Monday 10: Ringing in the new year, college hockey style, as 2021 gets off to roaring start

Minnesota Duluth and captain Noah Cates (left) and St. Cloud State and Seamus Donohue split a pair of games over the weekend in Duluth (photo: Tom Nelson/St. Cloud State Athletics).

Each week, USCHO.com will pick the top 10 moments from the past weekend in our Monday 10 feature.

1. Happy New Year, college hockey

College hockey season started in November, but this weekend marked the official, grand reopening of the 2020-21 season when all six conferences featured league games for the first time. Sunday marked the first time they were all in action on the same day, and 14 ranked teams, including seven top-10 teams, all defended their records against would-be challengers.

The No. 1 team, Minnesota, led the charge into its two-game series against Arizona State with a 4-1 victory, but the Gophers trailed that game by a 1-0 count after the first period. It was the first time Minnesota trailed at all this year, but the national championship contenders rallied to win 4-1 with two goals by Sampo Ranta.

Minnesota was always going to trail someone at some point this year, but that didn’t make it any less surprising when it happened. Nevertheless, Jack LaFontaine still posted more than 25 saves and only allowed the one goal, and Sunday’s result went into the record books as the seventh game with one or less goals allowed by the top-ranked team in the land.

2. Happy New Year, ECAC Hockey

The COVID-19 pandemic rained more havoc on ECAC than it did on any other league. The opt-out of eight teams threatened the league’s overall schedule, and a non-conference slate against mostly Atlantic Hockey teams resulted in some up-and-down results. It felt a little bit like the four teams were floating adrift as other leagues cranked the temperature on their matchups, at least until they were able to step on the ice against one another.

That finally happened on New Year’s Eve when Quinnipiac played its first game at St. Lawrence, and the Bobcats rallied from separate one-goal deficits to force overtime in Saints’ home opener at the renovated Appleton Arena. Odeen Tufto tied it first 1-1, but it took a Ty Smilanic extra-attacker goal with extended time left in the third period to force overtime. Tufto took things over from there and won the second point in the shootout

It was one of two shootout games over the weekend. The other, between Clarkson and Colgate, saw the Raiders score twice on Sunday to take a second point after the Golden Knights won Saturday’s league opener. That game on Sunday was separately operating at the same time as the return match between Quinnipiac and St. Lawrence, a notable accomplishment for the four-team league.

3. Happy New Year, Bowling Green

Bowling Green’s steady rise through the weekly rankings was an early-season storyline, but the ball drop for 2021 failed to stop the Falcons’ meteoric ascent before their weekend series against Ferris State. They won both games and earned the six points to continue a drive to pressure Minnesota State in the WCHA’s ruling elite.

Four different scorers lit the red lamp against the Bulldogs in a ten-minute stretch on Saturday in the third period, and both Sam Craggs and Connor Ford scored on the power play. Cameron Wright remained one of the nation’s top scorers with two goals and an assist in that game, and Brandon Kruse added an assist to his fifth goal of the season, which came in the first period.

Ferris State changed the narrative the next night with a 1-0, first period lead, but Bowling Green rallied quickly with two goals before the end of the period. A more hard-fought second period tied the game before the third, but Wright scored another game winning goal before a late, empty netter gave the Falcons a 4-2 win.

The wins launched Bowling Green to 11-1-0 on the season and ensured the Falcons’ spot as one of the most intriguing pieces of the today’s national poll. Their eight goals against Ferris State made them the first team to score 50 goals as a team this season, and their dueling four-goal outputs kept them as one of two teams averaging more than four goals per game. Their defense, meanwhile, kept them third nationally behind only Minnesota and Minnesota State.

4. Happy New Year, Canisius

Canisius College paused its men’s hockey program on December 8 when a member of the Golden Griffins’ Tier I personnel tested positive. The unexpected break created postponements on the Atlantic Hockey schedule after an opening weekend split and created a 36-day gap between games when the calendar shifted into 2021. This past weekend, Canisius finally played its third and fourth games of the year and earned a six-point sweep of its longest-running rival, Mercyhurst.

The Griffs scored three times in the third period in the first game with a four-minute, two-goal span in the game’s late periods. It gave the team a 3-1 lead that finished as a one-goal game when the Lakers scored with less than five seconds, but goalie Matt Ladd recorded a shutout on Sunday with a 3-0 win.

Everyone expected postponements and pauses throughout this hockey season, but it was encouraging to watch the Atlantic Hockey team sweep the only team to beat Bowling Green this year. It moved the Golden Griffins into third place with nine points out of a possible 12, right behind Robert Morris and squarely ahead of RIT and Sacred Heart.

5. Happy New Year to an instant classic

I’m still a sucker for an old-fashioned one-goal game that ends with an overtime winner before the shootout awards an extra league point, so you can imagine my excitement over Minnesota Duluth’s comeback win over St. Cloud State on Saturday.

This game had a little bit of everything. There were four power play goals, including three in the second period, and the team’s traded three different leads. Neither team led by more than a goal at any given time, and the Huskies rallied twice to knot the Bulldogs in the first and second period.

