North Dakota, St. Cloud State and Nebraska-Omaha all have a chance at getting their hands on one of the two regular season championship trophies the NCHC had made.
With half the league off, and the other half playing intraconference series, every NCHC team has now played 14 games. Looking at the standings is a picture of a logjam, and with each league win worth three points, how the rest of the season will play out is anybody’s guess. St. Cloud currently leads the NCHC with 26 points, Denver, Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota are in a three-way tie for second with 24, and Minnesota-Duluth sits in fifth with 23. There are five weeks left in the season, and for each weekend left, the NCHC teams will square off against each other.
Rough night in net
When I interviewed St. Cloud coach Bob Motzko for my column last week, he made a point that it was important for his team to get back to its defensive ways to have success. While St. Cloud did earn a split on the road this past weekend, if Motzko was looking for better defensive play, he didn’t get it. In early December, St. Cloud ranked fourth nationally in team defense. After St. Cloud gave up three goals in a 5-3 win on Friday against high-flying Nebraska-Omaha, and then was torched for eight goals in an 8-6 loss Saturday, St. Cloud now sits at 29th. The second game was so frustrating, it saw Motzko playing goalie round robin.
Motzko pulled starter Ryan Faragher after Faragher gave up his fifth goal of the game at 12:46 of the second, a goal that allowed UNO to take its third lead of the game, barely two minutes after St. Cloud’s David Morley had made it a 4-4 game.
Replacement Charlie Lindgren fared little better, as he gave up two goals in 18:06 of play before Motzko put Faragher back in at 10:03 of the third. The rest didn’t seem to do much for Faragher, who gave up his sixth goal of the night at 13:19 of the third, a Brock Montpetit strike.
At the other end of the ice, UNO’s netminders also struggled. UNO coach Dean Blais pulled starter Kirk Thompson after the first period, a wild one in which UNO jumped out to a two-goal lead, only to give up three goals, including a late one at 18:15. Reed Peters replaced Thompson and made 16 saves in two periods while still giving up three goals.
Bullish on the Bulldogs
After failing to sweep a single series in the entire first half, Minnesota-Duluth seems to have found its mojo, as it got its second road sweep of the second half against an NCHC foe by sweeping Western Michigan, 5-2 and 3-1.
The Bulldogs are also finding success in a variety of ways. In the sweep two weeks ago of Nebraska-Omaha, goalie Aaron Crandall came up big, making 30 and 52 saves, respectively. In Friday’s 5-2 win over Western Michigan, Crandall only faced 19 shots. After failing to hold one-goal leads in the first and second periods, the Bulldogs erupted for three goals in the third, one of which was four-on-four and one of which was an empty-netter. Justin Crandall scored the game-winner and the final goal in the third, and also assisted on Tony Cameranesi’s goal in the second and Kyle Osterberg’s goal in the first. Osterberg also had a goal in the third period, and assisted on Cameranesi’s goal.
On Saturday, the Bulldogs gave up the first goal at 4:29 of the first, but Joe Basaraba scored at 15:27 to tie it, and Alex Iafallo scored an unassisted four-on-four game-winner in the third. Iafallo, a freshman, leads the team in scoring, but the Bulldogs are starting to get more scoring from a revolving cast.
A couple of weeks ago, it seemed that the NCHC’s first season might be a disappointment from the perspective of sending teams to the NCAA tournament, as St. Cloud State was the only team in the top 16 of the PairWise.
After this past weekend, the NCHC has three potential teams to send, and a few more not outside the realm of possibility. St. Cloud is still in the picture, ranked eighth in the PairWise. Minnesota-Duluth, bolstered by a showing in the North Star College Cup and this past weekend’s sweep of Western Michigan, is now at 11th. North Dakota, which has been one of the hottest teams in the country over the last two months, is now 15.
Other teams in the NCHC that could make a PairWise push include Denver, sitting at 22, Western Michigan, sitting at 23, Miami at 28, and even possibly Nebraska-Omaha, sitting at 29.
With the automatic bids for conference winners, the bottom three or four spaces in the PairWise are by no means secure spots for making the NCAA tournament, but it certainly seems likely that the NCHC can have a good representation in its first season.
Well, Matthew and I both went 4-1-1 (.750) last weekend, and we are now both at 71-46-19 (.584) on the year. However, this weekend we have some differing opinions, so let’s get to it shall we?
