League’s third season set to begin

Greetings, all. We hope your summer went well and that you’re as excited for the new college hockey season as we are here at USCHO.

My writing partner Candace Horgan and I are getting ready to help guide you through the NCHC’s third season. All but one of the conference’s eight teams kick off their new campaigns this weekend in exhibition action.

It all gets started on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET when No. 11 Miami hosts Western Ontario. Three hours after that begins, Western Michigan faces Lethbridge in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Attention then shifts westward as fourth-ranked North Dakota hosts Manitoba and No. 17 St. Cloud State takes on Alberta. The night’s late start (7 p.m. MT) will involve Colorado College hosting the University of Calgary.

Calgary will then make a short trip to take on No. 5 Denver on Sunday evening at DU’s Magness Arena. Meanwhile, second-ranked Minnesota-Duluth will host Lakehead.

No. 10 Omaha is the only NCHC team that will not open its 2015-16 season against Canadian opposition. Instead, UNO opens next Friday with the first game of a key early non-conference series at sixth-ranked Minnesota State.

Check back on Monday to read USCHO’s NCHC season preview. Candace and I will look at each of the league’s teams and also share with you what we think will happen in the season ahead.

Happy hockey, everyone. It’s good to be back.

Three things: March 22

Miami wins playoff title, at a cost

Congratulations are in order for the Miami RedHawks, winners of this season’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff. MU won the league’s playoff title on Saturday by virtue of a 3-2 win over St. Cloud State.

Getting past the Huskies allowed Miami to wrap up the league’s autobid into the first round of the NCAA tournament. The RedHawks will be the No. 1 seed in the East Regional – No. 4 overall – and will face Providence on Saturday in Providence, R.I.

It will undoubtedly be a home game for the Friars, but that won’t be Miami’s biggest concern this week. What will likely weigh heavier on the RedHawks’ minds is what they’ll be without when they square off against Providence.

Miami will be without forward Blake Coleman, who netted a hat trick the first 35 minutes of the RedHawks’ NCHC playoff title-clinching win. After that, though, Coleman was sent off for a contact-to-the-head misconduct call.

It was the third misconduct call leveled against him this season. As such, he will have to sit out from Miami’s next game.

The RedHawks will also be keeping a close eye on the progress of Riley Barber, who fell injured on Saturday against SCSU.

Miami’s game against Providence this next Saturday is set to start at 5:30 p.m. CT. SCSU will face Michigan Tech in Fargo, N.D. in a Midwest Regional semifinal on Friday at 3:30 p.m.

UND goes 0-2 at Frozen Faceoff

North Dakota came into the NCHC playoff championship weekend with the tournament’s No. 1 seed and looked poised to perhaps lock up the No.1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, UND fell twice in Minneapolis, falling 3-1 to reseeded No. 4 SCSU on Friday at the Target Center before dropping a 5-1 decision to Denver on Saturday in the tournament’s third-place game.

Keaton Thompson got UND on the board first 15:02 into Friday’s first semifinal game. However, Husky goals from David Morley and Joey Benik 19 seconds apart in the first period’s final minute saw SCSU take a 2-1 lead back to its dressing room. A Joe Rehkamp empty-netter in the third frame put the game to bed.

Things went no better for UND in Saturday’s third-place game. UND opened the scoring once more, this time through a Connor Gaarder goal, but the Pioneers responded with five unanswered goals from five different Denver skaters.

Denver, which was already assured of a spot in the NCAA tournament before the Frozen Faceoff began, acquitted itself well following a 6-3 semifinal loss to Miami on Friday.

UND will be the No. 1 seed in the West Regional in Fargo, just barely over an hour south of the school’s home in Grand Forks, and will face Quinnipiac on Friday at 7 p.m. CT. Denver will meet Boston College in Providence on Saturday at 2 p.m.

Six NCHC teams go dancing

An astounding six NCHC teams locked up spots in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Miami picked up the league’s autobid, while Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota, Omaha and St. Cloud State all picked up at-large bids into the national showcase.

What’s almost as impressive is that the NCAA tournament selection committee was able to keep each of those six teams apart in the first round. There are potential intraleague regional finals, perhaps, in the East Regional (Miami and Denver) and West Regional (North Dakota and St. Cloud State).

On top of the first-round meetings mentioned above, Minnesota-Duluth will face former WCHA rival Minnesota on Friday at 4:30 p.m. CT in a Northeast Regional semifinal in Manchester, N.H. On Saturday, Omaha will square off with Harvard in a Midwest Regional semifinal in South Bend, Ind., at 6:30 CT.

NCHC picks: March 21

Well, my hunch worked yesterday, as I went 2-0 (1.000), while Matthew went 1-1 (.500). On the year, I am 119-55-14 (.670), while Matthew is 112-62-14 (.632).

Let’s see how we do on the final weekend of the year.

