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Depth helps Providence claim a key road sweep

Brian Pinho’s development has been key for Providence, coach Nate Leaman says (photo: Melissa Wade).

Teams that can sweep a weekend series this time of year tend to make significant moves in the Hockey East standings.

For one, the three Hockey East Beanpot teams — Boston College, Boston University and Northeastern — all played single games in each of the last two weekends to avoid having to play three games in four nights when you include the tournament games.

But it seems the later we get into the season, the more difficult it becomes to take all four points from two-game series against each team.

That having been said, the two series last weekend played between the same opponents — Notre Dame at Vermont and Providence at Maine — were both swept by the visiting team, an impressive feat regardless of the records.

Neither came easy, particularly the Friars’ sweep at Maine. Friday’s series opener proved to be the tighter of the two games on the scoreboard as neither team mustered a goal in regulation.

It wasn’t until Nick Saracino potted the overtime game-winner that the Friars left Alfond Arena with the victory. A 4-2 win a night later completed the sweep, one that Friars coach Nate Leaman knew was four difficult, and valuable, points.

“We weren’t expecting an easy series at all. We mentioned that to our guys last Tuesday after we had watched Maine on tape,” said Leaman. “I was really impressed with their work ethic. I’m very happy for our team to come out of there with four points.”

The Black Bears, who entered last weekend with a respectable 5-5-3 record at home, put forth a strong enough effort that Providence couldn’t just provide two average performances. Knowing that, in hindsight, further pleased the Providence bench boss.

“Maine’s a team that was playing very, very well at home,” said Leaman. “I was really happy with our grit level. I was really happy with our ability to persevere. Maine worked extremely hard and I was really happy with our ability to match that.”

Part of the Providence success in Orono was the ability to have five different players net the five Friars goals over the weekend. That balance up and down the lineup — 17 players have scored goals, three with double-digit totals, while 11 players have double-digit point totals — has become a hallmark for Leaman’s Providence teams.

Asked about that balance, Leaman pointed to some individual players who have evolved from last season. One in particular is Brian Pinho, who scored his sixth goal of the season (matching his total from last year’s freshman campaign) in Saturday’s 4-2 victory.

Leaman said that Pinho is following the development curve that he anticipated, something that when those expectations are met can make for a successful team.

“The development of Brian Pinho has helped [our depth],” said Leaman. “Here is a guy who had to grow into a role, a top role. Our balance dictates that guys grow into their roles really well.”

With three weekends left in the regular season, the Friars are in good position in the standings to earn a first-round bye and are still in the race to win the regular season title. And while looking at the standings is inevitable for any coach or athlete, Leaman is careful to not let his players get wrapped up in the pennant race.

“There’s only one way to approach things, and that’s to focus on ourselves,” said Leaman. “It’s taking it one day at a time. If you get caught up in all the races you’re going to get distracted because you’re not going to be playing your best hockey.

“We just want to make sure you put your best foot forward and are playing your best hockey. That’s why I was excited about the Maine series. We were trying to improve and we did.”

Mathematically dissecting the home stretch

Northeastern and Boston College have the two easiest remaining schedules among Hockey East teams (photo: Melissa Wade).

If you haven’t peeked at the Hockey East standings in a while, let me remind you of something both Dave Hendrickson and I have mentioned a number of times in recent weeks: There are two distinct groupings of teams that have formed: a top five-group that will contend for the Hockey East title and the four first-round byes and a bottom seven group that will vie for the remaining three home-ice spots in the first round.

(Note: From what my basic mathematical mind can assess, it is impossible for any team currently sixth place or lower to move up the standings far enough to jump into fourth place and grab the last bye.)

Using that premise, I’ve calculated the average winning percentage of each team’s remaining opponents. Every team still has six league games remaining except Massachusetts and UMass-Lowell, which each have four.

The average winning percentage mathematically depicts how difficult each team’s remaining schedule is. Here are the results:

Team
Remaining opponents' winning pct.
Northeastern.303
Boston College.451
New Hampshire.469
Providence.470
Connecticut.490
Vermont.500
Maine.500
Merrimack.500
Notre Dame.562
Massachusetts.574
Boston University.614
UMass-Lowell.734

Northeastern’s remaining schedule is the easiest, followed by Boston College. UMass-Lowell and Boston University, which play each other in a home-and-home series this weekend, have the two most difficult remaining slates.

Wanting to find a way to use numbers to predict how the Hockey East standings will shake out, I then employed a pretty inexact formula. I took each team’s winning percentage and subtracted from it the average winning percentage of its remaining opponents. I then awarded a percentage of each team’s remaining points in direct proportion to the differential. If a team has a positive differential (i.e., that team’s winning percentage is higher than the average winning percentage of its opponents), it will receive more than half of the remaining points. If the opposite is true, a team receives less than half of the remaining points.

Based on that math, you come up with the following:

Team
Possible points
Potential points won
Boston College128
Notre Dame127
UMass-Lowell84
Providence127
Boston University126
New Hampshire125
Vermont125
Northeastern126
Connecticut125
Maine125
Merrimack125
Massachusetts83

Not surprisingly, Boston College is mathematically slated to earn the most points in the remaining three weeks, although just one point more than Notre Dame. Still, mathematically, it would break the tie with the Irish and give BC the regular season title.

Adding these points to the current standings creates the following for the final Hockey East standings.

Team
Final points
Boston College34
Notre Dame33
Providence30
UMass-Lowell28
Boston University27
Northeastern18
New Hampshire17
Vermont17
Connecticut17
Maine15
Merrimack15
Massachusetts11

Using this math, beyond BC taking first, you can see that UMass-Lowell would earn the final first-round bye by a single point over BU. More interestingly, New Hampshire, Vermont and UConn would finish tied for seventh place, requiring a three-way tie breaker to determine the final two teams to host an opening round game (a tie we can’t break right now not knowing the actual outcome of the remaining games).

I mentioned earlier that this is an inexact statistical analysis as it doesn’t verify if the points awarded are appropriately distributed based on which team plays which. But it gives us a quick look, using winning percentages to date, at how many points each team should expect to earn over the final three weekends.

Then again, this is Hockey East and hardly anything ever goes according to plan.

Niagara alum Arnold returns to campus as director of hockey operations

Former Niagara forward Scott Arnold is returning to the Purple Eagles following a three-year professional career as the team’s director of hockey operations.

“We are proud to welcome a Niagara hockey alumnus like Scott Arnold back to our program,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said in a statement. “Scott was a tremendously talented player and gifted scorer, but he also had the drive necessary to advance to the professional level. We look forward to seeing him translate those experiences into his new role working with our staff.”

Arnold played two seasons with the Purple Eagles from 2010 to 2012 before signing a two-year contract with the then-Phoenix Coyotes. In his two years with Niagara, Arnold compiled 26 goals and 40 points in 67 games.

As a pro, Arnold played for the AHL’s Portland Pirates and in the ECHL with the Gwinnett Gladiators, Toledo Walleye and Greenville Road Warriors.

“I am extremely excited to come back to Niagara and work with this team,” Arnold added. “This was a great program to play for at the collegiate level, and I am looking forward to the chance to develop the current Purple Eagles.”

The 26-year-old Arnold is also returning to the classroom to complete his Bachelor of Science degree in sport management.

With most injuries healed, Northern Michigan prepares for a run at playoff home ice

Goaltender Atte Tolvanen has been one of the biggest reasons why Northern Michigan has put itself in a position to contend for home ice in the playoffs (photo: Jim Rosvold).

The bandages have finally been lifted from Northern Michigan’s banged-up roster. With four wins in their previous eight games, the Wildcats are finally feeling healthy and seem ready for the WCHA’s stretch run.

“With us, the story of our season is our injuries,” Wildcats coach Walt Kyle said. “We’re just now starting to get the team we thought we had at the beginning of the year.”

The Wildcats’ lineup at times this season resembled a medical clinic — lots of key players out of the lineup for various ailments.

Junior goaltender Mathias Dahlstrom has played in just five games this season because of a number of injuries. Sophomore defenseman Zach Urban didn’t play until right before Christmas. Forwards Sami Salminen and Justin Rose were out from October until last weekend’s series with Alaska-Anchorage.

And so on.

But Kyle didn’t want his team to use that as an excuse, and the Wildcats didn’t. Despite the depleted lineup, the Wildcats have hung around in the WCHA standings and are in fifth place with eight games to play.

“Through the first course of the year we weren’t worried about who we didn’t have, we were worried about who was on the ice,” Kyle said. “We had to make sure that those guys took care of business, and they did a good job.”

Goaltender Atte Tolvanen is one of those players. The Finnish freshman is 6-8-6 and has a 2.30 GAA to go along with a .931 save percentage.

“Quite honestly, we thought he’d be backing Dahlstrom up from day one, but he has been phenomenal,” Kyle said. “He’s probably the reason we’re still in the hunt for home ice.”

Northern Michigan is 12-10-6 overall and 9-7-4 in the league. Up until the Anchorage series, the Wildcats hadn’t produced a weekend sweep against anyone. But against the Seawolves, they managed to win a pair of one-goal games and keep pace with Ferris State — the team ahead of them in the standings.

“For us to be a little more consistent over the past couple weeks, it’s probably due to the fact that we’re just kind of getting guys back in that we thought would be regulars in the lineup and play big roles,” Kyle said.

They’ve also gotten big contributions from senior forward Darren Nowick, who leads the team with 25 points and has a point in all but one of the last eight games, and junior forward Dominik Shine, who had four points in the Anchorage series.

Up next for the Wildcats just so happens to be Ferris State. The Bulldogs are on a seven-game unbeaten streak and are four points ahead of Northern Michigan for the fourth and final home-ice playoff spot in the standings. Ferris has 26 points to Northern Michigan’s 22. Further ahead are Michigan Tech and Bowling Green, who each have 29 points.

The Wildcats also happen to have games in hand on both Ferris and Tech and play both of them head-to-head in the season’s final month. In other words, a home playoff series for is quite attainable.

“It’s right there for us,” Kyle said. “They’re both really, really good teams and they’re ahead of us. We’re telling the guys, ‘You want it, go get it.’”

Nanooks look to regroup

After injured forward Tyler Morley, Alex Hajdukovich is Alaska’s top goal scorer (photo: Rachel Lewis).

Alaska is in ninth place in the 10-team WCHA with 14 points, two behind Lake Superior State and Alaska-Anchorage, who are tied for seventh. Sitting idle this weekend, however, the Nanooks will have to wait another week before trying to climb back into playoff position, as the WCHA’s bottom two teams do not make the conference playoffs.

The Seawolves are also idle, while the Lakers travel to Bemidji State to face a team sitting just two points up in the standings.

For Alaska, the break could be a chance to regroup. It has lost five games in a row and six of its last seven.

In two home losses last weekend to Ferris State, the Nanooks were without their leading scorer and one of the WCHA’s top point men, Tyler Morley, who was injured the previous Saturday at Wisconsin. Morley has 24 points, which is tied for fourth overall in the scoring race.

“We can talk about who’s not in our lineup but I think it’s more important who’s in our lineup,” coach Dallas Ferguson told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner after Friday’s 4-0 loss to the Bulldogs. “We need everyone who has the opportunity right now to be digging in. [Morley's] a great player, but he’s not available right now. We have 20 guys that were dressed tonight; that’s the guys we have to focus on.”

Alaska fell 2-1 in overtime the next night. The Nanooks will host Bowling Green on Feb. 19-20.

“The next two weeks will be about continuing to get sharper and sharper and mentally preparing for Bowling Green,” assistant coach Lance West said after Saturday’s game. “The one thing we can look forward to is that we can control our destiny, and I think we’re very fortunate to have that situation. We have to stay positive and focused in order to will our way into a playoff spot, and then we can see what happens from there.”

Ice chips

• Alabama-Huntsville is still in last place in the league standings — it has 11 points and is five points out of the WCHA playoff picture — but it’s not eliminated yet. All three teams the Chargers were chasing (Alaska, Alaska-Anchorage and Lake Superior State) were swept last weekend. The Chargers also have two games in hand on both Alaska schools. UAH hosts league leaders Minnesota State this weekend, and it’ll need some points if it wants to have a shot to get back into playoff position.

• Alaska-Anchorage forward Blake Tatchell leads the Seawolves with 20 points (7-13–20). He needs just one more point to become the 23rd Seawolves player ever to net 100 career points.

• Markus Gerbrandt’s goal in Bemidji State’s 2-1 win over Minnesota-Duluth on Tuesday, was the senior forward’s third game-winner of the year. He now has five points in his last three games, including four at the 2016 North Star College Cup on Jan. 30-31. Gerbrandt has 20 points on the year, with 14 assists — a career-high — and six goals.

• Bowling Green senior forward Mark Cooper has enjoyed playing Minnesota State. After scoring two goals in Saturday’s 3-1 win at Mankato to earn a series split, he has eight career goals against the Mavericks (four this season). He has 41 career goals. Cooper has six points in his last six games and leads the Falcons with 12 goals and 19 points.

• Ferris State’s sweep of Alaska last weekend was the Bulldogs’ first of the season. In all 14 weeks during the 2015-16 season, Ferris State has come away with at least two points. The only weekend without a victory was Nov. 13-14 when the Bulldogs skated to two ties with Alaska in Big Rapids.

• Of its four conference series since the start of 2016, Lake Superior State has played the top three teams in the league (Minnesota State, Michigan Tech and Bowling Green). The Lakers are 1-5 against those teams, with the lone win coming against Bowling Green on Jan. 8. The Lakers are mired in a five-game losing streak after sweeps by Tech and Minnesota and losing the second game of a series against Alaska-Anchorage on Jan. 17.

• Minnesota State’s Bryce Gervais’ two short-handed goals on the same penalty Friday night came 1:22 apart. It wasn’t the fastest such feat in WCHA history. According to the WCHA record book, the fastest two short-handed goals scored by the same player came 31 seconds apart and were scored by Colorado College’s Bruce Aikens against Minnesota in 1981. Three years earlier, Minnesota-Duluth’s John Harrington scored two shorties in a span of 40 seconds against Michigan. Harrington is now the Minnesota State women’s hockey coach. In 1990, UMD’s Doug Torell scored two 44 seconds apart against Denver.

• Michigan Tech goaltender Jamie Phillips added to his own school record for career shutouts with a 3-0 win over Lake Superior last Friday. He has two this season and nine in 81 career starts. Phillips also moved into second on Tech’s all-time wins list; he is 16-5-5 this season and 50-23-8 in his career.

• This week’s WCHA players of the week are Michigan Tech senior forward Max Vallis (offensive), Tech senior goalie Phillips (defensive) and Ferris State freshman goalie Darren Smith (rookie).

Joe Concannon Award boasts 22 ‘worthy’ semifinalists for 2016 honor

Babson goaltender Jamie Murray won the 2015 Joe Concannon Award and is a semifinalist for the honor again in 2016 (photo: Babson Athletics).

The Gridiron Club of Greater Boston president has announced the 22 semifinalists for the sixteenth Joe Concannon Award, presented annually to the best American-born college hockey player in New England at the NCAA Division II/III level.

This year’s list is made up of 12 forwards, six defensemen and four goaltenders, including last year’s winner, Jamie Murray from Babson. The candidates include seven players from the NEHC, six from the ECAC Northeast, five from the MASCAC, three from the NESCAC and one from the NE-10.

