Three Things I Think: NCHC, Jan. 5Posted by: Avash Kalra
There are a couple more weeks of sporadic non-conference action, including this weekend’s home-and-home between Western Michigan and Notre Dame, but of course, the primary focus for NCHC teams now is on conference play and on preparing for a postseason that, last year, saw the league’s No. 6 and No. 8 seeds play for the tournament title.
Miami at the faceoff dot
There are plenty of storylines to highlight when it comes to Miami’s success over the first half of the season, which the RedHawks continued with a sweep of Rensselaer over the weekend. There is, of course, the statistical anomaly of seeing Austin Czarnik atop Miami’s list of point-scorers despite having scored just one goal, and there’s Jay Williams, who has quietly become one of the top goaltenders in the league, coming off back-to-back shutouts of Cornell and RPI. Another storyline, though, that hasn’t received as much attention has been Miami’s strong faceoff play. Simply put, at the faceoff dot, the RedHawk centers have been downright dominant. Blake Coleman (166-78), Sean Kuraly (224-146), and Justin Greenberg (67-48) are the only NCHC players who have faceoff winning percentages over .580 this season, with Coleman’s .680 faceoff winning percentage the best among all NCHC players. Those faceoff wins have led to timely defensive zone clears, increased offensive zone pressure, and puck possession that’s given Miami the edge in several close games this year. The RedHawks have 14 wins as they head to St. Cloud State this weekend, where a 15th win will already match last season’s win total.
UNO block party
Joining Miami in the top 6 in the current Pairwise is Nebraska-Omaha. The Mavericks had a six-game winning streak snapped on New Year’s Eve with a 6-2 loss to New Hampshire (after UNO had beaten the Wildcats in overtime the night before). Senior goaltender Ryan Massa, who missed the series due to the flu, has helped steady a UNO defense that was suspect at times last season, and the defenders in front of him have clearly played harder as well. That’s evident by looking at Omaha’s shot-blocking prowess. The Mavericks defense has arguably the most prolific shot-blocking crew in the league, led by senior Brian O’ Rourke’s 2.47 blocks per game, best among any NCHC player . O’Rourke, along with junior Brian Cooper, and freshman Joel Messner, have combined for 120 blocked shots this season so far — the most for any trio of defensemen in the NCHC.
Hafner takes over
On November 14, Western Michigan senior goaltender Frank Slubowski was pulled in an eventual loss to St. Cloud State and was replaced by junior Lukas Hafner. Slubowski, a talented goaltender who goes by “Frank the Tank” as one of his nicknames, is well-liked and respected by his teammates, but it’s been Hafner who has taken control of the Broncos’ goaltending position this year. The Broncos are in need of a strong January, and Hafner’s play has put WMU in a good position. The Toledo, Ohio, native is 4-1-1 in his last six games, allowing two goals or less in all of them. Moreover, Hafner is in fact the only NCHC goaltender who’s allowed two or less in the last six games overall.
Coming soon: On Friday, we’ll preview all the weekend’s NCHC action.