NCHC picks: March 22

Well, Matthew and I went 0-2 in our first round picks. Let’s see if we can do better for the consolation and championship games.

North Dakota vs. Western Michigan
Candace: Western Michigan coach Andy Murray made a big deal about playing for a 20-win season and sending his seniors out with a big during the press conference yesterday, but North Dakota is playing for a shot at a 12th straight NCAA tournament appearance, and has demonstrated resiliency and an ability to bounce back from bad losses. North Dakota 3-1
Matthew: For as good as North Dakota had been really ever since right after Thanksgiving, UND really needs to win this third-place game to solidify its chances of nabbing an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. It’s not going to be easy, and their getting shut out by Miami Friday makes me that little bit less confident in picking UND, but I think they’ll pull it out. North Dakota 2-1

Denver vs. Miami
Candace: These two battled in the last weekend of the regular season and split in Denver, with the Pioneers winning the first game and Miami dominating the second. This game comes down to how the best NCHC goaltender of the year, Sam Brittain, holds up against the trio of Blake Coleman, Austin Czarnik, and Riley Barber. The RedHawks have been hot, and I think they take this. Miami 3-1
Matthew: It almost seems absurd to think that anyone could’ve predicted back in October that, once we got to the NCHC playoff championship game, it’d be played by two teams that finished the regular season in the bottom half of the league but now are one win away from going to the NCAA tournament. Here we are, though, and I’m going to make a prediction that’s perhaps almost as surprising: I like Miami in this game. They finished last in the league in the regular season, but they seemed to sort out their offense in their first-round sweep at St. Cloud State and then shored up the defense – which has been a bigger worry for the RedHawks – last night in a 3-0 win over North Dakota. Denver’s a very decent team and has maybe the best college goaltender in the country, but can Miami beat the Pioneers? I’m going to say yes. Miami 3-2

NCHC picks: March 21

Well, neither Matthew nor I had much luck picking the games last weekend, what with all the upsets and all. We went 4-5 (.444) on the weekend, and I only correctly picked one series (North Dakota), while Matthew picked Western Michigan to win its series, so he was correct on two, but neither of us picked the correct number of games. On the year, I have a five-game lead on Matthew, going 96-71-22 (.566), while Matthew is 91-76-22 (.539)

Let’s see how we can do this weekend.

Friday, March 21

Miami vs. North Dakota
Candace: In this league of upsets, very little would surprise me, but I think now that North Dakota has gotten to the semifinals, they go all the way. North Dakota 3-2
Matthew: I had thought Miami could steal a game last weekend at St. Cloud State in the first round of the NCHC playoffs, but I’m not sure how anyone could have predicted the sweep Miami pulled off on the Huskies’ home ice. Momentum’s definitely on Miami’s side going into this semifinal against North Dakota, but UND’s a much deeper team than Miami, and I think UND will exploit the RedHawks’ defensive frailty, which feels like just about the only thing Miami didn’t fix last weekend. North Dakota 4-2

Denver vs. Western Michigan
Candace: Back in February when I interviewed Broncos coach Andy Murray, he talked about his team’s prowess in neutral site games and how they would be in great shape if they could make the Frozen Faceoff and NCAA tournament. Both Denver and Western Michigan looked good last weekend in winning their series. Denver won the season series between these teams, in part because Sam Brittain shut down Western’s top scorers. I’m not sure if Denver can do that again. Western Michigan 3-2
Matthew: The fact that this game pits a Denver team with great goaltending but not so great scoring prowess against a Western Michigan team that knows where the net is but hasn’t gotten incredible goaltending makes me think this is going to be a really low-scoring game. I think the Broncos will edge this one, if only because Western has been great in neutral-site games this season (4-0-1) and I have a feeling the Broncos will be less affected by the occasion than Denver will. Western Michigan 2-1

Underdogs rule the first round

Perhaps it’s only fitting that a league that produced so many series splits had only one of the favored teams, second seed North Dakota, advance to the Frozen Faceoff semifinals in Minneapolis. North Dakota barely escaped a tough Colorado College team, winning game three, 4-3, on Sunday night.

Heart-stopping RedHawks
While the Miami RedHawks had had success against the St. Cloud Huskies this year, splitting both a home and away series with the NCHC’s top team, few would have expected the RedHawks to win the first-round series between the two teams, let alone sweep it.