Friday-Saturday, Jan. 31, Feb. 1
No. 5 St. Cloud State at Nebraska-Omaha
Candace: See, I think the Huskies will come out and play well on Friday; they might end up with a split, but I’m going with the rested team for the sweep. St. Cloud 4-3, 3-1
Matthew: The point gap between these two teams (two) is definitely closer right now than I would’ve guessed it would be at this point back when we were just starting out in preseason. Neither team has really been a world-beater the last few weeks though, so I’m going to take the safe option on this one and predict a split. Nebraska-Omaha 4-3, St. Cloud State 3-1
Minnesota-Duluth at No. 20 Western Michigan
Candace: The Broncos have been on a tear, but Minnesota-Duluth had a great two games last weekend in the North Star College Cup, and has been playing well. I think this is a split. Western Michigan 3-2, Minnesota-Duluth 3-2
Matthew: Western has done so well since even before the Great Lakes Invitational near the end of December, and the Broncos are at home this weekend, but I wonder how much damage UMD might be able to do. I’m going to guess it won’t be much, though, considering the Bulldogs are on the road this weekend against a team that was idle last week but has been red-hot for a while now. Western Michigan 4-3, 3-2
Geography dictates that it’s tough for western college hockey teams to put on something similar to the Beanpot, the tournament that brings together Boston’s four big men’s – and women’s for their own annual version – college hockey programs to determine local bragging rights.
That said, Minnesota’s five Division I programs seem to be onto a winner with what they’ve created for themselves.
Last weekend gave us the first edition of the North Star College Cup, a four-team tournament that will be held once a year at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. It’s unfortunate Minnesota’s D-I fivesome isn’t all in the same league as it was even a year ago, but the NSCC allows the state’s Big Ten, NCHC and WCHA teams to keep battling for a claim to supremacy in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
Until next season’s edition of the tournament, that claim belongs to the top-ranked Golden Gophers of Minnesota. The evergreen host of the NSCC – the other four teams will rotate in and out of the tournament – came out on top after brushing aside No. 5 St. Cloud State 4-1 Friday before beating Minnesota-Duluth in an overtime shootout in the final Saturday night after drawing 4-4 with the Bulldogs through 65 minutes.
The Big Ten laid claim to the title, then, but the two NCHC teams in this year’s edition of the NSCC held up well with UMD and SCSU both finishing with 1-1 records in tournament play.
None of the four teams had a very easy ride in a tournament in which 32 goals were scored over the four games, and UMD had a particularly bumpy ride. In order to get to the final, the Bulldogs were made to outlast Minnesota State 5-4 in overtime Friday, with UMD forward Alex Iafallo scoring the game-winning goal on a power play 4:33 into the extra session.
SCSU recovered well enough from its semifinal loss to the Gophers to outlast former WCHA rival Minnesota State 6-4 in Saturday’s third-place game. Three power play goals on four such opportunities helped the Huskies’ cause, as did 37 saves from SCSU goaltender Ryan Faragher.
DU, UND renew acquaintances at Magness
SCSU and UMD both had to make do with a win and a loss from last weekend, and two other teams in the hunt for the NCHC’s regular season championship had to do the same.
No. 16 Denver and No. 18 North Dakota met at Magness Arena for the 266th and 267th all-time meetings in a rivalry that dates back to the 1949-50 season. Both teams had to settle for three of the six points on offer last weekend, however, as they split their only two-game regular-season set together in the current campaign.
UND pleased the large contingent of fans in green and white Friday at DU’s Magness Arena as the visitors came away 4-2 winners in the series opener. Two first-period goals got the proverbial ball rolling for UND, and senior goaltender Clarke Saunders made 29 saves in his first start since a 5-2 home loss to St. Lawrence Nov. 29.
So it was, then, that DU faced being swept at home by UND for the first time in a decade. That didn’t end up happening, though, as the Pioneers won 3-0 Saturday to end UND’s 10-game unbeaten streak at 9-0-1.
CC-Miami series also ends in a split
Colorado College and Miami went along with a national trend of teams splitting their series last weekend, as the Tigers and RedHawks were made to share the spoils of a two-game set featuring the NCHC’s bottom two teams.