Player's Name
Position
Class
School
Connor BatesFJr.Johnson and Wales
Tyler BeasleyFSr.Nichols
Brandon BeteFSr.Assumption
Tyler BishopDJr.Massachusetts-Boston
Gordon CaesarGSr.Plymouth State
Ryan ColeFSr.Trinity
Frankie DeAugustineFSr.Massachusetts-Boston
Trevor FleurentFSr.University of New England
Brad JonesDJr.Salem State
Sean KavanaughDSr.Tufts
Alex LarsonGSr.Nichols
Matt LemireFSr.Massachusetts-Boston
Zander MasucciDSr.Williams
Cam MonizFSr.Salem State
Jamie MurrayGSr.Babson
Tyler PiacentiniFJr.Norwich
Alex PompeoDSr.Salve Regina
Justin SelepFSr.Suffolk
Mike VollminDSr.Babson
Parker WoodFFr.Endicott
Josh WoodyFSr.Plymouth State
Marcus ZelzerGJr.Salem State

“The continued expansion and growth at the D-II and III levels have made it necessary to broaden our scope of recognition,” said Gridiron Club Hockey Awards Committee chairman Tim Costello in a news release. “This list reflects the high level of play found across the region. Our committee believes that the level of play and increased number of teams merited expanding our list of candidates over those of prior years. All semifinalists are worthy. That definitely creates a challenge for the committee to pick the winner from the players nominated.”

The Gridiron Club expects to announce the finalists and winner of the award in March, prior to the start of the NCAA Division III Frozen Four, and to formally present the award during the New England Hockey Writers dinner in April.

Norwich goalie tandem of Robert, King all about healthy competition

Norwich junior goalie Céleste Robert has been outstanding this season in NEHC play (photo: Mark Collier/Norwich University).

It’s a good problem for any hockey team to have:  two No. 1-caliber goaltenders.

That’s precisely the case with Norwich junior Céleste Robert and sophomore Laurie King.

Robert has played in 14 games this season and King has seen time in 10. In NEHC games, Robert is a perfect 8-0-0, which may give her the edge down the stretch.

Still, both say the internal battles the two wage with one another on a weekly basis are nothing short of a positive for the No. 8 Cadets.

“Personally, I always compete with myself; I need to be better and better every week, every day,” said Robert. “Laurie and I have a healthy competition, I would say. Being only two goalies this year, I don’t see her much during practice, [as] we both have our end. During goalie practice is when we watch each other more and I like that. There are things that Laurie does better than I do and I try to learn from watching her. We are supportive of each other. During games, we always have each other’s backs. If there is a time out called, I always go talk to her. We talk about saves, scary plays, or goals that were scored. Off the ice we are friends. We’re in the same major, so I pass down my notes.

“We often relate hockey to engineering and others on the team think we are a little weird, but what goalie isn’t?”

King is in total agreement.

“Céleste and I are competitive on the ice, but also friendly,” said King. “People always say goalies are a different breed and we can definitely relate to each other. When one of us makes a good save, the other is usually screaming or clapping their stick on the ice. We both want the other to succeed just as much as ourselves. Off the ice, we are actually close as well. Both of us being mechanical engineering majors, we tend to talk about certain classes and relate her struggles she had to the ones I am having now. She is always helping me and giving me tips to do better.”

In the classroom, both are also finding what they need to succeed.

Last summer, Robert participated in research studies in material science at Norwich and enjoyed it. She’s looking to partake in similar research this summer. An internship in the piping industry may lead to job back home in Quebec, and, she said, “If all else fails, I could do this type of job.”

“I am not worrying about it yet,” Robert said. “Things tend to work out one way or another and great opportunities tend to come when you least expect it, so I am open to pretty much anything at this point. I’m still young and I know no matter where I go, I will have my chance to succeed if I work hard, and that’s something my parents embedded in my mind from a very young age.”

For King, a native of Waddington, N.Y., she, too, sees her career options up in the air.

“After I earn my degree, I have not decided what exact area I will go on to, but for me, that is the best part,” she said. “Mechanical engineering is such a broad field and being a woman, it provides me with so many options. This summer, both Celeste and I are hoping to participate in summer research projects where we will broaden our understanding in the field and enjoy learning and applying it.”

Each goalie also mentioned how when looking at colleges during high school, Norwich was an easy choice for them, as the hockey and academics was the perfect combination.

“Personally, I chose Norwich because I knew I wanted to play at a competitive level and be in the running every year for a national championship – I knew Norwich was a school that could do that for me,” said King. “Also, when considering the teams that could do that, I wanted a small school that would offer mathematics or engineering programs that were successful. Norwich had both my educational needs and athletic desires.”

Laurie King is just a sophomore at Norwich, but has proven herself to be a No. 1-caliber goalie in a relatively short period of time (photo: Mark Collier/Norwich University).

“I did a postgraduate year of high school because none of the schools that were interested in me had what I needed in a college,” remembered Robert. “Since fourth grade, I’ve always said that one day I would become an engineer. There was a goalie that played junior hockey in my town that would coach me sometimes – Mathieu Poitras, he was one of my heroes – and when he left, he went on to McGill University (in Montreal), played hockey there, and studied engineering. That was the moment I decided that I wanted to study engineering and play college hockey. I went to small schools growing up and to prep schools where the class sizes were always small and here at Norwich, it’s the same.

“The cherry on top is that the hockey program here is in the top of the nation, which makes Norwich perfect for me.”

Now with just four games left in the regular season, all NEHC games at home, Norwich’s goalies know the time is now to keep the momentum going. The Cadets have won six straight and eight of 10.

“I think this season has been pretty good in general,” said Robert. “We’ve had some ups and downs throughout the season and personally, there are a couple of games I wish I could go back to, a couple of goals that would have made a difference, but they were all learning points for me. Some of the big games were pretty close, most of them were one-goal games, but we just have to be more consistent and play hard and we can beat the big teams. I believe we can go far this year and accomplish our goals. Teamwork, communication and hard work are the top priorities if we want to be successful. Our first goal is to finish the season strong, and then we have to win the NEHC.

“If we win NEHC, that will light a fire under us to grind out a few more wins to get to the NCAAs.”

King called the present “the most important time of the year.”

“Now is where every rebound I give up may cost us a goal or every time I let in a goal, it could be the game-winning one for the other team,” said King. “This requires more focus and determination in both practice and every game. Working with our goalie coach, Cap Raeder, on a weekly basis helps both Celeste and I practice and learn how to make sure we are ready for whatever shot we face.

“Coming off of a couple big wins, I feel we are ready to keep this rolling into playoffs. Not to say that we are content with where we are, because we would all love to have had a couple more wins, but what I mean is we have learned from each of those losses and are ready to do whatever it takes to succeed going forward.”

Norwich is currently 15-6-0 overall and leads the NEHC with a 12-1-0 mark. Games this weekend include Friday against Southern Maine and Saturday against the University of New England.

“To make this season a success, I believe it all starts with hard work and desire,” added King. “Our team is young, but not inexperienced, and we have seen the best teams and had some struggles, but we know what it takes to be on top. Every day, we work closer and closer to reaching the best of our abilities, both mentally and physically. Throughout the season, we have shown the work ethic necessary and I have confidence in our leadership, both the upperclassmen and the younger half and coaches, that come playoff time, we will be ready.

“If we play our best every game, I will consider the season a success no matter the outcome.”

St. Thomas senior McBride wants to help team get to MIAC pinnacle

St. Thomas senior Connor McBride knows it’s now or never to win a MIAC championship (photo: Ryan Coleman/d3photography.com).

Connor McBride went into the season determined to play at the highest level possible.

That determination was fueled, in part, by the fact that he didn’t feel as if he played up to his potential a year ago.

“I felt like I had a down year last season,” McBride said. “I wanted to step up and have a really productive season. I’ve been able to do that and be a leader.”

McBride is in his final season at St. Thomas and has been instrumental to the success of the Tommies, who are in contention for another regular-season MIAC championship. The talented forward leads the team in goals (11) and points (16).

A year has definitely made a difference. He has already doubled his point total from last season when he managed only six goals and two assists.

“I haven’t really done anything different this year,” McBride said. “I feel like I came into the season in great shape and that has really helped me out this year.”

McBride had an opportunity to play right from the get-go. He scored five goals and dished out nine assists as a freshman before racking up seven goals and 10 assists his sophomore year.

“That was huge for me to get that experience,” McBride said. “It helped me become a better player. Seeing the freshmen who are playing this year get experience reminds me of what it was like for me my freshman year.”

McBride admits, though, it took time to adapt to live as a college hockey player.

“When I first got here, the speed of the game really opened my eyes,” McBride said. “But the more I played, the more comfortable I became with the pace of the game.”

One of the biggest challenges for McBride is dealing with the grind of the schedule that comes with being a student-athlete.

“It’s not an easy schedule and there isn’t a lot of down time because of practice, classes and games,” McBride said. “It’s a little bit of a grind, but I love playing the game. The time commitment is all worth it.”

Playing at St. Thomas has been worth it as well.

“I had a friend play here and went for a visit and knew this is where I wanted to be,” McBride said. “I have great teammates and get to play for a great hockey program.”

McBride and the Tommies are hoping to keep their season going for as long as possible. They missed out on a trip to the NCAA tournament a year ago after a loss to Hamline in the semifinal round of the MIAC tournament.

The conference itself is a challenge and McBride is hoping the weekly tests the Tommies face pay off in the long run.

“Our conference is tough from top to bottom,” McBride said. “You have to be able to bring your best every weekend.”

McBride plans to bring his best the rest of the way. He knows time is winding down for he and his fellow senior teammates and he wants to make the most of every opportunity he has.

“This is our last chance to play college hockey,” McBride said. “We feel confident about our chances of making a run. It’s just a matter of going out and executing. I want to do whatever I can to help the team.”

Standing at the top

Augsburg remains atop the MIAC standings this week after sweeping Hamline in a weekend series. The Auggies, winners of four in a row and unbeaten in their last six overall, are 14-6-1 overall and 10-1-1 in the conference. They own a four-point lead over second-place St. Thomas with two weekends remaining in the regular season.

Defense has been instrumental to the Auggies’ success as of late. They have shut out two of their last three opponents and haven’t given up more than three goals in any of their last six games.

Jordyn Kaufer has helped pave the way, starting 17 games. He is 13-4 on the year while fashioning a 2.05 GAA and a .926 save percentage.

The Auggies haven’t been bad on offense either, scoring 80 goals, and Nate Flynn has been the catalyst of the offense, striking for 15 goals to go along with 10 assists.

Augsburg is a much better team than it was a year ago when it was just 12-14-0. The Auggies will be tested down the stretch, though, as they play this weekend against the Tommies and then close the year with a pair of games against St. John’s, which is currently third in the conference with 21 points.

Coghlin reaches milestone

St. Norbert head coach Tom Coghlin won the 500th game of his coaching career in St. Norbert’s 3-0 win over Northland Saturday.

Coghlin has coached in 680 games in his collegiate career and is the third fastest to reach 500 wins. He is in the midst of his 20th consecutive season of at least 18 wins.

Coghlin is in his 23rd year as the head coach at St. Norbert and his team has won four national championships, the last one coming in 2014. His team has appeared in 15 NCAA tournaments since 1997.

St. Norbert improved to 18-2-1 overall and to 14-2 in the league, the best mark in the conference. The top-ranked team in the nation has won its last five games.

The Green Knights have given up only three goals during their win streak and just 27 overall as Tony Kujava and T.J. Black have proven to be a formidable one-two punch in goal. They have combined to win 18 games and both own GAAs of 1.30 and 1.26, respectively.

Offensively, four players have scored at least 10 goals, with Michael Hill, Pijus Rulevicius and Roman Uchyn have come through with 11 goals apiece. The Green Knights have struck for 99 goals in all.

Pointers chasing championship

Wisconsin-Stevens Point plays its final two games of the regular season this week, hosting Wisconsin-Stout on Friday and fellow national power Wisconsin-Eau Claire on Saturday. The fourth-ranked Pointers are in a tie for first in the WIAC with Wisconsin-River Falls and are hoping to clinch the title this weekend.

The reigning national runner-up has won its last six games, scoring six or more goals in four of those games.

Saturday’s showdown with the 10th-ranked Blugolds will be the most intriguing matchup of the weekend. In the last meeting, Stevens Point lost 5-4 in overtime to Eau Claire.

The Pointers have been tremendous offensively, striking for 121 goals. Four players have scored at least 13 goals, with Lawrence Cornellier and Kyle Sharkey punching in 16 apiece.

Best of the West

St. Norbert is the No. 1 team in the nation this week in the USCHO.com Division III Men’s Poll. Adrian falls to third, while Stevens Point checks in at No. 4. Eau Claire is ranked 10th. Marian, which has won 10 in a row, is No. 12, while River Falls sits at No. 13 in the poll. St. Scholastica is 15th in the latest poll.

North Dakota revs up for the postseason

(Erika Sowchuk-25 Wisconsin) (Shelby Amsley-Benzie-1 North Dakota )08 March 13 University of North Dakota and Wisconsin in the WCHA Final Face Off (BRADLEY K. OLSON)

Shelby Amsley-Benzie, now a senior, hopes to lead her team back to the postseason. (BRADLEY K. OLSON)

I’ve read a lot of student essays over the years written by seventh-graders through high-school students. Many of them use the five-paragraph essay format, and where they often tend to err is by being too formulaic, particularly in the introduction and conclusion. The essay will state a topic and list the three main points that will be discussed in the body. If this column was written in this manner, it might start out with a paragraph like the one below.

North Dakota is a problem that the rest of the country doesn’t have to face. This is true because of the PairWise Rankings, geography, and the way that North Dakota plays.

What would follow next is a paragraph discussing each of the subjects: UND in relation to the PairWise, geography, and the Fighting Hawks’ playing style. Admittedly, that likely doesn’t look all that different from my usual writing style. Maybe I write like a seventh-grader.

It doesn’t change the fact that No. 8 North Dakota has a better team than people many realize, one that would be a nightmare matchup for anyone in the first round of an NCAA tournament. If you’re a fan of a team from ECAC Hockey or Hockey East with Frozen Four or NCAA Championship aspirations, should you be concerned? No, not at all.

Most of these fans aren’t worried anyway. They see scores on UND’s ledger like: Ohio State 3, North Dakota 2; Minnesota-Duluth 1, North Dakota 0; Syracuse 5, North Dakota 2; and Minnesota State 5, North Dakota 5. That’s not the whole story, but let’s save that one for last, and start with our old friend, the PairWise Rankings.

In most seasons, the PairWise has little love for a team like UND. It tries to give teams that play in a strong conference credit for doing so, but no matter how many kludges and tweaks get added to the formula for the Ratings Percentage Index, it has trouble looking past the mounting losses.

“The system is what it is,” North Dakota coach Brian Idalski said. “We all know what it is. They made a positive tweak here, maybe, with the quality win bonus. At the end of the day, we’re always, consistently as a league going to have top-five strength of schedule. There’s a big difference between the top five, six-tier teams and team No. 15 and team No. 12. No one feels bad for us that our league is as tough and as competitive as it is. It’s just the way it is.”

In 2011, North Dakota finished fourth in the WCHA and, not surprisingly, its bubble popped. Obviously, UND had to find a way to climb into the league’s top three.

Over the last four seasons, it has done just that. In 2012, third place allowed UND to get into the NCAA field. In 2013, North Dakota was back after winding up as the league’s second-best team. Third place in 2014 and 2015 wasn’t good enough, as UND fell short of the tournament picture.

