Western Michigan provides the winter break highlight for the NCHC

Western Michigan’s Josh Pitt celebrates his overtime goal against Michigan in the Great Lakes Invitational semifinals (photo: GSPhoto/WMU Athletics).

Not a whole lot has gone right on the ice over the holidays for NCHC teams — more on that later — but unquestionably the best news came out of Detroit and the annual Great Lakes Invitational.

It was an edition of firsts for the GLI, held every year between Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and a fourth team invited in for the competition. It was held outdoors this year for the first time at Detroit’s Comerica Park baseball stadium, and Western Michigan’s triumph meant an NCHC team won the tournament in the league’s first try.

The Broncos came into the tournament unfancied, especially as then-No. 3 Michigan was favored to not only beat Western in their semifinal on Dec. 27 but to also win the GLI title for the 16th time.

That wasn’t to be, though. In the dying seconds of overtime with the score locked at 2-2, Western Michigan forward Josh Pitt went coast-to-coast and surgically moved through the Wolverines’ defense before burying surely Western’s goal of the season to date to give the Broncos the 3-2 upset win.

[youtube_sc url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVcHJfF-NfE]

More overtime heroics came the following night in the tournament final, with forward Justin Kovacs firing home 2:01 into the extra period to give the Broncos a 1-0 win over defending GLI champion Michigan Tech.

Western still sits at the bottom of the NCHC standings, but its win Dec. 28 in the GLI final bumped its overall record to 9-8-3. The victory also marked Western’s second GLI title in four attempts, with the Broncos last having won the tournament in 1986.

Maybe the most impressive cog in Western’s system over those two games in Detroit was sophomore goaltender Lukas Hafner. He posted a .969 save percentage in the tournament and was awarded the Jack Tompkins Trophy as the tournament’s most valuable player.

Hafner was named onto the GLI all-tournament team alongside teammates Kovacs — who also was named the NCHC’s player of the month for December – Pitt and defenseman Jordan Oesterle.

Junior goaltender Frank Slubowski had been seen going into this season as potentially one of Western’s leading lights, but while Slubowski has still played the lion’s share of the games this season, Hafner is giving the incumbent stiffer opposition all the time.

Through eight appearances this season, Hafner is 4-2 with a .947 save percentage and a 1.26 GAA. Nobody can argue with his MVP performances in the GLI, either, and nor is there any doubting that with his recent form comes a lot of confidence.

“It’s pretty good right now,” Hafner said after the GLI tournament final. “The team is playing really well.

“It makes my job a lot easier. I’ve been playing since I was 5 years old so I just try to not get too nervous out there and go out and have fun.”

There seems to be quite a bit of that going on these days, as Hafner has backstopped Western to three wins in its last four games.

Will that form continue? Watch this space.

Denver’s David Makowski celebrates a goal against Brown (photo: Candace Horgan).

CC, DU and UNO falter

Western’s GLI triumph was just about the only big positive for NCHC teams playing over the holiday break. The three other league schools in non-exhibition action weren’t quite so hot.

Colorado College, Denver and Nebraska-Omaha combined for an 0-3-1 record against ECAC Hockey’s Brown and Hockey East’s New Hampshire since Christmas.

UNO was accountable for two of those three loses. The rusty Mavericks, who hadn’t played a game in nearly a month and were without coach Dean Blais and defenseman Jaycob Megna — both suspended — opened the scoring both nights but lost both games to the homestanding Wildcats, 6-3 and 5-2.

Colorado College and Denver were both at home last weekend to Brown, but the Tigers and Pioneers might not want to remember their meetings with the Bears for long. Brown battled back from three one-goal margins last Friday at Denver before forcing a 3-3 tie, and the Bears won 4-2 over CC the following night in Colorado Springs.

Going into this weekend, NCHC teams are only 34-29-10 in nonconference play this season, good for a .534 winning percentage. St. Cloud State (5-1-2 in nonconference play) is helping the league out the most in that regard, whereas CC (0-8) is helping the least.

The league’s teams weren’t altogether unstoppable in exhibition play over the holiday break, either.