CC has had D-I’s second-worst team offense this season (1.83 goals per game), but you wouldn’t have known it early on Friday night. Three first-period goals proved more than enough for the Tigers in the series-opener, with CC eventually running out 4-1 winners in the Tigers’ first regulation victory since downing Nebraska-Omaha 4-2 at home Dec. 6.
The following night’s game, however, was a much different story with Miami putting on a goal-scoring clinic that RedHawks fans would undoubtedly love to see more of as their team enters this season’s home stretch.
CC inflicted itself with some wounds in the series finale by allowing Miami to go 4-for-5 on the power play, but the RedHawks were ruthless in winning 6-1. That victory was enough to keep Miami (14 points) above the Tigers (13) at the bottom of the NCHC table by one point.
Candace and I both went 3-1 Friday, which looks pretty good when you consider we both went 2-3-5 last week.
Now, though, we’ve got two more North Star College Cup games today to call. Yesterday at St. Paul, Minn.’s Xcel Energy Center, Minnesota-Duluth outlasting Minnesota State 5-4 in overtime Friday before top-ranked Minnesota bested No. 5 St. Cloud State 4-1.
In our season-long predictions contest, Candace and I are tied at 67-45-18. It appears, however, that you’ll have to check back next week to see if one of the two of us can finally break our deadlock.
Our predictions for today:
No. 5 St. Cloud State vs. Minnesota State:
Candace: This matchup of former WCHA foes should be interesting. St. Cloud has been struggling of late, and Minnesota State has been improving, but the Mavericks don’t play well away from home. As such, I’ll make a league-homer pick and say that St. Cloud gets back to its winning ways. St. Cloud State 4-3
Matthew: SCSU has lost three of its last four games in regulation and lost a shootout in the other, but as for the Huskies’ 4-1 loss to Minnesota Friday, you have to chalk that up largely to the fact Gophers goaltender Adam Wilcox was wonderful (38 saves) and that Minnesota’s hot and riding an 11-game unbeaten run. Today, though, I think we’ll see the Huskies snap out of their funk ahead of what’s looking like a big series next weekend at Nebraska-Omaha. St. Cloud State 5-3
No. 1 Minnesota vs. Minnesota-Duluth:
Candace: So many intriguing storylines in this first North Star College Cup title game. Start with the fact that the Bulldogs played a two-game set with the Gophers back in November and split, pasting Minnesota with a 6-2 loss, only its second all year. That result makes me think the Gophers will be on guard, especially since they did win the first game of that two-game set, and will claim the title. Minnesota 4-2
Matthew: For a tournament with no history, already I’m really drawn into the final that brings together two teams that have both won a national championship on the ice they’ll be skating on today. As Candace said, UMD did give Minnesota a thumping two months ago in Minneapolis, but for as much as I want to make the homer pick and take the Bulldogs here, I look at their defensive struggles Friday and wonder how they’ll hold up against a Minnesota team that always seems to be good for at least a few goals per game. Minnesota 4-3
Matthew and I only picked two games differently last weekend, and both ended in ties, so we are still tied on the year. Last weekend, we both went a dismal 2-3-5 (.450) to move to 64-44-18 (.579) on the season.
Maybe this weekend, we can do better. Unfortunately for the six-pack race, we see this week’s games the same way,although perhaps we’ll pick Saturday’s differently.
