Five teams bunched up

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.

PairWise push
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.