Sometimes, the PairWise hasn’t been the culprit. This season, the Fighting Hawks sit ninth in that ranking, at least two spots below a position that would do them any good. It isn’t the only ranking that has UND short of the field. KRACH and WCHODR both slot North Dakota in eighth place. It fares best in Rutter’s ranking, climbing to sixth.

The season where UND was most hurt by the use of the PairWise Rankings as the NCAA’s official ranking system was 2013. While the other systems placed North Dakota in the top four and eligible to host a quarterfinal, the PairWise had UND eighth, and their tournament reward was a trip to top-ranked Minnesota. What would the reaction be if an Eastern team, rather than one from the West, were to be a comparable PairWise victim?

“When is that going to happen?” Idalski said. “I’ve been here nine years. Has that happened? The Eastern teams have the balance, and they’re not going to vote to change it. Why would they? It behooves you to have a schedule in the mid-20s and to win a majority of your games.”

Anyway, a partial change wouldn’t do the Fighting Hawks much good. If they get into the field as the fifth, sixth or seventh team and the power structure at the top remains unchanged, they know where they’ll be sent.

“We’re coming back to Minnesota,” Idalski said. “It’s always gone through Minnesota for us.”

As long as UND and the Gophers are both in the NCAA field, one as a host and the other on the road, then they’ll always be paired unless some team like Bemidji State is also in the mix. Any other pairing results in an increase in the number of airplane flights, something that the NCAA avoids at all costs. This is part of the “geography” component of our five-paragraph essay.

“I don’t know what the fix is,” Idalski said. “It is what it is. We have to embrace it, and we have to get over the hump.”

Geography also bites UND in the WCHA’s schedule. Because most schools are so many miles apart, the teams play two-game series every weekend. In a league like the ECAC, teams only play two league games against the same opponent when it is a home-and-home with a travel partner — at most once a season.

“It’s very difficult when you have teams like Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and Bemidji, and ourselves, and playing back-to-back like we do,” Idalski said. “There’s a lot of quality coaches. They’re going to make adjustments. They’re going to make a change. They’re going to do what they need to do to make themselves competitive. So we play a game where Mankato has got four people in the neutral zone and a soft F1, angling and defending, and we come [to Minneapolis] and it’s a track meet up and down. It’s a challenge to prepare for both situations.”

That brings us to the final topic in our seventh-grade essay, the style that the Fighting Hawks play. The perception may be that North Dakota packs it in, playing defense first, second, third, and beyond.

“I think our team would prefer to be aggressive, not sit back and trap,” Idalski said. “I think we have a little more success when we’re playing teams like [Minnesota] and it’s up and down. A lot of our kids enjoy playing in a little more space.”

So why do the losses mount? Sometimes, the goals just don’t come.

“We just don’t have a lot of kids, and I think it’s overall in women’s hockey, there’s not a lot of kids who really can shoot and beat a goalie clean from the top of the circle,” Idalski said. “Then you have a lot of teams who are collapsing and defending well and sitting back with people in the slot. It just makes it tough to get to the inside and tough to finish off plays.”

That problem is compounded by the fact that many of the country’s best goaltenders play for WCHA teams.

“Especially if they’re defending well and keeping people to the outside, there’s not a lot of second-chance opportunities,” Idalski said. “Our league is solid. We say it over and over — a lot of quality coaches, a lot of good players. It’s fun hockey.”

In recent years, North Dakota versus Minnesota has consistently produced one of the best pairings.

Idalski said, “There was a great crowd [Friday], there was good energy in the building, and I don’t know if there’s anybody who would walk out of the building and say, ‘That really wasn’t worth the money to go watch.’ That was super entertaining. That’s a good product. If there’s anything, I really wish as a league we could do a better job of promoting that, because it’s good; it’s good hockey. Up and down, that’s a legit hockey game.”

Entertaining or not, it’s not always fun to coach. Consider a game like the first meeting in Grand Forks between the Fighting Hawks and Bemidji State, where the Beavers got a couple of friendly bounces, scored an extra-attacker goal in the last couple of minutes, and then won, 2-1, in the final seconds of overtime? How does a coach sleep after an outcome like that?

“Not very well,” Idalski said. “Not very well at all.”

However, real-life events off the rink do serve to put such things in perspective. The Fighting Hawks have had more than their share. For senior captain Layla Marvin, at the top of the list is the day her sister and teammate Lisa was struck by a car on a Grand Forks street.

“It was just over a year ago,” Marvin said. “I think you think about things such as hockey as more of a privilege and an exciting thing that you’re able to do, to have an able body. It’s pretty special to be out there with your teammates. It was honestly an emotional time when my sister was in a wheelchair and we were out on the ice. It’s just a tough time, and you have to be grateful for your opportunities and make the most of your time.”

Players often describe teammates as sisters, and that is seldom more true than in a crisis situation.

“Team support was huge in Lisa’s recovery,” Marvin said. “It was something that’s hard to explain, the amount of support that we got, not only from our teammates, but most of the hockey community, everyone around us, and everyone we’ve ever played with. They were there, every step of the way. They were in the hospital every single night with her. When it got late, my mom actually had to tell them to leave so that Lisa could sleep. There were teammates there the entire time, and that amount of support is something that we’re very thankful for.”

Some of these teammates have been together for quite a while. The Marvins, Shelby Amsley-Benzie, and Kayla Gardner were teammates on a dominant Warroad High School team that also included recent Wisconsin graduate Karley Sylvester.

“We had a lot of success at the high-school level,” Marvin said. “We had a lot of good players on our team. It might have looked like we could buy goals then, but we worked hard for them.”

Marvin has had to put in effort to get to where she is now, skating on North Dakota’s top line with Amy Menke and Meghan Dufault.

“I struggled the first half of my time at North Dakota, and I had some growing pains,” Marvin said. “I just think the most important thing is I worked through it to get where I am. I had an injury along the way, but overall, it’s made me a better player and a better person.”

Her seven goals match her total from her first three seasons combined.

“I think we do a great job of developing players because we let them play,” Idalski said. “If I learned anything from [Dave] Haakstol and the men’s team, you’ve got to trust your kids, you’ve got to let them go through the process and make mistakes, and you’ve got to develop them to be able to play the game. If I’m proud of anything, it’s the fact that we’ve developed kids and our national-team players do well in world championships and Olympics because we’ve allowed them to make those mistakes to get better, to develop them.”

The expectation of many was that once Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux graduated, North Dakota would disappear from national tournament contention.

“The twins are good players, but we’ve had a lot of good players come through, also,” Marvin said. “Right now, I feel like we’re a pretty collective bunch, and we’re getting some contributions from all the way up and down the lineup. You can’t be successful in our league if you don’t have that.”

So with the development, the good players, and the contributions throughout the lineup, why the puzzling results?

North Dakota reminds me a little of a toy I had when I was a kid. It was similar to the Lego flyer that is sold now. It had a horizontal propeller with a ring around it, that sat on a small shaft with gears on it. You’d spin the propeller with a tool that was a cross between a roper starter and half of a zipper that had teeth that would engage the gears. When done correctly, the propeller would lift off and fly around the house, somehow finding all the fragile items and sending them crashing. But as a kid if you didn’t pull the starter just right, it didn’t turn fast enough and would sputter around on the floor for a second or two.

The Fighting Hawks need everything to be at top speed to fly effectively. Otherwise, they are vulnerable to crashing, but when there is enough energy in the system, UND is dangerous.

It has a win and a tie in four games against the country’s second-ranked team, matched that versus the third-ranked squad, and has posted three shutouts in those eight games.

“We’re a good club,” Idalski said. “We’re close. That’s the hard part. We have to believe. We have to stay the course, because we’re right there. It’s just to manage pulling out a goal in these games, because we feel like we’re right there with Minnesota. I really feel like we had the better of our games in Wisconsin. It’s close; we’ve just got to keep battling to get healthy. It’s really going to come down to our tournament.”

Minnesota-Duluth experiences ups, downs in a hurry

Coach Scott Sandelin and Minnesota-Duluth swept Colorado College last weekend but fell to Bemidji State in nonconference play (photo: Jim Rosvold).

For Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin, the past five days have been a microcosm of the Bulldogs’ season. After rallying twice to beat Colorado College over the weekend to gain key points in the NCHC race, the offense disappeared Tuesday night in a 2-1 nonconference loss to Bemidji State.

Duluth has the 11th-best defense in the country, giving up only 2.18 goals per game, but its offense, while 28th overall and scoring 2.64 goals per game, has been feast or famine.

“That’s why I always say the magic number is three for us to win games,” Sandelin laughed. “It’s just been weird, and again, when your power play is not scoring, it puts more pressure on five-on-five, which is always hard to score.”

Duluth scored five and three goals against CC, but only one against Bemidji. In its losses and ties in January, Duluth scored on average 1.6 goals per game, including three games where it could muster only a solitary tally.

“We’ve had a lot of games where we’ve outshot and out-chanced teams and came away with losses,” Sandelin said. “And again, when those things pile up during the year, I think sometimes your mindset isn’t the same. I think that’s a big part of it; I think it’s more the mental part of it. You might start pressing a little or whatever, and in turn you might sacrifice some things at the other end of the rink. And I think there have been some games where we’ve got caught in that, where we’ve had pressure, we’ve had chances, and we couldn’t score, and then we give up a goal at the other end from maybe poor defensive structure or a turnover and those things seem to get magnified when you’re not consistently scoring.

“It’s a combination of a lot of things. It certainly in a lot of games hasn’t been from a lack of opportunities, but you just have to keep trying to do that. It’s hard to put a finger on it, actually. Offense is hard sometimes, and you can’t sacrifice the other end of the rink to score goals.”

Despite the loss to Bemidji, the CC games showed some resiliency. On Friday, Duluth trained 2-0 before rallying, and on Saturday, after opening up a lead just 16 seconds into the game, the Bulldogs entered the third trailing 2-1 before scoring twice late.

“It’s not how you want to play the game, playing catch-up hockey, but I thought the Friday night game, even though we got down a couple of goals, we were playing the game pretty well,” said Sandelin. “I thought we were doing a lot of good things, had some chances, and once we got the first one it gave us a little bit of a spark. Saturday was different. We scored in the first 16 seconds and I don’t know if we thought it was going to be an easier game. When you do that, sometimes it can be good, scoring the first goal early, and sometimes it can be maybe not so good.”

One area of success for Duluth all season has been its penalty kill, which also helped in the CC series, killing off seven of nine chances the Tigers had on the weekend.

“I think, No. 1, we’ve had six or eight guys that have just been together and they take a lot of pride in that,” said Sandelin. “Obviously, like we talk about, your goalie is your best penalty killer, and certainly he was for us on Saturday, but I think our guys have done a good job. It’s something you have to work on. There’s probably been a little more importance on it because our power play has struggled. There’s probably more pressure on the PK, so those guys have buckled down and done a good job.”

Duluth is off this weekend before closing the regular season with series against the NCHC’s top two teams, North Dakota and St. Cloud State, and then a series with Miami, which trails Duluth by three points in a race for the final home-ice spot in the NCHC playoffs.

“It’s a battle to get that, it is a goal of ours,” Sandelin said of home ice. “We’ve got three very difficult weekends coming up. We have the top two teams after break and finish with Miami. We have our work cut out for us. They’re good teams, and hopefully those teams will bring out the best in our team, and that’s certainly a goal. We want to be trying to play at home. We need to find some consistency — that’s the big thing right now.”

Miami enjoys the process while turning around season

Sean Kuraly and Miami split with St. Cloud State last weekend (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

Facing one of the top teams in the country last weekend in St. Cloud State, the Miami RedHawks came out firing on Friday. They piled up a commanding shots advantage but the Huskies held on and then Ethan Prow scored at 19:21 of the period. Although Miami tied it just 15 seconds into the second, St. Cloud used the momentum of withstanding the first period as a spark in a 5-1 win.

On Saturday, it seemed like a repeat, as Miami outshot St. Cloud 11-5, but St. Cloud’s Jimmy Schuldt scored at 18:15 to put St. Cloud up at the end of one. However, Miami this time used its early second-period goal as a spark. Josh Melnick scored at 5:54, and then in the next 4:37, Miami got two more goals and held on for a 3-2 win.

“I thought Saturday we maintained our composure and it was a hell of a game that clearly could have gone either way,” said Miami coach Enrico Blasi. “They hit a few posts. We were opportunistic on our chances. We did a good job on the penalty kill. I’m not a big believer in just looking at the shots. You have to look at the quality of the play, and I thought it was pretty good hockey all weekend long.”

Melnick, who has 18 points on the year, is one of two freshmen leading the RedHawks in scoring, the other being Jack Roslovic, who has 21 points.

“I think they aren’t freshmen anymore; they are expected to go out and play hard every night and execute and play within their strengths and I think they are both doing that at this part of the season,” said Blasi. “Part of our job is to continue to teach and develop. Both of them are working hard, not only on the ice but off the ice. It’s nice to see that coming together at this time.”

Miami is in fifth place, but the RedHawks’ fortunes are looking up. After a disastrous 2-8-1 stretch to close the first half, Miami has gone 6-3-1 in the second half, and is only three points behind fourth-place Minnesota-Duluth for home ice in the first round of the NCHC playoffs.

“We’ve kind of played fairly well all year,” said Blasi. “We had a couple of bad weekends where we didn’t get results and all of a sudden it’s a bad season for people who are looking at the standings and rankings and all that stuff. For the most part, we’ve been pretty consistent with our effort.

“We do have a young team, but our guys have been real good about playing hard and playing for each other. You eliminate a couple of weekends here and there and a couple games where we lose in overtime at North Dakota, overtime against Omaha early, and maybe that gains us a little more confidence and who knows. At the end of the day, we’re a process-oriented program.”

This weekend, Miami has a one-off with former CCHA rival Bowling Green before resuming its NCHC slate in two weekends against Western Michigan. Blasi and his team know how difficult Bowling Green is, as the RedHawks won 2-1 a month ago against the Falcons on a last-second goal from Anthony Louis.

“They’re a well-coached team, very skilled, and they’re as good as anybody in the country, really,” Blasi said. “They have a lot of weapons up front, good D corps, good goaltending. And obviously on the road you have to play your best hockey and give yourselves an opportunity to be in the game.”

NCHC players of the week

Offensive player of the week — Alex Iafallo, Minnesota-Duluth: Iafallo helped key an important sweep by Minnesota-Duluth of Colorado College. In a come-from-behind win on Friday, the junior scored two goals, his first multi-point game since his freshman year. He scored the go-ahead goal in the third, putting Duluth up 3-2, then sealed the win with an empty-net goal. On Saturday, he scored the game-winning goal with 2:42 left in a 3-2 win. He was named the game’s second star in both games and posted a plus-3 rating.

Defensive player of the week — Andy Welinski, Minnesota-Duluth: Welinski got defensive honors for the second consecutive week for his play in helping Duluth sweep Colorado College. On Friday, he assisted on the Bulldogs’ first goal in a come-from-behind win and also assisted on Iafallo’s empty-net goal. On Saturday, he scored to tie the game 2-2 in the third. He was named the game’s third star in both games and finished the weekend with a plus-5 rating and helped the penalty kill succeed on seven kills out of nine power plays.

Rookie of the week — Josh Melnick, Miami: Melnick helped his team to a key split with No. 4 St. Cloud State. In Friday’s 5-1 loss, he scored Miami’s only goal, tying the game at 1-1 in the second period. On Saturday, he again scored Miami’s first goal, helping spur a rally in a 3-2 win. He was named the game’s third star, and he won 12 faceoffs on the weekend.