Friday-Saturday, Jan. 24-25
Miami at Colorado College
Candace: Miami had a lot of promise entering this season, but the RedHawks have been dreadful since November. Of course, CC hasn’t been any better. This battle of the two last-place teams in the NCHC has split written all over it. Colorado College 2-1, Miami 3-2
Matthew: I picked CC to pick up a split last weekend at home to seventh-ranked Providence and I was 20 seconds in Friday’s third period away from being right, so I’m going to (probably tempt fate and) go back to the well here. Miami only got a shootout win and a 5-1 regulation loss at home last weekend to Nebraska-Omaha, and I think they could have difficulty making the long westerly trek up into the Rockies to face a CC team better than the Tigers’ record suggests they are. Colorado College 3-2, Miami 2-1
No. 18 North Dakota at No. 16 Denver
Candace: I am excited to be at these games this weekend. North Dakota and Denver always bring the best out of each other, which means a split. Both have generally done better on Friday nights, so I’ll go with the home team on the first night. Denver 3-2, North Dakota 3-2
Matthew: DU-UND is the NCHC’s best rivalry that was already established heading into the league’s inaugural season, and I’m excited to finally see these teams come together for the first time in the current campaign. That said, though, I’m taking the safe option and picking a split because, to me, that’s what’s written all over this series. Denver 3-1, North Dakota 4-2
North Star College Cup
Minnesota State vs. Minnesota-Duluth
Candace: One weekend after their first weekend sweep, the Bulldogs struggled at home last weekend against Denver. The Mavericks looked really good last weekend in sweeping Ferris State, but they’ve been dismal away from home this season, and even if this is a neutral site, it’s not their friendly confines in Mankato, so I’ll be a league homer. Minnesota-Duluth 3-2
Matthew: I felt pretty good about Duluth two weeks ago after seeing what they were able to do in their sweep at Nebraska-Omaha, but UMD had some real issues last weekend dealing with Denver at home. Now, the Bulldogs are facing a very good Minnesota State team in a neutral-site game in St. Paul, Minn. that pits together two very even teams. This very easily could be the biggest toss-up game we’ve had to pick all season. Minnesota-Duluth 3-2
No. 5 St. Cloud State vs. No. 1 Minnesota
Candace: Minnesota has only lost twice all year, though one of those was a pounding at the hands of Minnesota-Duluth. If this game takes place in the first half, I pick St. Cloud, but the Huskies have been having a hard time of it so far this half, and I don’t seem them reverting to their best just yet. Minneosta 3-2
Matthew: This surely has to be Friday’s national game of the night. The problem I have for St. Cloud in this game, though, is that they had serious problems at home last weekend with Western Michigan, and Minnesota’s statistically been a significantly better team than either Western or SCSU. The Golden Gophers are scoring nearly four goals per game this season and only allowing an even two per contest, and as much as I want to go with the league homer pick and take the Huskies, the Gophers should advance to the final on what isn’t home ice but will probably sound like it this weekend. Minnesota 4-2
It’s getting impossible to ignore it: Western Michigan is one of the hottest teams in the country. The Broncos have yet to lose in the second half, and have beaten two top-five teams during their current 5-0-1 run. In fact, if you count the shootout win, the Broncos have beaten the number three team in the country three times, as they beat then-No. 3 Michigan in the Great Lakes Invitational, and this weekend got a shootout win and outright win against No. 3 St. Cloud. The Broncos also swept then No. 13 Miami.
However, this weekend’s wins against St. Cloud were perhaps the most impressive, as the Broncos did it on the road. On Friday, in a 5-5 tie/shootout win, Western Michigan rallied three times. After St. Cloud’s Cory Thorson scored a power-play goal at 5:33 of the second, it seemed the Broncos were out of it, as the Huskies led, 4-1. However, within a 5:35 span that began at 7:26 of the second, the Broncos scored three unanswered goals to tie it up again. Kenney Morrison assisted on the first two goals, and the Broncos’ big guns, Shane Berschbach, Justin Kovacs and Chase Balisy, came through. Berschbach scored one and Balisy scored the goal that tied it.
However, St. Cloud wasn’t done, as Nic Dowd scored the Huskies’ third power-play goal of the game at 7:37 to put St. Cloud back up, 5-4. Once again, the Broncos rallied, and it was Balisy who tied it, with assists to Kovacs and Berschbach.
In the shootout, Kovacs scored on his first attempt, and it was the only goal either team scored in the shootout.
Unlike Friday’s offensive outburst, Saturday’s rematch was a defensive battle more befitting of two teams that have won a lot this season with defense. After matching first-period goals, Berschbach scored the game-winner at 4:39 of the third. Lukas Hafner, who had replaced Frank Slubowski at the 14:34 mark of the first period after Slubowski gave up the third St. Cloud goal, was in net again, and stopped 32 shots.
Coach Andy Murray will probably want to ponder his goaltending situation ahead of this weekend’s series with Minnesota-Duluth. Slubowski has played in 18 games so far this season, and Hafner in 11. However, Hafner, a sophomore, has better stats across the board, including winning percentage.
NCHC teams seemed to favor extra play this past Friday, as every NCHC team went to overtime. Denver beat Minnesota-Duluth, 3-2, on a Quentin Shore goal with 15 seconds left in OT. Nebraska-Omaha and Miami battled to a draw through OT, and Miami won a shootout. Western Michigan and St. Cloud also were tied after OT, with the Broncos winning a shootout. IN nonconference action, North Dakota tied Bemidji State in OT and Colorado College gave up a late goal to No. 6 Providence, and the two remained tied after OT.
