Everybody rejoice, college hockey is finally set to return after the holiday break! It’s been a tumultuous few weeks since the last article was put out. NHL games have been cancelled/postponed left and right, with more being added to that list every day. Not only that, but the World Junior Championship started, was paused, and ultimately cancelled in that timeframe as well. Whether I agree with the way that tournament was ran or not (I don’t), it will be nice to see those players back on their respective college rosters, whenever they’re able to make it back.All six of the Division 1 college hockey teams in the state will be in action this week. Mankato will be taking on Duluth, St Cloud and Bemidji are facing off, and the Gophers added an exhibition game against St. Thomas at the last minute. With the Winter Classic taking place on Saturday at Target Field, all of the hockey eyes in the nation will be on Minnesota this weekend!
Explaining the Rankings:
1. Minnesota State – Mavericks
The Mavs were nearly the second unanimous #1 ranked team through every ranking body that has any sort of platform. They deserve every bit of that praise. They’ve had surprise stumbling blocks before the break, but they’ve handled themselves well when the chips were on the table. That’s what you want to see.
2. University of Minnesota, Duluth – BulldogsThe Bulldogs last time out was a(nother) split against a NCHC rival in Denver. They were humbled in one game and then bounced back with a strong showing in the second. After a strong showing in their first 14 games, the Bulldogs have lost 3 of their last 4. They’re an experienced team that’s well respected but still needing to get back on track.
3. St Cloud State – Huskies
Like the Bulldogs, the Huskies got out to a hot start, but have also lost 3 of their last 4. With so much returning talent on their team, a lot of people think they’ve played below expectations this season. They’ll need to put together a strong second half to get some of the skeptics back on board.
4. University of Minnesota – GophersFor a team that was predicted to win the Big 10, these kids haven’t had the year that they wanted. At least not yet. Thankfully, there’s still time to turn it around and make an impression. They’re going to HAVE to get out of the split “rut” that they’re in and start sweeping series.
5. Bemidji State – Beavers
The very definition of a bubble team in every way that phrase could be interpreted. They’re good enough to surprise and beat anyone. They’re also fully capable of putting a clunker of a game on the ice any given night too. It’s not that they’re not talented or undisciplined, but more so that they’re just unpredictable.
6. St. Thomas University – Tommies
Only one way to go from here and that is up. They could have loaded their non-conference schedule with Atlantic and ECAC Hockey opponents. They’d have had better shots at putting some wins together, but they didn’t. They played some of the best competition in the nation instead. While they might be the worst team in Minnesota, they’re certainly not the worst team in the nation.
Non-Conference College Hockey Games
#1 Minnesota State vs. #5/6 Minnesota Duluth – Thurs & Sat Dec 30-Jan 1
To those of you who have been around since the beginning, it will be no surprise to hear that I believe this is the number 1 matchup in all of college hockey this week. Yes, it’s two Minnesota teams and yes, UMD is playing. Biases aside, it’s still a Top 5 (or 6 depending on who you ask) matchup. If you’re a college fan and it’s not exciting, I’m not sure what you’re watching. Both of these teams have been in the Top Ten (Six, technically) ranked teams all season long.Although UMD and Mankato don’t have a super long or storied history in their matchups, this is one that’s been circled on the calendar for both teams A LOT lately. Unfortunately, the last two potential matchups didn’t happen. Both teams fell short on opposite sides of the frozen four this spring and they weren’t able to meet up in the Ice Breaker tournament at the beginning of this year.
Those missed opportunities to play have been especially disappointing for Sandelin…well, both Sandelins. Scott (the head coach of Duluth) and his son Ryan (leading goal scorer for the Mavericks) will be playing for bragging rights in the house. Although UMD has more W’s all-time against the Mavericks, Ryan has the edge between him and his dad, winning their last matchup. As a Bulldogs fan, I’m just hoping that Scott was pushing all sorts of Cookies, Cheesecake, and other sweets over the holidays. All’s fair in love and war after all.