Goaltender of the week — Charlie Lindgren, St. Cloud State: Lindgren helped the Huskies get a split with Miami by posting a .938 save percentage and a 2.02 GAA with 61 saves on 65 shots on the weekend. In a 5-1 win on Friday, he made 35 saves, including 17 in the first period, and made four saves on Miami’s three power plays, helping kill all of the RedHawks’ extra-attacker chances. On Saturday, he made 26 saves in a 3-2 loss and again helped St. Cloud’s penalty kill go a perfect 4-for-4.

No. 2 Plattsburgh sits atop SUNYAC, still seeking higher performance

Plattsburgh forward Kevin Emmerling is a Cardinals’ senior looking for one last run, to make noise in the NCAA tournament (photo: Gabe Dickens).

If you are Plattsburgh head coach Bob Emery, you must be pretty happy with the current state of affairs for your hockey team.

You currently sit atop the SUNYAC standings, are ranked No. 2 nationally, and have an 18-3-1 record that includes a current six-game win streak — all very nice indications of things going well, but then there is that belief that there can be more.

“I don’t think we have played our best hockey yet,” said Emery. “We knew at the beginning of the year we had speed, depth and talent, but how that all came together was to be determined. I have always been a ‘roll four lines and play six ‘D” coach and we are getting contributions up and down the lineup, but I think our best hockey is still ahead of us. We have three games left in conference play to focus on to solidify the league, but also to position ourselves for NCAA consideration. Every game matters and everything is always so tight for the opportunity to play in the national tournament — these games matter a lot for the league and more.

“It is a very important time of the year and we need to stay focused and with that sense of urgency in our game.”

That sense of urgency comes from a solid group of seniors that includes defenseman Rich Botting, goaltender Spencer Finney and forwards Connor Gorman, Dillan Fox and Kevin Emmerling who know that this season is their last chance to reach for success not only in conference play, but on the national stage as well. All of the senior skaters are among the leaders on the team in points and part of a 15-player deep list of players with double-digit points for Cardinals that showcases their depth and balanced scoring approach to the game.

Pat Egan leads Plattsburgh in scoring with 24 points in 20 games – not too shabby for a freshman (photo: Gabe Dickens).

While freshmen Pat Egan and Cole Stallard are among the top three in points, it is the seniors that are driving the underclassmen to a better understanding of the opportunities at hand.

“When you are a younger player, you always think that there is the chance to advance further next year,” stated Emery. “They don’t have the perspective that our seniors have right now about this season. Our seniors really understand the window is closing and have that urgency around doing all we can do now, this season, to play our best hockey. They are sending that message to the team and I believe we will see the benefits of that late in the season.”

The current six-game win streak comes on the heels of a loss at nationally-ranked Williams in mid-January where the Cardinals outshot their hosts 45-10 for the game and 19-1 in the first period alone. They needed an Emmerling goal in the third period to send the game to overtime where Wiliams’ David Italiano scored the game winner for the hosts less than a minute into the extra session. It was a tough loss for the Cardinals that their coach believes held some valuable lessons for the remainder of the schedule.

“The lesson was we need to take care of the puck better,” said Emery, emphatically. “When you play really good defensive teams like a Williams or Middlebury, you need to be prepared to win the game 1-0. You need to treat it like a playoff game and we weren’t ready to win the game 1-0. Coming into this part of the season, that is the mindset you need to bring to the ice and I think a valuable lesson learned from the game at Williams that will hopefully help us for the remainder of the season and upcoming playoffs.”

During the current win streak, the Cardinals have three one-goal wins, including a 4-3 road win at Fredonia, a 1-0 road win at Buffalo State and a 4-3 overtime win over Oswego last Friday night on home ice.

Now, just three games remain on the schedule, including this weekend’s final road contest at Potsdam before closing out the regular season at home against Brockport and Geneseo. Emery expects his team isn’t taking any opponent lightly, especially conference foes.

The Cardinals are a perfect 9-0 on home ice this season and are outscoring their opponents by a 48-12 margin.

Numbers like that are hard to beat, but look for the Cardinals to continue to fly high and with a specific destination in mind at the end of February and into March.

Boston College’s Wood hit with one-game suspension from Hockey East for head contact incident

Hockey East has suspended Boston College forward Miles Wood for one game stemming from an incident involving head contact at the 15:44 mark of the first period Feb. 8 in the Beanpot championship game against Boston University.

A two-minute minor for boarding was assessed to Wood at the time of the incident.

Wood will miss BC’s next game Feb. 12 against Merrimack and can return to the Eagles’ lineup the following night against the Warriors.

Minus bench boss, Cornell pulls itself out of a slump

Cornell’s Mitch Gillam stopped 71 of 73 shots last weekend in a tie with Quinnipiac and a shutout of Princeton (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

Cornell coach Mike Schafer must have been pleased with the Big Red’s results on the road last weekend, even if he wasn’t there to see it in person.

Schafer suffered a concussion in practice during the week and did not travel with Cornell for the team’s road trip to Quinnipiac and Princeton. Associate head coach Ben Syer was behind the bench for Friday’s tie at Quinnipiac and Saturday’s win at Princeton.

The three-point weekend was a nice turnaround for the Big Red, who had been stuck in a 0-5-1 slump entering Friday’s game against the Bobcats. But it was more than that for Syer, who spent 2002 to 2011 on Rand Pecknold’s staff at Quinnipiac, heading to Cornell when Casey Jones left the Big Red to take the head coaching position at Clarkson.

“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little bit of emotion involved,” Syer said after Friday’s game against the Bobcats. “It was a home for 12 years. To come back and have an opportunity to coach against Rand, he’s a mentor of mine. There’s a lot of emotion involved.”

Syer, who was at Quinnipiac when the Bobcats made the move from the MAAC to Atlantic Hockey before eventually settling in ECAC Hockey, had a hand in building the program to the national contender it is today. He recruited seniors Travis St. Denis and Michael Garteig and also worked with current Quinnipiac assistant Bill Riga in recruiting Tim and Connor Clifton, even getting a call from the twins’ father while out grocery shopping. By the time the brothers committed, Syer had already left for Cornell.

Memories aside, it was an important weekend for the Big Red, whose offensive struggles coincided with the team’s winless stretch. Following a loss to Dartmouth on Jan. 22, Schafer said the Big Red had been trying to be too fancy on offense. While Cornell’s three goals on the weekend hardly count as an offensive outburst, the Big Red did show some signs of getting back to what they needed to do on offense, especially late in the game against Quinnipiac.

“I think we have a good mix of both speed and physicality,” junior forward Jeff Kubiak said. “When both of those are going, we’re moving our feet, being physical, it puts a lot of pressure on the other team’s defense. We have to be playing that style to be successful and have any chance at winning. We can’t be playing any other way, because that’s not how our team is built.”

It also doesn’t hurt having Mitch Gillam in net. The junior has started every game for Cornell this season and was named the ECAC’s goalie of the week for the third time after stopping 71 of 73 shots on the weekend.

Big Green continuing to impress

Jack Barre leads Dartmouth with 11 goals (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

Aside from the last two Fridays, it’s been a stellar second half for Dartmouth. While the Big Green’s defensive improvements have helped key their solid play following the holidays, Dartmouth’s offense has picked it up the last few weeks. Over the last month, the Big Green has scored at least three goals in all but two games.

That offensive prowess was on display Saturday against Brown, as the Big Green turned several Bears turnovers into goals in a 6-3 win.

“One of our keys that we wanted to work on was our transition,” said senior captain Brad Schierhorn. “One of the things that we’ve just been preaching is ‘neutral zone, D zone’ and the rest will take care of itself.”

Dartmouth has been led offensively by two players who are having career years. Senior Jack Barre and sophomore Carl Hesler entered the season with 10 career goals between them, but have doubled that total so far this season.

The duo combined for a pretty two-on-one goal against Brown on Saturday, putting the Big Green up by three late in the third after surviving a frantic second period that saw the teams combine for six goals in less than 10 minutes.

Not being able to finish an opponent was something that Dartmouth struggled with during one of its few blemishes of the second half. The Big Green led No. 1 Quinnipiac 5-2 on Jan. 29 but the Bobcats rallied for a 7-5 win, aided in part by a pair of third-period Dartmouth penalties that resulted in Quinnipiac power-play goals.

“I thought we played 50 really good minutes against Quinnipiac and it wasn’t good enough,” Big Green coach Bob Gaudet said. “Overall, our team has played very solid hockey. We’ve showed the ability to score a little more and we’re getting good goaltending. I feel good about our team; we’re starting to understand the game.”

Union not using youth as excuse

With 16 freshmen and sophomores, Union has plenty of youth on its roster. But coach Rick Bennett and his staff aren’t using that as an excuse.

“We haven’t used that one all year and we’re not going to,” Bennett said. “We want them to make plays. It’s slowly coming; we’re just trying to figure out what’s a turnover sometimes and what’s keeping it simple and putting it on net.”

When the Dutchmen do that, the results have generally been positive.

“That’s where we are at times,” Bennett said. “There’s nights were we come into a barn like this [Ingalls Rink, where Union earned a 2-1 win over Yale on Jan. 29] and it’s a close game and we kind of pull it out. You want to have a team that is really fast but is also able to think the game.”

On the other hand, there are games like Friday. Union outshot the Golden Knights 45-25 but lost 4-1. It was the first time Clarkson had won at Messa Rink since March 6, 2005. While some teams might get frustrated with the high shot total producing only one goal, Bennett was proud of his team for not doing so, saying that was a sign of a mature team.

Still, he pointed out some bad penalties the Dutchmen took, adding that Union was “beating itself.”

Bennett also said in his news conference Friday that junior defenseman Noah Henry had left the team because of a family decision. He did not say if he would return to the program.

Around the league

• It was a rough Beanpot for Harvard, as the Crimson lost Monday’s consolation game 5-1 to Northeastern. Harvard was without forward Sean Malone, who was suspended one game by the ECAC for a hit on Yale’s Rob O’Gara last Saturday. O’Gara was given a game disqualification for contact to the head, meaning the senior defenseman will miss the Bulldogs’ game at Colgate on Friday.

• The teams for the 2016 Friendship Four tournament in Belfast, Northern Ireland, were announced Monday, and the ECAC will send two schools to the tournament. Quinnipiac and St. Lawrence will participate after Brown and Colgate took part earlier this season. Vermont and Massachusetts will also take part in the 2016 tournament, which will be held on Nov. 25-26.

• Brown forward Mark Naclerio hit the 100-point mark for his collegiate career with an assist against Dartmouth last Saturday. He joins linemate Nick Lappin, who reached the milestone earlier this season.

• Quinnipiac’s 10-game unbeaten streak is tied with Air Force for the longest active streak in the country, but Clarkson isn’t far behind. The Golden Knights swept Rensselaer and Union last weekend to push their unbeaten streak to seven games, moving to 17th in the PairWise Rankings in the process.

• Earlier this week, Union announced that Messa Rink will get a $10 million renovation. There is no timetable for the project. Some of the proposed improvements include a new video scoreboard, new boards and glass, a new floor for the ice surface and new coaches’ offices.

• Quinnipiac’s Sam Anas (player) and St. Lawrence’s Jacob Pritchard (rookie) joined Gillam as the league’s weekly award winners. Anas had three goals and two assists on the weekend, while Pritchard had three goals in a 1-0-1 road trip for the Saints.

ECAC Hockey suspends Yale’s O’Gara for one game

ECAC Hockey announced Wednesday that Yale senior defenseman Rob O’Gara has been assessed a one-game suspension as the result of his actions in the Yale-Harvard game from Feb. 6.

The league action was taken after review of an incident that occurred in the third period in the Bulldogs-Crimson contest. O’Gara was given a game disqualification for contact to the head, meaning he’s automatically suspended from the Feb. 12 game at Colgate.

The league’s supplemental discipline added another game, which will be served on Feb. 13 when the Bulldogs face Cornell.

Big Ten’s Traviolia weighs in on fan frustrations, attendance, league’s future plans

In its third season, Big Ten hockey hasn’t quieted some fan complaints (photo: Larry Radloff).

The Big Ten is in the midst of its third season sponsoring men’s hockey, and it has been an eventful couple of years.

Even before the conference officially came into existence during the 2013-14 season, it made waves in the college hockey community. Some of those waves haven’t crested and died off, either, and that’s not concerning to Brad Traviolia, the conference’s deputy commissioner, chief financial officer and chief operating officer.

“I don’t think anyone within the conference or on campus felt like we’d just open shop, turn on the lights and all of a sudden magic would happen where national championships would just roll in and attendance records would be broken,” Traviolia said after saying that everyone involved with hockey at the Big Ten offices is still learning about college hockey.

The main point is that the Big Ten doesn’t plan on going anywhere.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” said Traviolia, who oversees hockey for the conference. “I think we’ve learned a lot in the first two years about what made our schools successful in their previous leagues.”

Traviolia said that the conference has a “two-fold goal.” One is to help and assist its six schools — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State — toward being successful. The other is to help college hockey as a whole grow.

When Penn State announced that it was elevating its hockey program to the Division I level and the Big Ten hockey conference was announced, there was grumbling around college hockey from fans of schools that were entering the new conference and those from the conferences that said teams were leaving.

Since the conference’s inception, some of its teams have gone through horrible stretches of bad play, and attendance — or lack thereof — has been a hot topic.

“In a perfect world, we’d have great national success in the early years of Big Ten hockey and it’d be perceived by the vast majority as the greatest move ever,” Traviolia said. “Those things didn’t coincide. I understand that there is some frustration from the various fan bases that see the alignment of Big Ten hockey with the lack of national success that some of our programs are used to having and equate the two.

“I don’t equate the two at all. I think it’s a little bit of a timing coincidence and I’m very confident that our programs that are used to having success, it’ll come back and it will be there. They won’t be down on this end of the cycle much longer.”

One theory for the lack of attendance is that fans simply aren’t intrigued enough with the new conference foes to make the effort to actually go to games. Traviolia, who recently took over the position that involves men’s ice hockey at the conference but has been with the Big Ten for more than 19 years, doesn’t necessarily buy that notion.

“Coming from a non-hockey background, it’s kind of hard for me to imagine a fan in the state of Minnesota who wouldn’t be excited to see a Michigan or a Michigan State come in to play,” he said. “I recognize and acknowledge that significant rivalries developed over the years in the previous leagues, and that’s fine.

“Many of our schools have scheduling opportunities to honor those rivalries and to continue them the best they can. So it’s a matter of getting familiar with your new league opponents and as those meaningful series come down the stretch and the winners are advancing and the losers are going home, I think the new rivalries within the conference will develop over time.”

The challenge for the schools, according to Traviolia, is to balance keeping the old rivalries alive while building new ones within the Big Ten.

Attendance has also been an issue at the Big Ten’s postseason tournament. The Big Ten had a five-session total of 42,610 fans (8,522 per session) show up to the 2014 tournament at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center and had a total attendance of just 16,144 over three sessions (5,381 per session) last year at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. By comparison, the 2013 WCHA Final Five had an announced five-session attendance of 87,295 (17,459 per session).

This year’s postseason tournament will head back to St. Paul. Next year it will return to Detroit and the years after that are up in the air. Traviolia said that it was “as much of a political decision as any” to hold the first four tournaments at the former sites of the WCHA and CCHA tournaments due to the fact that five of the conference’s six teams came from those leagues.

