Minnesota State heads to Omaha looking to further validate good first half

With its sixth win in a row and third league sweep in as many weeks, No. 20 Minnesota State, picked by most to be a bottom-three team in the WCHA, sits in a tie for third place in the league headed into the final weekend before the holiday break.

Now, the purple Mavericks (9-5-2, 7-5 WCHA) will see how they stack up against a ranked opponent when they travel to No. 13 Nebraska-Omaha (10-5-1, 6-3-1).

Many commentators have been quick to dismiss the purple Mavs but they have players performing at a high level. Sophomore Matt Leitner leads with 19 points (including a team-high 15 assists) while senior Eriah Hayes is tied for the WCHA goal-scoring lead with 10 goals out of his 15 points.

Freshman goalie Stephon Williams (6-3-1) has a league-best 1.61 goals against average, a .932 save percentage and has two shutouts in his last three games. The Mavs have allowed just six goals in the last six games, albeit against the bottom of the league.

Standing in their way is another Mavs team, tied for fifth with North Dakota, doing better so far than some expected.

UNO is led by junior Ryan Walters with a league-high 24 points (16 assists), with from sophomore Dominic Zombo chipping in 16 points (10 assists) and Josh Archibald 15 (seven goals).

Walters is arguably the hottest offensive player in the league, recording a point in all eight games between Nov. 3 and Dec. 7. Walters produced 21 of his 24 points in that stretch after he started the season with three points in the first seven games.

When Nebraska-Omaha rattled off six wins in a row in November, there was more to prove when the Mavericks went to No. 3 Minnesota and No. 17 St. Cloud State.

UNO went 2-2 during that road stretch with one-goal differences in all four games and remains 13th in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll.

Now it’s Minnesota State’s turn to prove a point.

“We’re trying to show everyone we are the real deal,” Williams said. “I think a lot of people picked us to be bottom-dwellers. We are a contending team and we can compete with anyone.”

Williams has largely been a key to MSU’s success, in which it has gone 6-0 since it suffered a sweep to Denver Nov. 9-10 at home. The freshman from Fairbanks, Alaska has a .958 save percentage in that stretch and has allowed just one goal per game.

MSU is on its longest winning streak since the 2007-08 season and is ranked for the first time since 2008-09.

Williams, however, knows playing UNO on the road brings a bigger challenge.

“I think our team is having a great week of preparation and we have a tough competition at hand,” Williams said. “UNO is a hot team right now. We understand what we need to do as a team to get better.”

Thanks to the upcoming schedule, the purple Mavs are in position to get on a roll with nonconference games against Brown and either American International or Connecticut at the UConn Hockey Classic, followed by home dates against Providence and Wisconsin.

UNO will try to stop that momentum behind the goalie with the best winning percentage in college hockey, John Faulkner (.864). The senior hasn’t been unbeatable, however. His save percentage is 13th in the WCHA at .905.

Players reporting to World Juniors camps

Rocco Grimaldi and Blake Pietila will sit on opposite benches trying to out-battle each other when North Dakota goes to Michigan Tech Friday and Saturday.

By daybreak Sunday morning, the 19-year-old forwards will be sitting on the same plane flying to New York City to try to make the same team.

The United States Under-20 Team gathers for its World Junior Championship training camp Sunday through Tuesday at the New York Rangers practice facility in Tarrytown, N.Y.

“Blake’s a good guy and we really get along,” said Grimaldi, who is tied for UND’s team lead in goals (six) with nine assists for the team’s second-most points (15).

“We’re trying to make the same team so we have to treat each other like teammates and get ready for, hopefully, what’s to come.”

The camp continues Wednesday in Helsinki, Finland, with exhibition games against Sweden (Dec. 20) and Finland (Dec. 22) before the tournament starts at 8 a.m. CST Dec. 27 in Ufa, Russia. The U.S. opens against Germany.

Defensemen Jake McCabe (Wisconsin), Mike Reilly (Minnesota) and Brady Skjei (Minnesota) are the other WCHA players to make the preliminary roster.

Just because these five made the training camp roster doesn’t necessarily mean they’re on the final tournament roster. The final group will be trimmed from 27 players to 23 on Dec. 23.

