NCHC Championship Preview
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
Perhaps, in some ways, it’s not overly shocking that three lower seeds advanced through their quarterfinal series last weekend to the first NCHC championship weekend, the “Frozen Faceoff,” starting Friday in Minneapolis. After all, in an inaugural season defined by parity and weekend splits, the regular season champion, St. Cloud State, won 62.5 percent of its conference games during the season – compared, for example, to other league champions Union (82 percent), Boston College (80 percent), Ferris State (71 percent), and Minnesota (70 percent), the current top four teams in the Pairwise.
Still, the Huskies, swept by last-place Miami, were among the teams left stunned last weekend, losing their best-of-three series at home – as did Nebraska-Omaha (to Denver) and Minnesota-Duluth (to Western Michigan) – and are now left to watch from afar this weekend. St. Cloud, at least, will be awarded an NCAA tournament at-large selection on Sunday afternoon.
The story, though, isn’t that three higher seeds lost last weekend. It’s that Western Michigan, Denver, and Miami, all of whom had seasons characterized by inconsistency and a search for identity, seemed to come together at just the right time last week – with opening-round series defined by the Broncos’ leadership (Chase Balisy contributing to all four goals in the decisive game), the Pioneers’ goaltending (Sam Brittain masterfully shutting out the Mavericks with 34 saves in a do-or-die game three), and the RedHawks’ timely performances (winning in overtime in game one, and then with seconds remaining in game two).
(5) Western Michigan vs. (6) Denver
5 p.m. ET/4 p.m. CT (CBS Sports Network)
Season Series: Denver 3, Western Michigan 1
For Western Michigan, the higher seed, one question remaining heading into this semifinal is which of its two goaltenders will start on Friday. Sophomore Lukas Hafner and junior Frank Slubowski have split time in the crease this season, with each winning a playoff game last weekend.
In Saturday’s series-clincher, Slubowski had 34 saves in a 4-3 win, backed by the first four-point game in Chase Balisy’s NCAA career and a game-winning, tie-breaking power play goal by Kenney Morrison with 12:11 remaining in the third period.
“We’ll watch both goaltenders in practice,” said head coach Andy Murray, whose team stayed in Minnesota this week, rather than traveling from Duluth to Kalamazoo, and back to Minneapolis. “I haven’t made a decision yet. It’s been nice for us that we have either one who can step in.”
On the other end, for Denver, though there may have been many questions during the course of the season, there’s certainly no doubt about who will be the Pioneers’ starting goaltender on Friday.
Senior netminder Sam Brittain, boasting a .934 save percentage, has been one of the busiest goaltenders in the nation this year, with only two other goaltenders facing more shots. A finalist for the inaugural Mike Richter Award and a draft pick of the Florida Panthers, Brittain stopped all 34 Nebraska-Omaha shots in last Sunday’s decisive game three – his fifth shutout of the season and the 16th time this season that he’s been asked to make at least 30 saves.
“Sam Brittain was unbelievable for two nights in a row,” said Pioneers first-year head coach Jim Montgomery after his team’s practice on Tuesday. “The last night, it was almost like he was determined, like, ‘Nothing’s going through me.’ You could almost see their top players thinking, ‘Yeah, I don’t think we’re going to get to him tonight.’”
“It was a big part of our game plan. I thought Sammy was in the zone. When he gets locked in, he’s an elite goalie. To me, he’s the best goalie in the country, and it’s why we’re moving on to Minneapolis.”
Perhaps just as notably, the Pioneers – after losing the first game of the best-of-three series – managed to address several problems, and they did so with their season on the line.
For starters, in the first game, Nebraska-Omaha scored three power-play goals – a season high in man-advantage goals allowed by Denver. In addition, the Pioneer offense was desperate for contributions from unlikely sources – beyond its defense, led by the likes of junior Joey LaLeggia and senior David Makowski, which has posted the most goals nationally among defensive units, with 34.
In games two and three combined, Denver was perfect on the penalty kill, and behind four goals from freshmen, the Pioneers won the games by a combined 7-1 score.
“I thought all three games was the most consistent hockey we’ve played on a weekend, and it was really impressive that we did it for three nights in a row,” continued Montgomery, a former Hobey Baker finalist, national championship winner (1993), and Maine’s all-time leading scorer. “I think we sharpened up our penalty kill after the first night. It was huge. We need to get production from everywhere.
“We score by committee, and a big part of that is our defenseman scoring. But you can see a difference in practice now. Guys are a lot looser. Guys are a lot more confident with the puck.”
Denver last won a postseason (WCHA) title in 2008, under then-coach George Gwozdecky. Western Michigan won the CCHA tournament championship in 2012, surprising many with its run through Miami and Michigan that spring.
Said Murray, “Going into this playoff year, our seniors and our juniors all lived through winning the CCHA championship, so they have been in this type of a playoff format and pressure that comes with a single-game elimination.
