Friday morning reading

OXFORD, Ohio — UND took the ice at Steve Cady Arena on Thursday afternoon for its weekly practice.

There was one notable absence.

Mark MacMillan was the only player on the team not to make the trip to Oxford this weekend after the senior had surgery Wednesday.

“It’s weird not seeing him skate on the green line with Parksy,” senior Brendan O’Donnell said.

With Andrew Panzarella practicing as a defenseman and Johnny Simonson likely out with an illness (even though he’s on the trip), it will likely be Trevor Olson or Coltyn Sanderson to get the call tonight. Neither have played since Christmas.

The depth is about to be tested, but it has worked out well recently for UND.

Last weekend, St. Cloud State held UND’s top four scorers — Drake Caggiula, Michael Parks, MacMillan and Jordan Schmaltz — all without a point. And the Huskies still got swept.

This weekend may be UND’s biggest road challenge of the season. Miami officials are expecting sold out crowds both nights. They will be fired up, knowing that the RedHawks have a chance to go from worst to first and win the Penrose Cup at home.

UND already has clinched a share of the title, but the players don’t want to be sharing it. They’ve lost league championships on the last day of the regular season each of the last two years and are determined to keep this one for themselves.

What’s the key? Getting pucks behind Miami’s D and making it hard for them to break out of the zone. If Miami plays in the offensive zone a lot, the RedHawks are going to score. They are too skilled up front. But if you force them to play a lot in the D-zone, they can make mistakes.

As you’ll read in Friday’s paper, the player to watch for North Dakota may not be Austin Czarnik (who, by the way, has the oddest scoring line I’ve ever seen by a forward: 2 goals, 30 assists) or Riley Barber. It’s been Sean Kuraly who has killed UND the last two years.

This week’s “Get to Know” feature is with defenseman Paul LaDue, who remembers his first varsity goal with Grand Forks Central. It’s a funny story. Read that here.

Also, if you didn’t see it on Thursday, I wrote a piece on how Mario Lamoureux shaped this year’s senior class and why its expectations won’t change without MacMillan. Read that one here.

There’s also an interesting story in the St. Cloud Times today with some quotes from Jonny Brodzinski, whose slap shot hurt the leg of MacMillan. Brodzinski, who first expressed his disappointment that MacMillan was injured, also said: “I figured if I hit them once, they might get out of the way, but they kept getting in front of them. They’re a gutty team.” Read more of his quotes here.

The NCHC league office broke down the possible finishes for the teams after this weekend. Miami could possibly win the league championship or be on the road in the first round. Crazy stuff.

Possible place finishes for each team entering this weekend

· North Dakota – 1,2 (needs just 1 point at Miami to clinch 1 seed/outright title, already has share of regular season title)

· Miami – 1,2,3,4,5 (needs 2 points to secure home for sure, needs sweep of UND to share regular season title and get 1 seed)

· Omaha – 2,3,4,5 (needs 4 points to secure home ice for sure)

· Denver – 2,3,4,5 (needs 5 points to secure home ice for sure)

· Minnesota Duluth – 2,3,4,5,6 (needs just 1 point to secure 5 seed, needs at least one team ahead of them to lose/tie to have a chance to get home ice)

· St. Cloud State – 5,6 (SCSU has to sweep DU and UMD has to get swept by WMU for SCSU to move up to 5 seed)

· Western Michigan – locked in to 7

· Colorado College – locked in to 8

On to my predictions for the weekend…..

Minnesota Duluth at Western Michigan: The Broncos took five of six points from Duluth in AmsOil earlier this season, but which Broncos team is going to show up tonight? Will it be the one that pushed UND to the limit on back-to-back nights two weeks ago? Or will it be the one that got blown out 5-0 by CC last Saturday? Duluth 3-2, 4-1.