On Saturday, only one game went to OT, as Denver and Minnesota-Duluth repeated their defensive battle. This time, it remained tied after OT, and the Bulldogs won the shootout, 2-1.
It was anticipated that once conference play started, the NCHC would turn into a bloodbath. Almost every coach in the league has made a comment about how competitive the NCHC is, and how difficult it is to get points out of both nights.
That competitiveness has created an interesting race for the Penrose Cup. Currently, six teams are within striking distance of first place. St. Cloud is on top, with 23 points, and then Denver, Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota occupy the second stop with 21 points. Western Michigan is right behind with 20, and Minnesota-Duluth has 17 points, but with each win worth three points, the Bulldogs could easily make that up.
While there is still a lot of hockey to be played, it’s interesting to compare the current standings with the preseason coaches’ poll. The coaches picked Miami to win the conference, and picked Nebraska-Omaha to finish last. Miami is currently seventh in the league only one point above Colorado College, and the RedHawks have been in a tailspin since mid-November. Since beating Wisconsin on Nov. 15, the RedHawks have won only two games, plus a tie/shootout win on Friday night against Nebraska-Omaha.
The other interesting item is how teams seem to have switched their streaks. Western Michigan is one of the hottest teams in the country in the second half, but the Broncos struggled mightily in the first half. St. Cloud has started the second half 1-2-1, and if you include the December loss and tie against Union that closed the first half, the Huskies have been struggling to win. Miami started well, but has been in a tailspin, while North Dakota started slow, and is currently on a nine-game unbeaten streak.
There are only two conference series this coming weekend, and both are in Colorado, as Miami takes on Colorado College and North Dakota renews its bitter rivalry with Denver. Considering where each team is in the standings, those two series should be hard-fought and exciting.
Well, we are more than halfway through the season, and after last weekend, Matthew and I are back to where we were in October: dead even in our picks race. Last weekend, I went 4-4 ).500, to move to 62-41-13 (.590) on the year, while Matthew went 7-1 (.875) to also move to 62-41-13 (.590).
Maybe I can take the lead again and go up in the race for the six pack.
Friday-Saturday, Jan. 17-18
Nebraska-Omaha at Miami
Candace: Like Matthew, I really am unsure of which team to pick on which night. UNO swept Miami at home back in November right before Thanksgiving, which was also right before the Mavericks went into a swoon. I don’t see Miami returning the favor though. Miami 3-2, Nebraska-Omaha 4-2
Matthew: It probably doesn’t look great on me to admit this right off the bat this week, but I’m really struggling with who to take here. UNO’s lost five of its last six, and the only win in that span was in a shootout; Miami’s lost four of its last five, and both these teams can score but are having real issues at the other end of the ice. I’m taking the safe option and picking a split; Miami’s the home team so I’ll take them Friday, but UNO has to come up with another win inside 65 minutes sooner or later. Miami 4-2, Nebraska-Omaha 3-2
Western Michigan at No. 3 St. Cloud State
Candace: Western looked good last weekend in sweeping Miami, and St. Cloud looked a little rusty against Denver, but I would imagine coach Bob Motzko has drilled his players on the importance of every game at this point. I think St. Cloud sweeps. St. Cloud 3-2, 4-1
Matthew: Considering Western’s won five of its last six and has won four on the bounce going into this weekend, I can see them getting something this weekend and possibly entering our Men’s Division I top 20 next Monday. St. Cloud’s too good a team to get swept in its own building — and don’t forget North Dakota’s nipping at SCSU’s heels now — but a split’s very possible. Western Michigan 3-2, St. Cloud State 4-1
No. 16 Denver at Minnesota-Duluth
Candace: If Aaron Crandall plays like he did last weekend against Nebraska-Omaha, this will be one of the best goaltender duels of the weekend. Considering that of late, both teams have struggled on Friday and come through on Saturday, and I’m not sure which way to pick. Minnesota-Duluth 3-2, Denver 2-1
Matthew: UMD goaltender Aaron Crandall was fabulous for the Bulldogs last weekend in a road sweep of Nebraska-Omaha, and if he can stay hot and Duluth keeps giving him goal support, I can see them winning their fourth and fifth wins in a row this weekend. Denver looked Saturday against SCSU as though the Pioneers have snapped out of its mini-funk over the holidays, though, so it’s another split from me. Minnesota-Duluth 4-2, Denver 3-1