The best news there was that St. Cloud State won 8-0 last Saturday over the U.S. Under-18 Team, a club Miami to which dropped a 4-2 decision at home on New Year’s Eve. Minnesota-Duluth also had its way with the U-18s Friday night, winning 7-0.

What’s more important is that nonconference record, though, especially as St. Cloud State is the only NCHC team that would make its way into the NCAA tournament if that were to start this week.

That record might not improve a whole lot the rest of the way, either. There are only six nonconference games left for NCHC teams — Colorado College, Denver, Nebraska-Omaha, Miami and Western Michigan have only league games remaining — and St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth could face each other in the Minnesota Cup Jan. 25 in what wouldn’t count toward the NCHC standings.

Penrose Cup set to go on tour

In brighter news, as the NCHC prepares for its first full weekend bill of the 2014 half of its inaugural season, the trophy its first regular season champion will receive is getting ready to go on tour.

The Julie and Spencer Penrose Memorial Cup will spend much of the second half of this season on display inside each of the eight NCHC teams’ arenas. Starting this weekend and running through March 1, the three-foot tall trophy will spend at least one night in the home venue of the teams vying to win it ahead of the conference playoffs.

The trophy has already been on display twice before at NCHC venues. It made its first public appearance — not including the league’s preseason media day in Minneapolis — Oct. 18 in Colorado Springs when Colorado College hosted Minnesota-Duluth, and the trophy showed up at Denver’s Magness Arena Nov. 9 when the Pioneers hosted CC.

Speaking of Duluth, meanwhile, the Penrose Cup has seemed to follow the Bulldogs around this season, and it will continue to do so.

The trophy will be at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center this weekend during UMD’s series at Nebraska-Omaha, and it will be at Western Michigan’s Lawson Arena Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 when the Broncos host UMD. The trophy will finally visit the Bulldogs’ own arena Feb. 21-22 during UMD’s home series against North Dakota.

The copper cup will be in the Broncos’ midst in back-to-back weeks. A week after the Penrose Cup visits Kalamazoo, Mich., it will follow Western Michigan to Oxford, Ohio, for the Broncos’ series at Miami on Feb. 7-8.

The same deal applies for the RedHawks, as the trophy will be in Grand Forks, N.D., on Feb. 14-15, one week after it goes on display at Miami’s Steve Cady Arena.

Denver will play host to the Penrose Cup once again Feb. 21 during the Pioneers’ home game against CC, and the trophy will be back in Colorado Springs the following night when the Tigers get to host the Pioneers.

Finally, the trophy will visit SCSU’s Herb Brooks National Hockey Center Feb. 28 and March 1. Perhaps that’s a bit convenient as the Huskies are many prognosticators’ favorite to win the Penrose Cup this season, but there’s a chance it could actually be awarded the following week when St. Cloud State visits UND.

Players of the week

Offensive player of the week — Josh Archibald, Nebraska-Omaha: In UNO’s pair of losses last weekend at New Hampshire, Archibald’s play was one of the few positives the Mavericks had going for them. The junior forward picked up three goals and an assist against the Wildcats on UNH’s ice, and he leads the NCHC in goals with 14.

Defensive player of the week — Nolan Zajac, Denver: Although the sophomore picked up four assists over two games in the holiday break against Massachusetts and Brown, Zajac picks up the honor this week for what he did for the Pioneers in their own end of the ice. He blocked two shots in DU’s win at Massachusetts, and he aided the Pioneers’ penalty-killing units as they killed six of the two opponents’ nine power-play opportunities. Zajac wasn’t on the ice for any of those three goals his team conceded.

Rookie of the week — Trevor Moore, Denver: Moore has been in great form lately for the Pioneers, and he picked up two goals and a plus-3 rating against the Minutemen. His second goal of the night, coming late in the third period, proved to be the game-winner in what ended up as a 5-3 road win. He leads all NCHC rookies with eight goals and 16 points.

Goaltender of the week — Lukas Hafner, Western Michigan: The sophomore Broncos goaltender came up huge for Western at the Great Lakes Invitational just after Christmas, making 63 saves in two games against Michigan and Michigan Tech. He also helped kill all 10 of WMU’s opponents’ power-play opportunities on the weekend.