks team whose resurgence this year has been buoyed by senior Ryan Massa in net and a youth movement up front, with freshmen Jake Randolph, Tyler Vesel, and Avery Peterson among the top scoring rookies in the NCHC and sophomores Jake Guentzel and Austin Ortega (34 points combined) both in the top 30 in scoring nationally.

Since Omaha has the busiest December schedule of any team in the country (eight games when many teams have only two), I’d expect UNO coach Dean Blais to use this weekend as an opportunity to give backup goaltender Kirk Thompson, assuming he’s healthy, some time between the pipes. The sophomore played well in a win at Ohio State in early November. Ranked No. 2 in the current Pairwise, UNO can’t afford a slip-up against a team that objectively it should be able to sweep. I wouldn’t expect a holiday letdown under Blais, but UNO will have to continue to focus on improving its penalty kill, which after allowing two goals on six St. Cloud power play chances last week has given up at least one PPG in five straight games.

In 141 games since the start of the 2010-11 season, UAH has won only 12 times. A sweep this weekend for UNO would give the Mavericks a dozen wins this season already. Prediction: UNO sweeps.

Three Things I Think: NCHC, Dec. 16

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

We’re heading to a quiet stretch in the schedule, following a weekend where CHN Team of the Week Nebraska-Omaha made a big statement with its sweep of St. Cloud State. Western Michigan also performed well, taking an overtime win and a shootout win over a desperate Colorado College team still looking for its first NCHC win of the season.

Instead of looking at UNO’s or WMU’s reasons for success, here’s a closer look at three teams who suffered defeat this past Saturday night.

Kaskisuo pulled

Sure, the Finnish freshman didn’t have the best start on Saturday evening against Michigan Tech, allowing two goals on four shots in the first five minutes of the contest, especially as the second goal came as the result of a weak rebound that followed a mis-play by the netminder. Still, it may have surprised some that UMD coach Scott Sandelin pulled his star goaltender, who had been awarded multiple weekly and national accolades throughout his 14 consecutive starts from the upstart Bulldogs. Kaskisuo was pulled in favor of junior Matt McNeely, who earned a shutout win over Notre Dame at the start of the season. McNeely played regularly as a freshman and only sporadically as a sophomore before giving way to Kaskisuo this year. It was a great decision by Sandelin on Saturday to switch to McNeely for many reasons — above all, it prevents Kaskisuo from being too comfortable as the designated No. 1 starter, reinforcing the need to be sharp at all times and to avoid the sometimes natural letdown the night after a big road win (UMD, of course, beat Michigan Tech a night earlier). McNeely is also a veteran who was able to weather the storm until the Bulldogs tied the game in the third period. Michigan Tech did win late, on Mike Neville’s game winner — his first goal of the season — with less than 20 seconds to play, but the decision to pull Kaskisuo, to wake up a sluggish team on the road, is the type of calculated decision that could pay dividends later in the season.

St. Cloud’s struggles

The memory of St. Cloud’s (6-9-1 overall, 2-5-1 NCHC) back to back wins over Union and Minnesota seems a lot more distant than the reality that those wins came less than two months ago. Now, the Huskies have lost three straight, and four of five, coming off a sweep in Omaha. Yes, the offense has been surprisingly (given the talent) erratic, but more concerning has been the defensive play of St. Cloud’s top lines. On Saturday, like Friday, St. Cloud led heading into the second period and again gave up the lead en route to a 5-3 loss. Saturday was an up-and-down night for the Huskies’ line of Jimmy Murray, David Morley, and Patrick Russell, a line that’s second in scoring on the team and that tied the game on Saturday at 3-3 in the third period. However, the trio was on the ice for four of Omaha’s five goals, in many cases missing defensive opportunities to limit goal-scoring opportunities. Many of St. Cloud’s forwards — particularly their top six — are exceedingly talented. This year, for whatever reason, they’ve given up a ton of goals. Leading scorer Jonny Brodzinski, for instance, has 3 even-strength goals but is a minus-7. Brodzinski also has seven power play goals, and indeed the Huskies have played well in man-advantage situations. The key to turning things around seems to be a need to improve their defensive effort and efficiency in front of goaltender Charlie Lindgren.

DU line change

Friday, Denver earned one of its biggest wins of the season, a 4-1 win over North Dakota in a game where, simply, the Pioneers showed just a bit more poise than UND in what was a physical series all weekend. UND returned that favor on Saturday, then used a couple of creative stretch plays to defeat Denver 3-1 and split the weekend series. Friday, three of Denver’s four goals came from defensemen, and coach Jim Montgomery changed up his top two lines for Saturday, switching Danton Heinen and Ty Loney’s spots on the right wing and thus breaking up the top line of Heinen/Daniel Doremus/Trevor Moore — the top three scorers this season for the Pioneers. Certainly, it seemed like a brilliant move by Montgomery, a surprise change that could give the North Dakota coaching staff more to think about with its defensive pairings and matchups on the road. But neither line produced a point on Saturday, in part because of a more physical and defense-oriented game overall. Also, it was the new Heinen line (paired with Quentin Shore and Zac Larraza) that got caught in a bad second period line change, allowing a quick transition play for North Dakota that culminated in Nick Schmaltz converting a 2-on-1 rush. So, the move may not have worked quite as planned, but it was a bold decision by Montgomery, as we rarely see major lineup changes the night following a big win. Perhaps Montgomery realizes that some periodic changes may help prevent the offense from becoming too stagnant, a problem that the Pioneers have had in the past (though not this year). DU continues to have the luxury of offensive-minded defensemen who can provide goals even when the forwards struggle; four of Denver’s 5 goals this weekend came from the blueline.

Coming soon: On Friday, we’ll preview the only NCHC games (and in fact, the only NCAA Division I games, period) of the upcoming weekend, when Nebraska-Omaha hosts Alabama-Huntsville for a two-game nonconference series.