NCHC Championship Preview
With less than a month remaining in the 2016-17 college hockey season, all four teams playing in the fourth annual NCHC Frozen Faceoff this weekend have a chance to — borrowing a popular European soccer term — 'win the double.'
Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Western Michigan, and North Dakota have paced the NCHC all season, and each team has reasonable aspirations to win a league title this weekend, then seriously challenge for the national title when the NCAA tournament begins next week.
The Target Center hosts the four best teams in the NCHC this weekend, in the only conference tournament featuring four of the top 11 teams in the Pairwise. Minnesota-Duluth and Western Michigan — both in the top four — face off in Friday's matinee, with Denver and North Dakota set for a highly anticipated primetime semifinal showdown.
No. 1 Denver (28-6-4, No. 1 in the Pairwise) vs. No. 4 North Dakota (20-14-6, No. 11 in the Pairwise)
NCHC Quarterfinals Results: Denver swept Colorado College (4-1, 4-0); North Dakota swept St. Cloud State (5-2, 6-5 in OT)
Almost a year removed from their NCAA Frozen Four clash that saw UND advance to the national championship game after a late third period goal, the Pioneers get another chance against the Fighting Hawks — the reigning national champions — in a do-or-die elimination game.
Over the past few months, Denver — the national leader in wins (28) and the best offense in the country since Jan. 1 (4.22 goals per game) — has emerged as arguably the most complete team in college hockey, balancing a deep offensive attack with an experienced blue line and trustworthy goaltender. The Pioneers, also the top statistical defense in college hockey, enter the NCHC Frozen Faceoff with a 13-game winning streak.
Still, a devil's advocate might point out that all 13 of those wins have come against teams with records under .500. The level of competition rises significantly now, and that's welcome news for head coach Jim Montgomery, who stressed the importance of playing with "urgency" this weekend.
And it shouldn't be too difficult to ramp up the intensity from Denver's perspective — playing a team in North Dakota that has become its chief rival since the NCHC formed four years ago. Last year's Frozen Four loss, perhaps a catalyst for the Pioneers this season, only amplified the rivalry.
"The intensity of this game is going to be great, right from the start, just like it was at the Frozen Four last year," Montgomery said. "People better buy some tickets, because you don't get to see great games like this very often. We're expecting it to be a barnburner."
Earlier this winter, in the only games between the Pioneers and Fighting Hawks this season, Denver tied and won a pair of games in Grand Forks, N.D.. But those games were played in November, just as the team's identities were beginning to crystallize — and certainly before the narratives that shape this Friday's matchup were finished.
That identity for Denver? Not necessarily its potent and opportunistic offense, led by the top scoring freshman in the country (Henrik Borgstrom), but instead, a suffocating defense that leads the nation in goals-against average, anchored by senior captain Will Butcher.
Butcher was a first-team All-NCHC selection this season and on Wednesday was named one of the 10 Hobey Baker finalists this season. The Wisconsin native was also the only defenseman to be named to the Top 10.
"He thinks about the team first," said Montgomery of the Colorado Avalanche prospect. "He doesn't think about his personal accolades, and he doesn't think about pro hockey. He's immersed in the moment. His ability to stay focused in the moment and lead our team with a team-first attitude has permeated through our locker room.
"The one thing that has been the backbone of our success all year long has been our commitment to team defense. With Tanner Jaillet in net and five veteran defensemen who have brought along Michael Davies as a freshman — they kind of lead us in our in-your-face type hockey. And because of our ability to play good defense, it leads to turnovers, which has led to a lot of transition opportunity."
North Dakota's road to the Frozen Faceoff has been a bit more inconsistent, but with a playoff-experienced goaltender in Cam Johnson, combined with clutch scorers — like NCHC-leading goal scorer Shane Gersich and NHL first-round picks Brock Boeser and Tyson Jost — the Fighting Hawks may simply be built for the postseason.
Under head coach Brad Berry over the past two seasons, North Dakota is 10-1-1 in March. And UND knows how to put a game away, with a 15-1 record when entering the third period with a lead.
In a back-and-forth game last Saturday against St. Cloud State, a team playing with its season on the line, UND displayed a character of championship caliber, and now the Fighting Hawks will have a chance to reach its first NCHC title game — following three consecutive semifinal losses.
"We're there for business," said second-year head coach Berry. "We're there to win two games. And Friday night is the first one. We have to be sure that we're mindful of the process, and that's narrowing your focus."
Plenty of the in-game matchups in Friday's contest are intriguing, but in particular, the question will be be which team can effectively assert its high-powered offensive attack. Unlike last year, when each team's offense was focused mostly on one line — UND's 'CBS line' and Denver's 'Pacific Rim line' — this year's offense is spread out on both teams.
Said Berry, "We have an attack mentality. We have to be mindful of the players on the ice in certain situations, and be in good positions. It's two very similar programs in the way they play. You have to be sure you play very well away from the puck.
"Whenever we play each other, we're rivals. Throughout the years, it's developed into a situation where it's very competitive. Our guys are looking forward to it."