“Everybody’s going to be playing hard to get on the team,” said Pietila, whose nine goals are almost twice as much as any other player for Michigan Tech. “Those are your buddies on the rink and you’re fighting for the same spot on the team.”

Assuming they do make the team, it’s all about bringing a gold medal home to the States for the first time since 2010. U.S. earned bronze in 2011 and slipped to a fifth-place finish last year.

“Any time you get a chance to represent the USA, it’s special,” Pietila said. “You don’t want anything but gold. You don’t want to end up in fifth place and be the laughingstock of the tournament.”

Added Grimaldi: “You can never go into something like this thinking you’ve made the team, regardless of who you are. You can’t have that approach or they’ll take someone else.”

Minnesota State freshman center Teddy Blueger returns for his second year at the World Juniors representing Latvia.

Blueger has lived in the U.S. since he was 13 and had a goal and two assists last season.

“It’s a little bit different feeling playing for your country than your club team or your college team,” Blueger said. “It’s a great experience to be a part of it.”

Schmidt key component to Minnesota defense

Junior Nate Schmidt’s work as the quarterback on the Minnesota power play garners him some points and plenty of attention. His 15 points through this weekend ties him for second on the Gophers and second among WCHA defensemen.

But it is the undrafted free agent’s defense that makes him indispensable for the Gophers.

“He’s good defensively and at handling the puck,” coach Don Lucia said. “He takes pride in being a solid defensive defenseman. He is an important player for us.”

That comes from having a good partner in junior Jake Parenteau, another undrafted Gophers player.

“With Jake and I playing together, there is a certain chemistry,” Schmidt said. “We take pride in moving the puck up the ice in transition. We want to be all-around players who are sound defensively and can jump into the play. [Associate head] coach [Mike] Guentzel took us aside and told us early that we needed to improve to be good at this level and in the pros.”

Schmidt credits the talents of his teammates for his success in piling up 13 assists so far.

“When you have the guys up front who have those moves, it is easy to get the puck to them,” he said.

Quick hits

• North Dakota senior forward Carter Rowney was the WCHA offensive player of the week for Dec. 11 after he scored three goals and set up two others. He had a career-high four points (two goals) in last Saturday’s 6-3 victory over league-leading Denver, including the game-winning goal and his first career short-hander.

• Minnesota State defenseman Josh Nelson, who led a defense that allowed only one goal in its latest league sweep, was the league defensive player of the week. He helped hold Alaska-Anchorage scoreless over the final 118:11 after yielding the only goal at 1:49 of the first period in the opener. Nelson had an assist in each game.

• Two freshman forwards — North Dakota’s Grimaldi and David Morley of St. Cloud State — were named as co-rookies of the week. Grimaldi recorded the first four-point game (three assists) by a UND freshman since the 2003-04 season. Morley scored his first college hat trick in a 6-5 loss. It was the first hat trick by a St. Cloud State freshman since Drew LeBlanc against Colorado College in 2008-09.

• CC senior Rylan Schwartz is only one goal away from career No. 50. After a slow start in which he posted only two assists in his first seven games, he has 19 points (10 assists) in his last nine to move into a tie for 44th place on Colorado College’s all-time scoring chart at 130 points (81 assists) in 132 games for the Tigers. The former Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League scoring champion and MVP (2008-09) has clicked for 37 of his 49 career goals in his last 55 games. He has factored in on 26 game-winners since arriving at CC, scoring eight and assisting on 18.

• Alaska-Anchorage is tied for No. 3 in Division I with four short-handed goals (Bentley, Colgate, New Hampshire) to lead the WCHA. Union and Miami have five SHGs.

• For the third weekend in a row, Minnesota-Duluth had a chance at a WCHA sweep, but fell short on Saturday against Bemidji State.

• Hobey Baker Award winner Blake Geoffrion will be an honorary Wisconsin captain for Friday’s home game against Alabama-Huntsville, where his brothers Brice and Sebastian play.

• St. Cloud State’s LeBlanc and Nebraska-Omaha’s Walters are tied for the national lead in assists with 16 each.

• Denver’s Joey LaLeggia scored one goal last weekend and is tied for the national lead in points by defensemen (15).

• Colorado College is second in the nation for scoring offense with 3.62 goals per game.