Saturday, March 21

North Dakota vs. Denver
Candace: Neither team has lost two games on a weekend this season, but I think North Dakota will take this in a tight battle. North Dakota 3-2
Matthew: DU was underwhelming in places on Friday, and I wonder if the Pioneers will be going full-throttle in a third-place game with not a ton to play for. North Dakota 4-2

Miami vs. St. Cloud State
Candace: Miami came up short in this game last year; something tells me the RedHawks take it this year. Miami 4-2
Matthew: I had a hunch going into the weekend that the Miami-DU semifinal winner would win tonight, too. I’m sticking to that. Miami 3-1

NCHC picks: March 20

Matthew and I had identical records last week in our picks contest, going 6-3 (.667). We only rank ourselves for games correctly picked, so even though Matthew picked St. Cloud to upset Omaha, since he picked it happening in three games, our record was the same. On the year, I am 117-55-14 (.667) and Matthew is 111-61-14 (.634).

Let’s see how we do in the final weekend. Look for our Saturday picks Saturday afternoon.

Friday, March 20

Denver vs. Miami
Candace: Denver looked really good last weekend against Minnesota-Duluth, while Miami struggled. This is a rematch of last year’s NCHC championship game, but I’m going with the Pioneers to win again. Denver 3-2
Matthew: I’m tempted to take Miami here, but I have a feeling that Denver will pull it out and keep alive its chance to defend its NCHC playoff title. Denver 4-2

North Dakota v St. Cloud State
Candace: Just to pick contrarily, and because I think St. Cloud’s motivation to get one win to ensure an NCAA berth, I’ll pick an upset. St. Cloud 3-2
Matthew: SCSU needs to win a game in Minneapolis this weekend in order to get into the NCAA tournament. If that win’s going to come, I think it’d have to happen in the third-place game on Saturday. North Dakota 3-2

Three things: March 15

The semifinals for the Frozen Faceoff are set. Given how competitive play between teams in the NCHC has been this season, perhaps the most surprising thing about the quarterfinal round is that three teams swept their series. There was only one upset, as the 1, 2, and 4 seeds advanced in North Dakota, Miami, and Denver, while No. 6 St. Cloud bedeviled No. 3 Omaha once again, sweeping the series in Omaha.

In the semis, North Dakota will face St. Cloud and Miami will face Denver.

Here are three things we learned.

Omaha fades again
There had been signs, yes. After finishing January in first place after splitting two overtime decisions against North Dakota, Omaha started February with a loss to Western Michigan. The Mavericks went 1-3-2 in February, and 1-0-1 against Colorado College to close the regular season on a 2-3-3 run in the regular season.

Yes, Omaha looked vulnerable. Slightly. Yet they were hosting St. Cloud, a team they’d swept at home and gotten swept by on the road. You would have thought home ice would matter. However, the Mavericks lost again, continuing a stretch in which they have not won a playoff series over the last four years.

Injuries didn’t help necessarily, as starting goalie Ryan Massa was injured in the first period Friday. However, Kirk Thompson came on strong, stopping 30 shots in a 2-1 loss in the second overtime. The game-winning goal seemed a fluke, as David Morley sent a wrist shot on net and it bounced high in the air, falling behind Thompson at 9:49.

Saturday’s game saw the Huskies jump out to a 2-0 lead after two periods. Omaha pulled its goalie with almost four minutes left, and it paid off when Grant Gallo scored to pull Omaha within one, but Joey Benik scored less than a minute later to seal the sweep for St. Cloud.

Omaha is likely high enough in the PairWise that it will qualify for the NCAA tournament, but after going 1-4-3 in its last seven, time is running out for the Mavericks to make a push.

Top line lifts Denver
“I’m sitting back in my net in awe of the plays they do,” said Denver goalie Evan Cowley of Denver’s top line of Danton Heinen, Trevor Moore, and Daniel Doremus, after Denver defeated Minnesota-Duluth 4-0 to sweep the series between the two.

DU’s top line, in particular Heinen, was key to the sweep. Heinen scored in both games, including a highlight-reel goal in the second game where he froze the defenseman, deked around him and then went top shelf in one smooth move.

Moore got Denver’s first goal, a great effort that ended with a spin-around shot that hit the post, then goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo’s leg, then went over the goal line.

In addition to the top line, Denver got balanced scoring, as Ty Loney had a hat trick in the first game, and Hobey Baker candidate Joey LaLeggia had two assists and a goal on the weekend.

Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin also praised DU’s top line, saying of Heinen, “He’s had a great year, and it’s probably one of the best lines I’ve seen. Certainly the way they’ve been playing right now the last month and a half, they’ve really caught fire, and we knew that coming in.”