No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth (23-6-7, No. 2 in the Pairwise) vs. No. 3 Western Michigan (22-10-5, No. 4 in the Pairwise)
NCHC Quarterfinals Results: Minnesota-Duluth swept Miami (5-4 in OT, 5-3); Western Michigan def. Nebraska-Omaha, two games to one (1-2 in OT, 5-2, 2-1 in OT)
On paper, Denver matching up against North Dakota certainly looks like the heavyweight matchup of the weekend, but anyone who's paid any attention to the NCHC this season should be well aware that Friday's first semifinal — pitting the Bulldogs against the Broncos — is one of the must-see games in all of college hockey this Friday.
After all, it features two potential No. 1 seeds in next week's NCAA tournament, two of the top four teams at this moment in the country. It's a matchup between one of the preseason favorites to win the NCHC (Minnesota-Duluth, the runner-up in this tournament a year ago) and a team that won only eight games last season (Western Michigan).
And in a showdown between two freshman goaltenders — UMD's Hunter Miska and Western Michigan's Ben Blacker — it's the rubber game following a four-game split during the regular season.
Just two weeks ago, UMD and Western Michigan split a high-scoring series in Kalamazoo, Mich. The Broncos prevailed in the weekend's first game, 7-4, before the Bulldogs rebounded on Saturday with a 6-3 win.
Will this weekend's series feature as much scoring?
Broncos head coach Andy Murray, trusting his goaltender (even if not the details), thinks not.
"He just stops pucks," said Murray of Blacker. "I've been coaching for a long time, and I still don't know how to coach goalies. All I just expect is them to do is stop it, and he's done a pretty good job of that."
"I'm not sure it's going to be that type of series," added UMD head coach Scott Sandelin of the recent offensive output by each team. "They're a team that plays with a lot of pace. Offensively, they're a much better team. Their power play is good. They present some challenges defensively for us. The way Hunter has played, I think he's had an outstanding year for us. Defensively, we've had a pretty good team all year. We just need to tighten up some things. The Saturday game against them at their place, we did a better job of that.
"This time of the year, that's critical to winning hockey games."
Sandelin will be without the services of senior defenseman Carson Soucy this weekend, who remains sidelined after suffering a lower body injury on March 3. On Wednesday, Sandelin confirmed Soucy's absence for the entire championship weekend, as the senior remains "week-to-week."
Still, the UMD defense is experienced, anchored by a group of seniors and amplified by sophomore blueliner Neal Pionk, who was named to the NCHC All-Second Team.
Pionk is the third leading scorer for UMD, but the Bulldogs' offense revolves clearly around senior wing Alex Iafallo, who leads the team with 41 points and enters this weekend's play with nine-game point-scoring streak — including three consecutive multi-point performances.
"He's a heck of a hockey player," said teammate Dominic Toninato, no slouch himself with double-digit goal totals for three consecutive seasons. "Plain and simple. He does everything. He's fast, he makes plays, he has a great shot, he's also good defensively. It's been a real pleasure being able to play with him the last five years. He's helped me out and made me a better player. It's a lot of fun, and it's been a huge honor to be able to play with him."
The story for Western Michigan this season has been its ability to overcome what had been a troubling trend — a decreasing win total for each of the past two seasons. But if expectations were low from the outside, things were different within the Broncos' locker room — before the season even started.
"There was a mentality of every guy on this team, coming in with a new attitude, proving something to not only ourselves but Western Michigan as a whole, and to the community of Kalamazoo," said senior Sheldon Dries, who has served as captain for three consecutive seasons. "We set that goal at the beginning of the season. We haven't reached it quite yet, but we're on the right track right now."
Added Murray, "They were not happy with what happened here last year. This is a group that had a taste of being in the NCHC Final four during their freshman year, and they're very excited to be back."
Now the Broncos are rolling, and Murray expects their preparation to be no different this weekend.
"The bottom line is that we prepare for every league opponent the same way. We obviously just played Duluth. But it's all based on what we want to get done in the game, and not necessarily adjusting to what the other team does."
A storyline to watch will be whether Western Michigan's young forward line — featuring Colt Conrad, Hugh McGing, and Wade Allison — can carry its momentum into Friday's semifinal. That line was dominant in Saturday's quarterfinal game — which tied the series 1-1 — against Nebraska-Omaha, as the trio combined for 10 points.
"They're one of the youngest lines on college hockey," Murray said. "Colt Conrad is a sophomore, and he's got two freshman wingers beside him. First thing is, they're very talented. They're very professional in their work ethic and how they go about their business. I think all three of them are going to play professional hockey once their college careers are done. They're good players.
"They've been together the whole season, so they have some chemistry, and they can play with a lot of pace."
Allison was injured last weekend, taken off the ice on a stretcher, but has been cleared to play. Still, his availability is uncertain. Dries was likewise hurt two weeks ago, forcing him to miss the first two games last weekend, but came back Sunday, not 100 percent.
The NCHC Frozen Faceoff kicks off with this matchup between the Bulldogs and Broncos on Friday afternoon at 4:07 PM CT.