“It made a lot of sense and we wanted to give both sites an opportunity and we wanted to tap into the historic fan bases from each of those,” Traviolia said, adding that the low attendance numbers could be due to the fact that the Big Ten is not a bus league, like the WCHA and CCHA were, to some extent.

“While Minnesota is the home team in St. Paul and Michigan and Michigan State are in Detroit, for the other teams and for their fan bases the driving distance is not what it was in the old leagues where again you were able to park the event at one venue over a number of years consistently and it became the place to go to celebrate that conference’s hockey on an annual basis.”

Traviolia said he is careful not make too much of a judgment after two years, but added that nothing is off the table concerning the future of the tournament.

After the deal with St. Paul and Detroit runs out after the conclusion of the 2017 tournament, the Big Ten could go multiple ways, including continuing the rotation with those two cities, permanently placing it somewhere, having a preliminary round to the playoffs or holding the entire tournament at campus sites over multiple weekends.

There is also the option of partnering with another conference or multiple conferences to hold a super tournament, so to speak.

“I wouldn’t say that one option is favored over another at this time; we have a lot of ideas up on the board,” Traviolia said. “We’ll talk with our coaches this spring after the season and get their input and then we’ll try to figure out starting in 2018 what the best path is going forward.”

Traviolia said that one of the first things he did when he moved into his new position last summer was travel to all six schools and talk to the head coaches to pick their brains. Multiple coaches said that the conference having only six teams wasn’t ideal, but they also realized that there wasn’t another Big Ten team, like Penn State was, waiting in the wings.

With Arizona State elevating its club hockey team to the Division I level this season, there has been a lot of speculation surrounding which conference the Sun Devils will join. Historically, the Big Ten didn’t enter into affiliate membership agreements with other schools on a single-sport basis until Johns Hopkins recently joined its men’s lacrosse conference.

“We did somewhat break the seal a couple years ago with men’s lacrosse and Johns Hopkins, that was the first time ever that we had entered into an affiliate membership agreement with a single sport,” Traviolia said. “Affiliate membership for hockey is an option. I wouldn’t say it’s the only option or it’s the inevitable option, but it’s something that the conference is willing to consider since we’ve somewhat opened that door with lacrosse.”

Other notes from Traviolia

On the increased suspensions this season: “I don’t know that there’s a point of emphasis specifically for this year. The way that the NCAA rule regarding supplemental discipline plays out is that the conference, in this case it would be Steve Piotrowski, our coordinator of officials, along with myself, we have the ability to review any plays made during the game and issue supplemental discipline if warranted. I think the same mindset and the same goal this year have applied in year one and two of the Big Ten, there’s just been more of them. I don’t have a reason for why there are more of them, but I think that we’ve consistently applied the rule and have issued supplemental discipline no differently than we have the previous two years. It just seems to be more frequently this year.”

On hockey’s exposure on the Big Ten Network: “I think that the fact that there’s only six playing schools versus 14, I don’t know that that’s a huge impact in terms of time that’s dedicated to hockey on the network. In fact, it may benefit our schools because BTN is able to commit X number of hours to hockey and it’s just being divided by the six schools instead of 14, so I think on a per-school basis our schools might be better off.

“I would say that going into year one of Big Ten ice hockey, the network had high expectations, in terms of ratings. We had high expectations in terms of the tournament, in terms of television ratings and in terms of what BTN felt was successful programing. We fell a little short in year one and again we didn’t hit the attendance that we hoped at the tournament. We were really trying to figure out what we could do differently, whether it’s the schedule, whether it’s the format of the tournament, whether it’s a different way of packaging or presenting the game. We’re going to sit down with our partners at BTN and see what we can do to enhance the package of Big Ten hockey.”

On the age proposal submitted by the Big Ten: “We submitted a proposal in September. I think around November is when it became more public in the hockey community that the proposal was submitted. We have plenty of opportunity, the NCAA provides plenty of opportunity for comments. The vote isn’t until April. We went through our internal process last spring and summer and per the timeline outlined by the NCAA we submitted it and so, while it’s gotten a lot of media play, we still believe that it’s a good piece of legislation. We believe that once people are willing to dive into the details and look at what the actual impact is of such a change, it’s relatively modest.

“I think that a lot of the angst regarding the proposal is regarding how it came to be, the fact that the Big Ten entered it into the NCAA system directly instead of going through the traditional coaches’ convention system that has historically taken place. I think there’s a lot of adverse reaction to that, but I do think that just looking at the legislation, that’s kind of the focus of what our comments are and what we are encouraging people to do is to really look and see how it will impact various programs.

“We’re not trying to do away with delayed enrolment. We’re recognizing that junior hockey is still and should still play a role in the development of players. All we’re saying is that instead of delaying enrolment by three years and then coming back to play four years of college hockey, just delay it by two years and then have four years to play college hockey.”

Three stars of the week

Michigan’s Tyler Motte has 14 goals in a nine-game goal-scoring streak (photo: Michael Dubicki).

First star — Michigan junior forward Tyler Motte: Motte had three goals and one assist in Michigan’s split with Michigan State. The junior has netted a goal in nine consecutive games and leads the nation with 25 goals this season.

Second star — Michigan junior goaltender Steve Racine: Racine stopped 38 shots in a 3-2 overtime loss on Friday in Detroit and helped the Wolverines rebound by making 33 more saves during Saturday’s victory over the Spartans.

Third star — Michigan State junior forward Joe Cox: Cox scored two goals in the Spartans’ 3-2 overtime victory on Friday. He also scored the first goal of Saturday’s game on a penalty shot in the second period, which was the first penalty-shot goal for Michigan State since 2006.

B1G in the poll

No. 6 Michigan and No. 16 Penn State are still the two representatives for the Big Ten in this week’s USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll. Minnesota is still clinging to a few votes.

My ballot

1. North Dakota
2. Quinnipiac
3. Boston College
4. St. Cloud State
5. Providence
6. Michigan
7. Harvard
8. Boston University
9. Notre Dame
10. Yale
11. Massachusetts-Lowell
12. Omaha
13. Denver
14. Michigan Tech
15. Penn State
16. Minnesota State
17. Bowling Green
18. Cornell
19. Robert Morris
20. Rensselaer

This week’s matchups

Penn State at Michigan State (Friday and Saturday, Munn Ice Arena)

Minnesota at Ohio State (Friday and Saturday, Value City Arena)

Michigan at Wisconsin (Friday and Saturday, Kohl Center)

Wednesday Women: Closing in on the postseason

10 Dec 11: Amanda Kessel (Minnesota - 8) The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers host the Ohio State Buckeyes in a WCHA (Women's) match up at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis, MN. (Jim Rosvold)

Amanda Kessel’s return to Minnesota is the story of the season so far. (Jim Rosvold)

Candace: As usual, there were all kinds of interesting results over the weekend. Connecticut threw a scare into Boston College and its perfect season, and Providence gave Northeastern a scare as well. The CHA was its always chaotic self. I have to think that Mercyhurst’s sweep of Robert Morris probably sealed the CHA regular season crown for the Lakers, as I don’t think the last two series against RIT and Penn State will give Syracuse enough of an opportunity to catch and pass Mercyhurst.

Over in the ECAC, Colgate proved the truism about the game being about matchups, as the Raiders lost to Princeton, 4-2, then turned around and beat Quinnipiac, 3-2, on Saturday, one of the biggest wins the program has had. Harvard continued its run of mediocrity, tying Brown, 3-3, while Dartmouth finally won a game after over two months without one.

However, the story of the weekend, and perhaps the entire season, is the return of 2013 Patty Kazmaier Award winner Amanda Kessel to the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Kessel hadn’t played since sustaining a concussion while playing for the U.S. Women’s National Team at the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi, and last summer, she announced her retirement from hockey. However, in the interim, she started skating again, found herself playing well and without the symptoms that knocked her out of the game, and was cleared to play. She played her first college hockey games in almost three years this past weekend, playing on the top line with Hannah Brandt and Dani Camerenesi against North Dakota, and in her first game back Friday, she notched two assists. The next night, the Fighting Hawks clamped down, holding the potent Minnesota offense scoreless in a 0-0 tie.

Kessel’s return was front page news in the Minnesota newspapers, resulted in TV coverage on Fox9, and was even covered by the New York Times, with a photograph of Kessel. Her return could result in a some chemistry issues for a few weeks, as her teammates look to her to lead them again, but having Kessel back makes an already excellent team even better. You saw her play this weekend; what was your take on her skating and play, and what it means for the Gophers?

Arlan: I remember the first time I ever saw Kessel. I went down to Faribault to watch Shattuck-St. Mary’s because they had a bunch of future D-I players, like defenseman Sasha Sherry, who was going to Princeton, and Jen Schoullis and the Lamoureux sisters, who were committed to Minnesota, plus Kessel and Brianna Decker, who I believe were still uncommitted. Kessel, who I think was a freshman, was injured and in street clothes, and that was an omen of what was to come, because she was injured a lot through her first three years at Minnesota. Not missing games, but playing hurt a lot of the time. Ironically, this is likely the healthiest she’s ever been in February as a Gopher. She looked better than I would have expected last weekend. She certainly has experience coming back from injury, albeit measured in weeks, not years as it is now. It’s a short list of players who are better than her today in the college game, and by season’s end, there may not be any names left on that list.

Over the years, we’ve seen many star players added to professional rosters late in the season in sports like hockey and baseball where it doesn’t really work. The personalities don’t mesh, or the player’s style doesn’t fit with the new team — who knows. This is different, in that Kessel isn’t coming to a new team, although she only has a handful of teammates left from the 2013 championship squad. This would be more like a dozen years ago where Natalie Darwitz came back from injury at this point of the season and was put on a line with Krissy Wendell for the first time that season. Skating with Kelly Stephens, they were quiet in their first game, and then caught fire and dominated the game for the next 13 months. We won’t see anything of that magnitude over the next few weeks, because teams are much more balanced now. The positive for Minnesota was that its forward lines were a lot more sound defensively. The Gophers didn’t yield a goal to UND all weekend, although much of that was thanks to Amanda Leveille, who saved all 57 shots.

The Fighting Hawks were able to shut the Gophers out as well on Saturday. It wasn’t your typical 0-0 tie, as both teams were getting up and down the ice and had scoring opportunities. When I watch UND play like that, I always wonder, “Why don’t you play like this all the time?” I’ll explore that further in my column this week, although I doubt I’ll come up with any answers. If it was that easy, I imagine Brian Idalski would have solved the problem by now. Suffice it to say that they’re a better team than their record. This season, they probably have plenty of company in that regard around the country.  .

The scoreless tie brought us to a shootout on Saturday. Over the last two and a half seasons, for a team with a powerful offense, Minnesota’s shooters in shootouts have been rather anemic. It has been mostly Brandt and a collection of people who either looked like they didn’t have a go-to move or weren’t relishing the spotlight. They won just half of their four shootouts last year, despite Brandt going four-for-four. Amy Menke put UND up 1-0 on the first attempt, and when Brandt was stopped rather easily by Shelby Amsley-Benzie, one got the sense that the Gophers weren’t like to find two people who were going to score to tie, and eventually, win it. Kessel tied it in the next round, and  Leveille held the Gophers in it until the 11th round, but when the onus to tie it back up falls on someone who hadn’t skated a shift in the game, you have to like Amsley-Benzie in that matchup.

That final result on Saturday kind of feels like a loss for both the Fighting Hawks and the Gophers. Wisconsin is likely to clinch the WCHA title versus Minnesota State next weekend, making its final series in Minneapolis much less important. UND is a point behind Bemidji State for third place, so it needs help. The Beavers finish with Ohio State and Minnesota State, two teams they swept in the fall. While third or fourth look like they will likely be six of one and a half dozen of the other, UND was saddled with another loss and tie in the national picture, and now sits a ways down on Princeton, the seventh team in the PairWise Rankings. There’s a good chance that the Fighting Hawks will find themselves in the all-too-familiar position of having to win the WCHA Final Face-Off to continue their season.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin just plugs along, not scoring as much as it did earlier in the season, but always enough to win. It’s a pretty easy game for a team that never gives up more than a goal in a game. The Badgers have allowed more than one goal only three times this season, and not at all in 2016. Over the last 10 games, Wisconsin has given up only five goals total. Ann-Renée Desbiens now has 15 shutouts, only one off of Noora Räty’s NCAA mark, and her overall numbers are rather historic. When we discussed Patty Kazmaier Award contenders a few weeks back, you seemed to think that Desbiens would be off the pace in the voting. Do you still feel that way, or have you warmed up to her season?

Candace: At this point, I think Desbiens has to be a top three finalist, along with Northeastern’s Kendall Coyne and BC’s Alex Carpenter. I initially though Desbiens would make the top 10, but wasn’t sure about her moving into the top three. Part of it is that Wisconsin is always so committed to team defense, so I’ve wondered sometimes whether Desbiens isn’t partly the beneficiary of having an outstanding team in front of her. Nevertheless, those statistics speak legions, and I don’t think you can ignore it. What’s really incredible is that on the season, Desbiens has given up more than two goals only once, against North Dakota back in December. That is just an outstanding record of consistency, of not having an off game once. It’s going to make the Badgers incredibly difficult to beat come the playoffs. Frankly, I’m wondering if even the presence of Kessel will be enough to get Minnesota a win when the Badgers travel to Minneapolis for a pair on the final weekend of the season.

I also think that between Minnesota and Wisconsin, it’s going to be hard for any team except maybe Boston College to win the NCAA tournament, and the caveat there is the Eagles really should want the top seed so they don’t have to go through both of those teams to win. I think BC matches up more favorably with Minnesota than Wisconsin, but any of those games will be interesting.

Earlier, I talked about matchups, specifically Colgate. Were you surprised that it was Quinnipiac, rather than Princeton, that the Raiders beat this weekend, and what do you it means for the ECAC? Despite the tie with Brown, Harvard is still only one point behind the Raiders for home ice in the playoffs. The results also set up something interesting this weekend, with Clarkson facing Princeton and the second seed on the line.

Arlan: In so many of Colgate’s games, it gets an early lead, gives the lead up, and then has to try to get it back. Meanwhile, Quinnipiac hasn’t had a lot of experience at coming from behind, because it allows so few goals. This weekend was out of character in that the opponent scored on the Bobcats first in both.

Colgate has only been shut out once all season, and that was in its game at Quinnipiac. It has the ninth-best scoring offense, so it has the capability of breaking through against anyone. Because the Raiders are so young, including the top nine scorers being freshmen or sophomores, I think they are likely to show more growth over the course of a season than many teams. I’m still not convinced that they have learned how to put a game away all the time. That figures to be a struggle over the rest of the season, but they definitely are capable of knocking off anyone in the ECAC playoffs. The win over Quinnipiac was huge in terms of Colgate’s chances of hanging on to home ice for the quarters. If the Raiders get to the final weekend of the tournament and are playing to keep their season alive, that might make them a more desperate team than ECAC squads like Quinnipiac and Clarkson, who likely will already be in the field. It does get tricky, though, with only the top seven at most in the PairWise getting into the field, and then if there should be an upset winner in the ECAC and something really unforeseen in one of the other leagues, things could get wild in a hurry.

