NCHC experiences topsy-turvy opening weekend

Anyone expected NCHC teams to come flying off the blocks this last weekend and tear into its nonconference opposition will have come away at least a little disappointed.

Unless he or she only paid attention on Saturday and Sunday. Better times were had then.

Seven of the league’s eight affiliate teams opened their 2014-15 regular season slates on Friday, and five of them fell. Colorado College and Nebraska-Omaha won their first counters of the season against Alabama-Huntsville and Minnesota State, respectively, but a quintet of NCHC schools weren’t as fortunate.

North Dakota and St. Cloud State lost at home on Friday to Bemidji State and Colgate, respectively. Miami lost 3-2 on the road against intrastate rival Bowling Green, Western Michigan lost 4-2 at Canisius, and Minnesota-Duluth was edged out by Minnesota 4-3 at the IceBreaker Tournament in South Bend, Ind.

The NCHC’s teams that played last weekend – Denver was the only one that didn’t – fared much better Saturday and Sunday. It started on Saturday night, where the league went 4-1 against several of its counterparts, and only UNO fell in its rematch with Division I college hockey’s other set of Mavericks.

Sunday went even better, with Miami besting BGSU 3-2 in the second leg of a home-and-home series while UMD blanked Notre Dame 3-0 in the third-place game of the IceBreaker.

No NCHC team stood out

I predicted on Friday that we would have a fair few splits to talk about once the weekend finished, but I also expected the teams who were projected to be the cream of the conference this season would look like it right away.

The first bit happened. The second one, not so much.

With respect to BGSU and Bemidji, I thought that UND and Miami had enough in their respective arsenals to pick up sweeps in their home-and-homes against a pair of WCHA teams that aren’t expected to make huge waves this season. In the end, though, I was proved somewhat wrong.

In UND’s series with nearby rival Bemidji, the home team never won. UND looked thoroughly out of sorts against the Beavers during a 5-1 loss at home on Friday, but BSU couldn’t repeat the trick the following night as it lost 2-1 in Minnesota.

Where Miami is concerned, I was looking for the RedHawks to carry some of their momentum from the second half of last season over into the start of this one. An in-state rivalry series against a fellow former CCHA member, I thought, would only get Miami up further.

Instead, the Falcons came away winners at home on opening night, albeit by only a 3-2 margin. Miami turned the tables on Sunday, though, in defeating BGSU by that same scoreline in the friendlier confines of Oxford, Ohio.

In-league action starts next week

Next weekend sees the start of intra-league action among NCHC teams, with North Dakota visiting Colorado College while Nebraska-Omaha makes the trek up to Western Michigan.

Both two-game sets are intriguing in their own ways. UND will try to make its perceived class show against a CC club that has started reasonably well under first-year head coach Mike Haviland, and UNO and Western will battle in a clash between two teams that will likely be fighting for a home-ice spot come the first round of the playoffs.

Elsewhere, Miami and UMD will take part in home-and-homes against in-state competition in the forms of Ohio State and Minnesota State, respectively, while Denver welcomes to the Colorado capital an RPI team that just finished second in the IceBreaker tournament.

NCHC pick: Oct. 12

There’s one game involving an NCHC team this Sunday in the Icebreaker tournament.

Sunday, Oct. 12

Minnesota-Duluth vs Notre Dame
Candace: Minnesota-Duluth gave top-ranked Minnesota all it could handle in the first game of the tournament. Maybe playing their home state rival previously will lift the Bulldogs. Minnesota-Duluth 3-2
Matthew: I really didn’t see Rensselear beating Notre Dame in South Bend, and it’s not great news for UMD that that’s what happened. Fighting Irish coach Jeff Jackson said after his team’s game with RPI on Friday that this season will be a work in progress, which could be designed to tone down expectations, but I think they’ll enough progress against the Bulldogs to win. Notre Dame 4-2

NCHC picks: Oct. 10

OK NCHC fans, we’re ready for the kickoff of season two, and that means your USCHO columnists, myself and Matthew Semisch, will once again engage in our season-long picks race. On the line is a friendly wager for a six-pack of craft brew. I won last year, beating Matthew by five games.