After all, Miami hadn’t swept a single NCHC series all year, and in fact only had two series sweeps during its season, one in its season opener against Ohio State, and one at the beginning of November against Canisius.

However, thanks to good offensive production from its big guns, as well as contributions from unheralded players, Miami emerged with the sweep, and the nature of the victories was heart-stopping, as well as heartbreaking for the hosts.

In the first game, Miami held a late lead in the third period thanks to a Sean Kuraly strike, but St. Cloud’s Kevin Gravel scored an extra-attacker goal with one second left in the game to tie it and send it to OT.

While St. Cloud seemed to carry momentum from the last-second tying goal, it was Miami that emerged with the win when Riley Barber fired a shot on net and kept poking at the rebound in the slot. It seemed that during a scrum, a St. Cloud player pushed goalie Ryan Faragher and the puck squirted free through Faragher’s legs, going in at 10:10.

The Huskies came out strong in the second game, and took a two-goal lead after two periods. Kuraly got the RedHawks on the board early in the third, and then Austin Czarnik tied it, but St. Cloud captain Nic Dowd got a five-on-three power-play goal to give the Huskies a lead.

Miami’s Antony Louis tied it back up at 12:08 on a power-play goal, and then Miami got the last-second goal to win when Justin Greenburg scored with only three seconds left.

The Huskies are still in good shape for the NCAA tournament, sitting at a tie for ninth in the PairWise with Providence. Miami moves on to Minneapolis; the RedHawks would need to win the NCHC autobid to make the NCAA tournament. Miami next plays North Dakota in the semifinals of the Frozen Faceoff in Minneapolis on March 21. North Dakota won three of the four games between the clubs, including a 9-2 shellacking in Grand Forks on Feb. 15.

North Dakota strengthens NCAA picture
Prior to Sunday’s game against Colorado College, North Dakota was in a precarious position, sitting at 15th in the PairWise. It meant that North Dakota’s chances of making the NCAA tournament likely required beating CC; a loss could have dropped them out of the tournament picture, or left them very vulnerable should a team outside the PairWise 16 win a conference tournament.

North Dakota was in that position thanks to a 44-save effort from CC goalie Josh Thorimbert and a goal from Alex Roos in CC’s 3-2 overtime win on Saturday night.

In the finale Sunday, North Dakota struck three times in the first period to take a 3-1 lead. CC scored at 17:17 of the second to go into the third trailing by only a goal, but Brendan O’Donnell came up big for UND, scoring at 2:29 of the third to get a cushion. That proved crucial, as Roos scored an extra-attacker goal with 1:29 left in the game to pull CC back within one, but it was as close as the Tigers got.

UND now has a stronger PairWise position, sitting in a tie for 12th, but another loss in the Frozen Faceoff could put them right back on the bubble.

Home not so nice
Minnesota-Duluth continued to suffer at home, losing a pair of one-goal games to Western Michigan and getting swept. The Bulldogs could only manage a 5-10-3 record on home ice, while going 10-6 on the road and 1-0-1 in neutral sites. The two losses dropped the Bulldogs down to 21 in the PairWise, and their season is likely done.

The first game ended with a wild finish. After Western Michigan’s Will Kessel scored an empty-net goal at 18:18 of the third to give the Broncos a 3-0 lead, it seemed the game was over, but Cal Decowski scored four-on-four at 18:30 and Max Tardy pulled UMD to within one with an extra-attacker strike at 19:44, but it was too little, too late.

On Saturday, UMD took an early two-goal lead, but Broncos leading scorer Shane Berschbach pulled his team back within one with a power-play goal at 15:35 of the first, and then Chase Balisy tied it early in the second.

Duluth retook the lead on a Joe Basaraba goal at 12:00 of the second, but the Broncos rallied in the third, getting two goals in a 1:27 span to take the lead and hold on. Balisy, who assisted on the first goal, assisted on both third-period strikes to have a hand in all four goals, while Frank Slubowski made 34 saves.

The dominant stat from both games is goaltending. UMD’s Aaron Crandall made 19 saves in the first game, while Western Michigan’s Lukas Hafner made 31. In the second game, Crandall only made seven saves, as Western could only muster 11 shots on net, but it was enough.

