NCHC Quarterfinal Preview
Inaugural League Postseason Starts Thursday Night
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
The NCHC postseason, the league’s first, begins Thursday night, and if the regular season was any indication – with the regular season title coming down to the final night, with the media’s preseason No. 1 finishing in last place, with the league boasting the second-highest scorer in the nation – it’s difficult to predict what might be in store for the playoffs.
What we do know: St. Cloud and North Dakota, who battled for the Penrose Cup until the final night of the season, are the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively, and along with Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota-Duluth, will host best-of-three quarterfinal series this weekend.
Notably, every quarterfinal game will be streamed live on NCHChockey.com, and the Mavericks and Denver Pioneers kick things off on Thursday night – one of just two games on the national schedule.
No. 1 St. Cloud State vs. No. 8 Miami
St. Cloud State followed up its Frozen Four appearance last season by winning the NCHC regular season title and enters the weekend as the No. 5 team in the Pairwise. The Huskies claimed the Penrose Cup after sweeping Colorado College last weekend and will now host Miami – the team picked to be the most likely No. 1 by the media before the season began. But during the regular season, while St. Cloud flourished, the RedHawks struggled.
Now, it’s a new season, and Miami enters the playoffs after earning a victory on the final night of the season – a 2-1 win last Saturday at Denver, just the third win in 16 games in 2014 – and with the knowledge that it did split four games against the top-seeded Huskies during the regular season.
“As far as preparation, I don’t think anything changes, at least on my part,” said Miami forward and the reigning NCHC Offensive Player of the Week Blake Coleman, who has scored eight goals and has had four multi-goal games in six contests since returning on February 21 from an injury. “I’ve always embraced kind of an underdog role and almost proving what we’re capable of and proving that we have what it takes. So I think that the guys are excited and I think everybody’s ready to battle this weekend."
“I guess it’s pretty much just do or die now,” added Miami junior forward and leading scorer Austin Czarnik, who was named to the NCHC All-Conference First Team on Wednesday. “It’s just about leaving it all out there on this run. I’m very excited for it.
“Keep on doing the right things, stay with the process every single day and maybe we’ll get rewarded for it.”
Joining Czarnik on the All-Conference First Team is St. Cloud senior Nic Dowd, despite being second on the team in scoring, behind Jonny Brodzinski, one of the Huskies’ many sophomore stars.
“He’s a defensive player, an offensive player who produces, kills penalties, is a terrific captain,” Huskies coach Bob Motzko told The St. Cloud Times. “I think Nic Dowd has the respect of the entire league.
“In a very good league where you only have two teams [with 12 total selections], I’m sure there’s a lot of swing votes and a lot of guys who deserve to be there. Jonny Brodzinski may be one of the top six forwards in the country. That says a lot about the depth of our league.”
St. Cloud boasts the second-best offense in the nation, with its 3.68 goals per game trailing only Boston College (4.18), and the Huskies have been led by a dominant sophomore class – in addition to Brodzinski, classmates Kalle Kossila, David Morley, Jimmy Murray, and Joey Benik. The key to the series, simply, will likely be whether Miami’s defense and goaltending, namely Ryan McKay, who is likely to start on Friday night, can stop those prolific scorers.
But the bigger question heading into Friday night for St. Cloud may be whether they’ll welcome back Morley (upper body) and junior defenseman Andrew Prochno (lower body). Prochno has missed the last two weekends of play after suffering an injury against Miami on February 22. A week later, Morley suffered an injury against North Dakota and did not play in the Huskies’ final two games of the regular season.
Both skated in practice this week.
No. 2 North Dakota vs. No 7 Colorado College
North Dakota, currently in a strong position to soon play in its 12th consecutive NCAA tournament, enters the NCHC postseason having lost on the final night of the regular season. A win against Western Michigan that night would have meant that North Dakota and St. Cloud would have shared the regular season title, and North Dakota would have earned the No. 1 seed.
“We had an opportunity to share the league title, and we didn’t win the game on Saturday night,” said North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol. “We’ve had a good focus all year, trying to improve, making sure every week we’re focused on the task at hand, so absolutely . By the time we got back to work on Monday morning, we had a really good forward focus.”
Hakstol has led North Dakota to one of its typical second half runs, overcoming a sluggish start to play well down the stretch – led by a strong defensive corps led by senior Dillon Simpson, junior Nick Mattson, sophomore Jordan Schmaltz, and freshman Paul LaDue.
“It’s a tight group of guys that has continued to work hard together, that has continued to believe in one another. We really grew in terms of our team identity and things that we have to do night in and night out to give us a chance to win games. Those were things that expanded and grew in the second half.
