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

Climbing Tigers

This has been a tough year for the Colorado College Tigers, who after beating Minnesota-Duluth in their season opener didn’t get another win until December. And while CC has still struggled in the second half, there have been moments that point to a squad that is getting better and could be dangerous come playoff time. Some second-half highlights have included a tie with then No. 7 Providence, a convincing win over Miami, and a tie with Minnesota-Duluth in Duluth.

This past weekend, Western Michigan, one of the hottest teams in the country in the second half, traveled to Colorado Springs for a key NCHC series, and CC accomplished something it had only done once before in this season, back in early December when Nebraska-Omaha came to town, in getting points in both games.

After Friday’s contest, CC could have been forgiven for thinking it would not be their weekend. The Tigers opened up a 3-0 lead by midway through the second period, but starting with just under three minutes left in the second, Western Michigan rallied with four goals in an eight-minute span to take a 4-3 lead. The Tigers tied it back up less than two minutes later, and after a scoreless overtime, lost the shootout.

“It feels like a loss,” said a disappointed Scott Owens after Friday’s game.

Commenting on the fact that the Tigers had finally scored a few goals, only to suffer some defensive breakdowns, Owens said, “It’s like most guys’ golf games. When the putting’s good, they can’t drive well, and when the drives are good, they can’t hit the green. It’s been like that all year; it’s been like this for four months. It was nice to see some pucks go in, but we had some lapses defensively.”

However, CC regrouped the next night, and while the game was scoreless entering the third, the Tigers had outshot the Broncos in both periods. In the third, CC struck twice early, with Charlie Taft netting the first goal at the 21-second mark and Luc Gerdes getting one at 3:26.

CC then clamped down defensively, preventing the Broncos from staging a rally, and Sam Rothstein scored a power-play goal at 16:53 to seal it.

“We hung in there and it was just kind of a chess game for awhile,” said Owens. “When you score on the opening faceoff on a play like that, it kind of gets the building going and your bench going. That’s a huge deal.”

Next weekend, CC plays a home-and-home with arch-rival Denver. On the line is the Gold Pan, awarded to the winner of the season series. Since Denver claimed the Gold Pan last year, CC would have to outright win it to get it back, meaning the Tigers would have to take both games this weekend.

There is an asterisk though. Denver tied CC in the first game between the two this year, and won the shootout. The Pioneers then won the next night at home. Owens and Denver coach Jim Montgomery still haven’t made a decision about how the shootout affects things, but both seemed to believe the first game counts as a tie, so Denver is 1-0-1 in the series so far.

“Jim and I had a talk right before it last time, and we haven’t finalized it,” said Owens. “I think we’re going to leave it just as the way the points were. They have a three-point to one lead, even though they won the shootout. I’ll talk to Jim about it this week.”

Huskies gain key sweep
Entering a series against in-state rival Minnesota-Duluth that could have further jumbled the NCHC standings, St. Cloud had been struggling in the second half to string together consistent performances, especially defensively. The Bulldogs had been a hot team in the second half, and while they hadn’t won in St. Cloud since 2004, there was reason for optimism.

Instead, St. Cloud swept the weekend by 5-3 and 4-3 scores, staying three points ahead of North Dakota, which also swept the weekend, and opening a six-point lead on third place Nebraska-Omaha.

On Friday, St. Cloud opened up a four-goal lead in the first period and, after the Bulldogs had scored two in the second to make it close, Jimmy Murray scored his second of the game just 21 seconds into the third to give the Huskies some breathing room. Austin Farley scored for Duluth at 17:01, but that was as close as the Bulldogs got.

On Saturday, St. Cloud took a 3-1 lead on two goals early in the second, but Duluth rallied. Dominic Toninato scored at 10:41 of the second to pull within one, and Alex Iafallo scored a five-on-three power-play goal at 4:56 of the third to tie it.

However, St. Cloud’s Jonny Brodzinski came up big with the game-winner at 18:11 of the third.

“We needed a game like that; we needed to find a way to win a tight one,” said Huskies coach Bob Motzko after Saturday’s game. “We were kind of enjoying it. We were talking between each period that it was just a great game. We had nothing to say, keep playing. We were our worst enemy. We were our best friend for a lot of it and then the turnover on the second goal, getting beat one-on-one, and then two bad penalties. We were doing a lot of good things, but we also kept stubbing our toe.”

