All eight NCHC teams are in action this weekend, and aside from Miami’s exhibition tonight against the U.S. Under-18 team, all the games — finally — count. Western Michigan is already off to a good start this week, with a 3-1 mid-week win over Bowling Green. The Broncos’ Colt Conrad already has three goals this season.
In case you missed it, some relevant NCHC items on the site from the past two weeks:
- My full NCHC preview, i.e. an overview of the strengths/weaknesses/outlook of each of the league’s teams.
- NCHC Watch List: A look at 5 storylines to watch this season, as well as 5 players to watch (beyond just the names you’ve seen garner preseason honors on the all-conference team)
- Above and Beyond: A feature on Denver, after I spoke to head coach Jim Montgomery and sophomore star Henrik Borgstrom about whether it’s really possible to be as motivated to repeat as champions as they were last year to win their first title
- Quiet on the Western Front: A feature on North Dakota, with comments from Shane Gersich about his outlook for the season.
- Denver Seems Destined to Repeat: A column by my colleague Joe Meloni about the favorites to win the title this season.
3 Things to Watch this weekend:
- St. Cloud’s season opener
In the NCHC preview above, I talked about St. Cloud as the team in the league most likely to challenge Denver this season. And that’s in large part because players who scored 100 of the team’s 105 goals last season return this year.
“I think the guys are ready,” said the Huskies’ Judd Peterson at the NCHC Media Day last month. “I know we have goal-scorers, and we just need to find a way this year.
“It’s exciting to be in a leadership role and to kind of show the young guys how it’s done. It’s going to be a fun year, and it’s going to be exciting to see where we go. We have a lot of depth in our lineup this year, so I’m excited.”
Still, I anticipate that the defense will make or break the Huskies this season, so players to watch in that regard are junior Will Borgen (a fourth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2015), sophomore Jack Ahcan (21 points as a rookie last year), and junior Jimmy Schuldt (the Huskies’ captain).
It helps, too, to have a head coach in Bob Motzko who has led a team to the Frozen Four recently and won a gold medal last season as head coach for the World Junior team — a position he will renew this winter.
This is Motzko’s 13th year as head coach of the Huskies. St. Cloud takes on Alaska (WCHA) in a two-game nonconference series starting tonight.
“I never want to sound like an old guy, but I truly enjoy the building of the team and the process that we go through,” said Motzko ahead of the season. “Individual wins are awesome moments, but then when that moment’s over, and you go back over, and it’s — you know, when you recruit a Nic Dowd out of Huntsville, Alabama, and he becomes an All-American and now he’s playing in the National Hockey League. To be a part of that whole process… It’s not cliche. Those are the things you enjoy the most, watching the development of young men.”
2. Denver/Notre Dame rematch
Denver pummeled Notre Dame, 6-1, in the national semifinals last year en route to the national title. The result was somewhat unexpected given the close regular season meetings recently, but regardless, the anticipated rematch begins tonight. Both games will air on NBC Sports Network.
For Denver, Montgomery confirmed that he will start the season with the same top line with which he ended last season — Dylan Gambrell centering Jarod Lukosevicius and Troy Terry. On his second line, Henrik Borgstrom will be paired with classmate Liam Finlay and rookie Ryan Barrow.
During the offseason, Terry (Anaheim Ducks), Gambrell (San Jose Sharks), and Borgstrom (Florida Panthers) all turned down offers to sign with the NHL teams that drafted them.
Said Montgomery, “I give them credit. They wanted to come back because they felt like there was something they wanted to add here at Denver still. But also, more importantly, and I always tell them this, they have to be selfish in their decisions, and they have to do what’s best for them. And they felt that the best thing for them was to come back to the University of Denver, get closer to a degree, and be able to walk into the NHL instead of having to earn your way through the minors.”
It’s an interesting comment from Montgomery — and hard to argue with. The sample size is small, but just look at what reigning Hobey winner Will Butcher, who stayed all four years at Denver, has done in his first week at the NHL level with the New Jersey Devils (3 assists in his season debut, against the team that originally drafted him, the Colorado Avalanche).
Tonight will also be the first official action for an incoming Denver freshman class considered one of the top recruiting groups in the nation. That includes Chicago Blackhawks prospect Ian Mitchell on the blueline, as well as a pair of talented but undrafted forwards, Jake Durflinger and Kohen Olischefski.
“I’m surprised that a couple of our freshmen didn’t get drafted this year,” said Montgomery, who singled out 6-foot-4 defenseman Griffen Mendel — who wears Butcher’s old No. 4 jersey — as a player he expects to be drafted in next summer’s NHL Entry Draft. “But we don’t concern ourselves with whether our players are drafted or not. We’re concerned with them being prominent college hockey players, that they fit our culture and the way we play.”
In last week’s season opening weekend, Minnesota-Duluth earned a thrilling 4-3 overtime win over in-state rival Minnesota before falling, 4-3, to Michigan Tech in the final of the annual IceBreaker tournament. UMD’s goaltenders — Nick Sheery and Hunter Shepard, taking over for Hunter Miska, who opted not to return for his sophomore season — allowed seven goals on just 38 shots.
Last season, the Bulldogs — en route to the national title game — had the eighth best statistical defensive unit in the nation, allowing 2.26 goals per game.
Watch for renewed focus in the defensive zone this weekend as UMD takes on Bemidji State in a home-and-home series. These are the season opening games for the Beavers.