The ECAC tournament is shaping up to be one of the best top-to-bottom tournaments ever, but then I thought that last year and it pretty much went to form in the first round without a lot of drama. Cornell knocking off Clarkson in the semifinals was the only upset. I guess in any set of games that are unpredictable, one possible outcome is that the favorites come through, and we saw that last year. Slim favorites still have a good shot. This year, however, I kind of think we may wind up with a home team or two that could be an underdog. I’m not sure if that is really true, or it just seems that way because we start to judge teams more by past history rather than current rosters. For example, it seems like the Big Red or Big Green are destined to pass Rensselaer at some point, but it still hasn’t happened and the hour is getting late.

The Dartmouth game in Troy on Saturday figures to be huge. Clarkson got to RPI and Lovisa Selander with three goals in the first nine minutes on Friday. You always wonder how a young goalie will react to getting the hook in a big game like that, but she came back the next night with a great showing, holding St. Lawrence to one goal on 49 shots.

It feels like Clarkson might be the safest bet in the ECAC right now, but at the same time, if the Golden Knights were to mix in an off game, I wouldn’t be shocked by that either. Do you see anything in the ECAC right now that looks like a certainty?

Candace: Short answer: No. Clarkson had a good weekend, and hasn’t lost since Dec. 4 against Colgate, but I also think they’ve settled for ties in games they should win, such as Cornell and St. Lawrence. We’ll know more about how the Golden Knights are looking after this weekend, when they travel to the Princeton/Quinnipiac travel pair. The Golden Knights have a good goaltender in Shea Tiley, who can steal games, and good offense from seniors Cayley Mercer and Olivia Howe and junior Geneviève Bannon

I suppose Harvard could get hot, but more and more it looks like the Crimson are suffering the hangover of losing to Minnesota in the national championship game last year and then having some of their best players graduate. Then again, I still don’t understand how the Crimson can then go out and beat Princeton 4-1.

Speaking of the Tigers, a lot of the ingredients are there, including a solid senior goaltender in Kimberly Newell and some balanced scoring from the likes of Karlie Lund and Kelsey Koelzer, but I’m still not fully sold on them, in part due to the 4-1 loss to Harvard that ended their winning streak, a streak I do think was mainly built against teams Princeton should beat. Let’s see how the Tigers do against Clarkson this weekend.

Then there are the league-leading Bobcats, who have so far managed to avoid their usual second-half swan dive. Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Colgate was their first blemish since losing to Yale back in October. However, I think Quinnipiac could always be vulnerable, because with rare exceptions, the Bobcats depend on stellar goaltending and defense from Sydney Rossman and then a couple of timely goals from Taylar Cianfarano or Melissa Samoskevich, who between them account for 40 percent of the Bobcats’ scoring. When you are always walking such a fine line, it can make you vulnerable to the upset in the defensive-oriented postseason.

To me, the ECAC looks almost as wide-open as the CHA, though not quite, because in the latter, I do think that any team in the conference could win the league tournament. In the ECAC, I think any team that makes the playoffs has a possibility, but some have a better chance than others. Yale beat Quinnipiac, but that is really its one big highlight. Eighth-place Rensselaer beat Clarkson and tied Quinnipiac, but has also lost twice to Yale. Sixth-place St. Lawrence beat Princeton and Harvard, but aside from that hasn’t fared too well against the teams above it in the standings.

I think the road teams in the first-round best-of-three will have their work cut out for them, but one or two might throw a wrench into things.

As long as we are discussing playoff possibilities, do you see any of the 5-8 teams in the WCHA ruining the top four’s first round, and how do you think things shake out in the standings with Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State, who are currently tied for fifth with 28 points each? They end the regular season against each other in St. Cloud, a very interesting turn.

Arlan: The first time that St. Cloud State and UMD played, the Bulldogs held SCSU to two goals for the series, matching their best defensive weekend of the season. The other two-goals-allowed weekend came when they hosted Minnesota State back in October. Although the Mavericks doubled that production against UMD this past weekend, the Bulldogs did sweep. While UMD has had its defensive issues of late, that might be more a case of the improvement in the Mavericks offensively over what they accomplished in the first half. I guess the good news for UMD is that the Huskies are a team that they did well against in December.

I’ll have more to say about Minnesota-Duluth next week after I watch its games hosting Minnesota this weekend. Senior Kayla Black played both games in Mankato, so it looks like she’s emerged from the traffic jam in the crease to be the primary goaltender. Other than that, it looks like offensively the Bulldogs still live or die on what they get from the first-line trio of senior Michela Cava and juniors Ashleigh Brykaliuk and Lara Stalder. All have point totals in the 30s, so they’re doing their part. It helps UMD’s cause if someone else emerges or the goaltending and defense clamp down.

The Huskies are in the midst of a rough stretch where they played the other three ranked teams in the WCHA, and now they head to Grand Forks. Minnesota State seemed to catch the Fighting Hawks in a bit of a letdown after playing in Madison, so St. Cloud State will hope for some of the same with UND having just played an emotional series in Minneapolis. If the Huskies can’t gain ground on UMD this weekend and they head into the final weekend needing a series win, I’d say that is unlikely unless Katie Fitzgerald can steal some points in their net. The Bulldogs have more offensive potential in their top line, and neither supporting cast gets on the board that frequently.

When it comes down to fifth versus sixth, I’m not sure it matters all that much. We aren’t likely to know who is third and fourth or fifth and sixth until the season is over and the matchups are locked in. North Dakota and Bemidji State are roughly equivalent in terms of the likelihood that a second-divison team is going to be able to skate into their barn and pull an upset in the playoffs. A best-of-three series makes it rather unlikely. Bemidji State has been very upset-proof, and once the Fighting Hawks are focused and in postseason mode, they should be as well.

I expect we’ll see some tight contests in those series, and maybe a road team can force a rubber game. It looks almost certain that Minnesota State’s trip to Madison this weekend is a trial run for a WCHA quarterfinal in two weeks. That leaves Ohio State heading to Minnesota. I expect both road teams to produce closer contests than we saw in the first half of the season, but inevitably, the hosts should sweep.

One place where we got some answers this week was the second tier of Hockey East. I think we favored Connecticut to eventually pull away and take fourth, but the Huskies got some help in that regard when Vermont went to New Hampshire and swept a couple of close games. Meanwhile, Connecticut lost the close game with BC, but took care of business with a win over Providence. Now the Huskies are up five points on both UNH and Vermont with two weeks left, and if they have a good weekend hosting Maine, they can clinch home ice.

I tried to sort through the bottom half of Hockey East last week. Do you have any new insight on that group?

Candace: So not. I did not see Vermont sweeping New Hampshire. It looks like the Wildcats reverted to October form at a most inopportune time. Now those two are tied for fifth. I also didn’t see Maine leapfrogging Providence, though the Bears benefited by getting to sweep Merrimack this past weekend. Now the Bears close by facing Connecticut twice, games that will be tough to win. Providence has Merrimack this weekend, so a Connecticut sweep and a Providence sweep could move the Friars back into seventh.

As for fifth versus sixth, New Hampshire has it tough from here on out, with a home-and-home against Boston University this weekend and then two against Connecticut to close, while Vermont ends with two against Merrimack, so I think the Catamounts will end up in fifth and the Wildcats in sixth. It’s interesting that New Hampshire’s two possible first-round opponents are the ones it faces in the remaining two weekends.

Once the playoffs start, I expect the top four to advance. In a best-of-three, I don’t see the road teams winning two games from any of the top four teams. Connecticut is the only one that might be vulnerable, but the Huskies just swept Vermont two weeks ago in Burlington, so I doubt a change of venue to Hartford is going to make any difference. Then the question becomes can Northeastern or Boston University beat Boston College, as I expect the Eagles to defeat Connecticut in the semifinals of the Hockey East tournament. While Connecticut threw a scare into the Eagles this past weekend, I do think some of that might have been anticipating the two Northeastern games this week.

If that’s the case, the Eagles showed no sign of nerves last night, defeating Northeastern 7-0 to claim their sixth Beanpot, and their first with Alex Carpenter skating for the team. The Eagles last won the Beanpot in 2014, when Carpenter was with the U.S. Olympic Team, and they lost to Northeastern in Carpenter’s first two Beanpots, so this tournament was like the Carpenter revenge tour, even if she factored into only one goal of BC’s touchdown last night. Carpenter did have a goal disallowed by a quick whistle at the end of the first too. BC had better be prepared for Friday’s rematch, because Northeastern is going to bring it.

The third-place game was a microcosm of Boston University’s struggles, as the Terriers had a two-goal lead twice and couldn’t hold it, losing to Harvard 5-3. I saw some of that game, and while BU looked to have good offense, the defense showed a lot of vulnerability, giving up too many good chances in close.

We haven’t touched on the CHA yet, except that I think Mercyhurst will likely take the division crown. Do you have any more insight on that league after this weekend?

Arlan: The Saturday Syracuse at Penn State game was televised on BTN, so I got to watch Syracuse for the first time all season. I think it was last week that you speculated whether the Orange just put shots on net from anywhere and thus got their high shot totals. From that game, I’d say yes and no. They do focus on generating shots, but they are shots with a purpose. They’ll take some shots from distance, but they always seem to have traffic in front looking for screens and tips. Some of the shots were low on the ice, and with most teams I think the expectation is that the skaters will be able to block and clear those before they ever cause a problem for their goaltender. Penn State failed to do so on a couple of occasions and paid the price.

The other thing I saw from Syracuse was that at least against the Nittany Lions, it had an advantage in zone time as it built its lead. If the puck is mostly in your offensive zone, you tend to get a bounce eventually. The blue liners for the Orange are an efficient bunch that play the body effectively and are able to move the puck out of their own end. If it gets good goaltending, I think that Syracuse can be a dangerous team, and against Penn State on Saturday, the only goal Jenn Gilligan allowed was one where she had no chance.

Speaking of goaltending, Mercyhurst has primarily been starting Sarah McDonnell in recent weeks. On Friday, Jessica Convery got the start and responded with a 31-save shutout to get her first win. A day later, Convery earned her second victory in a less-spectacular, 6-3 fashion. Whether that’s a sign that McDonnell wasn’t 100 percent or it was just a veteran coach playing a hunch I don’t know. It wasn’t like McDonnell played poorly in her last start, when the Lakers lost 2-1 in overtime to Syracuse. We’ll have to see who gets the call on Friday when Mercyhurst heads to RIT.

I agree that the Lakers look destined to close out their season title. Their 10 goals at Robert Morris were the most they’ve scored in a series this year, so they look to be getting hot at the right time. Once the postseason gets underway, they’ll be the favorites with Syracuse a close second, but after the last couple of years, I don’t want to turn my back on RIT. They look nothing like a team that is on the verge of a run, but they weren’t inspiring a lot of confidence last year at this time. The Tigers seemed to steady a bit once Jetta Rackleff returned from injury. She only has a couple of wins, but in conference, she’s stopping almost 95 percent of the shots.

Remembering Jack Riley, a patriarch of U.S. hockey

Jack Riley coached for 35 seasons at Army West Point, then turned the program over to sons Rob and Brian (photo: Army West Point Athletics).

I first met Jack Riley before a Cape Cod Bluefins game in the independent Federal Hockey League back in the spring of 2011. He was the invited, honored guest tasked with dropping a ceremonial first puck, while I was there to handle music played during the game. I distinctly remember trying to get out of handling the music to go have a day to myself, but my brother, the public address announcer, kept telling me that he wanted me to go because he wanted me to keep him company in the booth.

Ordinarily, I like to think I would’ve jumped at the chance to see a gold-medal hockey coach, especially one who was from the old Greater Boston neighborhoods my family grew up in, but the truth is, I didn’t know much about the 1960 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team. The only thing I knew was that it was the last gold medal before 1980.

Getting the chance to meet Riley, though, changed everything. After that one game, my mind began attempting to quench a thirst for knowledge about the 1960 team. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who didn’t know much about something referred to as the “Forgotten Miracle.”

In 1960, it wasn’t just that the United States won the gold medal; it stood just as dominant as any Olympic team ever, including the mighty Soviet Union. During the group phase, the U.S. defeated Czechoslovakia 7-5 and creamed Australia, leading 9-0 after two periods and ultimately rolling to a 12-1 final. The Americans went 5-0 during the medal round, which was a round robin, including a 2-1 win over Canada and a 3-2 win over the rival Soviets in which they came back from a 2-1 deficit.

Since 1960, there have been 14 Winter Olympic Games, and USA has medaled in only four. It was the only American gold until 1980, and even then, the ’60 team was perfect, while the more-famous Miracle on Ice team, undefeated in its own right, tied Sweden 2-2 in its first game.

Riley’s impact went well beyond coaching that 1960 team. In 35 seasons at Army West Point, he coached the Cadets to 542 wins, second-most all-time when he retired. Nearly 20 years later, that number is still 18th-best among any coach in any division. He had only seven seasons under .500, including one in his last 13 years behind the bench, coaching at a place he loved, respected and admired.

Whenever I speak with Jack’s son, current Army coach Brian Riley, I’m often told about what makes coaching at Army West Point so special. He always talks about the kinship among cadets, how that’s something that’s impossible to weave out of your personal fabric. He pointed specifically to Jack and said: “I used to wonder why my dad stayed at West Point. He was a successful coach … so I used to wonder why he didn’t go up to a place like Boston for a larger college job. But now that I sit in his chair, I know why he stayed.”

To really drive the point home, consider this: The current season marks the 65th consecutive year that a member of the Riley family stands behind the bench. What started in 1950 with Jack went to Brian’s brother Rob before coming to their current coach.

So it was incredibly fitting last weekend that Army took three points from Holy Cross, including a win before a sold-out crowd honoring three former players who played during the Jack Riley era. And it’s even more special that his grandson, also named Jack, scored an empty-net goal to seal a Mercyhurst victory over Bentley that same night.

When Jack Riley passed away last week, I thought back to that first meeting in Hyannis and how I didn’t really know, at the time, about his impact on the game. Then I thought about how fortunate I really was for having had multiple interactions with him. Jack Riley is, was, and will forever be a patriarch of United States hockey, a true legend, and one that should never be forgotten, no matter how people refer to his miracle.

Top line powers Bentley

Bentley’s Max French has five points in his last three games (photo: Omar Phillips).

On Friday night, the Bentley Falcons opened up a 2-0 lead on Mercyhurst, then used a two-goal third period to finish off a 4-1 victory. It was their fifth straight game without a defeat, and although the Lakers snapped that streak with a 5-2 win on Saturday, it helped Atlantic Hockey’s easternmost school step one foot ahead of Canisius for sixth place just three weeks after it sat in eighth.

“I thought we played really well,” said Falcons coach Ryan Soderquist. “We picked up a big win on Friday, and I thought we played well on Saturday [despite the loss]. We were right there, but we had a couple of penalties at a couple of bad times.”

Bentley’s breakout is due in no small part to an increase in play at both ends of the ice. Since the American International weekend kicking off their recent 3-1-2 stretch, the Falcons scored 24 goals, nearly 75 percent of which came from either Andrew Gladiuk, Max French or Kyle Schmidt.

Even so, with their top scorers finding their groove, it’s been more important to get depth goals out of players like Michael Reardon, Cody DePourcq, Jake Ahlgren and Will Suter.

“There isn’t a top line or power-play unit that will be able to go wire to wire, so I’m really happy to see our top line overcome their challenges and lead by example,” said Soderquist. “As they go, it helps build confidence and gets the other lines involved in the games.

“But you have to have depth scoring. You can lean on things like special teams and goaltending, but secondary scoring gets you over the hurdle in our league. Every single team is well coached, so they all bring a tough challenge every night to everyone’s top line. You overcome that by getting other players involved and getting depth scoring.”

