Sunday will see outdoor college hockey move from the River City to the Windy City as Chicago takes the baton and hosts the OfficeMax Hockey City Classic at Soldier Field, home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears.
Just as Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota took part in the Mutual of Omaha Battles on Ice last weekend, two more WCHA teams will take part in this week’s outdoor spectacle. Minnesota and Wisconsin will face off at 3:30 p.m. CST following a CCHA matchup between Notre Dame and Miami on the Soldier Field ice earlier in the afternoon.
The hope is that Chicago will be able to avoid the issues that hampered Omaha’s outdoor event last weekend. Unseasonably warm temperatures begat poor ice conditions that in turn begat a 150-minute delay between the day’s first game (between the Omaha Lancers and Lincoln Stars from the USHL) and the UNO-UND tilt.
Warm weather wasn’t the only thing that went wrong at Omaha’s outdoor hockey event on Saturday. The first intermission grew by 10 minutes when an ice worker drilling into the surface to insert the goal frame moorings hit the pipes underneath the ice, spilling green coolant onto the surface. Shovels and a wet-dry vacuum were brought out to clear the mess.
Chicago’s forecast for Sunday is subject to change between now and then, of course, but Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves told reporters at his weekly news conference on Monday that he and a member of his backroom staff will stay on top of the situation.
“It’s always a factor in this,” Eaves said of the weather’s role in outdoor games. “But we’re going to control what we can. I know Omaha had a little bit of a glitch this weekend at their outdoor game. They had to wait and play it till later.
“[UW equipment manager] Nate LaPoint had his undergrad degree in climatology. He’s got the best app going around and we’ll know right where we stand.”
So far, the forecast for Sunday in Chicago is looking much more ideal than what the weather tossed up for last Saturday’s event in Omaha. As of Wednesday night, the National Weather Service is projecting a sunny day in the northern Illinois metropolis with a high near 34.
Spotlight series: Minnesota at Wisconsin
With all the hype looking ahead to Sunday’s outdoor game, Minnesota and Wisconsin are focusing on the games themselves. And they are big games.
No. 18 Wisconsin needs to win to keep pace with the other teams in the upper half of the WCHA standings in the race for one of the six home-ice playoff seeds.
On a national level, the Badgers are tied for 20th in the PairWise Rankings but can move closer to the top 16 with a good weekend.
The Badgers are just 4-9-3 against teams with an RPI of .5000 or higher and that’s hurting them.
For things to work in Wisconsin’s favor, the Badgers defense needs to slow down a Minnesota offense that’s balanced and deep. Wisconsin has faced few two-goal deficits this season but only once has it been able to come back and tie the score.
“We aren’t scoring a whole lot of goals this season so we have to play sound defensively to give ourselves the best chance to win,” Wisconsin defenseman Frankie Simonelli said. “The games are going to be tight and they’re going to be close. We have to stick to the system and what works for us.”
The Gophers have the ability to jump on the Badgers. No. 2 Minnesota has the best points per game average in the nation (3.75), the fourth-best goals against average at 1.93 and a nation-high 36 first-period goals.
“It’s going to be a grind of a weekend but we just have to stay focused,” Minnesota’s Mark Alt said in Wednesday’s media availability.
The Badgers are unbeaten in nine of their last 10 games at the Kohl Center and have allowed 14 goals in that stretch at home. As the series moves to Soldier Field for the second game it will be interesting to watch the adjustments teams are forced to make offensively.
Outdoor games make for substandard ice conditions that can lead to bouncing pucks and difficulty connecting on passes. That could disrupt Minnesota’s fast end-to-end game.
“It could help us if pucks are bouncing but on the other hand, we have to connect the dots, too,” Simonelli said. “We can’t win the game 0-0 so we have to find a way to fight through it. We’ll have to simplify it and just throw pucks at the net because you never know what kind of bounce it’s going to take.”
The Badgers battled to tie Minnesota 2-2 in the first game of the season series between the teams in November and had a late second-period lead before losing 3-1 with an empty netter one night later.
“Whether the game’s at the Kohl Center or at Mariucci, it’s always exciting,” Simonelli said. “They’re definitely games you remember you’ll remember.”
