Well, hockey fans. Believe it or not we have passed the half-way mark in the season. The Wild are more up and down than Bitcoin, so let’s check out how things are shaking up in college puck. Three months from now, four teams will flock to St. Paul, MN in hopes of taking home college hockey’s Holy Grail.
This year will be the third time the Xcel Energy Center has hosted the Frozen Four. The first time being back in 2002 when the Minnesota Gophers beat the Maine Black Bears in an overtime thriller. The UMD Bulldogs edged the Michigan Wolverines in overtime in 2011 in the second National Championship at The X. Both times the championship was at the X, a school from Minnesota took home the hardware.
Going into this season, hopes that a Minnesota school would once again prevail, were high. USCHO.com’s preseason poll had 4 of the 5 Minnesota schools ranked in the top 18: Gophers (3), Minnesota-Duluth (6), Saint Cloud State (9), and Minnesota State (18), with Bemidji State among the other schools receiving votes. Now fast forward to January 8th’s rankings from USCHO.com’s poll and 4 of the 5 schools are now ranked in the top 15: Saint Cloud State (2), Minnesota State (8), Minnesota (9), and Minnesota-Duluth (15), with Bemidji State among other schools receiving votes still. The NCHC leads the rankings with 7 of its 8 schools being ranked in the top 21, the Big Ten not far behind with 5, Hockey East with 4, ECAC with 3 and the WCHA with 2 teams in the top 21 (Maine and Miami-OH tied for 20th).
The biggest story of the first half has to be Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish ended the first half on a 15 game winning streak with their last loss coming prior to Halloween. This streak is especially impressive because 12 of those 15 wins have come against Big Ten opponents. If you haven’t heard, and maybe you haven’t, Notre Dame joined the Big Ten this season and so far they are cleaning it up. Starting out 12-0-0 in conference play has propelled the Fighting Irish to the number 1 ranking in the nation. They have a goal differential of +29 in their 22 games played so far, which doesn’t seem like it’s very high but it indicates that they are finding ways to win the close games. Notre Dame’s last loss came on October 26th in a 6-4 loss to the University of Nebraska Omaha Mavericks.
UNO has been a strange team this year, but a very intriguing team. Nebraska Omaha ranks 17th in the January 8th USCHO poll and there are a couple of reasons why. Their victory against Notre Dame on the road, and a 4-1 win in Grand Forks helped them earn a weekend split on the road against North Dakota. The thing that makes this Nebraska Omaha team so interesting is their record based on which night of the weekend it is. On the first night of their weekend series’, the Mavericks are 8-2-0 including wins against Notre Dame (1), North Dakota (7), and Minnesota-Duluth (15). Their problem is their ability to finish the series out strong. They have an abysmal record of 2-7-1 on the second night of back to backs. The Mavericks have proven they can skate with the best teams in the country, and have even proven it on the road, the only problem is you don’t know which team is going to show up down the stretch. The Friday night Mavericks, or the Saturday night team.
Coming off of last year’s disappointing exit from the NCAA tournament, the hopes were very high for this year’s Minnesota Gophers. They returned a lot of key players and added arguably one of the top incoming freshman in the nation, Casey Mittelstadt. The Gophers have some solid victories including a sweep of 4th ranked Clarkson, a split on the road at 7th ranked North Dakota, and a shutout win against top ranked St. Cloud State University. The Gophers are a great team at home and they boast one of the best home records in the nation. The problem is when they get on the road, they are a completely different team. They are 11-2-0 at home and have posted a brutally bad 2-8-1 record away from Mariucci. The Gophers have a tough schedule to finish off the season. Of their twelve remaining games, seven of them are at home, but four of those seven are against Notre Dame (1), and Ohio State (6). They will need to capitalize on some road victories as well as continuing to play well at home in order to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament.
The SCSU Huskies are rolling right now and have been ranked in the top 5 since October 20th. They currently sit in a tie for first in the NCHC standings with North Dakota. The Huskies have posted an even better home record than the Gophers with a 10-0-1 mark at home. Their success can be attributed to many things, but their defense has got to be one of the biggest factors having only allowed 40 goals in 19 games this season. The 13-3-3 record is even more impressive when you look at the competition SCSU faces in the NCHC. Seven of the eight teams in the conference are ranked in the top 20, with the eighth team (Colorado College) among the other teams receiving votes. Every weekend in the NCHC is a grind to get as many points as possible and so far the Huskies have shown that they are one of the top teams in the nation.
Staying in the NCHC, let’s move on to the Bulldogs of Minnesota-Duluth. This season has been somewhat of a disappointment for UMD. They are a 500 club with a 9-9-3 record. Unfortunately, .500 doesn’t do you much good in the tough NCHC. They’ve only won 3 conference games and sit in a tie for 7th in the standings. One thing that has hurt their chances at a run to the NCAA tournament and another chance to win a title at the Xcel Energy Center is they don’t have many big victories. One OT win against the Gophers in early October, a home split against Western Michigan, and a home win against Minnesota State. The Bulldogs have a very tough schedule to end the season, but these tough games give them opportunity to give the committee a chance to put them in the tournament. UMD will play 7 games against top 10 opponents to close out the season. They host North Dakota and St. Cloud, and travel to Denver (5). Wins against these top teams could be the difference in whether the Bulldogs get the chance to play in another Frozen Four in St. Paul.
Traveling west now over to another Northern Minnesota school, Bemidji State. The Bemidji State Beavers are among the teams that are receiving votes just outside of the top 20. They have posted a decent season so far in the WCHA and are currently in 4th place behind Minnesota State, Bowling Green, and Northern Michigan. They haven’t had too many games against ranked opponents. They beat UMD at home in October in the opener of a home and home series, and got swept by the Minnesota State Mavericks. They do have a non-conference series January 12/13 against North Dakota, but the rest of the way they will finish out against WCHA opponents. Bemidji State has put themselves in a position to host an opening round playoff series at home if they can play well the rest of the way.
Last but certainly not least, Maverick fans, the team from Mankato: Minnesota State Mavericks. The Mavericks are going into the second half of the season having won 7 of their last 8 games, and are currently ranked 8th in the country. Minnesota State is on top of the WCHA with an 8 point lead over Bowling Green. The Mavericks have a very favorable schedule to end the season with a lot of games against teams in the bottom half of the WCHA. They do have a couple of non-conference, in-state one game series’ at Saint Cloud State (2) and at home against Minnesota-Duluth (15). If the Mavericks can capitalize on at least one of those games, and rack up wins against the WCHA opponents, they could have a very favorable seed in the NCAA tournament.
That will do it for the mid-season recap of the NCAA, as well as a look into all five of the Minnesota Division I programs and how they have done this season. About 8 weeks from now we will be into the conference tournaments and getting ready for the NCAA tournament. It is awesome that the great hockey fans of Minnesota will get to witness the frozen four again. Only time will tell if another school from Minnesota will raise a national championship banner.