Western Michigan next faces Denver in the semifinals of the Frozen Faceoff on in Minneapolis March 21. Denver took three of four from the Broncos during the regular season. The Broncos sit tied for 18th in the PairWise, but likely need to win the NCHC Frozen Faceoff to make the NCAA tournament.

Power outage
Nebraska-Omaha won many of its games this season with a high-flying offensive style, but the first round of the NCHC playoffs against Denver was not the place for a sudden dearth of goals.

After winning the first game Thursday, 4-3, with Brock Montpetit getting two goals and an assist, UNO only managed one goal in the next 120 minutes of hockey, dropping the series on 5-1 and 2-0 losses.

On Friday, Denver’s Trevor Moore put the Pioneers up by two entering the third with a goal at 18:43. UNO got one back at 1:10 of the third on a goal by Brian Cooper, but couldn’t get any more, as Matt Tabrum, Matt Marcinew, and Will Butcher put the game out of reach.

In the final game of the series, Denver got the game-winner at 6:16 of the third from Ty Loney, and Zac Larraza added an empty-netter at 18:09 to secure the win.

Denver goalie Sam Brittain was outstanding, making 34 saves to secure his fifth shutout of the season. Brittain also made 30 saves in Friday’s win and 26 saves in Thursday’s loss.

NCHC picks: March 13

I finally got a bigger lead on Matthew in our picks race. Last weekend, I went 5-3 (.625), while Matthew went 3-5 (.375). On the year, I am 92-66-22 (.572), while Matthews is 87-71-22 (.544).

The first round brings some brutal matchups, so let’s see how we can do.

Thursday-Saturday, March 13-15

Denver at Nebraska-Omaha
Candace: UNO won three of four in the season series, taking two in overtime, though those games weren’t actually as close as might have been indicated. Denver’s defense has been iffy at times, relying too much on the heroics of Sam Brittain, and if that happens again, this series could be over quickly. Nebraska-Omaha 3-2, Denver 2-1, Nebraska-Omaha 4-2
Matthew: Considering pretty much everyone picked UNO to finish at or near the bottom of the NCHC, the Mavericks did really well to finish third, and I think they’ll do enough to make it through this week and get to their first conference championship weekend in a decade. Denver will be a very tough out, though, especially considering Sam Brittain, a senior, is the best goaltender in the league and will want to end his time with the Pioneers on a good note. UNO 3-2 Thursday, DU 2-0 Friday, UNO 2-1 Saturday

Friday-Sunday, March 14-16

Miami at St. Cloud State
Candace: Miami is the one NCHC team that had the most success against St. Cloud this season. I think that Bob Motzko and the Huskies will be extra on guard, and win in two tight contests. One may go to OT. St. Cloud 2-1, 3-1
Matthew: I mentioned in our Tuesday Morning Quarterback column earlier this week with Jim Connelly that I think Miami has the potential to pull off a big upset here. I’m not picking that to happen, but I think people forget these teams split their four games earlier this season, and with pieces like Blake Coleman on form, I think the Huskies will need to be on high alert this weekend. St. Cloud 3-2 Friday, 3-2 Saturday

Colorado College at North Dakota
Candace: The problem here is that no matter how well CC goalie Josh Thorimbert plays, his team doesn’t score goals, and that will hurt them in the playoffs, especially in North Dakota, where UND swept CC in two tight games in early January. I think that holds true here. North Dakota 3-1, 4-2
Matthew: I’ve liked the way CC has continued to battle and try to make thins work in the home stretch of the season, and they could give North Dakota some problems this weekend in Grand Forks. UND’s the more talented team here though, and I think they’ll come into this weekend a little steamed after letting the Penrose Cup slip away last Saturday on the final night of the regular season. North Dakota 3-1 Friday, 3-0 Saturday

Western Michigan at Minnesota-Duluth
Candace: The Bulldogs won the season series 3-1, but are at home, where they have a losing record. Western has been better on the road, and its one win against the Bulldogs came in the first game in Duluth in the first half of the year, but Western hasn’t been that great in first games in the second half. Western Michigan 2-1, Minnesota-Duluth 3-2, Minnesota-Duluth 2-1
Matthew: Duluth is very much on the PairWise bubble and needs to advance as far as it can in the NCHC playoffs to keep itself in contention for an NCAA tournament spot. The problem for the Bulldogs, though, is that they’ve been a lot better on the road this season than they’ve been at home, and although Western hasn’t been amazing away from Kalamazoo this season, I think the Broncos could take advantage of the issues UMD’s with getting wins on its own ice. WMU 3-2 Friday, UMD 3-1 Saturday, WMU 2-1 Sunday

First-round pairings decided after SCSU wins Penrose Cup

Going into the final night of the NCHC’s inaugural regular season, none of the league’s eight teams knew for sure who they would be playing in the first round of the league playoffs, and that’s undoubtedly what the league’s front office in Colorado Springs wanted. Now that we know who’s playing who and where, though, let’s take a quick look at all four of the pairings for the opening round.

