Opportunities Abound For NCHC Teams in Tight Race
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
Before the 2013-14 season began, North Dakota’s Dave Hakstol – who has taken the Sioux to the NCAA tournament in each of his nine seasons as head coach, including five Frozen Four appearances – said of the NCHC that he expected the new league to be “as competitive top to bottom as any in the nation.”
And while the league boasts perennial powerhouses like Denver, Miami and North Dakota, in addition to teams with plenty of recent success like Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State, Western Michigan and Nebraska-Omaha, a quick look at the Pairwise – as January comes to a close – reveals a top 10 that includes just one team (St. Cloud) from the NCHC, in addition to four members of Hockey East, three ECAC programs, and one each from the WCHA and Big 10.
The NCHC’s inter-conference record is a respectable 37-31-16 – by comparison, the ECAC’s is 50-37-16 – and so a possible explanation for the lack of NCHC teams near the top of the national standings is the sheer number of weekend splits in the NCHC of late – from the Denver/North Dakota series last weekend, to two-game splits this January between St. Cloud and Denver, and between Miami and Colorado College.
A week ago, for example, North Dakota had a strong Friday night performance with two power play goals and a shorthanded goal that led the Sioux to a 4-2 win at Denver. The next night, Sam Brittain’s 43-save shutout led the way for a dominant defensive effort for the Pioneers, who salvaged a split in a highly physical series.
Said Hakstol after the game, “I think it’s reflective of the entire league. Every series we’ve played has been exactly like this series. It’s been a dog fight. I think we played really hard.”
By Sunday, as February begins, each team in the NCHC will have 10 conference games remaining. Starting tonight, the four teams that comprise the No. 3, 4, 5, and 6 positions in the NCHC regular season standings play one another in two-game series, chasing Denver and North Dakota, who are currently tied for first (24 points) with a slim lead over St. Cloud (23 points) and Nebraska-Omaha (21 points).
Highlighting the weekend conference schedule is the matchup between the Huskies and Mavericks, who begin an intriguing two-game series in Omaha tonight that features some of the top scorers in the league – UNO’s Josh Archibald and Brock Montpetit, and St. Cloud’s Jonny Brodzinski, David Morley, and Nic Dowd. The Huskies, led by a dominant sophomore class of forwards, snapped a four-game winless streak last Saturday with a 6-4 win against Minnesota State but have given up 20 goals over their past five games.
The Mavericks, meanwhile, within striking distance of first place in the standings if they win at least one game this weekend, have just one win in their last eight – a 5-1 victory at Miami two weeks ago.
“We have to do a better job of angling and checking,” UNO coach Dean Blais told the Omaha World-Herald this week. “I’m looking at our forwards in particular. Our defensemen are making good checks when they’re there. But our forwards are missing checks and allowing [opponents] to skate 100 feet into our zone, in some cases 150 feet.”
This weekend’s other NCHC matchup features Minnesota-Duluth at Western Michigan. The Bulldogs and Broncos split a series in Duluth earlier this season and enter the weekend with much more recent success than even St. Cloud and Nebraska-Omaha. UMD hasn’t lost a game in regulation since December 13, going 4-1-2 in the stretch since, while Western Michigan is unbeaten in its last six games (5-0-1).
Furthermore, the Broncos’ and Bulldogs’ recent games have been nail-biters. Minnesota-Duluth has played four consecutive overtime games, while Western Michigan has remarkably had 11 of its last 12 games decided by one goal or less.
And so the stretch run in the NCHC begins in earnest this weekend, and by Monday – after this weekend’s four conference games – any of five teams could be in first place.