In place of traditional weekend previews, check this space on the CHN blog each Saturday for developing mid-weekend NCHC storylines and observations from Friday night games.
The first night of the NCHC playoffs is in the books, and the home team emerged victorious in each of the quarterfinals: North Dakota (7-1 over Colorado College), St. Cloud State (4-3 over Western Michigan in OT), Denver (5-2 over Nebraska-Omaha), and Minnesota-Duluth (a come-from-behind 5-4 win over Miami). Game 2 of each series begins in a few hours, with the season on the line for all four road teams.
1. Montgomery and Blais post-game
Denver jumped out to a 3-0 lead with three early second period goals in a span of 2:22, but UNO controlled play for most of the final 30 minutes of the game, cutting the lead to 3-2 before a Danton Heinen shorthanded goal ended the Mavericks’ comeback bid.
On the goal that effectively put the game away, Heinen raced down the left wing and fired a shot over junior Kirk Thompson’s shoulder.
“‘Thank God he’s on our team,'” said DU coach Jim Montgomery. “That’s what I said when he let that shot go.”
Indeed, the 5-2 game one win was relief for Montgomery and the Pioneers, who despite the win (their 10th straight), were not content whatsoever with a lethargic performance.
Continued Montgomery, “I thought UNO was the better team. I thought we played a little nervous in the first. As the game wore on, we continued to make a lot of mental mistakes. We weren’t playing with good place. I thought our team was a little lethargic.
“We iced pucks on breakouts when guys were open. I couldn’t hear our team talking on the ice, and when we’re not communicating, you’re going to have icings and you’re going to have three-on-twos, and two-on-ones, and guys don’t know it.”
The Mavericks, meanwhile, have now lost seven straight and 11 of their last 14. But Dean Blais was encouraged by the performance of his team.
“We haven’t quit all year. We’ve lost five straight to Denver, and really, I thought our team played hard tonight, and that’s all I can ask for.”
2. Belpedio: the good and the bad
For a while, it looked like Miami would be the one road team in the league to leave Friday night with a win, but a 4-2 RedHawk lead in the third period turned dramatically into a 5-4 UMD win.
Miami sophomore defenseman Louie Belpedio scored to put Miami ahead 4-2, showing how dangerous he can be on the power play. But the third period didn’t go as well for the Skokie, Ill., native. On UMD’s goal that cut the lead to 4-3, Bulldog freshman Adam Johnson faked out Belpedio on a rush through the neutral zone, turning Belpedio around to create some space for his shot that sailed over Miami goaltender Jay Williams. Just over a minute later, on Carson Soucy’s game-winner, Belpedio struggled to locate the puck on an Austin Farley rush into the offensive zone, and Soucy collected the loose puck to score.
Belpedio made national headlines for his valiant diving save of a Providence empty-net goal bid in the NCAA tournament last year, and if Miami is to have a shot at returning to the tourney, the RedHawks must win in Duluth tonight. Miami is winless in five meetings against UMD this season.
3. The bounces
UND’s 7-1 win over CC, considering it was a one-goal game with four minutes to play in the second period, doesn’t necessarily reflect the Tigers’ effort for the first 40 minutes, prior to UND taking control of the game with superior special teams play. In the first period, Drake Caggiula impressively remained onside while trying to collect the puck out of his own skates at the blueline, setting up Nick Schmaltz for the eventual game-winner. The goal came with 22 seconds left in the first — an unfortunate bounce for CC that created a lead too large for its struggling offense to overcome. Caggiula, meanwhile, continues to create magical plays, and has exceeded the 40 point mark for the first time in his illustrious four year career in Grand Forks.
Elsewhere, St. Cloud created an opportunity for its own bounces, in overtime against the Broncos. The Huskies appeared to be a different team in the OT period, outworking Western Michigan and creating a goal thanks to freshman Patrick Newell’s heads-up play in OT. Newell recognized the need for traffic in front of goaltender Lukas Hafner and then managed to bat the puck out of the air (seemingly twice) to score the sudden-death game-winner. It was Newell’s first goal since January 22, a fitting big-time moment for a St. Cloud team that has relied on its upperclassmen all season — and a sign, perhaps, that something special is coming for Bob Motzko’s team.