March 9, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

NCHC Quarterfinal Preview

by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer (@AvashKalra)

The eight member schools of the NCHC were all founded between 1809 and 1903, so they clearly had plenty of history before they began the NCHC's first inaugural season together in 2013-14.

In the short time since, these eight programs have made the NCHC arguably the most competitive league in the country. And indeed, the NCHC has dominated the national landscape this winter in particular — boasting three of the top four spots in the Pairwise entering this weekend.

But the NCHC's conference tournament offers plenty of motivation itself — plenty of pride, and the opportunity to win a hard-fought title that carries bragging rights, and of course, an automatic NCAA bid. Three league teams — Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, and Western Michigan — are guaranteed NCAA tourney spots no matter what happens in this tournament. And North Dakota will likely have the opportunity to defend its national title with a strong showing this weekend.

The four road teams this weekend, however, could see their seasons end if they're unable to advance to the Target Center in Minneapolis for next weekend's NCHC Frozen Faceoff. That will be extra motivation for them as they hit the road in this weekend's best-of-three NCHC quarterfinal series.

1. Denver (26-6-4, No. 1 in the Pairwise) vs. 8. Colorado College (8-22-4, No. 36 in the Pairwise)

Flanked by Pikes Peak and the Rocky Mountains to the west, Colorado College will make the hour-long drive north, up I-25, with the opportunity to face its traditional rival, Denver, in what has been — in an understatement — a lopsided series of late.

Since Mike Haviland took over the coaching duties for the Tigers at the start of the 2014-15 season, Denver is 12-0 against its in-state rival — three consecutive seasons with four-game sweeps, with an aggregate score of 52-18.

Clearly, the odds are stacked against CC, but despite struggling with full-weekend consistency, the Tigers have offered glimpses of hope along the way — wins, for instance, over Cornell, Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota, and St. Cloud State during the second half of the season.

But only once during the last three seasons has Colorado College won two league games in a single weekend.

Meanwhile, Denver, looking to return to the NCAA Frozen Four after losing to the eventual champions, North Dakota, last season, has won 11 straight games entering the postseason and earned the Penrose Cup as regular season champions.

Four of the Pioneers' top five scorers are underclassmen — including freshman Henrik Borgstrom, who leads the team in goals and points. Borgstrom, a first-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers, is also the only freshman in the nation to reach the 20-goal plateau so far this season.

"We've had a lot of great moments this year," said Borgstrom, who was named to the NCHC All-Rookie team and All-NCHC Second Team this week, reflecting on the moments that have brought Denver to this point. "The second weekend against BU [a weekend sweep in October], we just outworked them, even though they have so much talent on their team. And the road win at North Dakota [in November], that was really cool. The seniors were really fired up about it. That was their first time that they had ever won there. There have been a lot of special moments."

But as strong as Denver has been offensively of late, most Pioneer fans know that its core competency lies in its defensive and goaltending prowess. Senior captain Will Butcher leads the way defensively, while junior Tanner Jaillet has been a stalwart in net. Jaillet leads the nation in wins (23) and led the NCHC in goals-against average and save percentage.

Butcher and Jaillet were each honored with all-conference first team honors on Thursday, and are both on CHN's Top 10 Hobey watch list.

Clearly, Denver has created a winning formula this season, and winning — as head coach Jim Montgomery told The Denver Post this week — is everything.

"Ultimately, if you want to be a championship team, you want to win everything," said Montgomery, who won the 1992-93 national championship as a senior at Maine. "That's what's so special about this group this year. They want to win everything. They aren't just satisfied with winning the national championship. They want to win everything before that."

2. Minnesota-Duluth (21-6-7, No. 2 in the Pairwise) vs. 7. Miami (9-18-7, No. 32 in the Pairwise)

Minnesota-Duluth remained in the hunt for the regular season title until Denver ran away with it last weekend. The Bulldogs trail the Pioneers by one spot in the Pairwise, too.

UMD and Miami — facing off in the quarterfinal round for the second straight season — enter this weekend's series on decidedly different trajectories. While the Bulldogs have lost just once in their last 13 games, the RedHawks have won just once in their last 13 games.

This weekend's series also represents a rematch from just two weeks ago, when the two teams faced off in Duluth. In the first meeting, UMD scored two third-period power play goals, including the game-winner with less than 90 seconds left in regulation, to win 4-3. In a back-and-forth affair the next night, the teams battled to a 3-3 tie, with Miami earning an extra NCHC standings point with a shootout win.

"This is a new time now," Miami head coach Enrico Blasi said. "What we saw two years ago will probably be thrown out the window. When you play at this time of the year, everything is a little bit more intense, a little bit more magnified. We have to be ready to play our best. Duluth is going to play their best."

Miami has allowed three or more goals in each of nine consecutive games, an uncharacteristic statistic for a program that has been built on strong defense for many years now. Miami has been unable to play its characteristic shut-down defense as games progress, entering the third period with a lead on only seven occasions this season.

