NCHC Watch List
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
5 Things to Watch
Can St. Cloud return to the Frozen Four?
Last season, St. Cloud remained, above all else, consistent, never losing more than two consecutive games throughout the course of the regular season – and ultimately the Huskies played their greatest weekend of the season at the best possible time, winning the NCAA regional in Toledo in commanding fashion, outscoring Notre Dame and Miami by a combined 9-2 score. Rookie Joey Benik scored four of the Huskies’ nine goals, and the reward was the program’s first-ever trip to the Frozen Four.
Just six months removed from its dream season and now set to open the 2012-13 season in the newly-minted Herb Brooks Arena, the Huskies begin the arduous task of returning to the Frozen Four. Do they have the pieces to accomplish it?
Certainly, losing Hobey Baker winner Drew LeBlanc, who within days of winning the Hobey last year, was playing with the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. But aside from LeBlanc, and aside from losing defenseman Nick Jensen to graduation, the core group of players who led the way to Pittsburgh last season will return, including senior captain Nic Dowd, who scored 39 points in 42 games last year, sophomores Jonny Brodzinski and Kalle Kossila, and goaltender Ryan Faragher.
Of course, the road to the Frozen Four may be tougher to navigate – in a new conference and with the pressure of added expectations.
Will a goaltending tandem work?
Or, more specifically, will a goaltending tandem work at Miami and North Dakota?
The Red Hawks enter the season with two bona fide No. 1 goaltenders in sophomores Ryan McKay and Jay Williams, while for the Sioux, sophomore Zane Gothberg and senior Clarke Saunders will split time in the crease. While each situation could be considered an embarrassment of riches – many teams, after all, would settle for any of the four goaltenders – eventually someone has to be picked to start the biggest game of the season, especially when the conference tournament arrives. Certainly, the ongoing competition within a goaltending tandem only helps each goaltender, but it remains to be seen whether the rotating schedule will help either netminder when the moment arrives when one is named the No. 1 starter.
Last year, for instance, Saunders – who led in minutes played by roughly a three-to-two ratio over Gothberg, started, but ultimately lost, the West Regional Final, with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line. McKay had a similar experience in Miami’s season-ending loss to St. Cloud, just two weeks after McKay was pulled from the Red Hawks’ CCHA semifinal loss to Michigan.
And recall, of course, that despite being one of the greatest goaltending duos in college hockey history – Miami’s Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp – neither led the Red Hawks to a national championship.
Will Jim Montgomery maintain success at Denver?
Denver has had no trouble advancing to the NCAA tournament but results have been decidedly mixed since winning the national championship in 2004 and 2005. Jim Montgomery, former star Maine forward and more recently a top USHL coach, takes over behind the bench in an attempt to regain the magic from almost a decade ago, when the Pioneers became just the third team to repeat as national champions.
Denver opens it schedule with a series of non-conference games before opening its NCHC schedule at home with a weekend series against Nebraska-Omaha.
Will the Hobey Baker winner come from the NCHC?
There is certainly no shortage of candidates, but unquestionably among the early season favorites are Ryan Walters (Nebraska-Omaha), Austin Czarnik (Miami), and Riley Barber (Miami). Walters scored 52 points for the Mavericks last year, as the next highest point total on the team was 36. Czarnik and Barber, meanwhile, averaged roughly a point per game and scored total of 40 and 39, respectively.
Czarnik and Walters were both top-10 finalists a year ago, though neither was named to the “Hobey Hat Trick.”
What new rivalries will be born in the NCHC’s first season?
The NCHC combines six former WCHA programs with two former CCHA programs, so there are plenty of established rivalries that will be maintained in the new conference. That said, there are plenty of opportunities for new rivalries to be formed as well.
For starters, there’s a rematch of last year’s Midwest Regional Final. Last March, St. Cloud beat Miami with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line, and the two programs are set for a looming rematch in November – for St. Cloud’s NCHC home opener.
Players to Watch
Sam Brittain, Senior, Goaltender, Denver … Thanks in large part to a devastating knee injury, Brittain has seen his playing time dwindle since earning 19 wins and a 2.28 goals-against average as a freshman. Last year, Brittain gave way to Juho Olkinuora, who ultimately signed an NHL contract after the season, now paving the way – potentially – for Brittain to regain the responsibility of being the No. 1 starting goaltender for new head coach Jim Montgomery.
The veteran Brittain – whose career highlights include a 67-save performance at the WCHA Final Five against Minnesota-Duluth in 2012 – will play a key role in helping to steady a young Denver team, especially early in the season. A carryover from a once-stunning freshman class – many of whom have left for the pros – Brittain will also be an unquestioned leader for Denver.
“Only having two seniors — we’ve kind of taken a lot of that role,” said Brittain. “But we have a big junior class, and every one of them has stepped up to some capacity, whether it’s leading the freshmen or leading the drills in practice.”
Brittain also knows that the team will look for him – and look at him, in the crease – for confidence.
Continued the senior netminder, “If you don’t show up one night, you’re going to get beat, and beat bad. Guys are excited about the level of competition, and that’s only going to help down the road.
“I think body language is a huge thing for me. If I let in a goal or I make an error and I slouch down, they’re going to think I’m not confident.”
Brittain already has gotten off on the right foot, with a pair of shutout wins against Merrimack to open the season.
Austin Czarnik, Senior, Forward, Miami … Hobey aspirations aside, Czarnik – the leading scorer for Miami a year ago – is one of the most prolific and exciting players in college hockey. He’ll play alongside right-winger Riley Barber to create what can on many nights be an unstoppable scoring duo.
This year, Czarnik – the team’s captain – has even more responsibility as well.
Explained head coach Enrico Blasi, “He is the spokesperson for the team. It’s a job. It’s a responsibility that he has that we take very seriously. It’s like another coach. It’s not something that’s a popularity vote. It’s another extension of not only the coaching staff to the players but the players to the coaching staff. It’s something that’s very, very important in our locker room. [Czarnik] will be that guy this year.”
Joey Benik, Sophomore, Forward, St. Cloud … Benik made waves at the Midwest Regional last year, scoring four goals during the course of the weekend, in wins over Notre Dame and Miami, to send St. Cloud to the Frozen Four. But Benik’s story is about more than that – he didn’t make his collegiate debut until Dec. 27 last year, after missing the first half of the season with a broken leg.
Benik suffered the injury during the Huskies’ first practice of his freshman campaign.
Now healthy, Benik – alongside fellow sophomore Jonny Brodzinski – will be poised to help replace the offense and leadership lost by the likes of Drew LeBlanc and Nick Jensen last year.
Ryan Walters, Senior, Forward, Nebraska-Omaha … Like Czarnik, much of the pre-season Hobey talk within the NCHC revolves around Walters, the Rosemount, Minn., native who after scoring 21 goals combined during his freshman and sophomore years amassed 22 goals last year alone.
In fact, only four players in college hockey – Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau, Minnesota’s Erik Haula, and St. Lawrence’s Kyle Flanagan and Greg Carey – averaged more points per game than Walters last season.
Walters will, still, need help. Despite continuing his scoring pace late in the season last year, the Mavericks lost seven of their final eight games, and their season ended in the first round of the WCHA tournament.