Week 18 – College Hockey Preview: Postseason Push

Gophers Hockey NCAA

Some College Hockey teams have 4+ series still on the schedule while others have as few as 2 left to play. Regardless of what’s left, everyone that’s been competitive this year is starting to make their postseason push. Every one of the games moving forward mean more than every one played up to this point. Even a team like Minnesota State, who has a 10 point lead in the CCHA standings, has a series left against the second-place team in Michigan Tech to close out the season.

After what happened last year, we got a taste of how fun the postseason is supposed to be. Teams like Bemidji pulled off upsets against tournament favorites. I took personal joy in seeing a lot of early exits from Hockey East and ECAC schools. We saw rival schools UMD and UND battle in what was probably the most exciting and nerve-wracking College Hockey game I’ve ever seen. Then, three out of the frozen four teams were all Minnesota schools. People forget that was also one OT bounce away from being an MN ONLY contest. While we all enjoyed it (until the end) in the state of hockey, I can’t help but wonder what the NCAA will do to take that away from us this year.

Explaining the Rankings:

1. Minnesota State – Mavericks

In the shocker of the century, the Mavs got another sweep. The young, plucky goaltender Dryden McKay nabbed himself another shutout while only allowing one goal on the weekend too. This might be a bold take, but I’d say he’s a darkhorse for the Richter this year.

2. University of Minnesota, Duluth – Bulldogs

After a bye-week, the Bulldogs played a rare Tuesday game against St. Cloud. Despite leading the game for 43 minutes and outplaying the Huskies for the majority of the game, they came up with a loss. There are no moral victories in College Hockey, and especially not in the NCHC, but that game is something that can still be built off of.

3. St. Cloud State – Huskies

After taking a beatdown in Denver, the Huskies stole a game from UMD at home. During that time, they went more than five full periods without scoring and looked…out of sorts. Their Slovakian goaltender and Finnish players stepped up big for this College Hockey team. Really makes you wonder if these guys were feeling snubbed for not making their Olympic squads.

4. University of Minnesota – Gophers

The Gophs FINALLY got another weekend sweep. This one was a little more special as it resulted in a full season sweep against the Michigan State Spartans. Without a handful of their top players at the beginning of the year, the boys in Maroon & Gold found a way to nab points and more importantly, wins.

5. Bemidji State – Beavers

While the boys from Bemidji haven’t completely bounced back, they’ve at least stopped the bleeding. A one-goal loss on Friday preceded a 5-3 win on Saturday at the Sanford Center. Owen Sillinger closed the national scoring gap a little with three apples on the weekend, but he’ll have to keep that up with other skaters making a similar push.

6. St. Thomas University – Tommies

Hand up, these guys showed grit that I didn’t expect last weekend. They took a talented and streaking Michigan Tech team to a shootout on Friday night and followed it up by keeping them to two goals on Saturday. The fact that they didn’t climb in the Pairwise at all with those performances is STUNNING. They would be middle of the pack in the Atlantic Hockey conference.

National Rankings Roundup

With no movement in the consensus Top Five in the nation, it’s becoming clear who the elite teams are. On the opposite side of the rankings, one of the “Boston Teams” makes their way back in the rankings. Some people are claiming it’s due to nepotism and an East Coast Bias, others are agreeing.

Feb. 7th Rankings Roundup

Note: The National Rankings RoundupTM weighs each of the ranking sources instead of treating them all as equal. This takes into account the credibility of source, potential committee influence, what data they utilize, evident bias, and amount of teams ranked. Rankings that deviate from the Pairwise by more than 5 are highlighted.

NCHC College Hockey Games

#6 UMD @ #3 Denver – Fri & Sat Feb 11/12

The Denver Pioneers may not be ranked #1 in College Hockey in the Pairwise or either of the National Polls, but they’re certainly in the conversation for anyone that’s been watching intently this year. They’ve only got five losses on the season, and they’ve been to top 12 teams. They are undefeated at home this entire season, which proves the trope about how tough it is to play at elevation correct. I haven’t seen that kind of home-field advantage utilized that effectively since King Leonidas and his mighty 300.

The Pio’s last loss came exactly two months ago on Dec. 11th. That “L” came at the hands of this UMD Bulldogs team. For as awesome and consistent as Denver has been in recent history, UMD has had their number with a 7-2-1 record in their last 10. The Bulldogs are 12 points out of first place in the race for the Penrose Cup and while that’s still mathematically possible, those that know the NCHC know it’s nearly out of reach. That’s especially true when you consider UMD’s remaining schedule vs others in the Conference. What IS still in play, however, is home-ice advantage for the NCHC playoffs. If UMD wants to keep any sort of hope alive for that, stealing one win in this series is a must.

With their captain Noah Cates contributing in the Olympic Games, the Bulldogs will have their hands full trying to keep up with or contain the scoring power of Denver. Mr. Assist himself, Bobby Brink, is now tied for #1 in the nation’s points race (9G, 32A) with Carter Savoie (16G, 17A) and Brett Stapley (12G, 21A) narrowly behind him. In fact, Denver has EIGHT players ahead of UMD’s top point scorer (Blake Biondi) this season. Scoring has not been the strong-suit of this Bulldog’s team, so they’ll have to play suffocating defense and rely on good goaltending this weekend. With Fanti’s .923 save percentage, they’re in good hands.

Prediction: Bulldogs are hungry. Big dog’s gotta eat. Duluth boys find a tough, tough split.

