As second half kicks off, NCHC has unanswered questions, first-half surprises, ongoing intrigue

14 Dec 19: The St. Cloud State University Huskies host the University of Nebraska Omaha Mavericks in a NCHC matchup at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, MN. (Jim Rosvold)
St. Cloud State and Omaha battle in an NCHC matchup at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, Minn., back on Dec. 14, 2019 (photo: Jim Rosvold).

It might sound a little rich, but in the NCHC corners of the college hockey landscape, results from the first half of this season have produced a mixed bag.

Some of what has happened always does: the cream of the crop is identifying itself, and there is some gulf between the top portion of the conference standings and the bottom.

Dig deeper, though, and there are some surprises.

Take the following two examples: North Dakota looks to be the real deal after two years without NCAA hockey tournament games to play in, and last season’s overall No. 1 seed for the NCAAs, St. Cloud State, is looking at potentially going on the road in the first round of the NCHC playoffs.

Those are things to look at as we continue to move into the new decade, but as always, there’s a lot of intrigue around the NCHC. Here are five questions – five of many more, for sure – that we’re interested to learn the answers to.

1. Can North Dakota keep rolling through to April?

If you’re Brad Berry or one of the diehard North Dakota fans in-state and elsewhere, you’re over the moon with how the Fighting Hawks have looked through the first half of the season.

It’s one thing for the holidays to be good to you; it’s another for your team to be unbeaten in 13 games heading into the new year. Junior forward Jordan Kawaguchi (seven goals, 17 assists from 17 games) might be the NCHC’s best Hobey Baker bet this season, Adam Scheel has 14 wins already and a .927 save percentage, and UND is scoring a nation-leading 4.18 goals per game.

The Fighting Hawks are still only four points clear at the top of the NCHC standings, but UND’s remaining schedule looks reasonably favorable. A trip to No. 10 Minnesota Duluth at the end of January and No. 7 Denver at home in the middle of next month loom large, but there’s little reason to think that UND can’t hold onto the top spots in the NCHC and the nation.

As for the NCAA tournament, provided that the Hawks get there, there are no guarantees. Still, right now, it’s certainly fathomable to see this UND team getting to the Frozen Four for the first time since four years ago, when the Hawks won the whole thing.

2. How will St. Cloud State navigate its tough second-half schedule?

In St. Cloud State coach Brett Larson’s season and a half at the helm, his Huskies have brought surprises both good and bad.

Losing to American International in the first round of last season’s NCAA tournament wasn’t great, although 1 seeds losing to 16s in college hockey is not unheard of. Many players from that SCSU team left, either through graduation or early departures, but the Huskies would like to be in a better spot than where they’ve found themselves lately.

Things have gotten better for St. Cloud since its 1-2-4 start to the season, but the Huskies still lack consistency. They won three in a row in December against bottom-half NCHC teams, and they shocked second-ranked Minnesota State 7-2 on Dec. 28 but then fell 4-1 the following day at unranked Minnesota.

SCSU’s upcoming slate is brutal, with games at Denver, at home against UMD and at No. 19 Western Michigan on consecutive weekends. Miami and Colorado College are up after that, then St. Cloud gets North Dakota and then Denver and Duluth again.

Before this season began, my writing partner Candace Horgan and I both picked St. Cloud to finish in the middle of the NCHC pack. The Huskies are there right now but are also 38th in the PairWise Rankings. Climbing both ladders can make for some kind of ordeal.

3. Has Minnesota Duluth already experienced its roughest patch of the season?

UMD’s 11-6-1 record might not knock your eyes out, but only a fool would overlook the Bulldogs. They’re two-time defending national champions, and it’s not hard to see them making another run this spring.

OK, Duluth lost its exhibition opener to Alberta and then officially began the season 1-3 against UMass Lowell (split at home) and Wisconsin (swept on the road). Things have been good for coach Scott Sandelin’s bunch since then, though. The Bulldogs are 7-2 in their last nine games, with the only blemishes coming against then-No. 1 Minnesota State.

Junior defenseman Scott Perunovich has a team-best 23 points from 18 games, and between the pipes is a senior goalie you may have heard of: Hunter Shepard. There are better save percentages out there than his .906, but don’t overlook him and his team. The championship rings make strong cases, and Sandelin will likely have his team set to peak at the right time again this season.

4. What might Western Michigan look like going full bore?

After finishing 21-5-1 last season, there was a lot of hype around Western Michigan entering Andy Murray’s ninth season behind the Broncos’ bench.

Western is very much in the hunt for home ice for the first round of the NCHC playoffs, and that is of course a good thing. However, the Broncos are an underwhelming 7-7-2 heading into a home-and-home series this weekend against Notre Dame.

Injuries have provided issues for WMU. Senior defenseman Cam Lee missed the Broncos’ first 10 games, and although much is thought of senior forward Wade Allison, he has three points from seven games.

Western went on a roll fairly early in the season, going unbeaten in six games and winning five in that span. The Broncos are 1-4 in their last five, though, albeit all against ranked teams.

We’re yet to see the Broncos at their best this season, but we’re also yet to see them at full power.

5. Will a NCHC team claim the national championship yet again?

The league office certainly hopes so, and North Dakota, Denver and Minnesota Duluth all look very capable of going on deep postseason runs.

It gets a little more questionable further down the NCHC table, but after three conference teams claimed the last four national titles, and the way that those same three teams looked in the first half of this season, who would say that a fifth consecutive title for a NCHC squad isn’t doable?