Denver at St. Cloud State: The Pioneers have been really good at home (13-5) and really average on the road (5-6-2). They should be able to grab one game in the National Hockey Center, but probably not two. Denver 3-2, St. Cloud State 4-2.

Colorado College at Omaha: The Tigers have won 1 of 16 road games this season and 3 of the last 34 dating back to last season. They are playing an Omaha team that will be desperate to snap a skid in which it has one win in the last seven games. Omaha 4-1, 5-2.

UND at Miami: UND gets its first test without MacMillan. I don’t think it will be smooth sailing, but I say that UND does enough to win the Penrose outright. Miami 3-2, UND 2-1.

Friday morning reading

It’s already the last home regular-season series of the season. Each week, we’ll see how many goals this team can achieve. All are still in front of them.

The first step is trying to secure home ice for the 13th year in a row. I wrote a little about that in today’s UND notebook.

If they do that, they will have their attention on achieving something new each weekend for as long as the season lasts: the Penrose Cup, trying to reach the conference tournament for a 13th straight season, trying to win the postseason championship for the fourth time in six years, trying to reach the Frozen Four for the seventh time in 11 years and, ultimately, trying to win No. 8.

This weekend’s series will provide a unique challenge.

If there’s one team that’s had UND’s number during the last few years, it’s St. Cloud State. If there’s one team that hasn’t struggled at The Ralph, it’s the Huskies.

UND is 0-3-1 in its last four home games against the Huskies and 1-4-1 in the last six. The last time UND has beaten St. Cloud State in The Ralph was Oct. 29, 2011.

It’s tough to point your finger at one reason for UND’s recent struggles against them. The games have been all different varieties. But in two of the Huskies’ last four games in REA, they really held down UND’s shot totals and offensive scoring chances.

UND will try to keep the offense rolling in a weekend that’s bound to be an emotional one.

It’s Senior Weekend. The seniors will be highlighted after Saturday night’s game.

I wrote about one of them for Thursday’s paper. As one player told me, “You’ve never met someone like him, and you’re never going to meet someone like him again.” It’s Connor Gaarder. Read that story here.

My Q&A this week is with another member of the senior class, captain Stephane Pattyn. He talks about his career, including his memory of the comeback win over Minnesota in the Final Five.

The St. Cloud Times has a preview of the series here, highlighting the Huskies late-season charge that could get them home ice.

I think the big key to watch in this series is special teams. St. Cloud State has the No. 3-ranked power play in the nation. It looked good in St. Cloud earlier this season. If UND gives the Huskies too many opportunities, it could spell doom.

The other big key is Jonny Brodzinski. He has had some big games against UND. In the first series between the teams this season, Brodzinski was allowed to shoot the puck 16 times. He scored twice and the Huskies won. The second night, he had one shot attempt through two periods and UND built a lead. He has one of the best shots in the league and UND needs to be aware of him.

On to the picks…

Miami at Denver: The Pioneers are without Zac Larraza tonight and the RedHawks are heating up. Even though Denver has been significantly better at home, I’m going to say that Miami goes out there and gets back into the NCHC race with a sweep. Miami 4-3, 4-2.

Omaha at Duluth: Omaha is 1-4 in the last five games and is trying to avoid a late-season tailspin, which has been common in recent years (though not so much last season). The Bulldogs are at home and fighting for home ice. Duluth 5-4, Omaha 3-2.

Western Michigan at Colorado College: I really liked the way the Broncos played last weekend, but will they be able to use their usual physicality as effectively on the big ice sheet? I’m not sure. I think the Tigers grab a tie out of this series. Western Michigan 3-0, 2-2 tie.

St. Cloud State at UND: The Huskies have had success recently against UND, but this UND squad has been very difficult to beat. St. Cloud State may be able to do it once, but not twice. St. Cloud State 3-1, UND 4-2.

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Things have been going well on both the men’s and the women’s side lately. The two teams have combined for an 18-2-2 record since mid-January.

