UND, UMD could turn NCHC into 2-team race

John Gilbert

East's "senior rookie" goaltender Karson Kausch sprawled for a save against powerful Andover Saturday at Essential Heritage Center. Photo credit: John Gilbert
East's "senior rookie" goaltender Karson Kausch sprawled for a save against powerful Andover Saturday at Essential Heritage Center. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Goalie Karson Kausch came up with a big save on Andover star Luke Kron. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Goalie Karson Kausch came up with a big save on Andover star Luke Kron. Photo credit: John Gilbert

This has been one of the weirdest seasons in UMD’s hockey history. We know that the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) is the strongest college league from top to bottom in the country, and we know that UMD seems to thrive on a strong non-conference schedule as well.

The struggles UMD has endured so far have mainly been in the non-conference  portion, where losing twice at Wisconsin early was compounded by being swept at home right after Thanksgiving by Minnesota State-Mankato in a stunning 3-1, 4-1lost weekend. That is after starting out with a no-count 5-3 warmup loss to the University of Alberta and a loss to UMass-Lowell during a split at AMSOIL.

All of that might indicate that it’s going to be a tough year for the Bulldogs. But not if you look at the NCHC standings.

North Dakota is enjoying a sensational opening run, with a 14-1-2 overall record and a 7-0-1 stance atop the NCHC.

Second place? None other than our trusty UMD Bulldogs with a 6-1-1 record in NCHC games.

But here, as the league breaks for the holidays, is the shocker: No other NCHC team is at .500 or above!

Western Michigan is 3-4-1 in league games, Miami of Ohio is 2-5-1, Colorado College is 2-3-1, and early favorite Denver is 1-3-2,m followed by St. Cloud State 2-4 and Nebraska-Omaha 1-4-1. Denver, which has only played a light load of league games so far, came to AMSOIL 8-0, you’ll recall, and the Bulldogs tied and lost in a shootout, and then beat the Pioneers, who have stumbled since then —

losing both games at Arizona State last weekend. AT 9-4-3 Denver is second only to North Dakota in all games, and ahead of UMD’s 9-6-1 — a ledger aided immeasurably by sweeping Minnesota in non-league play.

Overall records mean a lot in the NCAA’s evaluation and invitations for post-season play, but first things first. The NCHC is powerful, and going into Christmas break, North Dakota and UMD are on the verge of turning it into a two-team race.

After sweeping at Omaha last week, the Bulldogs are now off until traveling to Merrimack for a nonconference series December 29-30. That’s a stretch of 22 days without a game. True, coach Scott Sandelin is off to coach the U.S. Junior National team at the World Junior tournament in the Czech Republic, but while some figure the break is good to heal up all the bumps and bruises, it seems like a drawback to play as well as the Bulldogs played at Omaha and then take three weeks off.

The UMD women’s hockey team also takes a break right now and coach Maura Crowell is off coaching the U.S. Under 18 girls team. The Bulldogs women need the break, however, having just lost twice — close battles though they were — at Wisconsin’s league-leading Badgers. That
leaves UMD 4-6-2 and in fifth place, behind Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State and Bemidji State — which is fourth at 6-6,  meaning the top four teams in the seven-team league are above .500, and only UMD, MSU-Mankato and winless St. Cloud State are below .500.

Speaking of MSU-Mankato, we have to wonder what those guys voting on the national polls have going on between their collective ears. The Mavericks were No. 1 in the country and swept at UMD. Cornell, obviously a power in the East, was un defeated, so the voters moved Cornell to No. 1. I have no quarrel with that, but Cornell didn’t go to the city that hosts the two-time NCAA champion the way Mankato did.

Sure enough, Cornell’s undefeated season was snapped when Dartmouth — Dartmouth — beat the Big Red 2-1 last Saturday night,. MSU-Mankato calmly ran its record to 14-1-1 with its eighth and ninth consecutive victories and the Mavericks, who are the team that handed North Dakota its only loss, reclaimed their rightful No. 1 spot.

Andover's Wyatt Kaiser, called the state's best defenseman by Est coach Mike Randolph, is ticketed to play at UMD. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Andover's Wyatt Kaiser, called the state's best defenseman by Est coach Mike Randolph, is ticketed to play at UMD. Photo credit: John Gilbert

HIGH SCHOOLS FILL GAP

While the Division I college teams are off, St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior are still active, and both have looked impressive so far.

But hockey fans can be thankful for the high schools, with some big games coming up between now and the new year.

The show gets rolling with a much improved Denfeld team taking on Greenway of Coleraine, they defending 7A champion, Thursday night at Essential Heritage Center in an early test for the Hunters.

And on Saturday afternoon, a powerful Blaine team comes to Heritage to face East. The Greyhounds are making rebuilding strides, but it’s going to take a considerable process. It also will be eased
considerably by the presence of senior “rookie” Konrad Kausch in goal. It’s early, and he hasn’t played varsity before, but Kausch plays with a quickness and flair that could make him the best Duluth-raised goaltender since Adam Coole, and before that Robb Stauber.

East took on Andover last Saturday, and it wasn’t pretty — unless you were cheering for Andover. The Huskies were well-aware that it was East that handed them a distasteful overtime loss in the 7AA
championship game last March, depriving the strongest crop of Andover hockey players ever from reaching the state tournament.

That phrase requires alteration right now, of course, because this team is undoubtedly Andover’s best ever. The Huskies whipped East 7-1, leading 3-0 before East got on the board, and outshooting the Greyhounds 32-9. The last time any team held East to 9 shots on goal is something that nobody can recall, especially coach Mike Randolph.

“We came into the game having just beaten Bemidji at Bemidji,” Randolph said, “But we came in with some doubts, and Andover started with two goals that gave us more doubts. This is Andover’s best team ever and they’ve waited for this group of seniors for a long time. Not only did we end up with only nine shots for the game, but we got none in the third period — and gave up seven breakaways. Seven breakaways, and they were 0-for-7.

“Our best player once again was our goaltender,” Randolph added, referring to Kausch. “I would say he played the best 7-goals-against game in goal that I’ve ever seen. They have some exceptional players. Their No. 4 ( Mitchell Wolfe) and No. 5 (Wyatt Kaiser) on defense are outstanding. I would say 5 is the best defenseman in the state.”

Without a doubt, Kaiser — who is committed to UMD — had enough power to light up the building. A dashing, powerful skater with great balance, he baffled East skaters with a sudden stop and start and creative cuts to keep possession. It would seem that next season, when UMD loses senior Nick Wolff and very likely junior Nick Perunovich signs a pro contract, Wyatt Kaiser will bypass going to junior hockey and step right into the UMD lineup.

The Huskies are impressive up front, too, led by a flashy line of Garrett Schifsky and Hunter Jones on the wings and speedy Luke Kron at center. Kron had a goal and four assists against East, and Schifsky had two goals and one assist while Jones added a goal and three assists.