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.