Before we do, however, congratulations are in order for the Huskies of St. Cloud State. A year after having to share the WCHA’s MacNaughton Cup with Minnesota, SCSU became the first holders of the Penrose Cup outright Saturday after the Huskies (48 points) downed Colorado College and second-place North Dakota (45) lost 2-1 at home to Western Michigan.

Anyway, here we go with the first-round pairings. Please note that three of the best-of-three series are set for next Friday, Saturday and Sunday, while Nebraska-Omaha’s series with Denver will be Thursday-Friday-Saturday due to a scheduling conflict for Sunday at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center:

No. 8 Miami (12-19-3 overall, 6-17-1-1 NCHC) at No. 1 St. Cloud State (21-8-5, 15-6-3-0)

-How they got here: As previously mentioned, SCSU won the Penrose Cup outright as the NCHC regular season champion. Miami, who in the fall had been many prognosticators’ favorite to win the league, was doomed to a last-place finish a week ago by virtue of getting swept at home by Minnesota-Duluth.

-First impressions: The Huskies have carried the flag for the NCHC all season in terms of the national Division I scene, and it doesn’t feel like that long ago that SCSU would’ve been the only team from the league to qualify for the NCAA tournament. SCSU ought to advance to the league playoff finals in Minneapolis, but with MU buoyed thanks to Blake Coleman hitting the ground running after finally coming back from a long-term injury, the RedHawks can’t be overlooked.

No. 7 Colorado College (6-22-6, 6-13-5-1) at No. 2 North Dakota (20-11-3, 15-9-0-0)

-How they got here: North Dakota would have locked up a share of the Penrose Cup if it had completed a sweep of Western Michigan Saturday. That didn’t happen, though, and now UND, which has generally been very good in the second half of this season, will face a Colorado College team that is 1-13-2 on the road this season.

-First impressions: CC coach Scott Owens told me a week ago when the Tigers lost a pair at Nebraska-Omaha that he’d liked the raised level of competitiveness that his team had been putting together in recent weeks, and it’s possible that could come in handy in a first-round trip to Grand Forks. However, CC has is fourth-worst in the country in team offense this season at 1.94 goals scored per game, and that might not cut it considering UND goaltender Zane Gothberg – when healthy – has been hot since Thanksgiving.

No. 6 Denver (16-14-6, 10-11-3-2) at No. 3 Nebraska-Omaha (16-16-2, 13-9-2-1)

-How they got here: UNO was many folks’ pick to finish last in the NCHC this season – for the record, I picked the Mavericks seventh – but the tenth-best offense (3.29 GPG) in the country helped propel UNO to a third-place finish. The Mavericks should also be happy with their first-round draw, considering UNO has one regulation win at home and a pair of overtime victories on the road against the Pioneers, who have had their ups and downs in Jim Montgomery’s first season at the helm in the Colorado capital.

-First impressions: Despite UNO’s good form against DU this season, the Pios can’t be overlooked due in no small part to the fact that senior goaltender Sam Brittain is one of the best NCAA netminders in the country and will want to finish his collegiate career on a high note. That’s not to say this is a series UNO can’t be successful in, but the Mavericks will have a tough job on their hands if they are to advance to their first conference championship weekend in 10 years.

No. 5 Western Michigan (17-15-5, 11-11-2-2) at No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth (16-14-4, 11-11-2-2)

-How they got here: These two teams had identical NCHC records this season, but Minnesota-Duluth climbed above the top four-bottom four split by winning the second league tiebreaker of faring better against the Broncos in head-to-head competition after going 3-1-0 against Western this season. Bad luck there for WMU as it was swept at home by Duluth during a point in the season in which UMD went 4-0-1-2 between Jan. 18 and Feb. 8.

