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With half a season to go, the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference already is a rousing success. Likewise for the first-ever North Star College Cup tournament.
The UMD Bulldogs are a prime example of what is good about both, after last weekend - and pending this weekend.
First, the tournament. UMD, since it started playing Division 1 hockey, has had the University of Minnesota in its sights as its prime rival. Maybe the Golden Gophers remain in that exalted position, but it doesn’t seem the same since the WCHA has splintered -- Minnesota and Wisconsin going to a new Big Ten league, while UMD and St. Cloud State left to join North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, Denver, Colorado College, Miami of Ohio and Western Michigan to form the new NCHC. The rest of the west, led by Minnesota State-Mankato and Bemidji State, remain in the WCHA.
wasn’t sure the moves made sense, and I offered particular caution that every game in the NCHC will be of playoff intensity - something that’s hard to attain until, well, the playoffs. However, it might be tough to reach the NCAA tournament field because teams in the NCHC will be beating each other up and nobody might have a glowing record.
Early in the season, UMD played a series at Minnesota. The Bulldogs played very well in the first game, but lost 6-1 in a game that was much closer than the score indicated Next night, UMD beat the Gophers 6-2, in a game where the final score was less than indicative of UMD’s dominance at Mariucci Arena that night.
Meanwhile, Minnesota vowed to keep the old rivalries alive and helped organize the North Star College Cup, in which four of the state’s five D-1 teams would square off on a weekend. It was last weekend, with Bemidji the odd team out this season. The competitiveness of the four remaining teams was evident when UMD prevailed to beat MSU-Mankato 5-4 in overtime, while the Gophers, outshot much of the way, beat St. Cloud State in the second game. St. Cloud State rebounded to beat Mankato the next day, setting the stage for the championship match.
It was a prime-time battle, however you define it. The Bulldogs traded rushes and goals with the No. 1 ranked Gophers throughout, outshooting Minnesota 42-27 at Xcel Center and outplaying the Gophers - except on the power play. Minnesota outscored UMD 3-0 on power plays, but the teams fought to a 4-4 tie that withstood overtime. The Gophers won by scoring twice on the shootout, to none for the Bulldogs.
The only distasteful thing about the game was that the officiating was, in a word, atrocious. It went both ways, and would have been a better game without a single penalty being called in the swift, clean game. At one point, Minnesota’s Ben Marshall stepped up and dropped UMD’s Austin Farley with a forearm blow to the side of the helmet. Farley was breaking long for a pass at the far blue line, and Marshall, not a big guy, and certainly not a cheapshot artist, couldn’t resist the easy killshot. The refs penalized him for the blow, and as they sent Marshall to the penalty box and discussed it, UMD’s Andy Wilenski argued vehemently that it should be more than just a minor. The refs gave Marshall a 5-minute major and game disqualification, but they also gave Wilenski a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. With barely a minute to go in the second period, it was a remarkable way to nullify UMD’s power play.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia had a little discussion with the refs after the period, and, sure enough, they called an immediate penalty on UMD to open the third period. I had to shake my head to see if I was imagining it, but instead of a power play on the 5-minute major, Minnesota got the power play, a 4-on-3 skater edge. The Gophers got one of their goals on that advantage.
There were several other weird calls, but Minnesota preserved its No. 1 rating by winning in the shootout. Because of the shootout, the game counts officially as a tie, much like Minnesota came away from its Mariucci Open by counting a shootout loss to Colgate as a tie.
Next up, the Bulldogs play at Western Michigan this weekend. It seems like a tough task for UMD to come off the outstanding performance in Saint Paul and get fired up for Western Michigan, but one of the factors in the new NCHC is that the teams have to learn that these rivals are now their most important rivals.
Look at the standings. North Dakota and Denver are tied for the lead in the NCHC with 24 points - North Dakota at 8-6 and Denver at 7-5-2. St. Cloud State is third with 23 points at 7-3-2, followed by Nebraska-Omaha 6-4-2 for 21 points, and Western Michigan 6-5-1 for 20 points. UMD is next, in sixth, at 5-6-1, while Miami (4-9-1) and Colorado College 3-8-3) are seventh and eighth. Notice, though, that St. Cloud State has played 12 games, while North Dakota and Denver both have played 14 games, so both the Huskies and Mavericks can leapfrog the two leaders with a big weekend.
Interestingly, the tournament last weekend helped UMD jump from 24th to 14th in the Pairwise rating, by the system the NCAA selection committee uses to determine the 16 tournament teams. That’s an impressive jump. St. Cloud State is the only other team in the jumbled NCHC to rate a slot in the top 16. What’s just as interesting is in the media polls, UMD is an honorable mention, failing to make the top 20.
So this weekend is enormous for UMD, which split two entertaining games with the Andy Murray-coached Western Michigan outfit early in the season. Obviously, winning could boost UMD over .500 and overtake the Broncos, while St. Cloud State and Nebraska-Omaha tangle in the other league series.
In other hockey news, the UMD women dropped a pair of tough games at Wisconsin, but still stand a solid fourth in the WCHA, heading off to Bemidji this weekend. The Bulldogs women obviously miss Lara Stalder and Tea Villila on defense - Stalder gone to the Switzerland Olympic team and Villila to Finland.
The NHL’s Minnesota Wild are playing very well while also missing key players, such as Mikko Koivu and Josh Harding. The Wild sucked it up and just finished a rugged road trip to catch all three California powerhouse teams - the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks.
If you doubt the validity of the California trio, you could have caught the Los Angeles-San Jose game on national television late Monday night. Joe Thornton, San Jose’s star forward who leads the NHL in assists but was left off Canada’s Olympic team, scored his second goal in overtime to beat the Wild one game earlier in an overtime classic. But Jonathan Quick, the brilliant Los Angeles goaltender, stopped Thornton and everybody else for a 1-0 victory. Significant in the game was that former UMD goaltender Alex Stalock was in the nets for San Jose, extending his team record shutout streak before falling 1-0 in a brilliant performance.
Jonathan Quick, incidentally, will very likely be the starting goaltender and a key ingredient for Team USA at the Olympics.