#5 Western Michigan @ #10 St Cloud State – Fri & Sat Feb 11/12

Straight to the point, Western Michigan demolished St Cloud the last time these two teams played one another. The Broncos outscored a complete Huskies roster 10-2 before the thanksgiving break. Now, they’ll have to prove they can do it on the road at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. Just six points separate them from first place in the NCHC standings and having the Lawson Lunatics in every conference playoff game would be a huge advantage. Anyone who’s played in that rind will tell you, having those psychos right on the glass and in your ear all game long is worthy of swinging the betting odds a point or two.

Lawson Lunatics – Courtesy of NCHCHockey.com

Scoring 10 goals in a series against St Cloud sounds like a rare feat, but it’s actually been done three times this year already. It’s happened in each of the Huskies last two series (Denver & North Dakota) as well as the matchup against the Broncos earlier this season. To say that St Cloud is missing the presence of Nick Perbix on their defensive front would be classified as a gross understatement by anyone in Huskies nation. If you watched their Tuesday game against the Bulldogs, the Huskies were outplayed for 40+ minutes and still managed to find a win. They cannot afford to play like that against this Western squad. They’re more dangerous on the offensive front, and 100% of the bounces (and calls) aren’t likely to continue going their way.

Prediction: Series Split. It’s the NCHC…that’s all I really need to say.

Big 10 College Hockey Games

#7/8 Minnesota @ #7/8 Ohio State – Fri & Sat Feb 11/12

The biggest thing I saw last weekend from Minnesota was a team that FINALLY didn’t quit when they were down. They battled back from a brutal start on Friday night and played really well the rest of the weekend. The Buckeyes (which I maintain is the worst nickname in all of Collegiate Athletics) are the highest ranked opponent on the remaining schedule for Minnesota. A solid performance here would put them in a really good spot to make a push for the top spot in the Big 10. As it stands right now, they’re 6 points behind Ohio State, so a sweep would put them in the driver’s seat, depending on how the Michigan series shakes out. If Knies, Ness, and Faber come back from the Olympics to a first place Minnesota team, it would be a dangerous task for anyone to take on.

Earlier this year, I slandered the hell out of the Ohio State hockey program. While I stand by the statement that they’re a Basketball/Football school, they’ve proven that they can perform on the ice as well. There’s still room for improvement on the consistency from game to game, but when they’re hot, they’re HOT. The Buckeyes are currently 4th in the nation for scoring on the season with 112 goals in 30 games. Not only that, but they’ve got the 3rd best save percentage (.935) out of their goaltenders as well. Where they fall short is their “special teams” play. At 76.5%, they’re the 12th worst team in College hockey on the PK. They’re also damn near dead center of the pack on the PP at 18.3% efficient. If they can keep it a 5×5 game for the majority of the game, they’ll have the advantage.

Prediction: Series Split.

CCHA College Hockey Games

St. Thomas @ Alaska, Fairbanks – Fri & Sat Feb 11/12

Despite a 9-16-1 record on the season, Alaska Fairbanks has won four out of their last five games. Some are saying that they’re peaking too early, but those people are stupid. Without a conference championship to win for an automatic bid, they’d have to win-out to even be in the same galaxy as the conversation. As tall of a task as that sounds, it’s actually semi-sorta-kinda-realistic. After their series against St. Thomas this weekend, they’ve got two series against 8-16-3 LIU and a rematch series against AZ State. The Nanooks just swept the Sun Devils last weekend, so it’s possible! Let’s go Nanooks!

As hot as Alaska is right now, the Tommies may be hotter…relative to the rest of their play this season. That sounded like a jab, but I promise it wasn’t. Their play over their last four series has been light years better than it was at the beginning of the year. While they were still readily handled by Mankato, they were competitive in each of the other games during that time span. After the first few weeks of this season, if you told me that this St. Thomas team would be playing to this level against quality opponents at the end of their first year, I would have laughed at you. While there’s still a long way to go, this team is headed in the right direction. They’ll have a tall task against a physical team this weekend, but I expect them to be in both of these games.

Prediction: Alaska sweeps. Let’s keep the (lofty) dream alive for Alaskan Hockey.

Other Games to Watch

Colorado College @ #12 North Dakota – Fri & Sat Feb 11/12

This is North Dakota’s most favorable matchup since way back on December 10th/11th. Their opponent that weekend? Also Colorado College! They took that series by a combined score of 9-3 in Colorado Springs. This time around, the Fighting Hawks get to play at home with a need for wins. While they’re comfortably within the playoffs if the season were to end today, a single loss here would cause every two-hole in NoDak to pucker simultaneously.

Prediction: North Dakota HAS TO sweep the series if they want to feel any level of comfort, and they will.

#15 Northeastern @ #13 UMass Lowell – Fri Feb 11

Both of these Hockey East teams are currently on the bubble for what might be the last spot in the NCAA playoffs. Although they’re both currently ranked within the top 16 in the national polls, Northeastern is south of the Mason-Dixon at 17 in the Pairwise Rankings. Whoever ends up losing this game will be on the hot seat. There’ll be a lot more pressure to win out to ensure they land a spot in the playoffs. If not, they’ll have to take the conference championship. To add to the pressure, Northeastern has the Beanpot championship game against BU on Monday as well. Their season could very well be decided in the next two games, while their star goaltender (Devon Levi) is between the posts for Canada at the Olympics.

Transparent Predictions Update

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In the last three weeks, my series predictions are 11-5. One thing nobody ever tells you (repeatedly) about gambling or the stock market is that profits aren’t realized until you have cash in hand. While 11-5 is great, there’s still more work to be done. My solemn promise to you all is that I will not cash out until the end of the season. No guts, no glory!

Week 17 – College Hockey Preview: Olympic Level Talent . White Text for Readability

Week 16 – College Hockey Preview: Time to Grind . White Text for Readability

Week 15 – College Hockey Preview: Hockey Day Is Moving Day