It took a Kobe Roth power-play goal in the third period to formally tie the game for overtime purposes, but Noah Cates stole the show with an end-to-end rush in overtime. He used virtually the entire right wing for the length before cutting across the train tracks at the St. Cloud blue line, and his goal touched off a maroon-clad celebration halfway through the extra session.

I lost all objectivity as he skated up ice. It was awesome.

6. Happy New Year with a Penn State pitcher’s duel

It’s incredibly rare to witness a pitcher’s duel like the one between Michigan State and Penn State on Sunday. The game featured virtually no penalties and no stoppages compared to some of the high-scoring slugfests over the years, and the Nittany Lions won 1-0 on an unassisted goal by Sam Sternschein in the first period.

There were 55 faceoffs in this game, but Mason Snell took the game’s only penalty in the second period before matching minors sent him and Jagger Joshua to the box with 36 seconds left in the third. Drew DeRidder and Oskar Autio combined for 51 saves.

It was as clean as that. The equipment guys might not have even needed to do laundry after that game.

7. Happy New Year to the Upper Peninsula

Michigan Tech swept Alabama-Huntsville this weekend and kept pace with both Minnesota State and Bowling Green in the WCHA’s early rounds, and it won the first game with three goals in a second period featuring a 17-5 margin. That’s all well and good, but I would much rather mention the Huskies’ centennial jerseys in that game.

The Huskies wore off-white with black stripes and an old-school logo on the center crest, and these beauties popped. I felt transported back to the time of Cub Haug and the Michigan College of Mining and Technology.

The hockey itself went great for Michigan Tech with a 4-0 win on Saturday and a 2-1 win on Sunday. I appreciated UAH’s spunk to get one before the end of the first period in the second game, but Michigan Tech just had too much defense through the second and third period. Mark Sinclair only needed to make 19 saves, nine of which came in a clean third devoid of penalties.

8. Happy New Year, Robert Morris

Robert Morris made a spot appearance in the national polls this year when it cameoed at No. 20, but the short-lived Colonial stay deserves a second look after the team motored through three league games in four days. Playing on New Year’s Eve, RMU rolled through Niagara, 6-1, before earning a weekend sweep of RIT with a pair of wins at home.

Each game featured a different facet of the program’s prototype and template. On December 31, Niagara outshot RMU 17-6 in the first period, but the Colonials led by a goal and extended the game to a 4-0 advantage in the second and 6-0 in the third. They likewise took a 1-0 lead in the first game against RIT but entered the third period in a tie game before scoring the game-winning goal at halfway point. Then they held onto a 3-0 and a 4-1 lead after RIT led a mad dash comeback in the latter stages of the second and third periods.

RMU is one of those machine-like teams that can win any type of game. The Colonials are 6-0 when leading after the first period and have scored the first goal in nine of its 11 games. They hold three wins when tied or trailing after two periods but haven’t lost a league game when leading after two. They can score on the power play and run deep in scoring, defense and goaltending.

No Atlantic Hockey team outside of American International has a better track record, but the Yellow Jackets won’t see the Colonials – and vice-versa – this year unless the teams meet in the postseason.

9. Happy New Year, Hockey East goalies

Team USA’s three shutouts in the IIHF World Junior Championship were the most ever by the Americans in a single tournament, and the team set a new record for consecutive shutout minutes before Slovakia slipped a goal past Spencer Knight in the Quarterfinals of the 2021 championship tournament.

Knight had an initial hiccup in the opening game against Russia but is earning serious accolades behind a stingy American defense. He is one of two goalies with a goals against average under 2.00 and less than eight goals allowed for the entire tournament, and there’s an impending showdown at some point, hopefully, with Canada’s Devon Levi.

Levi is a name college hockey fans might not recognize because he hasn’t played for Northeastern this year, but the Montreal native, like Knight, has two shutouts through his first five appearances. He is averaging less than a goal per game and holds a tournament-best .967 save percentage, and his recent, 3-0 shutout in the win over the Czech Republic moved top-seeded Canada into a semifinal matchup with Russia.

10. Almost-Happy New Year, Long Island

A weird week in Atlantic Hockey almost brought college hockey to Long Island on two separate occasions for LIU. The Sharks’ original series against Bentley was supposed to play its second game on Saturday at the Northwell Health Ice Center, but a weekend postponement put it temporarily on ice before LIU replaced the series with a home-and-home against American International College.

The Yellow Jackets won that first game at home by a 2-1 score, but the second game – against scheduled for the Eisenhower Park facility – came up empty after a late cancellation.

Pending LIU’s series against Bentley, the next regularly scheduled series at home is entirely against Niagara January 15-16. Both games are slotted for the Northwell Health Ice Center, which is the practice facility for the New York Islanders, and it will put LIU right into a thick hockey slate. The Islanders are set to play the Rangers twice at Madison Square Garden with the home opener to follow against the Boston Bruins.

— Paula Weston contributed to this week’s Monday 10.

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