“It’s been a real team defensive concept. Our play without the puck has been team-oriented, and that’s been a part of our success. They’ve been a group that has had a good focus, on improving collectively as a group. I’d highlight all eight of our defensemen. We expect that group to defend well. We need them to be efficient in moving the puck out of our zone, but we also need them to have offense on a nightly basis – we don’t score a lot, so we need some offense out of that group. I think they’ve grown up in all of those areas.”
Behind the potent blueliners has been steady sophomore netminder Zane Gothberg, who led all NCHC goaltenders with a 2.26 goals-against average in conference play. Gothberg’s counterpart in this series will be the Tigers’ senior goaltender Josh Thorimbert, who rested last Saturday’s game between Colorado College and St. Cloud. Thorimbert gave up seven goals the night before, a week after allowing three goals in less than six minutes before being pulled in a Friday night contest against Nebraska-Omaha.
Freshman defenseman Gustav Olofsson, who won a silver medal for the host Team Sweden at the World Junior Championships earlier this winter, also sat out the final night of the season.
“It will be good for him to take a step back and see things from a different angle,” said CC assistant coach Joe Bonnett to the Colorado Springs Gazette. “He needs to get his second wind for the playoffs.”
North Dakota swept the season series (2-0) against Colorado College, but both games – in Grand Forks in January – were close, hard-fought games that North Dakota won late.
No. 3 Nebraska-Omaha vs. No. 6 Denver
The Mavericks, who won three of four against Denver this year, and Pioneers kick off the NCHC postseason on Thursday night in Omaha in a series that features half of the All-NCHC First Team announced this week – the Mavericks’ Josh Archibald, who trails only Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau in goals, and the Pioneers’ defenseman Joey LaLeggia and goaltender Sam Brittain.
Archibald, a Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick, led the NCAA with 10 goals and 16 points in February. After averaging two points a game during the month, he was also named the Hockey Commissioners’ Association (HCA) National Player of the Month for February, in addition to the NCHC Player of the Month.
Nebraska-Omaha enters the series after a win at Minnesota-Duluth on Saturday night, salvaging a split after a stunning 8-2 loss a night earlier. Meanwhile, Denver travels to Omaha after losing its final game against Miami, thereby losing out on a chance to host a playoff series this weekend.
In its first regular season under coach Jim Montgomery, the Pioneers went 16-14-6 overall and 10-11-3 in league play. Denver last played on the road in the opening round of the conference playoffs during the 2002-03 season when the Pioneers traveled to North Dakota and dropped the series two games to one.
Meanwhile, UNO – picked by the media to finish last – have used a prolific offense combined with strong goaltending from junior Ryan Massa, to earn the right to host a playoff series this weekend. The series will be held Thursday, Friday, and (if necessary) Saturday due to a pre-scheduled Demi Lovato concert at CenturyLink Center, UNO's home arena, on Sunday.
No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth vs. No. 5 Western Michigan
A week ago, Western Michigan earned its first win in program history (in eight tries) over North Dakota, and despite finishing with the same number of points as Minnesota-Duluth, the Bulldogs earned the right to host this series, having won the season series (3-1) over the Broncos.
Sophomore forward Colton Hargrove was the Saturday night hero a week ago, scoring both Bronco goals on special teams to lead them to the upset – the second of which came on a dramatic shorthanded goal with North Dakota on a five-minute major power play. But the Bulldogs are led, clearly, by seniors Chase Balisy, an All-NCHC first team forward, and Shane Berschbach, who have combined for 68 points this season.
But part of their leadership – and a key to the series – may be in ensuring a clean game, and staying out of the box. Western Michigan was the most penalized team in the NCHC, with 18.8 minutes per game and 15 major penalties during the course of the season. The Broncos were also the second-most penalized team in the nation.
“We can certainly show more discipline,” Western Michigan head coach Andy Murray told mlive.com this week, before continuing pointedly, “I also feel that we don’t get enough respect from the officials and that’s very honest."
Highlighting the Bulldogs of late, Kyle Osterberg has continued his strong play of late, repeating as NCHC Rookie of the Week this week after a four-point effort last weekend. He has now claimed NCHC Rookie of the Week four times this season.
“My first year has gone really well,” Osterberg said. “You don’t see a freshman putting up good numbers like I have. All our freshmen have done really well. It’s just been lucky for me getting the bounces and putting home pucks, so it’s nice.”
It turns out Osterberg, a 5-foot-8 rookie from Lakeville, Minn., whose 14 goals are tied for the team lead, plays with a chip on his shoulder.
“I just want to prove people wrong,” said Osterberg, who has nine points in his last five games. “A lot of it I think has to do with my size and how small I am. I’m just trying to prove everyone wrong and show that I’m a tough player even though my stature is a little small.
"It’s obvious motivation, and hopefully people see that now.”
Taylor Lewis and Nicole Brodzik contributed to this article.