NCHC Weekend Preview, Dec. 5-6Posted by: Avash Kalra
Six of eight NCHC teams are in action this weekend, with Nebraska-Omaha and Colorado College both facing noteworthy tests as they travel to Oxford, Ohio, and Duluth, Minn., respectively — in both cases, trying to avoid extending slumps against a pair of teams (Miami and Minnesota-Duluth) that had great Novembers.
Miami (10-4-0 overall, 6-2-0 NCHC) hosts Nebraska-Omaha (7-3-2 overall, 3-2-1-1 NCHC)
Arguably no goaltender in the country had as satisfying a November as Miami junior netminder Jay Williams, who was undefeated (5-0-0) while starting all of Miami’s wins in the month (classmate Ryan McKay, meanwhile, started the RedHawks’ two November losses). Williams won only five games total, in 16 appearances, in a forgettable 2013-14 season, and the strong goaltending has been one of the many reasons for Miami’s success so far this season. The RedHawks have had two weeks off since a weekend sweep of Western Michigan and welcome a UNO team that, despite playing well a week ago, left Grand Forks, N.D., with a tie and loss against front-running North Dakota. Uncharacteristically, UNO’s top line of Dominic Zombo, Jake Guentzel, and Austin Ortega was held scoreless last week — an anomaly for the trio that’s combined for 30 points this season already. Clearly, stopping that line has been the key to success against UNO, and although that’s far from an easy task, one wonders if coach Dean Blais has considered splitting the three up, much like Miami coach Enrico Blasi has done in the past with star forwards Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber. Prediction: A weekend split.
Minnesota-Duluth (9-5-0 overall, 5-3-0 NCHC) hosts Colorado College (3-8-0 overall, 0-5-0 NCHC)
Much like Miami, UMD enjoyed a bye week over Thanksgiving, while CC beat Wisconsin last week prior to a loss to local rival Air Force. The Tigers, perhaps not surprisingly for a young team, haven’t won a road game (0-6-0) so far this year and will certainly be tested this weekend against a deep Bulldogs team built from the goal out. Freshman goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo was named the Hockey Commissioners’ Association (HCA) National Rookie of the Month after leading UMD to six wins in a tough November schedule that included a home-and-home sweep of Minnesota and a road sweep at St. Cloud State. The Finnish goalie had a .933 save percentage for the month and will be another tough test for CC this weekend. Kasiksuo has handled his work load well this year so far. We’ll see if he can maintain his level of play this weekend. After next week’s trip to WCHA-leading Michigan Tech, the Bulldogs will have almost a month before their next NCHC series (at North Dakota). CC, meanwhile, will look for the same form it showed against Wisconsin, in a 5-2 win, last Friday. The Tigers have had a tendency to give up quick goals in succession this year. It happened multiple times against Denver in a 8-1 loss in mid-November, and it happened against at Air Force last week when two goals in about 30 seconds late in the first period gave the Falcons a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Against Wisconsin, though, when the Badgers scored in the second period to cut the CC lead to 2-1, the Tigers actually played even better for the rest of the period — perhaps a sign that things may be changing for the better, albeit slowly. Prediction: Minnesota-Duluth sweeps
And in non-conference action this weekend:
North Dakota (10-3-2 overall, 5-2-1 NCHC) hosts Lake Superior (3-13-0 overall, 3-9-0 WCHA): National Player of the Month Drake Caggiula (13 points in nine November games) leads UND into the program’s first meeting against Lake Superior since December 1973. The Lakers have won just one of their last five games and were outscored 10-0 in a two-game series against Minnesota State last week. Eight times this year, Lake State has scored 0 or 1 goals and will likely struggle against a proven North Dakota defense. Prediction: North Dakota sweeps.
Cornell (4-4-1 overall, 3-3-0 ECAC) hosts Denver (8-3-0 overall, 3-2-0 NCHC): The last time Denver and Cornell — two programs that split four national titles from 1967 to 1970 — faced off, the series (a sweep in Denver by the Pioneers) was punctuated by a controversial game disqualification penalty on Big Red forward and now-senior John McCarron, an incident that resulted in a one-game suspension for coach Mike Schafer after he criticized the officiating and called for neutral officials for all nonconference games. It’s been almost two years since that incident, and of course a change in coaching staff for Denver as well. Cornell has won three in a row, including a 3-1 win over Penn State at Madison Square Garden last weekend. The Big Red has needed timely offense to overcome early season scoring woes and will be tested again this weekend against Evan Cowley and a Pioneers defense that not only plays well in its own zone but that consistently contributes offensively as well. This is Denver’s first visit to Ithaca since December 1979, and the storyline to watch will be how the Big Red can respond to the Pioneers’ strong special teams play. In November, Denver went 9-for-26 (34.6 percent) on the power play, the best percentage in the nation for the month, while killing off 23 of 26 opponent power plays. Prediction: A weekend split.