-First impressions: This is a series that UMD perhaps almost might rather play on the road, considering the Bulldogs have been far better away from Duluth this season (10-6-0) than they’ve been on their own AMSOIL Arena ice (5-8-3). Western might wishes this series was in Kalamazoo, too, considering the Broncos have as many losses in true road games this season (six) as wins in true road games. WMU is, however, 4-0-1 in neutral-site games this season, and that would be something to keep in mind if the Broncos advance to Minneapolis.

NCHC picks: March 7

Last week, thanks to the Nebraska-Omaha sweep of Colorado College, Matthew and I both went 4-4 (.500), as we got the split dates wrong for Denver and Western Michigan. Overall on the year, I am 87-63-22, while Matthew is 84-66-22. Looks like I will win our picks contest, unless we decide to keep it going through the Penrose Cup, which is TBD.

Friday-Saturday, March 7-8

No. 4 St. Cloud State at Colorado College
Candace: All of CC’s wins have come at home, but the wide sheet and altitude won’t be enough for them to overcome a St. Cloud team battling for the Penrose Cup. I expect the games to be tight. St. Cloud 3-1, 2-1
Matthew: I loved the level of CC’s competitiveness and commitment last Saturday in its 2-1 overtime loss at Nebraska-Omaha, and apart from having lost 6-0 the previous night, the Tigers have really battled lately despite knowing they’ll be on the road in the first round of the league playoffs. I think it’s very possible they could get rewarded for that this weekend, but SCSU knows what’s on the line this weekend, and I don’t see the Huskies faltering here. St. Cloud State 3-2, 3-1

Miami at Denver
Candace: These two split in Oxford back in December. The Pioneers haven’t swept a series since November against Western Michigan, and they probably won’t here either, but which night will they win on? Denver 2-1, Miami 3-2
Matthew: Miami’s doomed to finish last in the league but hasn’t given up, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the RedHawks come away with a split this weekend. Part of that is because DU has relied too much at times on Sam Brittain, and I’m going to stick my neck out here a bit and call a split. It’s good news for a team that I’m not sure I’d want to play in the first round of the playoffs. Miami 2-1. Denver 2-0

Nebraska-Omaha at No. 19 Minnesota-Duluth
Candace: Minnesota-Duluth could pass Nebraska-Omaha in the standings with a sweep, but I don’t see it happening. The Bulldogs have only gotten three sweeps all year; admittedly one happened against these same Mavericks back in January in Omaha, but I don’t they pull it off this go round. Nebraska-Omaha 3-1, Minnesota-Duluth 3-2
Matthew: UMD has won each of its last four games against UNO and pounded the Mavericks 6-0 the last time these two teams played in Duluth, which just so happened to be at the end of the 2012-13 regular season. UNO will remember that all too well, and although I don’t think the Mavericks will do their slim chance of winning the league too many favors, one win this weekend would wrap up home ice, and that in itself is a fairly big achievement in this league. Nebraska-Omaha 4-1, Minnesota-Duluth 3-2

Western Michigan at No. 9 North Dakota
Candace: This game is in Grand Forks, the Penrose Cup is on the line, and North Dakota has been virtually unbeatable over the last three months. I’ll go with a UND sweep. North Dakota 2-1, 4-1
Matthew: I’ve at times been pleasantly surprised by Western this season, and I’d feel for the Broncos if they don’t wrap up home ice this weekend. Unfortunately for WMU, I don’t see them getting the job done against a North Dakota team that knows it will win the Penrose Cup if it sweeps. North Dakota 3-2, 3-1

Down to the wire

Coming into the inaugural season of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC), it was anticipated that the league would be ultra-competitive, and that the teams might be very close together in points. If that was what the league honchos wanted, they certainly have it.

Heading into the final weekend of play, the only positions in the league that are decided are the bottom two. Colorado College has clinched the seventh spot after Miami was swept by Minnesota-Duluth, and Miami will finish last.

The top six? There could be a lot of movement before the conference tournament starts.

First place is still up in the air. St. Cloud State and North Dakota split over the weekend, and both have 42 points entering the final weekend of play, tied for first. St. Cloud won the season series between the two, taking three of the four games, so you would think that St. Cloud would have the inside track to finish first, but you’d be wrong. The NCHC’s first tiebreaker is conference wins, and North Dakota owns that one.

