On the first day of the 2016 NCHC Frozen Faceoff (Minneapolis, Minnesota), four teams took to the ice with more than just a league playoff title on their minds. North Dakota, St. Cloud State, Denver, and Minnesota-Duluth are all in line for an NCAA tournament appearance, and all four appear built to win it all this year.
For the first time in the three-year history of the conference, the top four teams in the league standings won their first-round home playoff series (all sweeps) and advanced to the second weekend of the playoffs. All four were also former members of the WCHA and are quite familiar with each other from seasons past.
The Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (18-14-5) came into the weekend 13th in the Pairwise Rankings and somewhat surprisingly did not move up with their victory over North Dakota. However, UMD will make the tournament with a loss today unless both Minnesota (Big Ten) and Northeastern (Hockey East) win their conference playoff titles. Scott Sandelin’s crew could, of course, eliminate all doubt by defeating St. Cloud State in Saturday’s championship and securing the league’s autobid. SCSU (2nd in PWR) and North Dakota (3rd) should receive #1 seeds at their respective regionals when the fields are announced tomorrow, while Denver (t-6th) is locked in as a #2.
All four teams on the ice at Target Center on Friday were adept but not reliant on special teams, with talented forwards and active defensemen willing to jump in the play and pay the price in their own end. Each of the four goaltenders has shown the ability to make key saves and take over games over the course of their careers. Another (often overlooked) factor is that freshmen from every squad are contributing and adding skill and depth to their lineups. First-year forwards Brock Boeser (UND), Mikey Eyssimont (SCSU), Dylan Gambrell (DU), Rhett Gardner (UND), Adam Johnson (UMD), and Troy Terry (DU), along with blueliners Neal Pionk (UMD) and Jimmy Schuldt (SCSU), were all called upon in key moments and situations in Friday’s semifinals, and that experience will prove invaluable as the teams enter the NCAA tournament.
NCHC schools have arguably the most difficult conference schedule in the country, and the tightly-contested games and uneven start times this weekend will also prepare all four squads for next weekend’s regional action. North Dakota head coach Brad Berry indicated as much in his post-game press conference (after UND lost just its sixth game of the season): “We feel very good about where we’re at. We’re in a good spot. (League play) has made our team battle tested and ready for this time of year.”
Of course, only two teams could win on the opening day of the event, but all four are in the mix for a far greater prize than the league playoff championship. A national title would be North Dakota’s 8th (first since 2000), St. Cloud State’s first, Denver’s 8th (first since 2005), or Minnesota-Duluth’s 2nd (2011).
The Huskies (30-8-1), who will face UMD in the Frozen Faceoff championship game, defeated Denver (23-9-5) to become the 2nd team in the country to post 30 wins, joining North Dakota (30-6-3).
There is a trophy on the line tonight, but every locker room at Target Center is filled with players and coaches who believe, and rightly so, that an NCAA championship is just down the line.