“We’re excited about the opportunity.”
(2) North Dakota vs. (8) Miami
8:30 p.m. ET/7:30 p.m. CT (CBS Sports Network)
Season Series: North Dakota 3, Miami 1
Two of college hockey’s premier programs of the past decade will face off in the primetime semifinal on Friday night, with Miami, the preseason favorite to win the league, trying to spoil North Dakota’s NCAA hopes while at the same time trying to continues its own remarkable postseason run.
North Dakota – 34-11 all-time under head coach Dave Hakstol in conference postseason games – sits in the No. 13 position in the Pairwise, and a loss would likely leave them on the bubble. Senior captain Dillon Simpson is well aware of those implications.
“We have to have the frame of mind to know where we’re at – we don’t want to leave anything up to chance,” said the defenseman from Edmonton, Alberta. “We want to control our own destiny as much as we can. For the young guys, we want them to embrace that challenge, not so much worry about a do-or-die, but get excited about hopefully having the opportunity to go to the NCAAs.”
Last week, North Dakota edged Colorado College, 4-3, in the deciding game three of its best-of-three quarterfinal series in Grand Forks.
Continued Simpson, “We’ve been a team that’s had to face a lot of adversity, especially the first half of the season. We’ve grown up as a team. That was a good character win for us. Our backs were against the wall.”
Meanwhile, Miami shocked many last week after sweeping top-seeded St. Cloud on the road. The RedHawks lost 19 games this season, including 17 conference games, finishing last in the NCHC after being a popular preseason pick not only to win the league but to be among the favorites to contend for a national title. Now, they’re suddenly two games away from yet another NCAA tournament appearance, after finding a way to overcome even more adversity a week ago.
In Friday’s first game against St. Cloud, Miami allowed the Huskies to score as time expired in regulation, only to win in overtime. Saturday, down 2-0 in the third period, Miami scored four times, including the game winner with just 2.6 seconds left on the clock.
“We’re going to have to be at our best if we want to try and win a hockey game,” said Simpson, part of a defensive corps that averages 2.73 points per game. “They’ve got really good weapons up front. We know we’re going to get a very different team [than the 9-2 game].
“They’re highly motivated. They need to win to move on, much like we do probably. It’ll be a hard fought game, and they’re not a team that anyone should take lightly.”
Indeed, the RedHawks are playing well of late. Behind a new-found steadying presence from sophomore goaltender Ryan McKay, Miami has now won three in a row for the first time since the first week of November. And after starting the year with an 0-7 record in one-goal games, Miami is 4-2 in its last six such games, with its last four wins – including both quarterfinal victories a week ago – coming by a single goal.
Miami has benefited, perhaps most of all, from a recent lineup change. Head coach Enrico Blasi, a veteran of nine NCAA tournaments in 14 seasons coaching his alma mater, placed leading scorers Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber on separate lines as the postseason approached. Barber, with five points last weekend, has continued to thrive with new linemates Sean Kuraly and Anthony Louis, while Czarnik, who needs one more point to tie Blasi himself for 23rd on the all-time Miami points list, is playing with one of the hottest players in the nation in Blake Coleman, who has four two-goal games since returning from an injury eight games ago.
“The job’s half done,” Czarnik told muredhawks.com. “It’s going well. They’re hard workers. We need every line contributing every single night.”
Added Barber, “In order to make our team better, we knew we had to maybe give up a couple individual points to better the team.”
Indeed, on Friday, a matchup to watch will be Miami’s resurgent offense against a strong North Dakota defense that features five NHL draft picks among its starting six blueliners. Simpson plays alongside St. Louis Blues 2012 first-round pick Jordan Schmaltz. The duo blocked 21 shots on their own in last weekend’s series, with Simpson leading the NCHC this season in that category.
That, of course, has helped sophomore netminder Zane Gothberg, who is 15-3-1 in his last 19 starts, allowing two goals or less in 16 of them. Gothberg’s career .921 save percentage is currently tied with Jordan Parise (2003-06) for the best mark in North Dakota program history.
Like Western Michigan, Miami stayed in Minnesota after sweeping St. Cloud last week, rather than traveling back to Oxford, Ohio.
Barber, for one, thinks that may help.
“This is where teams are usually made,” said Barber. “On the road you’re with each other 24/7. We really bonded at the right time.”
The winner of Miami/North Dakota will face the winner of Denver/Western Michigan on Saturday night in the NCHC tournament championship game (8:30 p.m. ET/7:30 p.m. CT) while the losers will participate in a third-place game (4:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. CT) that could have Pairwise implications, particularly if it involves North Dakota.
A free webcast of Saturday’s third-place game can be seen at NCHCHockey.com, while the championship game will be aired live on CBS Sports Network.