If the two teams finish tied after next weekend, they will be named co-champions. North Dakota hosts Western Michigan this weekend, while St. Cloud State travels to Colorado College. St. Cloud got a tie/shootout loss and win against CC back in November, and North Dakota swept Western Michigan in Kalamazoo back in December.

(EDIT) However, Nebraska-Omaha could pass both of them if the Mavericks sweep Minnesota-Duluth and either North Dakota or St. Cloud State gets less than three points in their final weekend of play. If North Dakota wins at least one game this weekend, it would own a tiebreaker with UNO based on conference wins.

It would get really interesting if Western Michigan were to sweep North Dakota and UNO and St. Cloud were to end up tied atop the standings with 45 points, based on a UNO sweep and St. Cloud split, as the fourth tiebreaker, winning percentage aginst the remaining teams, would come into play, as UNO and St. Cloud would have the same number of conference wins, split their series, and have the same goals for and against each other in their two games.

Home ice
Barring that improbable series of events, Nebraska-Omaha will finish either third or fourth and claim home ice for the first round of the playoffs. The only way the Mavericks don’t get home ice is if Minnesota-Duluth sweeps UNO this weekend in Duluth AND Western Michigan sweeps North Dakota in Grand Forks. UNO currently has 39 points, while Minnesota-Duluth and Western Michigan each have 34.

An interesting backstory to the closing series between the Bulldogs and Mavericks is that UMD swept UNO in Omaha back in January. The Bulldogs just swept Miami in Oxford this past weekend by scores of 5-4 and 1-0. The Mavericks swept Colorado College in Omaha, though they needed an overtime goal from team captain Michael Young on Saturday to do so.

Barring a Bulldogs sweep of Nebraska-Omaha, which would push Minnesota-Duluth to third and Nebraska-Omaha to four, the Bulldogs are battling for the final home ice spot with Western Michigan and Denver. The Bulldogs are tied with Western Michigan in points with 34. Both teams have 10 conference wins, and UMD owns the second tiebreaker since it won the season series by taking three of four games against the Broncos.

If Western Michigan and Minnesota-Duluth were to split their series this weekend and finish with 37 points, sixth-place Denver, which split with Western Michigan last weekend in Kalamazoo, winning Friday 4-2 and losing Saturday 3-1 to Chase Balisy’s hat trick, could leapfrog both teams and claim the final home ice spot by sweeping reeling Miami at home this weekend. Denver faced the RedHawks in Oxford back in December and split.

NCHC picks: Feb. 28

Matthew and I went a dreadful 3-5 (.375) last weekend. On the year, I have a three-game lead, as I am 83-59-22 (.573), while Matthew is 80-62-22 (.554). Games in this conference seems to be a coin flip much of the time.

The marquee matchup this weekend has St. Cloud hosting North Dakota, with sole possession of first place up for grabs if either team can sweep.

Friday-Saturday, Feb. 28-March 1

Minnesota-Duluth at Miami
Candace: Miami, which finally won again last weekend, gets Duluth, which has been reeling, having lost four in a row. This series is really hard to pick, but generally, the Bulldogs have not been good on Fridays. Miami 2-1, Minnesota-Duluth 3-1
Matthew: Miami finally got some momentum going last weekend in picking up a surprise split at home against St. Cloud State, and I think the RedHawks could cut a little further into the seven-point gap Colorado College has opened up between itself and last-place MU. Duluth has been much better on the road than at home, though, so I see the Bulldogs denying MU a sweep. Miami 3-1, Minnesota-Duluth 4-2

No. 10 North Dakota at No. 5 St. Cloud State
Candace: This series has split written all over it. St. Cloud swept back in November, but UND was struggling then. Generally, UND has been money on Friday nights. North Dakota 3-2, St. Cloud 4-2
Matthew: It goes without saying this is the biggest NCHC series yet, and there’s every chance these two teams could still be stuck in a tie for first place — but on 42 points instead of 39 like they are now — going into the final weekend of the regular season. It’s the safe pick and I’ll probably get roasted for it, but it’s what I genuinely see happening. North Dakota 3-2, St. Cloud State 3-1