The playoffs start at 2 p.m. today for the women in The Ralph. They are hosting Ohio State in a best-of-three series.

The spotlight is on goalie Shelby Amsley-Benzie, who comes in with a shutout streak of 267:49 and four consecutive shutouts. She blanked the Buckeyes in back-to-back games during the last series between the teams.

Amsley-Benzie was recognized on a national level Thursday, becoming UND’s third-ever player to be a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award.

Does she have a shot to win? Well, it hasn’t been easy for goalies, but she does have the numbers to back it up. She also has that 4.0 in chemical engineering. And, as coach Brian Idalski said, has anyone in the country sort of put a team on their back like Amsley-Benzie?

UND needs to win this playoff series to keep its season alive. And if it does win, UND will host the Final Faceoff next weekend in The Ralph (UND may need to win that, too, to get in the NCAAs).

That’s about it for now, I’ll leave you with a good episode of Through These Doors that focuses on the senior class.

Friday morning reading

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — That’s really nice that it has warmed up to 13 degrees in Grand Forks. Because it’s currently -14 here in the Zoo.

Sorry Bronco fans, we brought the weather with us.

UND flew to Kalamazoo on Thursday morning and held a practice at Lawson Ice Arena during the afternoon. Sources say that Dave Hakstol actually scored a shootout goal this week on Zane McIntyre.

And former Kalamazoo Wing Brad Berry won the shootout in the town he spent six years as a player and where he started his coaching career. Seems fitting.

It’s not the same arena where the K-Wings play, though. That venue is currently being occupied by the U.S. Curling Nationals. They are down to the semifinals now. Former UND student Joe Polo is among the semifinalists.

It’s a busy week in town and it has been a busy week for the NCHC. The league office made a pair of suspensions this week — one on UND’s last opponent and one on UND’s next opponent.

NCHC commish Josh Fenton took some time out to answer some questions facing the league, including Arizona State, the officiating program, full cost of attendance stipends and first-round travel. Read his answers here.

NCHC assistant commissioner Joe Novak is expected to be on hand for this weekend’s UND-WMU series in Lawson Ice Arena.

WMU officials say that Friday’s game is a near sellout and that they are selling just standing-room only tickets for Saturday’s game. Western Michigan coach Andy Murray hopes a revved up crowd is an advantage for the Broncos.

Although Western is out of the race for the Penrose Cup, the team is keeping its hopes high as it heads down the stretch.

What are the keys to this series?

1. Goaltending. That’s always the case, but I think it’s an extra interesting matchup this weekend. Zane McIntyre stole two games here last season. If you recall, Western outshot UND fairly handily both nights, but Zane was the difference both times.

I thought that Western had the best 1-2 punch in goal in the NCHC coming into the season, but both guys have been up-and-down. Lukas Hafner’s stumble in the outdoor game re-opened the door for Frank Slubowski, who made his first start in three months last week. Whoever plays this weekend, the Broncos need a good performance.

2. Handling physicality. The Broncos were the most physical team in the NCHC last season and I thought it caught some teams off guard. I don’t think UND has any problem with playing that style of game, which is good, because it will need to this weekend. Western won’t be quite as physical Friday night without suspended 6-foot-5, 250-pound Mike McKee, but I’d expect to see Josh Pitt back in the lineup with McKee out.

3. Staying out of the box. Western’s power play has been potent this year, ranking fifth in the nation and first in the NCHC. Nolan LaPorte, the team’s top power-play point producer, did not play last weekend but practiced this week. Junior defenseman Kenney Morrison is believed to be one of the most coveted NHL free agents on the market. He’s an offensive specialist.

4. Find a difference-maker. There wasn’t much time and space last time these teams played in Lawson. Rocco Grimaldi created a lot of it, though. He was the best player on the ice and was a huge difference-maker in that series. He’s gone. UND needs to find another one, whether it’s one of the Schmaltz’s, Paul LaDue, Drake Caggiula or Michael Parks.