No. 20 North Dakota vs. Bemidji State home-and-home (at BSU Friday)
Candace: North Dakota has been on a roll of late, and I don’t see it ending this weekend, but I think at least one of these games will be closer than anticipated. North Dakota 3-2, 4-1
Matthew: A nine-game winning streak would be unbelievable by the standards NCHC teams have put up thus far, but that’s exactly what UND’s looking at if it sweeps Bemidji this weekend, and I think it’s going to happen. BSU has eight home losses already this season, and I can’t see the Beavers getting it done at the Ralph. North Dakota 4-2, 5-1
No. 7 Providence at Colorado College
Candace: Providence has been struggling of late, but CC has been struggling all year, and the Friars should come strong enough to get a sweep. Providence 3-2, 3-1
Matthew: If this was taking place earlier in the season, I might’ve really feared for CC in this series. However, Providence is 0-3-1 in its last four games and isn’t looking as ruthless as it did through to around Thanksgiving. The Friars are a more talented team than CC, but an upset or maybe even two could be in the cards. Colorado College 3-1, Providence 4-1
Although we’re starting to see more daylight open up between the NCHC’s sets of leaders and trailers, it appears to be time to start thinking about adding Minnesota-Duluth to the former category.
Duluth spent the first half of the season putting up a decidedly mediocre record and splitting series almost as though that was the Bulldogs’ job. UMD coach Scott Sandelin’s club appeared to make a breakthrough last weekend, though, in picking up its first sweep of the season at Nebraska-Omaha.
Each night of the two-game set saw one Duluth forward line really click.
In its’ 3-2 win Friday, Duluth’s third line of Alex Iafallo, Dominic Toninato and Adam Krause accounted for the first two goals of the game before defenseman Andy Welinski scored the eventual game-winner in the third period.
Sandelin made zero changes to his lineup for the rematch, and Saturday night saw Duluth’s second line get its own time to shine. Joe Basaraba’s two goals and big performances from linemates Austin Farley and Caleb Herbert helped the visitors to a 3-1 win.
Even more credit for both nights’ triumphs has to go to Bulldogs goaltender Aaron Crandall. The senior will undoubtedly be the NCHC’s goaltender of the week after stopping 38 and 52 shots against UNO, including several monster saves in both games of the series.
Duluth now finds itself 9-8-1 overall and 5-5 in the league, which is far from incredible. However, with a lot of winnable games coming up over the next four weeks ahead of a trip to first-place St. Cloud State Feb. 14-15, if Crandall stays hot and he keeps getting goal support from the offense in front of him, UMD might be able to parlay its success last weekend into something much bigger by the time they face the Huskies and then enter the home stretch of the regular season.
UNO’s struggles continue
UMD and the team it swept last weekend appear to be moving in very different directions.
UNO’s pair of losses last weekend at home to the Bulldogs marked the third time the Mavericks have been swept this season and the second time in two weeks. What’s worse, at 8-11-1 and 5-4-1-1 in the NCHC, UNO has now lost five of its last six games, and the only win came via an overtime shootout at Colorado College Dec. 7.
The news gets worse if you’re a Mavericks fan.
A year ago this week, UNO was four games above .500, tied with Denver for first place in the WCHA, and the Mavericks had a legitimate Hobey Baker Award candidate in Ryan Walters. Now, UNO is three games below .500, is only in fourth place in the NCHC by two points over Duluth, and the Mavericks’ leading scorer, forward Josh Archibald, is tied with 11 others for 39th in the country in terms of points with 21.
Archibald’s tied for fourth in Division I with 14 goals, which UNO fans surely find great to see from the junior forward who has improved by leaps and bounds every year he’s been in Omaha. However, when he’s the only Maverick on the national radar in terms of leaders in either goals or assists, it’s one more sign not enough is being done by UNO’s attacking corps.
There’s an even bigger mess to be dealt with in UNO’s own end of the ice. The Mavericks are 49th in the country in scoring defense, having conceded 3.35 goals per game so far this season, and UNO has D-I’s third-worst penalty-killing units, only succeeding at a 73 percent clip.
