Anything Can Happen in NCHC This Weekend
by Dave Starman/Columnist
(CBS Sports Network gets ready for its eighth Conference Championship Tournament broadcast; the first for The NCHC. College Hockey’s most veteran broadcast team of Ben Holden, Dave Starman, and Shireen Saski have the call.)
Well, here we go. Time to determine a champion for what has been a war of attrition in the NCHC.
The fact that three lower seeds are here is no surprise to the coaches and many observers of the league. Three weeks ago while in Miami, St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said that Miami, at the time the likely No. 8 seed, could win the playoff tourney and no one would think it was an upset. He’s right. Any of these four teams can win these two games and you wouldn’t be surprised.
The early game is Western Michigan vs. Denver. WMU swept Duluth in an interesting series. The WMU power play was the difference as Duluth controlled the play for a lot of the two games. Colton Hargrove and Chase Balisy continue to power the engine in Kalamazoo and the Broncos are getting tremendous play from a trio of defenseman in Jordan Oesterle, Dennis Brown, and Taylor Flemming.
The Broncos play a pro style game which has often gotten them into penalty trouble. However coach Andy Murray wants his guys to play on the edge and play hard and heavy and that is how they have been successful all season long. Mike Cichy has provided great veteran experience to a young group and Shane Berschbach has been as under-the-radar star nationally as there is.
Denver comes in with perhaps the most electric defense corps we have seen in a while. They boast a duo of pairs on the backline that can really move and it is common for Denver to use three of those D’s on a power play unit and four of them if the need to pull their goalie down late in a game. You can bet that there will be a ton of scouts at Target Center looking to catch looks once again at Free Agent defenseman David Makowski.
Up front one of the more underrated players you will see is Dan Doremus, who has become a do it all type guy for the Pioneers. He leads an unheralded corps of forwards that score by committee but also do a lot of little things well that win hockey games. They have been an up and down team that has been inconsistent at times but seem to have hit their stride lately.
Where this game could be determined is in goal and that is where Denver has the 'X' factor in NCHC Goalie of the Year Sam Brittain. In Game 3 of the UNO series, The Great Brittain was the stabilizing factor for Denver as it was under assault early. He could have to play that same role again today.
What to watch for: Watching Denver’s last few games you can see a real systematic plan for them when they win defensive zone faceoffs. They have a few different plays they can run off a DZ win but what is dangerous is that they can make offensive minded plays in their own end to get the rush started off these set plays. They don’t just hammer it around and chase, they start tic tac toeing early and their support of the puck is a huge part of their transition game.
For WMU, it is a team that likes to tenderize the beef when it can with good chips and chases. Its goal is to spend the first 20 seconds of a shift in the opponent's zone making whetever line is against them too tired to play offense. That small battle right here is worth keeping an eye on. WMU is a pretty good faceoff team but Doremus has an uncanny ability to square up against an opposing center and get that center to get himself thrown out of the circle. It’s fun to watch.
This could be a low-scoring affair. The size and physical play of WMU vs the fluidity and underrated grind game of Denver highlight this one.
MIAMI vs North Dakota: Game two features two national heavyweight programs who own the longest tourney appearance streaks, one of which could come to an end as both are fighting for their national tourney lives.
The RedHawks were buried nationally weeks ago which shows how much most of the media was really paying attention. Miami was inconsistent in goal and thin on defense and it was having trouble scoring. However for those who had been around Miami a lot you knew several things were brewing and the return of Blake Coleman was going to have a major factor.
Coleman’s return to the lineup brought Miami a win over St. Cloud in Oxford and from then on Miami started to climb out the hole they were in. Knowing it was an 8 seed, it started working towards playoff hockey and in a way focusing on the process of team rebuilding as opposed to strictly its next game.
Coleman’s return allowed coach Rico Blasi to split up the super duo of Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber to create two good scoring lines. Barber, a right shot, now has the high energy and skill of lefty Sean Kuraly in the middle and right handed center Austin Czarnik, a great passer, has lefty scoring threat Blake Coleman on his left. Anthony Louis provides offense and a ton of speed as the LW for Kuraly and Barber. Cody Murphy, who shoots rockets and plays the same abrasive physical game Coleman does, mans the right of Czarnik and he can shoot rockets. The puck distributors and shooters are now all in spots where they can get the puck to the net faster and more effectively.
Miami’s ability to gain the zone cleanly against North Dakota's gap control and back side pressure is a small sub-plot to the bigger picture as this game goes on. Who wins this game within the game could be in the driver's seat.
North Dakota continues to roll on and play to its strengths, which is a sum-of-your-parts team. It is unique where your entire lineup plays to its potential and North Dakota has done just that. Minus the high-end guys of past years (or even last year) coach Dave Hakstol needed maximum production from everyone and he got it.
It starts in goal where Zane Gothberg has been the stabilizer UND needed. The defense corps, like Denver, can get in the play and create offense but also has been lights out in its own end. Dillon Simpson plays like a veteran D and the supporting cast, led by first-round pick Jordan Schmaltz, is dependable and at times dynamic.
Up front guys like Michael Parks, Mark MacMillan, Rocco Grimaldi, Drake Caggiula (who is draft eligible) and Stef Pattyn have all been instrumental in creating a balanced attack that can also do what North Dakota has done well in past years; knock you around all game.
North Dakota can come at you in waves and because of their play away from the puck in the NZ they can be hard to back up 200 feet consistently. It turns it around between the blue lines pretty well. Miami has improved its ability to control the puck and the pace of the game. Each of these teams looks to be puck control teams and neither wants this to go up and down but it could go that way because both teams have been comfortable in high paced games.
If you have watched this conference closely all season (and believe me, we have) anything can happen and nothing would surprise you. These teams are battle tested having played in a league where there were no weak sisters and no easy wins. “Bottom feeders” here could dominate elsewhere, or here, as the playoffs proved.
The first NCHC Tourney kicks off today at the Target Center in Minneapolis today and you can make the case that it is win and go home for all four. Need a better motivator for great hockey than that?