On to the picks….

Minnesota Duluth at Miami: Should be a great matchup between arguably the two best groups of forwards in the league. Duluth has won four of the last five. Miami is on a five-game unbeaten streak. Miami 4-2, Duluth 5-4.

Omaha at St. Cloud State: Omaha wants to avoid another late-season meltdown, and at this point, it doesn’t appear to be coming. The Mavs appear solid in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011. But I keep waiting for St. Cloud State to make its push. Maybe it starts this weekend. St. Cloud State 4-3, 3-3 tie.

Denver vs. Colorado College: The Tigers have been outscored 11-1 by their rivals this season. There’s not much left to play for but the Gold Pan. Unfortunately for the Tigers, it won’t be staying in the Springs this year. Denver 4-0, 2-1.

UND at Western Michigan: UND’s last three road trips have ended in splits. But I sense that this is a team that wants to make its late-season push. I think both games will be tight, low-scoring affairs. UND 3-2, 2-2 tie.

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Back in Grand Forks, the UND women’s team finishes its regular season against last-place Minnesota State-Mankato.

All it’s going to take is a single point for UND to clinch home ice for a fifth consecutive season. One victory will be enough to secure third place as well. Two wins would secure a 20-win season.

UND has started to monitor the Pairwise Rankings ever-so-slightly and this team could shockingly make a run all the way to the NCAA tournament.

How did this team go from 4-7-1 to this point? Here are the top five reasons.

We may not know UND’s first-round opponent until Sunday, as four of the eight WCHA teams conclude play on Sunday afternoon. One key series to watch is Ohio State and Minnesota Duluth.

Friday morning reading

The weekend got off to a big start for UND, which landed a commitment from highly coveted prospect, Brock Boeser. That means UND has commitments from the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 5 goals per game scorers in the USHL.

Stephane Pattyn joked on Twitter: “Just when us seniors were thinking we’d be missed.”

No, fans definitely have their minds on this season first and foremost and that’s evidenced by this weekend’s ticket sales. If you don’t have one, get ready to pay through the nose for one.

With Minnesota no longer in UND’s league and no longer making annual trips to The Ralph, the University of Denver has become the hot ticket of the year, according to REA’s GM. Read about that here.

It’s probably no huge surprise considering the constant success of both programs, which has led to the inevitable matchups in big games — Final Five title games, regional championships and national championships.

These teams have a lot of similarities, too.

Both teams have active, dynamic defensive corps. Joey LaLeggia, Nolan Zajac and Will Butcher are three very offensive players for the Pioneers. UND will counter with Paul LaDue, Jordan Schmaltz and others. One of those others is sophomore Keaton Thompson, this week’s featured Q&A. Find out who he would like to spend a day in the shoes of (you’ll never guess… or maybe you will).

In goal, both teams have been strong.

It’s been Zane McIntyre for UND. He’s one of two former Section 8A goalies on campus who are having career years. The other is UND women’s goalie Shelby Amsley-Benzie of Warroad. Read that feature here.

In Denver, freshman Tanner Jaillet has been the man in nets, which is a change from UND’s trip to the Mile High City in December. Jaillet started just 2 of the first 10 games of the season for Denver, but now has started 5 of the last 6.

Since Jan. 10, Jaillet has a .949 save percentage and a 1.45 goals-against average. But don’t be shocked if you see Evan Cowley at some point this weekend, either. He beat UND earlier this season and has stopped 35 of his last 37 shots.

One Pioneer looking forward to this series is Zajac, whose brothers Travis and Darcy played for UND. He talked about the trip to the Denver Post.

With four weeks left to go in the regular season, every team is playing from here on out and every team is playing NCHC games. So let’s get to the picks.

