Miami, Denver and Western Michigan won road quarterfinal series to join North Dakota in Minneapolis.
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.
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
Nebraska-Omaha’s Saturday games have been becoming more and more, well, interesting.
One could make the argument this pattern began with the Mavericks’ 5-1 win Jan. 18 at Miami, the first time UNO had routed anyone since beating the RedHawks 6-3 at home nearly two months before that on Nov. 22.
Fast-forward to Feb. 1, then, where UNO knocked off then-No. 5 St. Cloud State 8-6 in Omaha in a game in which both teams had one player net a hat trick and in which four goaltenders – two for each team; I mean, let’s not go completely nuts – saw playing time in a game where the standards of defensive play and netminding were sometimes questionable at best.
Finally, there’s UNO’s game last Saturday at No. 16 North Dakota. It ended well for the visitors, who won the game 6-3 thanks to five unanswered goals and a hat trick from Mavericks forward Josh Archibald, but the game didn’t start so great for UNO.
The weirdness started when Archibald and UND forward Stephane Pattyn both watched the game’s opening face off from the penalty boxes after picking up unsportsmanlike conduct penalties zero minutes and zero seconds into the first period.
It wasn’t the only unsportsmanlike call the visitors would pick up in the opening frame, and the second one saw Mavericks coach Dean Blais kicked out of the game. When Blais refused to send a player to the box for his team’s bench minor at 17:07, referee Andy Thiessen gave Blais his marching orders.
Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald reported that Blais watched the rest of the game from the Ralph Engelstad Arena’s Zamboni room, a place Blais used to enjoy playing cards in when he was UND’s head coach at the arena Blais helped design.
Broncos get back on track
Ahead of last weekend’s series at Miami, Western Michigan hadn’t won a single game in Oxford, Ohio since Nov. 19, 2004 and had gone 0-12-1 on the road against the RedHawks since then.
Those weren’t the only reasons, though, that the Broncos’ sweep of Miami in Oxford last weekend came at a great time.
Western had been on a 5-0-1 tear in its last six games – thus putting the Broncos back into contention for the NCHC regular season title – before getting derailed at home in a sweep Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at the hands of Minnesota-Duluth.
Now, though, following a 5-2 win at Miami last Friday before coming up triumphant again in the rematch the following night by a 3-2 count, WMU can and should consider itself back on track in terms of how the NCHC standings are shaping up.
Western would be on the road at fourth-place Nebraska-Omaha in the first round of the league playoffs if the regular season had ended Saturday. However, with only four points separating first-place St. Cloud State from sixth-place Denver with four weeks remaining until the postseason starts – and factoring in Western’s relatively favorable remaining schedule – there’s still a lot of time for the Broncos to keep climbing.
Duluth takes five of six points at home
Talking of that UMD team that swept Western on the road, the Bulldogs stayed hot last weekend by getting a regulation win and shootout win over Colorado College at home.
Both games were close against the Tigers, who are are currently tied on points with Miami for last place in the NCHC. Duluth came up trumps both nights, though, winning in a shootout Friday following a 2-2 tie before besting CC again 2-1 the following night at Duluth’s AMSOIL Arena.
UMD ended last weekend in second place in the league, and the Bulldogs are 4-0-3 in their last seven games. Two of those official ties came in the form of shootout wins in league games against CC and, before that, Denver back on Jan. 18.
Duluth is now only two points behind SCSU at the top of the NCHC tree, and those two teams will meet in St. Cloud this upcoming weekend in a series that could either see St. Cloud open up the gap between itself and the trailing pack or could see Duluth climb into first place with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
If you followed our picks last weekend, chances are you were disappointed. I went 2-2 (.500), while Matthew put up a bagel, going 0-4. On the year, I now have a two-game lead in our season-long picks contest; the winner gets a six pack from the loser. Now I just have to hold Matthew off. I am now 73-48-19 (.589) on the year, while Matthew is 71-50-19 (.575).
Friday-Saturday, Feb. 7-8
Western Michigan at Miami
Candace: The off-weekend came at a good time for coach Enrico Blasi’s club, which had started the second half dismally. Blasi hinted that there were several things he wanted to work on with his players to ready them for the stretch run. I don’t think that equals sweep yet though. Miami 3-2, Western Michigan 3-2
Matthew: Western hasn’t won in Oxford, Ohio since Nov. 19, 2004 and has gone 0-12-1 on the road against the RedHawks since then. Now, though, I think is the time for the Broncos to finally pick up another win or maybe two on Miami’s ice. WMU underwhelmed last weekend at home against Minnesota-Duluth, but I think Andy Murray will have his Broncos set to go this weekend, and I like them to pick up a few points. Miami 3-1, Western Michigan 3-1
No. 15 Denver at No. 6 St. Cloud State
Candace: Coach Bob Motzko’s Huskies still haven’t found their first half defense, which is good news for a Denver club that has struggled to score goals at times this year. In every road series except for Alaska that Denver has played this year, the Pioneers have won the Friday game, and St. Cloud has struggled at home in Friday games. Denver 2-1, St. Cloud 3-2
Matthew: It looked throughout the first half of the season as though SCSU was by far the class of the league, but the Huskies have only won two of their last seven games and now they have three teams only two points behind them in a tie for second place in the standings. Denver’s one of those three teams, and I’ve liked Sam Brittain’s play in goal for DU recently more than I’ve liked Ryan Faragher’s for SCSU, but as this series is in St. Cloud, I’ll take a split. St. Cloud State 4-2, Denver 3-1
Colorado College at No. 17 Minnesota-Duluth
Candace: Minnesota-Duluth continues to improve, and after this weekend, it wouldn’t surprise me if they are in a tie for first or second. Minnesota-Duluth 3-2, 3-1
Matthew: CC has looked better in recent weeks, and the Tigers surprised me a bit in getting a split at home with Miami last weekend. However, Duluth has been the NCHC’s hottest team of late, and I think the Bulldogs will be raring to go this weekend for their first home series in a few weeks and ought to get the job done. Minnesota Duluth 3-2, 4-1
Nebraska-Omaha at No. 16 North Dakota
Candace: If UNO’s defense plays like it did against St. Cloud last week, the Mavericks could be in for a rough weekend, because North Dakota loves playing tough, checking defense at the Ralph. North Dakota 3-1, 4-2
Matthew: Whether or not UNO No. 1 goaltender Ryan Massa makes it back from his groin injury in time for this series, I think UND will be able to handle the Mavericks. UND has the league’s best home record at 8-4-1 and has won its last six games at the Ralph, and goalie Clarke Saunders has historically been very good against UNO, both with UND and with Alabama-Huntsville before he transferred to North Dakota. North Dakota 5-3, 4-3
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.