Trying to keep a balanced offense in check will be Miami's challenge this weekend. UMD has enjoyed contributions this season from seniors Alex Iafallo (leads the team with 22 assists), sophomore Adam Johnson (leads the team with 16 goals), and an active blue line featuring sophomore Neal Pionk and senior Carson Soucy.

For Miami, senior Anthony Louis — named to the All-NCHC First Team on Thursday — has been its unquestioned bright spot, pacing the RedHawks with a career-high 37 points and at least one point in 26 of his last 32 games played.

3. Western Michigan (20-9-5, No. 4 in the Pairwise) vs. 6. Nebraska-Omaha (16-15-5, No. 20 in the Pairwise)

Perhaps the biggest surprise in all of college hockey this season, Western Michigan turned an eight-win season a year ago into a regular-season resume that was certainly good enough to win a conference championship. The Broncos play in the NCHC, though, and despite holding one of the No. 1 overall seed spots for the NCAA tournament (as things stand right now), Andy Murray's group finished third.

The differences between this year and last year? Well, there are many. But beyond the Broncos' leadership up front from forwards Matheson Iacopelli (20 goals) and Sheldon Dries, Western Michigan has improved defensively, particularly as games move into the third period and overtime.

"That was a big point for us, in the summer, making sure that our endurance was up," freshman goaltender Ben Blacker told CHN in January. "Makes ure that we're training on explosiveness, getting faster. It's really been paying off. We're seeing a lot of that in the third period. Some teams are struggling to get momentum while we still have that energy."

A notable anomaly in the second half, though, was the Broncos' weekend series at Omaha in February. The teams split, with Western Michigan winning 7-6 on Friday, on the strength of two late Griffen Molino goals. The next night, the Mavericks' offense scored six again, this time in a 6-3 win.

Until that point, the Broncos hadn't come close to allowing double-digit goals in a weekend this season, and it's a storyline that Murray expects will be different this weekend.

"They generate a lot of offense," Murray said. "We felt in that series, we played a little bit too much of an open game, a bit of river hockey. And obviously we have a much improved attacking game. But from a coaching standpoint, not a real solid tactical game, something we'll have to play this weekend."

"Dean Blais coached teams always score," continued the Broncos' head coach, now in his sixth season at the helm in Kalamazoo. "He's a coach that plays his top end players a lot and accentuates the offensive part of the game."

For Nebraska-Omaha, its strength this weekend will have to be its offensive prowess, led by All-NCHC first-team selection Austin Ortega, who is known for scoring game-winning goals but also ranks in the top-10 nationally in scoring. The senior from Escondido, Calif., has 45 points this season and has helped pace a power play unit that is the best in the NCHC.

Sitting just outside the Pairwise bubble, the Mavericks need to win the series this weekend in order to have an opportunity to advance to the NCAA tournament.

4. North Dakota (18-14-3, No. 12 in the Pairwise) vs. 5. St. Cloud State (No. 18 in the Pairwise)

In what may be the most intriguing matchup of the weekend, the Fighting Hawks and Huskies face off in Grand Forks after the two teams battled until the final weekend for this opportunity to host the other in the NCHC quarterfinals. The two teams also sit on opposite sides of the Pairwise bubble.

And it's a matchup of last year's NCHC tournament winner (St. Cloud) against the reigning national champions (North Dakota), and objectively, neither title defense has been particularly smooth this season.

After winning its eighth national championship in program history last spring, North Dakota's 2016-17 campaign has been a bit of a rollercoaster, particularly in the second half. Before its weekend sweep of Miami last weekend, UND had lost eight of 12, struggling to find the offense that NCHC fans have come to expect from Brad Berry's team.

Last Friday, sophomore Brock Boeser snapped a nine-game goal-scoring drought, to reach 28 points for the season. Last year, as a freshman on the famed 'CBS' line, Boeser scored 60.

Still, each of these teams showed its best during last year's postseason, and there's no reason to think this year will be any different. During the regular season, UND was 3-1 against St. Cloud State. In the most recent matchup in early February, Fighting Hawks sophomore Mike Gornall scored his only two goals of the season in a 2-1 overtime win.

"The mindset stays the same," said Berry, who led UND to the national title last year in his first season as head coach. "We've been in playoff mode for the last month here, and our lives are on the line again. We're at home, but we have to the road mentality that we have — the urgency and the hungriness. The focus."

St. Cloud State will be without sophomore defenseman Will Borgen this weekend, unless the series advances to a third game. Borgen was suspended by the NCHC this week after review of an incident from the Huskies' regular season finale, when he got physically involved with one of the game officials. At the time, he received a game misconduct.

Borgen is just one of a young group of defensemen for St. Cloud that has been forced to mature quickly on the ice this season. The Huskies boast one of the inexperienced defensive corps in the country, and will rely heavily this weekend on the likes of Jimmy Schuldt and Jack Ahcan to help shut down the UND offensive attack.

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