St. Cloud State at Minnesota Duluth: St. Cloud State has an uphill battle to try to get back in the NCAA-tournament picture, but this is a team that’s very capable of winning the NCHC tournament and getting the auto bid. The Huskies rolled Colorado College twice last weekend and definitely can take a game in AmsOil this weekend. St. Cloud State 4-2, Duluth 5-3.

Western Michigan at Omaha: The Mavs probably didn’t want last week off. This was a team that’s been playing very good hockey, going 8-3-1 in the last 12. Western Michigan has been hot as of late, too, though. So I’m going to say the fans in Omaha get treated to a pair of shootouts this weekend. 2-2, 3-3 ties.

Miami at Colorado College: Miami’s pushing for the Penrose Cup and needs these wins. Putting some of those skilled players on the big ice surface in World Arena can’t bode well for the undermanned Tigers. Miami 5-1, 4-2.

Denver at North Dakota: Denver has been significantly better at home than on the road this season. With a sold out crowd coming both nights, the Pioneers can’t let UND get the ball rolling. Both teams have strong goaltending and that should keep both games close. 2-2 tie, 3-2 UND.

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The women’s hockey team is off to St. Cloud this weekend to take on the Huskies. UND has won 18 straight against St. Cloud State.

Right now, coach Brian Idalski isn’t keeping close tabs on the Pairwise Rankings, but UND is shooting up there. It will need two wins this weekend against the Huskies to stay in the mix, though.

Read the preview here.

That’s it for now – will be back later on for the live chat.

Friday morning reading

The UND men have the weekend off. It’s their final weekend off of the season.

But there still is a big series brewing in Grand Forks.

The UND women are hosting Minnesota at 7:07 tonight in Ralph Engelstad Arena and tickets are being sold for just $1. The cheap tickets are part of the effort to break the single-game attendance record of 5,835, set a year ago.

I wrote a preview on the series here.

It took UND a little while to get going this season, but thanks to a stingy defense and goaltender Shelby Amsley-Benzie, it has firm control of its own destiny in the chase for home ice in the first round of the playoffs.

If UND sweeps the WCHA’s worst two teams — St. Cloud State and MSU-Mankato — to close the season, it will have home ice, regardless of what happens this weekend.

Even so, you can bet that UND would like to grab a win against its rival and put some doubt in Minnesota’s mind in case the two meet up in the WCHA tournament (which also will be played at The Ralph).

Amsley-Benzie, who will set nearly every single-season goaltending record in program history this season, has been especially good as of late. Since Thanksgiving, she is 8-1-1 with a .966 save percentage and a 0.89 goals-against average.

She has a personal eight-game unbeaten streak (7-0-1) heading into this series against Minnesota and Amsley-Benzie leads the nation with a .949 save percentage.

Obviously, this will be UND’s toughest test to date.

Minnesota is on a 19-game unbeaten streak, and while it doesn’t have Amanda Kessel throwing up 100 points, the Gophers are extremely deep. Seven players are in double digits in goals.

And with three Olympic-caliber defensemen (Rachel Ramsey, Lee Stecklein, Milicia McMillen), they can generate offense from the back end as well as make it difficult to get good shots on Amanda Leveille (.943, 1.22).

So, can UND win a game this weekend?

It won’t be easy, but yes, when you have a hot goaltender with the potential to steal a game, there is that chance. Minnesota obviously has more skill, so UND will not want to get in a run-and-gun game with the Gophers. UND will have to do a good job of converting scoring chances and any potential power plays.

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On the men’s side, it’s a very quiet weekend in the NCHC.

Northern Michigan heads to Minnesota Duluth for the league’s final nonconference action of the regular season, while Denver plays Colorado College in a single game tonight (CBS Sports) and Miami plays Western Michigan in a single game at Soldier Field on Saturday afternoon.

My quick picks…

Northern Michigan at Minnesota Duluth: The Wildcats are without goalie Mathias Dahlstrom, who is their clear-cut starter. That doesn’t bode well against a Bulldog team that’s very dynamic up front. Bulldogs 4-1, 5-3.

