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.