Colorado College at Nebraska-Omaha
Candace: CC looked good last weekend against Denver, and I think the Tigers will earn a split here for sure, although last weekend was also the first time the Tigers had won on the road all season. I think this series will be the reverse of their one in December. Nebraska-Omaha 3-2, Colorado College 3-2
Matthew: Colorado College comes into Omaha this week on a roll after winning its last three games, and I think they’ll pick up at least one more against the Mavericks. UNO has recent history against it — 2-10 in the final two weeks of the regular season over the past three years and 0-8 in that span over the last two seasons — but three points would go a long way toward further solidifying UNO’s chances of getting home ice in the first round of the playoffs, and the Mavericks are desperate for that. Colorado College 3-2, Nebraska-Omaha 4-2

No. 20 Denver at Western Michigan
Candace: Denver swept this one at home back in November, but the Pioneers are struggling. They’ve also been dreadful on Friday nights in the second half. Western Michigan 2-1, Denver 3-2
Matthew: Denver didn’t look good last weekend in its series with arch-rival CC, and the Pioneers need to get back on track in a hurry. The good news is that DU is facing fourth-place Western Michigan, a team that holds a slim two-point lead over the Pios in the league standings. What would be bad for DU is if Western sweeps the series and locks up at least fourth place. Will that happen here? I’m guessing it won’t. Western Michigan 2-1, Denver 2-0

UND, SCSU set on collision course

IMG 7072 UND, SCSU set on collision course

North Dakota sophomore goaltender Zane Gothberg picked up his first collegiate shutout Friday in a 3-0 win at Minnesota-Duluth. (Photo: Bradley K. Olson)

One of the things the NCHC has undoubtedly hoped for in its inaugural season is about to come to fruition.

The Penrose Cup, the new mammoth chalice awarded to the league’s regular season champion, will be on display this next weekend at St. Cloud State’s Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. That much was decided ahead of the Jan. 7 announcement of the trophy’s league-wide tour, but nobody truly knew back then that the cup would be in the same venue this late in the season as the two teams still in with with the most realistic chances to hoist it.

North Dakota (18-9-3 overall, 13-7-0-0 NCHC) and St. Cloud State (18-7-5, 12-5-3-0) go into the penultimate weekend of the regular season tied at the top of the league standings with 39 points. Six points — two wins’ worth — behind them in third place is Nebraska-Omaha on 33, while Western Michigan rounds out the league’s current top four on 31.

St. Cloud State came into last weekend with a three-point lead at the top of the standings, but the Huskies faltered Friday when last-place Miami rode two goals from Blake Coleman — who returned Friday after being out with an upper-body injury since Dec. 6 — en route to a surprise 4-3 win over SCSU in Oxford, Ohio.

Normal service from the Huskies resumed Saturday when goaltender Ryan Faragher stopped 33 RedHawks shots and helped kill all four of Miami’s power-play opportunities in a 3-0 win.

The damage to SCSU’s place in the league standings was compounded, however, by the pair of poundings North Dakota handed to Minnesota-Duluth on the Bulldogs’ own Amsoil Arena ice.

Sophomore UND goalie Zane Gothberg picked up his first collegiate shutout Friday in a 3-0 win over the Bulldogs, and UND went 3-for-4 on the power play the following night in a 6-2 victory.

If either UND or St. Cloud State picks up four or more points this next weekend, that team would then have one proverbial hand on the Penrose Cup going into the final weekend of the regular season. UND’s last action ahead of the NCHC playoffs will be at home to Western Michigan, while SCSU will finish out the regular season at Colorado College.

Tigers claim the Gold Pan

Speaking of CC, the Tigers continued this last weekend their recent mastery of archrival Denver by claiming the Gold Pan, the traveling trophy that the two Colorado NCHC schools have played for each of the past 21 seasons.

CC picked up the trophy for the 12th time after winning both games of the teams’ second home-and-home series this season. Denver had picked up a shootout win and regulation win Nov. 8-9, but the Tigers won the season series in the third and fourth games, first by winning 3-2 at Denver’s Magness Arena Friday before winning 3-1 in Saturday’s rematch at the World Arena in Colorado Springs.

The Tigers appeared destined to finish seventh in the NCHC going into their third and fourth games of the season against Denver, but the league landscape has changed considerably. CC is still in seventh on 24 points, but it’s now only four points behind a sixth-place Minnesota-Duluth team that has lost its last four games.

The news for Denver isn’t quite so good. Thanks to its sweep at the hands of CC, the Pioneers are in fifth place in the league with 29 points and two behind Western Michigan in fourth. If the season ended now, the Pioneers would travel to Kalamazoo, Mich., to face the Broncos in the first round of the league playoffs.