The rules: you have to pick the winner on the correct night, no picking a split and getting it right because it happens on different nights. First game listed in the pick is the first game of the series. Shootout wins are ties. Wins count as a point, ties as a half point.

All teams are in action this weekend, so let’s get to it!

Friday, Oct. 10

Minnesota vs. Minnesota-Duluth
Candace: I think this will be a close game, but Minnesota looks strong this year, and since UMD is going with a new goalie is trying to replace its top scorer, I’ll go with the Gophers. Minnesota 4-2
Matthew: I have a reasonably good feeling about UMD for this season, but I think they’ll run into issues against the Gophers. Minnesota 3-1

Friday-Saturday, Oct. 10-11

Miami vs Bowling Green home-and-home (at BG Friday, at Miami Sunday)
Candace: I like to think Miami might carry some momentum from its second half surge last year. Miami 3-2, 4-1
Matthew: Bowling Green should be a top-half team in the WCHA this season, but with Miami as keen on showing that the last regular season was a fluke, I expect the RedHawks to come out in this series with all guns blazing. Miami 5-2, 4-1

Western Michigan at Canisius
Candace: Western Michigan got off to a slow start last year, and lost a few key players. However, while I don’t underestimate Atlantic Hockey teams, I think the Broncos should sweep. Western Michigan 2-1, 3-1
Matthew: This is something of a housewarming series for Canisius with its new home rink, and the Golden Griffins will be hungry to send the Broncos home empty-handed. Western will likely be the better team, but they’ve both lost key pieces from last season and it’s tough to predict just how different the two teams are now, so I’m taking the safe option and going with a split. Canisius 3-2, Western Michigan 4-1

Alabama-Huntsville at Colorado College
Candace: A series between two squads that really struggled offensively last year. I like the Tigers in the first series under Mike Haviland. Colorado College 3-2, 3-1
Matthew: It can’t get a lot worse for Alabama-Huntsville than last season’s 2-35-1 effort was, and the Chargers will be better this time around. CC has a lot of questions of its own to answer, but I think the Haviland era will officially open this weekend with a couple of wins at home. Colorado College 4-2, 4-2

Colgate at St. Cloud State
Candace: This is a barn-burner of a series. Colgate is expected to win the ECAC, and St. Cloud to content the first night. This will probably be a split, but I’ll be a conference homer since I’m not sure which night a team will win. St. Cloud 3-2, 4-2
Matthew: Colgate is a lot of people’s favorite to win the ECAC this season, and I’m curious to see how they’ll fare this weekend in St. Cloud. I think they’ll win one of the two games in this series, but who knows which one that will be? Colgate 3-1, St. Cloud State 5-2

North Dakota vs Bemidji State home-and-home (at UND Friday, at BSU Saturday)
Candace: North Dakota has started slowly in the Hakstol era, and is missing its top scorer from last season, but I like UND to get it done. North Dakota 3-2, 4-1
Matthew: UND looked good in the final 40 minutes of its preseason exhibition on Sunday, and although UND tends to start seasons slow, I think they’ll pick up a sweep here. North Dakota 3-0, 3-2

Minnesota State at Nebraska Omaha
Candace: While Nebraska-Omaha has a strong freshmen group, I think it might take a while for them to get used to the collegiate level, and UNO lost four of its top six scorers from last season. Minnesota State 3-1, 3-2
Matthew: UNO got worked 4-0 at home on Monday by the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, and a big improvement is going to be needed if the red Mavericks are to do well against the purple Mavericks of MSU this weekend. This is such a young UNO team this season that I don’t know if they’ll be able to pick up more than one win against MSU at home. Minnesota State 3-1, Nebraska-Omaha 2-1

NCHC picks: March 22

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

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

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

NCHC picks: March 21

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

Let’s see how we can do this weekend.

Friday, March 21

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

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

Underdogs rule the first round

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NCHC picks: March 13

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

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

Thursday-Saturday, March 13-15

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

Friday-Sunday, March 14-16

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

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

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

First-round pairings decided after SCSU wins Penrose Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NCHC picks: March 7

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

Friday-Saturday, March 7-8

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

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

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

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

Down to the wire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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