Belfour flourishes against old man’s alma mater
There was a palpable, unexpected buzz in the press box at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center Friday afternoon when line charts for that night’s game between Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota were released.
UNO’s chart showed that the Mavericks were set to start backup goaltender Dayn Belfour, who had been so seldom used that Friday’s game was the first action the sophomore had seen all season.
The move to sit senior netminder John Faulkner, who had started each game for UNO since highly touted freshman Anthony Stolarz left the team on Jan. 7, almost worked out. Seventh-ranked UND eked out a 2-1 win over No. 16 UNO but Belfour made 34 saves and was arguably one of the Mavericks’ best players on the night.
In UNO coaches’ eyes, his performance in his first start since Jan. 21, 2012, didn’t warrant a second consecutive start in the end. However, when Faulkner faltered on Saturday across 10th Street outdoors at TD Ameritrade Park and conceded three goals in the rematch’s first 10½ minutes, Belfour was called upon once again.
UND won again — 5-2 this time — but Belfour justified the Mavericks’ faith in him on both nights of a weekend series in which UNO faced a UND program that produced his father, legendary NHL goaltender Ed Belfour.
Dayn Belfour made 20 saves on Saturday in relief of Faulkner, who conceded three goals in the five shots he faced.
Ed Belfour wasn’t in attendance for either game — although rumors and photos of impersonators with fans made the rounds on Twitter — but Dayn did his backers proud, keeping Friday’s game close and helping to stop the bleeding again the following night.
“When Dayn Belfour got in there right away, it wasn’t that John played so bad — It’s just the way [the game] was going,” Mavericks coach Dean Blais said Saturday.
“And Dayn made a couple of good saves. That kept us in there. If [the deficit] goes to four or five, then it’s over.”
MacNaughton race narrows
The sprint for the MacNaughton Cup is starting to look more like a three-team race.
St. Cloud State has a firm grip on the lead (31 points) with three points separating the Huskies from North Dakota (28). Minnesota is five points behind (26) but has eight more games to play compared to six for St. Cloud State and North Dakota.
For any other team to finish on top, too much would need to happen. This is SCSU’s race to lose, as it controls its own fate.
Following a bye this weekend, the Huskies go to Colorado College where at least one game is likely to be a shootout. The Huskies must avoid a letdown on the road against an improving CC team.
The Huskies can really gain separation with a home series against 10th-place Michigan Tech and they finish the season at Wisconsin.
With more games at hand and a slightly more favorable schedule, Minnesota probably has a better chance to catch SCSU than UND does.
Minnesota and UND both play No. 11 Denver but the Gophers get the Pioneers at home while UND faces Denver on the road. The crowd at Magness Arena is usually near bipartisan in this series but UND still has to travel.
Michigan Tech slaps Northern Michigan
Mel Pearson was in a lot happier mood after Michigan Tech’s 8-2 win against Upper Peninsula nonconference rival Northern Michigan.
NMU beat the Huskies 2-1 on Dec. 4 in another Tuesday night game. Pearson voiced his frustration regarding a disallowed Tech goal after that game, criticizing the CCHA officials in a radio interview.
Tanner Kero, whose goal was the one disallowed in the earlier loss to NMU, scored two goals with two assists Tuesday. Blake Pietila scored once with three assists.
• UND spread the wealth during its sweep at UNO last weekend, with no one player scoring multiple goals in either game. Five different UND players scored in the 5-2 win outdoors on Saturday, and senior forward Danny Kristo had a goal in each game to help propel the visitors.
• The University of Wisconsin will consider the athletic department’s budget request of $133 million for 2013-14 on Friday. There’s bad news for Badgers hockey, though, in that the proposed budget projects a decrease of $470,000 in men’s hockey ticket revenue. The Badgers’ average attendance at Kohl Center so far this season is 10,052, down from 11,773 last season.
• St. Cloud State’s Jonny Brodzinski leads the nation in plus-minus at plus-13 with 13 goals.
• No center in the country has more faceoff wins than UND’s Corban Knight, who has 405.
• Matt Leitner has a nation-high 14 points on the power play for Minnesota State and also leads the nation in power-play points with 17.
USCHO covers the WCHA all week long on the WCHA Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.