Western Michigan challenges Miami
The only series to go three games pitted Miami against Western Michigan. Both teams had opportunities to sweep. The Broncos held a 3-2 lead in the first game after Kyle Novak’s goal at 1:44 of the third period, but Miami rallied with three goals, one on a power play and one into an empty net. Blake Coleman netted the game-winner.

On Saturday, Miami held the early lead after a goal by Riley Barber at 2:24 of the first, but Frederik Tiffels scored a short-handed goal to tie it, and then Tiffels gave the Broncos a lead they would never relinquish with a goal at 1:33 of the second.

In the deciding game, Scott Dornbrock put the RedHawks up in the first, Barber and Austin Czarnik scored in the second, and Coleman scored an empty-netter to seal the win.

Though Western’s season is over, the Broncos did beat every team in the conference except for North Dakota.

NCHC picks: March 15

Candace and I both predicted Miami to sweep Western Michigan this weekend in the teams’ NCHC first-round playoff series, but Western forced a Game 3 with a win last night in Game 2. Ahead of tonight’s series-decider, here are our updated predictions.

Candace: Western Michigan has made this series very hard on the RedHawks, and could have swept had it held on Friday. I still think home ice matters, though. Miami 4-3

Matthew: I have to admit I’m impressed with the Broncos, considering I thought Miami would have the easiest time of any of the favored teams in the first round. I still think Miami goes through, though, but tonight’s game will be another tight one. Miami 5-3

NCHC picks: March 13

We ended our picks race last week in the regular season with me up. Last week, I went 4-3-1 (.562)  and Matthew went 5-2-1 (.687). On the year, I finished the regular season with a very respectable 111-52-14 (.667) record, while Matthew went 105-58-14 (.632).

Let’s see how we can do in the playoffs.

Friday-Saturday-Sunday, March 13-15

Colorado College at North Dakota
Candace: CC will play North Dakota close, but lose both games. North Dakota 4-2, 3-2
Matthew: I could see this series maybe — maybe — going to three games, but for as much as I think CC could give UND headaches, I can’t see the Tigers advancing to Minneapolis. North Dakota 3-2, 5-2

Western Michigan at Miami
Candace: Western looked good last weekend in beating Minnesota-Duluth, but I think the Broncos’ season ends this weekend. Miami 3-2, 3-1
Matthew: This might be the most straightforward series for any first-round favorite. Western has been more down than up in recent weeks and I’m finding it hard to see them getting anything this weekend in Oxford. Miami 4-1, 4-2

St. Cloud State at Omaha
Candace: Like Matthew, I see it going three games, but probably see a different winner. I wonder how @RedArmyUNO feels about this? Omaha 4-2, St. Cloud 3-2, Omaha 4-3
Matthew: St. Cloud is less than a month removed from sweeping UNO in Minnesota and the Mavericks haven’t made it to a league playoff championship weekend in more than a decade. I think this series goes three, but flip a coin as to who wins the third game. Omaha 3-2, SCSU 3-1, SCSU 3-2

Minnesota-Duluth at Denver
Candace: These two teams played four times this season, and went 2-2. I like Denver to win in three. Denver 3-2, Minnesota-Duluth 3-2, Denver 4-2
Matthew: There really isn’t much to separate these two, but we often see the road team win in these middle-of-the-pack first-round series so I’ll take the Bulldogs in three. Minnesota-Duluth 2-1, Denver 3-2, UMD 4-2

Three Things: March 7

North Dakota wins Penrose Cup outright
Congratulations are in order for North Dakota, which won the NCHC regular season championship outright on Friday by virtue of a 2-1 road win over second-place Miami.

The RedHawks could have picked up a share of the Penrose Cup title if they had swept UND this weekend in Oxford Ohio. UND came into the series six points ahead of its hosts.

At the end of the weekend’s action, though, the six-point gap remained. The most notable portion happened in the series’s first game in which UND goaltender Zane McInytre stopped 43 of the 44 shots he saw in order to help his team reach one of its bigger goals for this season.

Miami exacted a certain level of revenge on Saturday by posting a 6-3 win, but UND had already gotten what it came to Oxford for. UND will host last-place Colorado College next weekend in the first round of the NCHC playoffs, while Miami will welcome Western Michigan to Steve Cady Arena.

Ortega seals place in record books
Omaha needed a win on Saturday against CC to lock home home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and one of the Mavericks’ biggest stars helped UNO make that happen.

Austin Ortega picked up his NCAA-record 11th game-winning goal of the season on Saturday in a 4-2 win over the Tigers. Seven other college players had held the previous record of 10 game-winners in a single campaign, with the last coming back in 2002.

His latest game-clinching goal couldn’t have come at a much better time, as he found a way past CC goaltender Tyler Marble with 1:55 remaining in Saturday’s game at CenturyLink Center. The goal was Ortega’s team-leading 18th of the season.

Omaha will play host to St. Cloud State next weekend in the first round of the postseason.

