Assessing NCHC teams’ goals for the final two weeks of the regular season

North Dakota and Miami go into the final two weeks of the NCHC regular season in the top two spots in the standings (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

When the NCHC was announced as the rival to the newly constituted Big Ten, it was recognized as a power conference. Talk to any coach in the league and they will comment on how competitive the league is, and how hard it is to sweep a league opponent.

In just its second year, the NCHC has surpassed all expectations. The league sports the best out-of-conference record of all six conferences at 53-25-4. Of the league’s eight teams, seven have at least a .500 or better record against out-of-conference competition.

The lone team below .500 is Colorado College, which went 4-5 against out-of-conference teams, including 1-0 against the Big Ten and 2-0 against the WCHA. As a comparison, CC is 1-18-1 in the conference, so it did far better when playing nonleague opponents.

That stellar out-of-conference record has translated to the PairWise Rankings, where the NCHC has three teams in the top four, five teams in the top eight, and six in the top 14. The next-best conference after the NCHC in terms of the top 15 teams who could conceivably make the NCAA tournament (the Atlantic Hockey champion is awarded an autobid, and Robert Morris is the highest-ranking AHC team at 23 in the PairWise, so 15 teams maximum will make it) are Hockey East and the WCHA with three. The ECAC has two, and the Big Ten one.

With two weeks to go in the regular season, the competition for the Penrose Cup, awarded to the league regular season champion, is fierce. Six teams have a mathematical chance at both home ice in the first round of the NCHC playoffs and the Penrose Cup. Let’s break down each team.

North Dakota

League record: 13-5-2
Nonleague record: 9-1-1
Conference rank: First
PairWise rank: Second
Highest possible finish: First
Lowest possible finish: Sixth
Series left: St. Cloud State (home), Miami (away)

North Dakota controls its destiny, thanks to the split last weekend between Miami and Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State’s sweep of Omaha. Win out, and UND wins the Penrose Cup.

Considering its opponents, that is easier said than done. St. Cloud has shown flashes of the form that won the Huskies the inaugural Penrose Cup, and Miami has battled North Dakota for first all season long.

North Dakota has a lot of pluses, including the seventh-best offense in the country and the 10th-best defense. The latter is particularly impressive, since UND is only 23rd in the country in penalty killing.

Zane McIntyre has been a force in net, sporting a 1.95 GAA and .932 save percentage.

UND’s chance at the Penrose Cup could come down to its last series against Miami.


League record: 12-7-1
Nonleague record: 7-3
Conference rank: Second
PairWise rank: Fourth
Highest possible finish: First
Lowest possible finish: Sixth
Series left: Denver (away), North Dakota (home)

Some people, including yours truly, picked the RedHawks to win the NCHC this year. Miami has a lot going for it, including goaltender Jay Williams, who sports the fourth-best GAA in the country at 1.72.

Williams is one of the reasons Miami boasts the 10th-ranked defense in the country.

Miami also has talented offensive stars, including Austin Czarnik, Riley Barber and Sean Kuraly, the latter of whom is chasing fellow conference forward Austin Ortega for the national game-winning goals lead.

If Miami is going to win the NCHC, it will have to do it the hard way. It faces the third and first teams in the conference to close its season. Beating Denver in Denver is a tough ask, and whether North Dakota is home or away, it always seems to get points.

If Miami can stay within three points of North Dakota ahead of the series between the two on the last weekend of the year, it will control its destiny — sweep North Dakota, and Miami wins the Penrose.


League record: 11-8-1
Nonleague record: 7-2-1
Conference rank: Tie, third
PairWise rank: Seventh
Highest possible finish: First
Lowest possible finish: Sixth
Series left: Miami (home), St. Cloud State (away)

After sweeping archrival Colorado College, Denver leapfrogged Minnesota-Duluth into a home-ice spot for the first round of the NCHC playoffs. Like several other teams in the conference, the Pioneers control their destiny. Win out, and Denver is home for the first round.

The Pioneers have a talented group on offense, including freshman Danton Heinen, who is 20th in the country in scoring and the top-ranked NCHC player nationally in scoring.

The defense is anchored by senior and Hobey Baker Award candidate Joey LaLeggia, who is 33rd in the country in scoring.

While Denver could finish first, it would need help. Taking home ice for the first round of the playoffs is more pressing.

David Pope and Omaha hope to pull out of a slump that has the Mavericks 3-5 in their last eight games (photo: Michelle Bishop).


League record: 11-8-1
Nonleague record: 6-2-2
Conference rank: Tie, third
PairWise rank: Eighth
Highest possible finish: First
Lowest possible finish: Sixth
Series left: Minnesota-Duluth (away), Colorado College (home)

Entering last weekend’s series with St. Cloud State, Omaha was tied for first in the NCHC. However, after last weekend’s sweep by the Huskies, Omaha is fighting just to capture a home-ice spot for the first round of the playoffs.

Sophomore forward Ortega has been a bright spot, tying the NCAA record for game-wining goals with 10.

Coach Dean Blais has gotten a lot out of his team, especially considering how young the Mavericks are; they sport 10 freshmen on the roster.

Omaha has struggled over the last month, posting a 3-5 mark, which is one reason Omaha, which had sole possession of first in early January, is now down to fourth and fighting to stay ahead of Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud for the final home-ice spot.