At the same time, the Falcons dramatically cut their goals allowed. In the four games before their streak, Bentley allowed five or more goals three times while posting a cumulative save percentage of .867 between senior Gabe Antoni and sophomore Jayson Argue. Over that same stretch, the defense held opponents to fewer than 30 shots only once.

Throughout their undefeated streak, they allowed more than three goals only once, posting a save percentage of .909. They’ve held opponents under 20 shots twice, pointing to the total team effort and two-way hockey stressed by their coach.

“Having two goalies is like having depth scoring,” said Soderquist. “It gets the team going, knowing that if one guy is having an off day, they have another guy there to lift them up. Having both [Antoni and Argue] playing at a high level is a great benefit, so we take it game by game and day by day.”

With five games left to play, Bentley is still within striking distance of the Lakers for Atlantic Hockey’s final first-round bye, but the Falcons will need some help if they want a week off. They trail Mercyhurst by three points for fifth place but do not hold a head-to-head tiebreaker against any of the teams in front of them. That puts a premium on points, especially this weekend against a Canisius team one point behind the Falcons in seventh place.

“We definitely aren’t thinking about [the playoff race],” said Soderquist. “We didn’t think about it in October, we didn’t think about it at Christmas break, and we’re not thinking about it now. We need to be ready to play any game wherever against whomever. In our league, teams can finish first, win the league and get to the NCAA tournament, but they can finish sixth too [and do the same]. The key is just to be playing your best hockey at the right time.”

Still unbeaten

Air Force’s three-point weekend at home against Rochester Institute of Technology extended its unbeaten streak to 10 games. Now 7-0-3 in their last 10, the Falcons have their longest undefeated streak since they won 13 in a row during the 2008-09 season. Their unbeaten streak tied No. 1 Quinnipiac for the longest in the nation.

In the process, they snapped RIT’s eight-game unbeaten streak. The Falcons’ 4-0 win on Saturday was the Tigers’ first road loss of the season.

Shooting bricks

Robert Morris and Sacred Heart had themselves quite the weekend with a pair of one-goal games. Although the Colonials swept the Pioneers, goaltenders Terry Shafer and Brett Magnus combined for 113 saves. Magnus stopped 62 shots, but Shafer, by virtue of his two wins, picked up weekly honors.

What gets lost in the shuffle is that they performed at such a high level despite an abundance of physicality. After the teams combined for 12 penalties and 24 minutes on Friday, Saturday devolved into a long day at the office, with 24 calls for 75 minutes whistled.

One game misconduct was handed out, with two additional 10-minute penalties assessed. Referees called five unsportsmanlike conduct or hitting after the whistle penalties. With emotions running hot, the goalies kept their cool and performed brilliantly.

Playoff update

As of the end of last weekend, Robert Morris, Air Force, RIT, Holy Cross and Mercyhurst all control their destiny for first-round byes. If the season ended today, Mercyhurst would travel to Holy Cross to continue what’s become an incredible playoff rivalry over the past few years. The Lakers would finish for the second straight year as the fifth-place team with a bye but forced to go on the road.

Because Army West Point went 2-1-1 this year against Sacred Heart, it joins Bentley and Canisius as teams currently hosting in the first round. The Black Knights would host the Pioneers, with whom they’re tied with 19 points, while Canisius would play Niagara and Bentley would play American International. Having won three games against the Yellow Jackets this season, the Purple Eagles hold that head-to-head tiebreaker.

We’ll break down how that changes after the weekend and check in with what scenarios are clinched altogether since there are a number of scenarios in play this weekend that could result in first-round byes and first-round road fates being sealed.

Players of the week

Player of the week — Bentley’s Andrew Gladiuk: Gladiuk took home POTW honors for the second time in three weeks thanks to two goals and two assists against Mercyhurst. His 70 career goals rank three behind Brett Gensler for the most in Bentley’s Division I program history. His 142 career points ranks second behind Gensler’s 167.

Defenseman of the week — Niagara’s Niko Kovachis: Great to see a young Purp make this list after earning points in both games, including a game-winning goal on Saturday, in the weekend sweep of AIC.

Rookie of the week — Mercyhurst’s Lester Lancaster: Lancaster had four points in the Lakers’ weekend series against the Falcons, including a three-point game during Saturday’s win. Mercyhurst’s hard-earned victory on Saturday keeps it in fifth place on the inside of the bye bubble in Atlantic Hockey.

Goaltender of the week — Robert Morris’ Terry Shafer: In what might’ve been the series of the weekend, the Colonials came away with a pair of one-goal victories paved by their goalie. Shafer stopped 51 of 53 shots on the weekend, lowering his GAA to 2.36 and increasing his save percentage to .933.

Sacred Heart’s Nylen slapped with one-game suspension from Atlantic Hockey

Atlantic Hockey has issued a one-game suspension to Sacred Heart junior defenseman Mitch Nylen.

The suspension comes after the league reviewed the play that drew a major penalty for charging and a game misconduct on Feb. 6 against Robert Morris. Nylen made contact with the head of a Robert Morris player, which brought on the one-game suspension.

Sacred Heart is off this weekend, but Nylen will be required to serve his suspension in the Pioneers’ next game on Feb. 19 at Canisius.

Messa Rink to get $10 million renovation makeover

Union’s home arena, Messa Rink, will soon be undergoing $10 million in renovations, according to the Daily Gazette.

The college has approved fundraising to renovate the nearly 41-year-old facility, Union athletic director Jim McLaughlin told the paper.

There is no timetable yet for the project.

“It will be all fund-raised, just like the majority of our capital improvements on campus,” McLaughlin said.

The project looks to include a new video scoreboard, a new entrance across from Bailey Field, a new floor for the ice surface, along with new boards and glass, new coaches’ offices, a hospitality room that will look out at the rink and Bailey Field and new concession stands and bathrooms on both sides of the rink.

New seating is also part of the proposal. Many of the seats in the lower level will go right up to the glass and will have back support. The upper-level seating will be bleacher seats.

“Our plan is to make sure we have the right amenities for our fans to have a terrific experience,” McLaughlin said in the report. “We have a terrific product on the ice, but we need to make sure that we service our fans and alumni well. We’ve been looking at this for the past couple of years. We’ve been working with Clough, Harbour and Associates. We have gone through a few iterations on designs. They’ve come back with something that we feel good about.

“We just feel that it’s time. This is a building that was built in the mid ’70s for one Division III program. Through that 40-year period, it’s now housing two Division I programs. It’s just time to take a look at upgrades to the rink. We want this done as quickly as possible. We want to make sure that we do it in a fiscally responsible way. That’s how we’ve always done things on this campus, and we’ll continue to do that.”

Union men’s coach Rick Bennett told the Gazette that “it’s a really exciting time to be a part of Union hockey, especially as a player.”

“It’s a feel-good thing. Hopefully, it’s going to happen here soon. For all the alums and the players, the buzz around campus is going to be an exciting time. I don’t feel we went into this trying to keep up with the Joneses. I feel we needed to correct some things. This was more about Union College and Union hockey than worrying about others. I feel that’s the way the school has always gone about its business. It’s gone about its business in a right way. The way they’re approaching this is first class.

“I know when that shovel goes in the ground, the right plan is in place.”

Kessel takes risks to pursue the dream

Minnesota's Amanda Kessel (Ryan Coleman/Ryan Coleman, USCHO.com)

Minnesota’s Amanda Kessel returned to the Gophers lineup this weekend after two years away due to the Olympics and a concussion. (Ryan Coleman/Ryan Coleman, USCHO.com)

I like watching thoroughbreds run. Some people don’t; they think it is cruel to the horses. If their point is to do everything within the sport to protect the health of the horses, I can agree with them. If they believe that horse racing should be outlawed to ensure that no horse will ever break down on the track, then I’m not sure how it benefits the horse. The people who invest millions of dollars in raising and caring for racehorses aren’t likely to continue to do it if all the horse does is stand in a stall or graze in a pasture. Maybe the thought is that an animal that has been domesticated for generations will somehow find a niche in nature. It’s a nice thought.

Anyway, when I watch a horse run, to me it looks like it is doing what it was born to do, and there is a beauty in that.

Amanda Kessel likely wasn’t born to be a hockey player, but she has certainly evolved into an exemplary one. Like a thoroughbred, she can cover distance rapidly and make it look almost effortless. That she can combine speed that few female hockey players can match with soft hands and a head for the game makes her a rare talent.

Due to lingering symptoms from a concussion suffered while she was part of the United States Olympic Team, Kessel announced her retirement from the sport in July 2015. On February 3, 2016, Minnesota announced that she was rejoining the team for an abbreviated and long-delayed senior season.

“It’s awesome for women’s hockey; it really is,” coach Brad Frost said. “We’ve been a pretty good team here this year and haven’t seen too many people around. When she got her concussion, it was probably one of the most notable things in women’s hockey a few years ago, and now her coming back is probably the most notable thing currently.”

Kessel’s first game back in the Gophers’ lineup on Friday drew a crowd of 2,635 and a media contingent at least the equal of an NCAA quarterfinal. Normally at Ridder Arena, the center is the last of the starters announced. On Friday, the last starter introduced was the home team’s right wing, a senior from Madison, Wis.

“I actually debated it, just because of certain line matchups that we wanted,” Frost said. “I asked Joel Johnson, my assistant, ‘We’ve got to start her, right?’ He said, ‘Absolutely.’ When we did, it was pretty emotional. To see our team support Amanda with their stick taps the way they did, and to hear the crowd. I don’t think I’ve heard it that loud since we won the national championship here. I think so many people were just so excited to see her work her way back to where she is now.”

During previous introductions on home ice, Kessel has tended to be reserved, but on Friday, she couldn’t hide a smile as she stood on the blue line and the fans roared.

“I thought I’d be a lot more emotional,” Kessel said. “I think kind of yesterday, I got all my emotions out, but more just excitement. I woke up this morning, and I was pumped to play. It’s been a long road, but it felt great to be back out there on the ice and representing the University of Minnesota.”

For a time, that road seemed to be leading nowhere as far as her hockey career was concerned, culminating in her retirement, but shortly thereafter, the prognosis changed.

“It was back in August,” Kessel said. “I saw some new doctors, and they told me, ‘You’re going to play hockey. You’re OK, and you’re just going to have to work through this.’ I’ve been working my tail off for a few years, but I really started changing then, and I knew I’d be back playing.”

The improvement hastened with a more aggressive approach.

“It’s just physical activity,” Kessel said. “I wasn’t doing any physical activity, and kind of the new treatment [for] concussions, you just kind of attack them, and you get back out there and you exert yourself. Really just getting to the point that I could fully exert myself after not doing that for a couple years, that was really the treatment that helped me.”

Eventually, her status as a former Gopher began to change.

“I’d gotten a call in August just saying that Amanda was coming back to school, which was still kind of up in the air, and that her doctor was encouraging her to start skating on her own a little bit,” Frost said. “I always had it in the back of my head that I guess there was potential, but I always thought it was a long shot, just because of the things that had been going on previously.”

Being able to return to the life of a normal college student was a gigantic step, but varsity hockey remained an unrealistic hope as the 2015-16 season began.

“Really I think probably starting in the new year here, I thought that there was maybe a 50-50 chance, but I never wanted to get my hopes up, because one, it would take the focus off of our team and who we had on the ice, and secondly, it just may not have happened,” Frost said. “Over the last month or so, continued to get more and more opinions and some clearance there, and Amanda was practicing with us over the last month, full go, and she was great. So it’s not like she just started skating last week and we threw her in there. Our priority the whole time has been her health, and if she wasn’t 100 percent healthy, then there’s no way we would have allowed her to play.”

Neither the coaching staff nor Kessel had the final say on her dressing for games.

“She had been cleared for practice and those types of things, but our medical people needed second, third opinions,” Frost said. “They wanted to make sure that everything was buttoned up, dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s before they made that decision.”

There are many well-intentioned people of the opinion that the risk of re-injury is too great and anyone with a similar medical history should walk away from the game, even if they’ve received medical clearance.

“I think anything is possible,” Kessel said. “I think I would regret it if I didn’t work to get to this point. Playing for the Gophers has been some of the best memories of my life, so it was devastating to think that I wasn’t going to be able to finish out a year, so I guess it’s pretty much a dream come true to come back and really be out there. I was just sitting in the locker room, and I was just, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’”

Whether her teammates believed that No. 8 was back on the ice or not, they fed off the energy of the moment.

“I think any time you play North Dakota, we’re going to be amped up and ready to go, but having Amanda back, obviously, was a huge boost to that,” Hannah Brandt said. “Personally, I couldn’t have been more excited to be back with her. I think everyone was just so excited for her to get another chance to play hockey, to play here at the U of M.”

During Kessel’s junior season in which she totaled 101 points, Brandt, then a freshman, was her center.

“Hannah’s one of my favorite people that I’ve ever played with, so to get back and playing was awesome, but then to know that I was going to get another chance to play with Hannah, I was even more happy,” Kessel said.

Having not played a game in two years, there was some doubt as to just how much Kessel could contribute in her return to the ice.

“It was not my 100 percent game shape, but I think I went in there expecting that and just trying to have fun and help the team in any way I could to get a win,” she said. “Your legs, no matter now hard you train, there’s nothing that you can do to really get in game shape without playing in games. I had to expect that, and even though I would have wanted to be in 110 percent game shape, I knew I wasn’t going to be.”

While perhaps not quite what she displayed during her junior season, Kessel was pretty good on Friday for someone who last played in a college game when a number of her current teammates were high school sophomores.

“These were probably the shortest shifts that Hannah and Dani [Cameranesi] have had all year,” Frost said. “Amanda was usually the first one off, and when one of your linemates gets off, you usually follow a few seconds later. You could just tell Amanda was getting a little tired. She’s one of the best players in the world at pacing herself and being at full speed when she needs to be. There’s some players that just go 100 miles an hour all the time. She’s got enough ability and hockey sense to pick and choose her spots.”

Kessel was buzzing and set up Brandt in the slot for a shot that smacked the crossbar on the second shift for their line with Cameranesi.

Amanda Kessel (22) and Hannah Brandt (8) celebrate Kessel's second goal of the evening and 36th of the year in the Gophers' 5-0 rout of Minnesota-Duluth on February 1, 2013 at Ridder Arena....Unauthorized reproduction of d3photography.com photos is strictly forbidden (resale, reproduction);.use in advertising (for profit or at a loss) is a violation of the Student-Athlete's eligibility to compete...NCAA Bylaw 12.5.2.2 - Use of a Student-Athlete's Name or Picture Without Knowledge or Permission..If a student-athlete's name or picture appears on commercial items (e.g., T-shirts, sweatshirts, serving trays, playing cards, posters) or is used to promote a commercial product sold by an individual or agency without the student-athlete's knowledge or permission, the student-athlete (or the institution acting on behalf of the student-athlete) is required to take steps to stop such an activity in order to retain his or her eligibility for intercollegiate athletics. Such steps are not required in cases in which a student-athlete's photograph is sold by an individual or agency (e.g., private photographer, news agency) for private use. (Revised: 1/11/97, 5/12/05) (Ryan Coleman/Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com)

Amanda Kessel (22) and Hannah Brandt (8) were back together on a line in Kessel’s return (Ryan Coleman/Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com)

“I think it was pretty easy to get back playing with her,” Brandt said. “She’s the easiest person to play with probably in the world, so it was pretty easy for me. I don’t know if she could say the same, but it was a lot of fun today.”