Poor defensive displays tend to beget poor goaltending numbers, too, and that’s one way to describe UNO’s goalies’ figures so far. Junior Ryan Massa (11 appearances) and freshman Kirk Thompson (10) have fairly evenly split time in the Mavericks’ nets this season, and Thompson’s leading the way statistically with a 2.95 goals-against average and a .885 save percentage, numbers not much better than Massa’s (3.34, .882).
Looking at the Mavericks’ remaining schedule, there’s a chance things could get worse for them. UNO is at fellow NCHC struggler Miami this upcoming weekend, and then the Mavericks will face the league’s current top three teams – St. Cloud State, North Dakota and Denver – all in a row.
North Dakota gets back on track
North Dakota didn’t post earth-shattering results in its Canadian exhibition tour Jan. 3-4, losing 3-2 in overtime to British Columbia before eking past Simon Fraser 4-3 the following day. Since then, though, UND has gotten back to the form that served the team well heading into the holiday break.
UND was made to work hard for its 5-3 and 3-2 wins at home last weekend to seventh-place Colorado College, but the bottom line is that UND was able to pick up six points from the series, something that hasn’t been incredibly common in the NCHC so far and will only become even rarer as we head into the final couple of months of the regular season.
Even better, UND is now on a seven-game winning streak in non-exhibition games. That number may well go up to nine this next weekend after a home-and-home series with a Bemidji State team four games below .500 and with eight home losses already this season.
At 11-7-2 overall and 7-5 in the NCHC, UND’s 21 points thus far currently put it only one point behind SCSU for first place in the league. What’s even more exciting is that UND has a favorable schedule until it visits the Huskies Feb. 28 and Mar. 1, so expect to see at least a two-horse race at least until we switch our calendars over from February to March.
Thanks to picking the UNH sweep of Nebraska-Omaha and the Brown win over Colorado College, I now have a three-game lead over Matthew in our picks race. Last week, I went 3-0-1 (.875), moving to 58-37-13 (.597) on the year. A couple more good weekends and I’ll be above .600! Matthew went 1-2-1 (.375) to move to 55-40-13 (.569).
Of course, there’s a lot to go in the season, and it was only a month ago that Matthew had a three-game lead on me, so I better be extra psychic if I want to hold my lead.
Friday-Saturday, Jan. 10-11
No. 2 St. Cloud State at No. 17 Denver
Candace: St. Cloud had an outstanding first half, and this will be a key series for them to get off to a good start in the second half. Denver gets Will Butcher and Quentin Shore back from the World Juniors, and should be better than it was last week against Brown. However, Denver has struggled offensively all year. Both Denver and St. Cloud have outstanding defenses, ranking third and fourth respectively, but St. Cloud has better forwards. St. Cloud State 2-1, 3-1
Matthew: SCSU is the more complete team here, if we’re honest. However, I’m sticking with my prediction that Denver’s in for a big second half of the season, and I think they’ll get something out of this weekend. Only getting a tie last time out against Brown wasn’t so great, but I think the Pioneers will pick up a split here. St. Cloud State 3-1, Denver 2-1
Colorado College at North Dakota
Candace: CC is having one of its worst seasons ever, and the scoring continues to be nonexistent. North Dakota has been streaky at times, and freshman forward Adam Tambellini just left to play for the Calgary Hitman in the WHL. Tambellini only had four points though, so I don’t think North Dakota’s offense will suffer. North Dakota 3-1, 4-2
Matthew: UND ended the first half of the season very well and I think they’ll carry on that form this weekend. CC’s first road win of the season has to come somewhere, but I don’t see it coming in Grand Forks. North Dakota 4-1, 3-1
Minnesota-Duluth at Nebraska-Omaha
Candace: The Bulldogs have been the split team of the season, splitting almost every series. Picking the right night is difficult in this one though. Usually, UMD wins on Saturday, but with UNO missing coach Dean Blais and defenseman Jaycob Megna, I’m thinking it will be the opposite. Minnesota-Duluth 3-2, Nebraska-Omaha 3-2
Matthew: This has “split” written all over it. These are two fairly even teams – and especially Friday with Mavericks coach Dean Blais and defenseman Jaycob Megna still out with suspensions – and I don’t see UNO sweeping the Bulldogs like it did at CenturyLink last season. Minnesota-Duluth 3-2, Nebraska-Omaha 4-2
No. 13 Miami at Western Michigan
Candace: Western Michigan did well in winning the Great Lakes Invitational, but I don’t know if the Broncos can stop the high-flying Miami offense. This will most likely be a split, but I’ll go opposite Matthew and pick Miami to sweep. Miami 3-2, 4-2
Matthew: It feels a bit like going out on a limb, but I’m taking Western Michigan to sweep here. The Broncos looked good in winning the Great Lakes Invitational after Christmas, and Miami has underwhelmed all season so far. Western Michigan 5-3, 3-2
The Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks, who had an excellent month in November in which they went 6-2 while sweeping Denver and Miami and splitting with Denver and North Dakota, haven’t won since that month. The Mavericks closed the first half by losing and tying/winning a shootout at Colorado College. They opened the second half this weekend by getting swept by New Hampshire.
