Three things – Standings tighten: Feb. 25

St. Cloud clinches second Penrose Cup
With a tie and a win over No. 3 Denver this weekend on home ice, the No. 1 St. Cloud State Huskies clinched their second Penrose Cup as NCHC regular season champion. The Huskies first-round playoff match is also set, as St. Cloud will host the Miami RedHawks in a best-of-three series. The weekend may have marked the decision of coach Bob Motzko on a starting goalie for the postseason, as freshman Dávid Hrenák started both games. Hrenák, who has been platooning goalie duties with sophomore Jeff Smith, matched last year’s Mike Richter Award winner, Tanner Jaillet of Denver, save for save. Saturday, he made 25 saves in St. Cloud’s 4-2 Penrose Cup-clinching win, including 11 in the first period when Denver was carrying much of the play. Friday, he made 25 saves, including two in the first overtime to garner St. Cloud a point. He held Denver’s power play, which was boosted by the return of Olympian Troy Terry, 0-for-1 on Friday and 0-for-2 on Saturday, and St. Cloud also scored a short-handed goal Saturday to open the scoring. Terry was held to a single point on the weekend. St. Cloud’s Will Borgen, who was also on the U.S. Olympic team but didn’t play in the Olympics, was a defensive force in his return to St. Cloud, making several big hits. St. Cloud will travel to North Dakota next weekend to face a desperate team.

North Dakota could be on the outs
With a disappointing outing that included a 4-3 overtime loss Friday in a game they led 3-0, and a 2-2 tie Saturday in which they had to rally from two goals down in the third period, then gave up the extra conference point by giving up a breakaway goal to Kiefer Sherwood in the three-on-three overtime, the North Dakota Fighting Hawks find themselves in an unfamiliar position: on the cusp of missing the NCAA hockey tournament. North Dakota is currently sitting at 14th in the PairWise, and a couple of upsets in the conference tournaments would knock them out of contention. North Dakota hasn’t missed the postseason dance since 2001-02, a streak that currently runs 15 seasons. North Dakota is currently in fourth place in the NCHC, and might even be passed for the final home ice slot for the first round of the NCHC tournament, as the Hawks have a three-point lead on the next three teams in the conference. If North Dakota were to get swept by St. Cloud next weekend, and either Colorado College, Omaha, or Western Michigan were to get four points, the Fighting Hawks would be on the road.

North Dakota has fallen hard in the second half of the season, struggling to a 4-6-4 record, and only has two wins in its last five weekend series. It is another unfamiliar position, as for most of this century, North Dakota was known as a team that started slowly and finished strong. This weekend was another struggle. Friday, North Dakota jumped out to a 3-0 lead at 7:35 of the second, but Alex Mahalak scored at 8:23 of the second to give the RedHawks life, and then Phil Knies and Gordie Green scored within the first four minutes of the third to tie it. Ben Lown scored the game-winner in overtime in the first minute. North Dakota goalie Cam Johnson made 23 saves, while North Dakota could only muster a paltry 17 shots, including six in the third. Saturday, Kiefer Sherwood scored just 26 seconds in the third period to give Miami a 2-0 lead, but then Hayden Shaw pulled North Dakota back within one at 4:20, and Nick Jones scored on a power play at 7:20 to tie it, setting the stage for Sherwood’s goal in the second OT. Johnson made 25 saves, while Ryan Larkin made 28 saves for Miami.

Standings logjam
With Western Michigan getting crushed over the weekend by Minnesota Duluth, 8-0 and 6-1, and Omaha getting a win and then tie/three-on-three OT loss with Colorado College, three teams are now tied for fifth place in the standings: Colorado College, Omaha, and Western Michigan. The Tigers are gunning for their best finish ever in the conference, as their previous highest finish was seventh in the league’s first year. Western Michigan, which as recently as four weeks ago was sitting in position for a third seed in the NCAA tournament, is looking to salvage its season and return to the NCAA tournament. The Broncos, who are currently 19th in the PairWise, have been on a terrible streak, going 1-7-1 since their OT comeback win over CC on Jan. 19. That streak started when the team’s leading scorer, Wade Allison, was lost for the season to a lower body injury. Omaha is not only looking to finish strong, but to play into position for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Mavericks are currently 15th in the PairWise, so they’d need a little help to get into the tournament. For the last weekend of the season, CC hosts Western Michigan for two games and Omaha travels to face red-hot Minnesota Duluth. With either a win or tie, or a North Dakota loss, Minnesota Duluth clinches the three seed in the NCHC tournament. Duluth can finish no lower than fourth. Denver has clinched second.

If CC, Omaha, and Western Michigan were to finish in a three-way tie, the tiebreaker goes to the team with the best winning percentage against the teams it is tied with. Currently, Western is 3-3, CC is 2-3-1, and Omaha, which has completed its series against the other two, is 4-3-1. To finish tied, Western and CC would need to split their two-game series this weekend, and Omaha would have to split with Minnesota Duluth. In that event, Omaha would finish fifth, Western sixth, and CC seventh, as Omaha would have a 4-3-1 record while Western would be 4-4 and CC 3-4-1.

There’s no doubt that college hockey’s most competitive conference is set up for a wild finish.