When the Gophers went on a power play later in the first period, Kessel got a couple whacks at a puck on the edge of the crease, Cameranesi collected the rebound behind the net and fed an open Brandt in front. With the secondary assist, Kessel had her first point of the season and added another when she spotted an open Sophie Skarzynski in the third period.

“This past week was really the first time that the three of them skated together,” Frost said. “They’ve only had a few practices together and now a game. But that’s the great thing, if teams focus on Kessel and Hannah, you’ve got another future Olympian that you’re going to have to deal with that’s a top-five scorer in the country right now.”

On Friday, North Dakota fell, 3-0, to Minnesota and its reconfigured top line.

“The three of them are pretty dynamic, but the other thing it does is that now Sarah Potomak can be on our second line and our second line is really good,” Frost said. “I think one of the biggest things is Cara Piazza was centering our third line, and I thought our third line was awesome tonight. I was able to have a lot of confidence having Cara’s line out there against the top North Dakota line with [Amy] Menke and [Meghan] Dufault. The trickle down effect makes us a lot better. Brook Garzone, first game at D in a couple years, played really well. Milica [McMillen] goes out [with an injury], so [Skarzynksi] has to go back [to the blue line]. The depth that we have on our team is real good right now.”

Even with that depth, the Fighting Hawks rose up on Saturday, ground out a scoreless tie with Minnesota, and won the shootout in the 11th round. Kessel scored the Gophers’ only shootout goal, but was held without an official goal for the second straight game.

“She’s a little frustrated,” Frost said. “She’s probably the most competitive kid I’ve coached, and she’s kind of a perfectionist. She was getting a little frustrated when things weren’t going in the net, but it’s just a matter of time.”

Gelling will take some games.

“I think just all five skaters on the ice,” Brandt said. “She has never played with the majority of the people on this team. For me and her, it’s not too hard, I don’t think; it’s a little adjustment. I think just getting used to the new defenders that she’s going to be playing with and having Dani on the wing. It’s not hard, but it’s definitely just different from what it used to be. I thought even [her second game] was better than [her first], even though we couldn’t score. But we got more chances, I thought.”

She saw positive signs in her right wing’s game.

“[Friday] was just so many distractions, her first game back,” Brand said. “I could tell as the game went on, I could feel the old Kessel coming back, just the things she was saying. [Saturday] for sure, that competitiveness was 100 percent there. Every time we missed a play, you could tell how badly she wanted to be out there and to get that goal for our team. Whatever it takes, she literally wanted to be able to do it for us. It’s good to see her like that. It’s a good sign of things to come for our team.”

Only, Brandt, Garzone, McMillen, Lee Stecklein, and goaltender Amanda Leveille were her teammates the last time Kessel played for the Gophers.

“It’s definitely different,” Kessel said. “I think it’s kind of fun. You’ve got these freshmen that are really excited, and they’re a lot younger than me. It’s just a bunch of great kids. To see the excitement in them and to be able to help them, I think I’ve got to take a little bit different of a viewpoint and appreciate things a lot more.”

Two games into Kessel’s encore, the Gophers may not look like championship favorites, but they definitely have more potential than they did before her return. Brandt in particular showed more spark than she has in weeks in an injury-plagued senior season.

“Feeling better, for sure,” Brand said. “I think ‘Kess’ coming back gave everyone a little extra step, including myself.”

“I think it picked our team up a little bit,” Frost said. “And it has been hard. We’ve been playing in a lot of real tough games and trying to gut some things out. I’ve been really happy with our team and how they’ve found ways to win against a real good Bemidji State and a Mankato team that was playing desperate. I think any time you get a player with the caliber of Amanda, it has to give you a boost. It’s great for her, but it’s great for our team as well.”

In 2013, Kessel was named the 16th recipient of the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award. Included among the award’s selection criteria are, “a love of the sport,” and, “an ongoing willingness to participate.”

In the aftermath of her concussion, Kessel has certainly exhibited both of those qualities. But isn’t she worried about suffering another injury?

“No, not at all,” Kessel said. “If I was going to come back, I was going to be 100 percent healthy, otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.”

That’s the problem; healthy people can suffer concussions as well. Everyone who has ever battled concussions and their effects at some point suffered her first when she was healthy and no more at risk than anyone else.

“She saw a lot more contact [Friday] than she’s seen in practice,” Frost said. “Even though we have contact, everybody’s pretty tame that way. I think it was great. She drew the first penalty of the game with that cross-check, and she got banged around a little bit, and that’s what she needs for her own sake and her own confidence and the confidence of everybody else, just to know that she really is good to go.”

In the end, each of us must make a personal decision on what risks we wish to take. Several months after giving birth to her daughter Serena, Patty Kazmaier-Sandt died at age 28 from the blood disorder thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, for which pregnancy is a predisposing factor.

Health is precious, but so is being able to do the things in life that we love most, even things that come with risk, like playing hockey. For those who say that Kessel had nothing to prove in the sport, she hasn’t returned because she wishes to add to her legacy.

“It’s about the team and our success,” she said. “Really, the memories that you make — that’s what it comes down to. That’s what you remember, what you did with your teammates and how you are as people.”

TMQ: Despite some stumbles, top teams have cemented their status

Troy Stecher and North Dakota are 6-1-1 since the break (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

Each week during the season we look at the big events and big games around Division I men’s college hockey in Tuesday Morning Quarterback.

Paula: It is good to be back, Jim, and I want to thank Candace Horgan for filling in for me last week. I also want to remind everyone to get their flu shots next year.

I know it’s a week late, but I do want to start by saying what a great event the Big Ten’s Super Saturday was in Madison Square Garden on Jan. 30. I know that the afternoon basketball game was well attended, and the hockey game had over 13,000 fans in the stands — and the atmosphere was great. Fans of both teams traveled but there were more Penn State fans than Michigan fans, and until the Wolverines blew open the game in the third period, the Nittany Lions had a home-ice advantage with a very lively fan base.

We were lucky, too, that the weather cooperated. After the game, I heard fans of both teams talking about how much they enjoyed the day.

Now to the present. With so little time left in the regular season, I am finding it interesting how the top teams in the PairWise Rankings are holding on, more or less, to those top 10 spots. Even with some stumbles among the top teams — St. Cloud’s split with Miami, another tie for Quinnipiac, Michigan’s split with Michigan State — the top teams in the country appear to be the top teams in the country, if that makes sense. Given how much parity we saw earlier in the season, it seems to me that those near the top of the rankings have their fates in their own hands.

Jim: It’s great to have you back and as close to 100 percent as possible after your bout with the flu.

I do agree with your assessment of the PairWise Rankings. The top teams at this point seem to have solidified their tickets to the NCAA tournament. I am pretty comfortable with saying that Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State, North Dakota, Boston College and Providence will all make the NCAA field. I am also close to crowning Michigan in that group, which would be the first bid for the Wolverines since 2012.

After that, however, I think there is plenty of room for fluctuation. If any of the teams below Providence nose dive through the end of the season, an NCAA tournament spot is very much in jeopardy.

That said, there are also teams very much on the upswing. Clarkson and Robert Morris have played themselves back toward the NCAA bubble. Robert Morris, in particular, interests me. If the Colonials — and that is a big if — run the table in regular season, advance to the Atlantic Hockey title game and lose, there is a decent chance that they’d earn an at-large bid. The Colonials’ RPI would raise to one of the top 12 or so, a critical factor in determining the NCAA field. If that were to happen, Atlantic Hockey would earn two NCAA tournament bids.

I can almost hear the whining now of all the teams sitting on the NCAA bubble. Can’t you?

Paula: Ah, the Annual Bubble Whining! I remember the last couple of CCHA tournaments I covered in Joe Louis Arena, when there were a couple of different CCHA teams on the bubble each year. Assistant coaches would seek me out after games were over Friday night to quiz me about all possible permutations. Every year, my answer was the same. I told them that I hoped that they would fare well, and I told them — gently — that had they had taken care of business a bit better during the regular season, they wouldn’t be watching their fates decided by the play and luck of other teams.

Robert Morris is an especially interesting team. The Colonials’ defense is OK, but the offense is so good (4.11 goals per game) that they have the sixth-best scoring margin in the country. Plus, Robert Morris has good wins over Michigan, Penn State and UMass-Lowell. The Colonials are well coached and play to the best of their ability, so they’re a bubble team worth watching.

Three other bubble teams have captured my interest: Clarkson, Dartmouth and Minnesota. After a solid start to the season, Clarkson cooled but the Golden Knights have a seven-game unbeaten streak going for them, with a record of 3-0-1 against ranked teams during that stretch. After a shaky first half, Dartmouth is 9-3 since the start of 2016, and Minnesota — which, in fairness, would interest me no matter what — sometimes plays like a mighty team and sometimes can’t get it together.

Jim: In Minnesota’s case, there is little to no room for error the rest of the way. It’s doubtful they’ll go unbeaten in Big Ten play down the stretch, so even going, say, .750 down the stretch, the Gophers could be dead in the water as they need to jump at least six more teams and have a good showing in the Big Ten tournament (that is, no one-and-done).

But Minnesota has dug its own grave. Inconsistency has keep the Gophers right around or below .500 since day one. Only one opponent down the stretch in the regular season is ranked, which in concept should translate to wins for a “good” team. But playing teams with mediocre RPIs makes it so difficult to make a major jump in the PairWise.

Dartmouth might be the craziest bubble team. Other than a five-game winning streak in January, it’s been a win-one-lose-one type of season for the Big Green. That .500 record won’t get them into the NCAA tournament, in my estimation. With games against Rensselaer, Cornell and Clarkson remaining, there are some quality wins still available, but Dartmouth needs to probably pull four wins in the regular season and advance to Lake Placid to keep its NCAA hopes alive.

Paula: Other than bubble speculation, there are good things going on in college hockey this week, including the Beanpot, which wrapped up Monday night. Why is it that only teams with “Boston” in their names have won the title since 1993?

Jim: I think when it comes to the Beanpot, the sheer pressure associated with the tournament can get to teams at times. I have seen Harvard and Northeastern play a number of times each this season and can say that neither played up to its potential for the majority of last Monday’s semifinals. Why? Who knows. But I’ve seen just about every game of the tournament in the last 20 years and I can say that, for the most part, Boston College and Boston University both play more confidently in that event than do the other two participants.

It’s a statistical abnormality that only BU or BC has won for 23 straight years. It’s even more peculiar that in 64 years Harvard and Northeastern have never played one another in the title game. Even if you said BC and BU were 75 percent favorites to win their semifinal games each year, pure statistics would tell you that a Harvard-Northeastern final should have happened a few times by this point.

There’s always 2017, right?

Thumbs up

To Minnesota State senior forward Bryce Gervais, who scored twice short-handed during the same penalty to Mankato, at 12:36 and 13:58 in the third period in last Friday’s win over Bowling Green. He was assisted on both goals by senior forward Teddy Blueger. The back-to-back shorties were the second and third on the season for Gervais, who has nine career short-handed goals.

Thumbs down

Speaking of the Beanpot earlier, thumbs down to Mother Nature, who doesn’t seem like a big fan of the Beanpot. Last year, she forced postponement of both nights of the annual tournament. This year, a week after summer-like temperatures for the semifinals, Monday’s final happened after significant snowfall in areas surrounding Boston. Don’t forget, this is a tournament that once had hundreds of fans and workers stuck at the old Boston Garden for days after the 1978 semifinals. Yes, we know playing it in February makes this seem inevitable. But couldn’t Mother Nature just make things easy the first two Mondays in Boston each February?

Coming up

No. 2 North Dakota and No. 13 Denver have the featured series in the NCHC this weekend, with a pair of games in the Mile High City.

ECAC Hockey’s race to the finish continues with No. 9 Harvard hosting No. 18 Rensselaer on Friday, No. 1 Quinnipiac playing at No. 20 Clarkson on Saturday and No. 15 Cornell hosting No. 10 Yale on Saturday.

And in Hockey East, No. 7 Boston University and No. 11 UMass-Lowell play a home-and-home series Friday and Saturday.

Beanpot consolation game has consequences for Harvard, Northeastern

The consolation game of the Beanpot always has one guarantee that goes along with it: the lack of atmosphere in the TD Garden.

In the average Beanpot year, players hope a few students make the trek from campus to join the families cheering on their loved ones to maybe make the building that seats close to 18,000 feel more like a hockey rink and less like an empty cathedral.

When Mother Nature dropped a few inches of snow on the downtown Boston area on Monday and drilled the South Shore region with blizzard conditions, the best both Northeastern and Harvard could hope for was that Boston College and Boston University fans would arrive at the Garden early just to make sure they were on time for the finals.

The empty arena, however, didn’t take away from the fact that this was about a lot more than which team wouldn’t finish last in the legendary tournament. Each team had plenty to play for.

For Northeastern, which began the season with a win against Colgate then proceeded to go 0-11-2 over the next 13 games, Monday offered hope to continue some momentum it had built.

Since losing to UMass-Lowell on Nov. 27, the last of those 13 games in that ugly stretch, the Huskies were 8-2-3 coming into Monday. In Hockey East, Northeastern was 4-1-2 in that same stretch. So despite last Monday’s loss, the consolation game provided a chance for the Huskies to keep their second-half surge moving forward.

For Harvard, the game was probably even more important. The Crimson are on track for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament, entering Monday ninth in the USCHO.com PairWise Rankings. A win could be powerful and move the Crimson to seventh, a position that at this point in the season is quite secure.

But an all-out effort by the Huskies, which included three goals in the opening 20 minutes, led to a 5-1 Northeastern win. A big positive for the Huskies.

The Crimson may leave Monday smarting. That potential seventh position in the PairWise morphed to sitting in 11th with three weekends to play in the ECAC Hockey regular season.

What’s more, Harvard’s loss on Monday culminated a recent struggle for ECAC teams against Hockey East clubs. A winning percentage that was, at one point in November, a 2-to-1 advantage against Hockey East has now basically become even (ECAC has a .508 winning percentage against Hockey East). You can’t blame Harvard for that, even though the Crimson lost each of their Beanpot games. In reality, the ECAC has 25 losses to Hockey East.

But when the league tournaments are over and the NCAA field is being selected, don’t be surprised to see an ECAC team on the NCAA bubble and possibly looking up at a Hockey East team.

These two leagues are battling it out for the final spots in the PairWise. Right now, Yale is 10th, Harvard is 11th, UMass-Lowell is 13th, Cornell is 14th, Dartmouth is 16th, Clarkson is 17th and Rensselaer is 22nd.

If we place the PairWise bubble after the 14th seed (Atlantic Hockey and the WCHA each have no teams in the top 16, thus the winners of the respective tournaments will take spots 15 and 16), four of those ECAC and Hockey East teams would be in the tournament and three would be out.

But every weekend, teams shift and shift quickly sometimes in the PairWise. Harvard faces six ECAC games before the league tournament. Three are nationally ranked. Win those games and its PairWise will benefit.

Any sort of slump, though, could be disaster for the Crimson. If Harvard loses all six remaining games, they are in oblivion, dropping to 23rd or so in the PairWise based on potential RPI. Had Harvard won Monday, it would still be on the bubble (17th) and would have a chance with some wins in the ECAC tournament.

So, yes, the Beanpot consolation game is boring and means nothing in the grand scheme of the tournament.

But if Harvard bubbles in the NCAA tournament, look back to this snowy Monday where Harvard was outplayed and lost bad and may have hurt its NCAA hopes.

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