With NCHC teams winning the last four national championships, it’s easy to look at the young league’s record of success and imagine how tough divisional games must be each weekend.
That’s what makes the selling point of competitiveness so valuable: red-letter games aren’t hard to come by.
Look at what Minnesota Duluth has on its plate through the end of the month, including a home series this weekend against second-ranked North Dakota.
Eleventh-ranked UMD is fresh off of being swept last weekend at unranked St. Cloud State. Two losses against a team fighting to climb into the top half of the NCHC standings might not sound ideal for a team aiming for a third consecutive national title, but UMD coach Scott Sandelin found positives from a series where his Bulldogs lost 2-1 on Friday and 2-0 Saturday.
Kobe Roth had UMD’s only goal of the weekend in Friday’s opener, canceling out SCSU’s opener earlier in the first period. Hunter Shepard made 44 saves on the weekend and only gave up three goals, blameless for SCSU’s empty-netter in the last minute of Saturday’s series finale.
“I think on Friday night, the first two periods weren’t our best and they get a couple of goals off a defenseman’s shin pad and one off a defenseman’s skate,” Sandelin said. “They get a couple of bounces and then we played the chase game the whole night but we had a better third period where I think we gave ourselves a chance to get back and win a hockey game, but we couldn’t find the equalizer and a go-ahead goal.
“On Saturday, I asked our team to play a better game from start to finish, and I thought we did, and so did (SCSU). It was a good hockey game, and they capitalized on an opportunity late in the game and made that stand up.
“It was a typical weekend in our league where there weren’t a lot of goals scored either way. Both teams played well defensively, but we just needed to find more than one goal. We only gave up three (minus Saturday’s empty-netter), and that’s pretty good, but I’ll give (St. Cloud) credit because they played defensively all weekend and capitalized on opportunities.”
Sandelin was asked Wednesday to what extent UMD’s practices this week were being shaped by last weekend’s series with St. Cloud.
“We do a lot of week-to-week stuff,” Sandelin said. “Obviously, it’s not a time to panic, and we’re still working on things regardless of what happened last weekend.
“We just try to get better each week, and if we’re getting our guys to bear down a little bit more maybe offensively or whatever it is and we try and create some more maybe Grade A chances or second chances, I don’t think that (approach) changes week-to-week.
“You prepare your team for how you need to play every night, and are there scenarios that we’ll spend more time on? Certainly, and that goes back to every week,” Sandelin continued. “It doesn’t really change, but the biggest thing is that you can lose but it’s how you respond, and we have to respond the right way.”
UMD’s schedule appears as though it will become more favorable before long. The Bulldogs’ final eight regular-season games are all against currently-unranked opponents, and UMD gets SCSU at home right before the NCHC playoffs begin. Duluth presently sits second in the league standings, eight points behind North Dakota, but a lot can change in a month and a half.
The next two weekends could be bears, though, between the home games with UND and a road series Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at fifth-ranked Denver. Still, first thing’s first, and Sandelin will hope that his Bulldogs will perform well again with results to match.
“Every weekend’s important, and we have three weekends before we have a bye week, and these games aren’t easy,” Sandelin said. “It’s the meat-grinder of the schedule, and we can’t sit here feeling sorry for ourselves.
“We’ve got to go out and perform and play our best hockey to beat (North Dakota) because I think they’re one of the best teams in the country, and two weeks from now, there’s one of the best teams as well (in Denver).
“It doesn’t matter in our league who you play, and you’ve got to be ready to play and you’ve got to be ready to play 120 minutes-plus per weekend to try and win games, and that’s no different this weekend, but there’s no question that it’s a good opportunity for us too with these teams,” Sandelin continued. “One’s ahead of us and one’s right behind us, so it’s an opportunity to make up some ground or maintain, and that’s what we’re looking as it as.”
Around the country
There aren’t many series this weekend pitting ranked teams against each other, but one nonconference slate sticks out. No. 8 Clarkson hosts 13th-ranked Arizona State Friday and Saturday in games that stand to be important as the PairWise picture clears up.
Staying in New York, top-ranked Cornell plays at home twice this weekend against a pair of ranked teams. No. 20 Dartmouth comes to Ithaca on Friday, and No. 16 Harvard comes to town Saturday. Cornell is riding a six-game unbeaten streak, but three of those games ended in ties, including one last Friday at home against then-No. 17 Northern Michigan.
Keep an eye out for ninth-ranked Penn State’s Friday-Saturday set at No. 19 Michigan State. Penn State lost and tied last weekend at home against Michigan, and the Nittany Lions now travel to face a MSU squad that earned splits the last two weekends against Big Ten rivals Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Lastly, our friends in the Nutmeg State have much to look forward to this weekend with the inaugural Connecticut Ice Festival in Bridgeport. No. 17 Quinnipiac and Connecticut will play in Saturday’s first semifinal, followed by Sacred Heart and Yale. The tournament wraps up Sunday.