At the beginning of the season, I gave you my predicted order of finish in the NCHC:
3. North Dakota
6. St. Cloud State
7. Western Michigan
8. Colorado College
And here’s how the race stacks up heading into this weekend’s action:
NCHC 2015-16 Current Standings
|St. Cloud State||8-2-0-0||24|
It is worth noting that Omaha and Denver have each played only eight conference games, while the other six NCHC teams have already played ten. It appears that North Dakota and St. Cloud State have all but locked up home ice for the first round of the conference playoffs, with Minnesota-Duluth, Omaha, Western Michigan, and Denver battling for the other two places in the top half of the league.
We will have a very interesting race for the league title. Take a look at the remaining opponents for North Dakota and St. Cloud State:
North Dakota Home: UNO (2), CC (2), UMD (2), WMU (2)
Road: WMU (2), DU (2) UNO (2)
St. Cloud State Home: CC (2), WMU (2), UMD (2)
Road: UMD (2), Miami (2), UNO (2), CC (2)
UND has one more home series than the Huskies, but St. Cloud plays four of their remaining 14 conference games against Colorado College. With a three point (one game) lead headed into the second half, I’ll give the edge to North Dakota, but it’s close.
St. Cloud State has definitely been the biggest surprise to me in the first half (I tabbed them to finish sixth in the league), while both Duluth (my preseason #1) and Denver (#2) have been a mystery. SCSU already has eight league wins after collecting just eleven a year ago, while the Bulldogs (4-5-11) and Pioneers (3-4-1-0) have just seven between them.
Here’s why I had the Huskies in 6th place headed into this season:
After winning back-to-back conference titles, the Huskies fell to 6th place in the NCHC last year. While SCSU consistently scored with the man advantage, the rest of the offense suffered. St. Cloud State only scored 1.65 even strength goals per game in 2014-15 after posting a much more respectable 2.42 goals per game in the same category two seasons ago. If Bob Motzko’s crew wants to contend for an upper-division finish, balanced scoring is key.
Fast forward to this season: Yes, St. Cloud is blistering on the power play (22 of 72, 30.6%), but they’ve also scored two shorthanded goals, five empty-netters, and 61 even-strength goals in 20 games while allowing under two goals per contest. That’s good for a scoring margin of 90-39 while playing the most difficult schedule in the country (according to KRACH).
If I had to predict how the race for home ice would play out, I would put them in this order:
1. North Dakota
2. St. Cloud State
Of the bottom four teams, Denver is the most likely to make a run at Duluth for the final home-ice spot, while Miami, Western Michigan, and Colorado College will be playing for seeding purposes in the second half.
Who do you think will hoist the Penrose Cup? Feel free to comment below with your predictions, and we’ll see you at the rink!