UNO forced to reschedule possible playoff series

One night after Nebraska-Omaha pounded Western Michigan 5-1 Friday in Kalamazoo, the Broncos scored four unanswered goals in Saturday’s third period to blow past the Mavericks 5-3 and salvage a split of the teams’ only scheduled series of the 2013-14 campaign.

UNO, however, still appears to be in great shape to clinch home ice for the first round of the playoffs. The Mavericks are four points above the split with four games left, and those will come against CC at home this weekend followed by a trip to Minnesota-Duluth on the final two nights of the regular season.

If the Mavericks are at home in the first round of the playoffs, though, it wouldn’t be a Friday-Saturday-Sunday series like the other opening-round sets will be.

When pop singer Demi Lovato announced the dates for her current tour back on Sept. 20, a March 16 date at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center, the city-owned arena in which UNO plays its home games, was on the list. And, as you would imagine, it still is.

March 16, a Sunday, is also the date set up for any third games needed in teams’ best-of-three first-round playoff series.

It appears, however, that UNO has already solved that potential problem. If the Mavericks do host a first-round series, it will be a Thursday-Friday-Saturday set, with the first two games starting at 7:37 and the third game, should one be necessary, a 7:07 start.

NCHC picks: Feb. 21

Matthew and I both had a dreadful week last weekend, going 3-4-1 (.437). On the year, I am 80-54-22 (.583), while Matthew is 77-57-22 (.564).

There are some big rivalry games on tap this weekend, as well as ones that could make a huge difference in the standings log jam. Unfortunately for Matthew’s chances of catching me, we are in agreement on all our picks this weekend.

Friday-Saturday, Feb. 21-22

Colorado College vs. No. 18 Denver (at DU Friday, at CC Saturday)
Candace: Denver got a tie/shootout win and win the last time around, but CC hadn’t started to play to its capabilities. I was impressed by the Tigers against Western Michigan last weekend. Denver hasn’t swept a series in a while, and I don’t think it will happen here. Denver 3-2, Colorado College 3-2
Matthew: Colorado College has had a rough season but has kept on battling to at least finish the regular season above the NCHC basement, and I think the Tigers will be rewarded Saturday when DU comes back to town. The Pioneers should beat CC at home though, and I think DU will end up feeling happy enough with two wins and a tie from four in the series and the Gold Pan in tow. Denver 3-1, Colorado College 4-2

No. 4 St. Cloud State at Miami
Candace: Miami has only won one game in the second half, and I don’t see them breaking that streak against the top team in the conference, even if the RedHawks are playing at home. St. Cloud 3-1, 4-2
Matthew: Miami’s results this season have been brutal and it hasn’t won a home game within 65 minutes since Dec. 7, and I don’t see the RedHawks getting back on the right track against a St. Cloud State team that seems to have figured it out again following the Huskies’ rough patch between the middle of last month and the start of this one. St. Cloud State 4-2. 3-2

No. 11 North Dakota at No. 20 Minnesota-Duluth
Candace: I was surprised that the Bulldogs got swept last weekend by St. Cloud. North Dakota has been playing very good hockey since late November, but home ice should be good for a win. North Dakota 4-3, Minnesota-Duluth 3-2
Matthew: Unquestionably the key series this weekend in the league, and I feel like this one’s too close to call. UND has been far from great on the road this season and Duluth has a sub-.500 record at home. That plus the fact I think UND is just about the better team in this series favors the visitors, but I keep thinking Duluth has to turn its home form around sometime. That said, UND also needs points as it tries to keep pace with SCSU at the top of the league standings. The biggest question for me, then, is which team wins which night. North Dakota 4-2, Minnesota-Duluth 3-1

Nebraska-Omaha at Western Michigan
Candace: Western needs to rebound from a disappointing outing last weekend against CC, and Nebraska-Omaha needs to stay in the home ice slot. I think split. Western Michigan 3-2, Nebraska-Omaha 4-1
Matthew: A key series here between two teams that are trying to give themselves a bit of breathing space in terms of their prospects of clinching home ice for the first round of the league playoffs. Similar to UND-UMD, too, in that UNO’s been just okay on the road and Western is below .500 at home. It’s another split for me. Western Michigan 3-1, Nebraska-Omaha 5-3

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