Going into the final night of the NCHC’s inaugural regular season, none of the league’s eight teams knew for sure who they would be playing in the first round of the league playoffs, and that’s undoubtedly what the league’s front office in Colorado Springs wanted. Now that we know who’s playing who and where, though, let’s take a quick look at all four of the pairings for the opening round.
Before we do, however, congratulations are in order for the Huskies of St. Cloud State. A year after having to share the WCHA’s MacNaughton Cup with Minnesota, SCSU became the first holders of the Penrose Cup outright Saturday after the Huskies (48 points) downed Colorado College and second-place North Dakota (45) lost 2-1 at home to Western Michigan.
Anyway, here we go with the first-round pairings. Please note that three of the best-of-three series are set for next Friday, Saturday and Sunday, while Nebraska-Omaha’s series with Denver will be Thursday-Friday-Saturday due to a scheduling conflict for Sunday at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center:
No. 8 Miami (12-19-3 overall, 6-17-1-1 NCHC) at No. 1 St. Cloud State (21-8-5, 15-6-3-0)
-How they got here: As previously mentioned, SCSU won the Penrose Cup outright as the NCHC regular season champion. Miami, who in the fall had been many prognosticators’ favorite to win the league, was doomed to a last-place finish a week ago by virtue of getting swept at home by Minnesota-Duluth.
-First impressions: The Huskies have carried the flag for the NCHC all season in terms of the national Division I scene, and it doesn’t feel like that long ago that SCSU would’ve been the only team from the league to qualify for the NCAA tournament. SCSU ought to advance to the league playoff finals in Minneapolis, but with MU buoyed thanks to Blake Coleman hitting the ground running after finally coming back from a long-term injury, the RedHawks can’t be overlooked.
No. 7 Colorado College (6-22-6, 6-13-5-1) at No. 2 North Dakota (20-11-3, 15-9-0-0)
-How they got here: North Dakota would have locked up a share of the Penrose Cup if it had completed a sweep of Western Michigan Saturday. That didn’t happen, though, and now UND, which has generally been very good in the second half of this season, will face a Colorado College team that is 1-13-2 on the road this season.
-First impressions: CC coach Scott Owens told me a week ago when the Tigers lost a pair at Nebraska-Omaha that he’d liked the raised level of competitiveness that his team had been putting together in recent weeks, and it’s possible that could come in handy in a first-round trip to Grand Forks. However, CC has is fourth-worst in the country in team offense this season at 1.94 goals scored per game, and that might not cut it considering UND goaltender Zane Gothberg – when healthy – has been hot since Thanksgiving.
No. 6 Denver (16-14-6, 10-11-3-2) at No. 3 Nebraska-Omaha (16-16-2, 13-9-2-1)
-How they got here: UNO was many folks’ pick to finish last in the NCHC this season – for the record, I picked the Mavericks seventh – but the tenth-best offense (3.29 GPG) in the country helped propel UNO to a third-place finish. The Mavericks should also be happy with their first-round draw, considering UNO has one regulation win at home and a pair of overtime victories on the road against the Pioneers, who have had their ups and downs in Jim Montgomery’s first season at the helm in the Colorado capital.
-First impressions: Despite UNO’s good form against DU this season, the Pios can’t be overlooked due in no small part to the fact that senior goaltender Sam Brittain is one of the best NCAA netminders in the country and will want to finish his collegiate career on a high note. That’s not to say this is a series UNO can’t be successful in, but the Mavericks will have a tough job on their hands if they are to advance to their first conference championship weekend in 10 years.
No. 5 Western Michigan (17-15-5, 11-11-2-2) at No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth (16-14-4, 11-11-2-2)
-How they got here: These two teams had identical NCHC records this season, but Minnesota-Duluth climbed above the top four-bottom four split by winning the second league tiebreaker of faring better against the Broncos in head-to-head competition after going 3-1-0 against Western this season. Bad luck there for WMU as it was swept at home by Duluth during a point in the season in which UMD went 4-0-1-2 between Jan. 18 and Feb. 8.
-First impressions: This is a series that UMD perhaps almost might rather play on the road, considering the Bulldogs have been far better away from Duluth this season (10-6-0) than they’ve been on their own AMSOIL Arena ice (5-8-3). Western might wishes this series was in Kalamazoo, too, considering the Broncos have as many losses in true road games this season (six) as wins in true road games. WMU is, however, 4-0-1 in neutral-site games this season, and that would be something to keep in mind if the Broncos advance to Minneapolis.