White flag for Miami?
Have the Miami RedHawks given up on the year? While Colorado College has fought to improve, the RedHawks, who started the year full of promise, continue to have a dreadful second half in which they have only won one game.

Saturday night may have been the RedHawks’ nadir. On Friday in the first game against North Dakota, Miami fell behind 3-0, but a late goal by Sean Kuraly pulled Miami within one with under a minute left. However, they couldn’t pull any closer.

Having scored the last two goals of Friday’s game, you would have thought Miami might have some momentum for Saturday. Instead, Miami suffered its worst loss since 1997, a 9-2 drubbing. Rocco Grimaldi had four points for North Dakota, which scored four goals by the 12:58 mark of the first, despite having two goals waved off.

North Dakota added another four goals in the second, and poured salt on the wound by answering Riley Barber’s goal at 17:19 of the third with a power-play goal at 19:01 of the third.

Miami coach Enrico Blasi made no excuses.

“There were a lot of things that didn’t go our way tonight. They deserved to win from the moment the puck dropped and they didn’t let off the gas.”

Miami is now in last place in the NCHC, four points behind seventh-place Colorado College. It doesn’t get easier for the RedHawks, who host first-place St. Cloud State this weekend and then Minnesota-Duluth the following weekend before ending the season with a series in Denver.

NCHC picks: Feb. 14

Last week, I gained another game on Matthew in our picks race, as I went 4-2-2 (.625) while Matthew went 3-3-2 (.500). On the year, I am now 77-50-21 (.591), while Matthew is 74-53-21 (.570).

Friday-Saturday, Feb. 14-15

Western Michigan at Colorado College
Candace: CC has been playing better, and has gotten points in its last two series, and the Tigers played the Broncos tough in the Friday game last November, but I’m not completely convinced they can pull over the hump. Western Michigan 2-1, 4-2
Matthew: Western’s been so good since the holiday break, apart from its two losses at home to Minnesota-Duluth a couple weeks back, and I think the Broncos will continue to roll this weekend. CC’s been better at home than it has away, but I’d be surprised if the Tigers got more than a point or two out of this series. Western Michigan 4-2, 3-2

No. 16 Minnesota-Duluth at No. 6 St. Cloud State
Candace: St. Cloud has really tapered off from its early-season form, and Minnesota-Duluth has been playing extremely well in the second half, but I can’t see this being anything but a split. St. Cloud State 3-2, Minnesota-Duluth 3-2
Matthew: Depending on what goes on elsewhere, this series could either see SCSU go even further clear at the top of the NCHC standings or could see Duluth leapfrog the Huskies into first place. I feel St. Cloud’s a better team on paper, but Duluth’s been hot lately. This one’s almost too close to call for me, so I’m going to take the safe option and go with a split. Minnesota-Duluth 3-1, St. Cloud State 4-2

Miami at No. 17 North Dakota
Candace: I’ve given up on thinking the RedHawks will turn it around this season, which is a surprise given some of the players Miami has. North Dakota needs a weekend sweep to move up in the standings. North Dakota 3-2, 4-1
Matthew: UND going to Miami early this season was a series we were all really looking forward to watching, but it’s fair to say it isn’t nearly as mouthwatering this time around. UND’s form has tapered off a bit after only picking up splits in its last two series, but Miami has only picked up five points in 2014 and I can’t see the RedHawks getting any more this weekend in Grand Forks. North Dakota 4-2, 3-1

No. 18 Denver at Nebraska-Omaha
Candace: When these two faced off in Denver back in November, UNO came away with two overtime wins by identical 3-2 scores. Those losses helped turn around Denver’s season, but not enough to sweep UNO in Omaha. Denver 3-2, Nebraska-Omaha 4-2
Matthew: Denver’s scoring issues could come to a halt this weekend as UNO’s defense and goaltending haven’t been amazing, and the Pioneers have been almost automatic in Friday road games. The Mavericks’ offense has been good this year, though, and forwards like Josh Archibald and Dominic Zombo will give DU goaltender Sam Brittain as good a test as any he’s faced this season. Denver 4-2, Nebraska-Omaha 4-2

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