Even hosting Colorado College on the final weekend of the year isn’t a good omen, considering CC’s one league win came at Omaha’s expense in January.


League record: 11-8-1
Nonleague record: 8-4
Conference rank: Fifth
PairWise rank: Third
Highest possible finish: First
Lowest possible finish: Sixth
Series left: Omaha (home), Western Michigan (away)

It says something about the competitiveness of the NCHC that while Minnesota-Duluth is third in the PairWise, the Bulldogs are only fifth in the NCHC. In the second half of the season, the Bulldogs have a 4-5-1 mark in conference play, but a 3-1 mark in nonconference play.

Saturday’s OT loss to Miami was particularly costly. The Bulldogs held a 3-1 lead but couldn’t hold on, and the loss dropped them out of the home-ice spot for the first round of the NCHC playoffs.

Winning the NCHC is not outside the realm of possibility, as the Bulldogs host reeling Omaha and then close against Western Michigan, but the first priority for Duluth has to be getting more points than Omaha in the series between the two this weekend so that the Bulldogs get to host the first round of the playoffs.

St. Cloud State

League record: 10-9-1
Nonleague record: 5-5
Conference rank: Sixth
PairWise rank: 14
Highest possible finish: First
Lowest possible finish: Sixth
Series left: North Dakota (away), Denver (home)

St. Cloud boasts some impressive wins this season, but also some puzzling losses that have hurt its playoff chances. However, after sweeping Omaha last weekend, the Huskies have moved up to 14th in the PairWise, which could be enough to get them into the NCAA tournament, depending on how the conference tournaments shake out.

A home-ice spot for the Huskies is possible, but challenging. Like Miami, St. Cloud closes its season with the first and third teams in the conference. Denver swept the Huskies in January in Denver, and St. Cloud split with North Dakota in November.

Regardless, the Huskies should look at the big picture: making the NCAA tournament.

Western Michigan will be on the road for the first round of the playoffs (photo: Michelle Bishop).

Western Michigan

League record: 5-11-4
Nonleague record: 7-3
Conference rank: Seventh
PairWise rank: 24
Highest possible finish: Fifth
Lowest possible finish: Seventh
Series left: Colorado College (away), Minnesota-Duluth (home)

The Broncos know they will be on the road for the first round of the NCHC playoffs, but who they play and how they finish is up in the air. Further, at 24th in the PairWise, the Broncos would need to win the NCHC tournament to advance to the NCAA tournament.

First up for the Broncos is a road series with Colorado College, from whom they took five of six points at home in December right before the break. The win was a one-goal affair. With the Tigers looking for any positive, a sweep is no sure thing.

Then the Broncos host Minnesota-Duluth; the Broncos got a tie and win back in January against the Bulldogs in Duluth, and also won the shootout, which is the reason Minnesota-Duluth trails Denver and Omaha, despite having identical records.

The most points Western could get is 34, which means the Broncos are definitely on the road.

Colorado College

League record: 1-18-1
Nonleague record: 4-5
Conference rank: Eighth
PairWise rank: 53
Highest possible finish: Eighth
Lowest possible finish: Eighth
Series left: Western Michigan (home), Omaha (away)

Colorado College has had a challenging season, and is the only NCHC team that knows exactly where it will finish, and exactly what its fate is. CC will finish last in the NCHC and go on the road to take on the top team in the conference. CC’s only chance at making the NCAA tournament is to win the autobid that goes to the NCHC playoff champion.

The Tigers have struggled mightily, often playing teams tough, only to fade in the last minutes of the third period. They played Denver tough last weekend, forcing a 3-3 tie in the third period Saturday only to have the Pioneers score three times in the final five minutes, only one of which was an empty-netter.

Players of the week

Offensive player of the week — Danton Heinen, Denver: Heinen, the top NCHC scorer nationally, paced Denver to a sweep of Colorado College and the Gold Pan trophy, extending his point streak to five games with four points on the weekend. On Friday, Heinen had two goals and an assist in Denver’s 6-4 win, tying the game in the first period with a goal and scoring the go-ahead goal in the second to make it 4-3. On Saturday, he notched an assist on the final Denver goal. Heinen finished plus-5 on the weekend.

Defensive player of the week — Joey LaLeggia, Denver: Hobey Baker Award candidate LaLeggia won his third straight NCHC defensive player of the week honor, and fifth of the year, by notching four points in Denver’s sweep of Colorado College. LaLeggia, who is the NCHC’s top-scoring defenseman and second-best scoring defenseman nationally, had two assists on Friday, then scored a goal and an assist, both on a power play. LaLeggia finished plus-2 on the weekend.

Rookie of the week — Nick Schmaltz, North Dakota: Schmaltz helped his team sweep Western Michigan by getting two assists, including the primary assist Friday on the game-winner while posting a plus-1 rating on the weekend.

Goaltender of the week — Zane McIntyre, North Dakota: McIntyre posted a 1.46 GAA and .957 save percentage in North Dakota’s sweep of Western Michigan. On Friday, the only goal he gave up came late in the game with Western Michigan having an extra attacker, and on Saturday, both of Western’s goals against McIntyre came with an extra attacker. McIntyre stopped 67 of 70 shots on the weekend and earned his fourth goaltender of the week honor.