No Rest for the Wicked
Both of these clubs will be coming back to play with a big challenge immediately after the break. After already having what I would argue is the toughest schedule in the nation to start the year, UMD will face off against two top-ten schools in a row. Not only that, but 7 of their remaining 9 series will be against opponents that are currently ranked in both polls and six of those seven are all in the top 10. A win (or wins) against Mankato could set a much needed tone for the Bulldogs to close out the season.
I’ve just started sharing my thoughts on the UMD program as well as their upcoming matchups on the MNCAA Podcast. If you want to tune in, it’ll be released on Fridays every week and has input from representatives for all of the other MN schools too.
Prediction: We’re back to College Hockey and we’re back to predicting 1-1 splits.
#7 St Cloud State vs Bemidji State – Fri & Sat Dec 31-Jan 1
This will be another in state home-and-home series happening this weekend. Both squads feel like they need to make up ground and could be playing better than they’ve shown so far this year. As a “casual” observer throughout the year for both teams, I tend to agree. Each team has lost games that they “shouldn’t have” and they lack a sweep over what could be argued as a quality opponent. I expect that to change.
Much like the Bulldogs, the Huskies have a daunting second half in front of them. The NCHC and all of the highly ranked programs in it will be vying for playoff spots. If history has shown us anything recently, there’s almost always someone from this conference that gets left on the outside looking in with a great resume. Nobody in St. Cloud’s position can afford to look past their current opponent, but after Bemidji they’ll be facing UMD followed by a sneaky-tough Denver squad.
On paper, the Huskies are the most difficult opponent left on Bemidji’s schedule, outside of a matchup with Mankato in the middle of February. That’s not to say that the rest of the games are cake-walks by any means. However, a front-loaded schedule for Bemidji may pay big dividends at the end of the year. If they can steal one here (whether it be on the road or at home) it will go a VERY long way in the pairwise and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them ranked going into next week.
Prediction: St. Cloud State returns to expected form with a 2-0 sweep.
Exhibition College Hockey Games
#11 Minnesota vs St Thomas – Sun Jan 2
A late Christmas gift for all Gopher and St Thomas Hockey fans! The two teams agreed to an exhibition matchup that will be played at 2:00 on Sunday. This will be a much needed “tune-up” game for both squads, but for much different reasons.
Minnesota will be looking to get their skating legs back under them and try to work out some kinks that have been holding them up. It’s been said by some, not me, that this is being used as a confidence boost for the Gopher squad in an attempt to get their mind right too.
For St Thomas it’s much more of a “the more ice time, the better” type of game for a squad that is trying to figure it all out and get some breaks to go their way. They’ve held their own pretty well in a lot of games this year, only to have things fall apart late. It’s only a matter of time before they find their own “puck-luck”, but I don’t expect that to be enough to pull out a win here.
Prediction: Gophers take advantage of a “tune-up” game and come out with a “meaningless” win.
Other Games to Watch
#3 Michigan vs #4 Western Michigan – Great Lakes Invitational: Thursday Dec 30
What was supposed to be one of the best games of the weekend, and the biggest of the Great Lakes invitational is no longer happening. After coming to a 0-0 Tie against #18Michigan Tech on Dec 29th, Michigan was supposed to take on the #4 Broncos of Western Michigan. Unfortunately for Western Michigan, all of the players, hockey fans everywhere, and the integrity of the sport itself, Michigan cancelled the game for no reason. I’ve already written a thousand words on the cowardly, shameful decision but it’s disgusting enough to bring up again. The fact that they’re allowed to do this without ANY ramifications in their ranking or in terms of punishment from the NCAA is astounding. As an alumni of the University, I’d be disgusted.
I’ve been hit by cars three times, which is an indication of how stubborn I am.
I write about everything across the board, but focus on Hockey and the pain that is Minnesota sports.
Argue with me on Twitter: @venividiveech