Denver, St. Cloud share spoils
The Denver Pioneers locked up the No. 4 seed in the NCHC playoffs thanks to one win from two games this weekend at St. Cloud State.

SCSU finished sixth in the league’s regular season standings, but they opened their last weekend before the playoffs with a loss. The Huskies didn’t allow DU to open up much separation in the game, which was tied 2-2 early in the third period, but an Adam Plant goal at 5:54 of that frame stood up as the game-winner for the Pioneers.

St. Cloud then returned the favor on Saturday by handing DU a 4-2 loss in the teams’ regular-season finale. Three SCSU goals in the second period – two from Jonny Brodzinski and another from David Morley – proved too much for DU to overcome despite a third-period comeback.

DU will host Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the playoffs. Denver and UMD finished just two points apart in the final NCHC regular season standings.



NCHC picks: March 5

Well, I don’t see any way for Matthew to catch me, so I think I’ve won our season picks race. Last week, both Matthew and I went 1-4-3 (.312), as the games we picked differently ended in ties. On the year, I am 107-49-13 (.671) and Matthew is 100-56-13 (.630).

Let’s get to the final weekend.

Friday-Saturday, March 6-7

North Dakota at Miami
Candace: I think this is a split, though if UND wins Friday, they probably sweep. Miami 3-2, North Dakota 3-1
Matthew: UND gets what it needs to win the NCHC regular season title outright, but this will likely end up in a split. North Dakota 3-1, Miami 3-1

Denver at St. Cloud
Candace: The Pioneers swept the Huskies at home back in January. I don’t think that happens again, but which night does St. Cloud win? Denver 3-2, St. Cloud 2-1
Matthew: I’ll take Denver to win both as the Pioneers work to lock up home ice next weekend. Denver 3-1, 3-2

Colorado College at Omaha
Candace: @RedArmyUNO probably will have a coronary, but even after CC picked up another league win last weekend, I have trouble seeing them get another. The Tigers haven’t won a league road game yet this year. Omaha 4-2, 4-1
Matthew: It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see CC give Omaha problems again. I’ll go out on a limb and call a split. CC 2-1, UNO 4-1

Minnesota-Duluth at Western Michigan
Candace: The Broncos gave the Bulldogs fits in January in Duluth, but I like UMD to exact some revenge. Minnesota-Duluth 3-2, 2-1
Matthew: Tough to see UMD slowing down here, even if the Bulldogs are on the road. Minnesota-Duluth 3-1, 2-1

Three things: March 1

No. 1 thrice
North Dakota, which before last weekend’s series against St. Cloud was ranked No. 1 in the USCHO Men’s D-I poll, is now the top dog in a couple of other places as well.

Thanks to UND’s sweep of St. Cloud and the tie between Minnesota State and Michigan Tech, North Dakota is now No. 1 in the PairWise rankings, barely ahead of Minnesota State, with whom UND is tied in the winning percentage rank.

More importantly, North Dakota’s sweep, combined with Miami’s split with Denver, ensures that North Dakota is at least a co-champion of the NCHC’s regular season, and co-holder of the Penrose Cup.

The only way for North Dakota not to become sole champion in the NCHC is for Miami to sweep the series between the two next weekend in Oxford, Ohio. Those wins would need to be in regulation; if North Dakota gets any points, it wins the NCHC regular season outright, as it currently has a six-point lead on the RedHawks.

Another place set
After this weekend, in which Western Michigan tied and lost to Colorado College, the Broncos are in seventh place, and can’t move any higher or lower, as they trail St. Cloud State by seven points and are ahead of Colorado College by 16 points.

St. Cloud State was swept by North Dakota, and while the sixth-place Huskies could conceivably finish fifth, they know they will be on the road regardless, as they trail fourth-place Denver by seven points.

Home ice shuffle
Four teams are battling for three home-ice spots. Miami is currently in second place with 41 points, Omaha in third with 39, Denver in fourth with 38, and Minnesota-Duluth in fifth with 36.

Entering last weekend’s games, Denver was in third place in the NCHC. After the weekend, the Pioneers are in fourth, despite splitting a series with Miami, because Omaha earned two ties/shootout wins over Minnesota-Duluth. Denver travels to St. Cloud this weekend; the Pioneers swept the Huskies in January.

In the final weekend of the year, Minnesota-Duluth travels to Western Michigan, Omaha hosts Colorado College, and Miami hosts North Dakota. Depending on how the weekend shakes out, it is still possible that second-place Miami could drop to fifth and Minnesota-Duluth could move up to second.

However, the series between Duluth and Western Michigan and Omaha and Colorado College are not pushes for the higher-ranked teams. Omaha and CC split back in January in Colorado Springs, and Western Michigan got a tie and a win against the Bulldogs the same weekend that CC beat Omaha. Miami and North Dakota split back in November.

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