New Hampshire won 6-3 and 5-2 decisions. Nebraska-Omaha continues to struggle defensively; so far this season, they have only won one game in which scored two goals or less, a 2-1 win over Northern Michigan back in October. The Mavericks have given up four or more goals eight times so far this year, and only twice this season has UNO been able to hold an opponent to a single goal or less. Nebraska-Omaha is currently ranked 50th defensively of 59 teams; on average, they give up 3.39 goals per game after the New Hampshire series.
That trouble clamping down on opponents hurt them on Saturday against New Hampshire. After taking a 2-1 lead early in the third period on a four-on-three power-play goal, the Mavericks gave up four unanswered goals in the last seven minutes of the game, two of which were on power plays and one of which was an empty-netter.
The Mavericks were without two cogs to their team against New Hampshire: defenseman Jaycob Megna and coach Dean Blais, who were serving three-game suspensions for a rules infraction last year. The two have one game left on the suspension, the first game of a home series against Minnesota-Duluth next weekend.
Only two other teams in the NCHC had official games this weekend, as Brown traveled to Colorado to take on Denver and Colorado College on consecutive nights. The Bears came away with three points in the two games, as well as an unofficial shootout win.
On Friday at Denver, Brown rallied three times from a one-goal deficit to earn a 3-3 tie. Denver was lucky to get a point at all, as Garnet Hathaway’s chance from in close in OT rang right off the post.
Denver had difficulty with its penalty kill, giving up two power-play goals. Pioneers coach Jim Montgomery singled out the defensive effort of his team, saying, “Our play with the puck was a little bit above average, but our play without the puck was abysmal. Our D-zone and backcheck coverage was the worst that I’ve seen it in a long time, probably since the middle of October.”
Though neither team got extra points, Brown coach Brendan Whittet had agreed to a shootout in the event of a tie. Brown’s Matt Lorito scored on the first chance of the shootout with a sweep stick drag maneuver past the outstretched leg of Sam Brittain. Denver’s best chance to score came when Joey LaLeggia rang one off the post. Lorito’s goal was the only one of the shootout.
On Saturday in Colorado Springs, Lorito again played a big role, as did his linemates, Mark Naclerio and Nick Lappin. Lorito picked up an assist, and Naclerio and Lappin each scored and had an assist on the other’s goal as Brown scored twice in the second to take a 3-1 lead, then got another early in the third to ice the game. CC’s Alexander Krushelnyski scored an extra-attacker goal with 18:24 left in the third to make the score more respectable.
North Dakota, St. Cloud, and Minnesota-Duluth all had success in exhibition series this weekend. North Dakota traveled to British Columbia to play in the Great Northwest Showcase. North Dakota lost, 3-2, in overtime on Friday against British Columbia, then beat Simon Fraser, 4-3, on Saturday. Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud both blitzed the U.S. Under-18 squad; UMD won 7-0 on Friday and St. Cloud won 8-0 on Saturday.
League action resumes
This weekend, NCHC league play resumes for all eight teams. Denver hosts St. Cloud, North Dakota hosts Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha hosts Minnesota-Duluth, and Western Michigan hosts Miami. Currently, St. Cloud sits atop the standings with 19 points, holding a slim lead over Nebraska-Omaha, which has 17 points. North Dakota and Denver have 15 and 14 points respectively, Colorado College has 10 points, and the other three have nine points each. However, each league win is worth three points, so the standings could look drastically different come next Monday.