Denver at Colorado College: The Pioneers can put themselves in the driver’s seat for the Gold Pan with a win tonight. Denver routed the Tigers 8-1 in the first meeting. While CC is bound to be better, I can’t see them winning this one. Denver 2-0.

Western Michigan vs. Miami: The Broncos had Miami’s number last season, going 4-0 against the RedHawks. The tables have started to turn as Miami is 2-0-1 against Western Michigan this season. I think an outdoor game on potentially bad ice tips the scales in favor of the Broncos, who don’t rely on their slick playmaking as much as the RedHawks. Western Michigan 3-2.

Friday morning reading

It’s No. 1 vs. No. 5 in the polls.

It’s No. 2 vs. No. 4 in the Pairwise.

It’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the NCHC standings.

Whatever way you slice it, a lot of eyes will be on this weekend’s two-game series in the CenturyLink Center in Omaha. It’s not a surprise that some are calling this the biggest home series ever for Omaha hockey.

It’s also not a surprise that Omaha fans are doing everything they can to try to give themselves a home-ice advantage — something that hasn’t always been the case for games between these teams in Omaha.

The first time these teams played this season, UND earned a win and a tie (UND lost the shootout, which is the difference in the NCHC standings right now).

One thing I noticed from that series — and also from the Duluth series — is that the three NCHC teams that are coached by former Sioux players/coaches all play with a bit of an edge. You can tell that Dean Blais and Scott Sandelin brought that same brand of hockey to their new schools.

Blais, speaking to ESPN Radio on Thursday afternoon, had an interesting assessment of UND. He said: “North Dakota is a team that can beat you any way they have to, whether it’s being chippy, being physical or moving the puck.”

Blais went on to say that the Mavs can’t control what UND is going to do, but his team needs to be tenacious. He also insinuated that he doesn’t want to get in a run-and-gun game with UND, saying that Omaha could be “in trouble” if they get into “exchanging opportunities” with UND.

One reason UND will want to take advantage in tonight’s series opener: Omaha will be without solid defenseman Brian O’Rourke, who has to serve one more game of a suspension for an illegal check against Colorado College.

Meanwhile, there’s a possibility that UND could get Troy Stecher back tonight, which would be a huge boost.

For Thursday’s paper, I wrote about UND’s altered travel plans to Omaha this season. If you haven’t heard about what happened on the last two trips home, read this piece.

This week’s “Get to Know” segment is with forward Colten St. Clair, who returned to the lineup last Saturday and registered an assist. Find out what Arizona high school record his father held by reading this piece.

The Omaha World Herald had a second preview on the series here as well.

On to the picks…

St. Cloud State at Colorado College: Although the Tigers have just one win in 13 conference games, anyone who saw them last weekend knows that they are on the right track. The Huskies, meanwhile, continue to struggle to make up ground. St. Cloud State 4-1, Colorado College 3-2.

Minnesota Duluth at Denver: The Bulldogs looked great Jan. 9, handling UND 4-1 in Ralph Engelstad Arena. But they haven’t been the same team since. They are 1-3-1 since, and the lone win came against Minnesota on a third-period goal. The Dogs had only two shots that period. Denver continues to build a strong season. This one has split written all over it. Duluth 3-1, Denver 3-2.

Miami at Western Michigan (Saturday only): Miami is only 5-5 in the last 10 games and Lawson isn’t an easy road trip. Western Michigan 4-3.

UND at Nebraska Omaha: Okay, okay, people are bored with my split predictions. So, I’ll go out on a limb with this one. I think if UND gets Troy Stecher back, it could be a game-changer, especially against Omaha’s prolific offensive attack. I’ll say UND grabs another series win in two down-to-the-wire games. UND 3-2, 3-2.

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The UND women’s hockey team has started to find its way. It is 7-1 in the last eight games and is coming off of arguably its best performances of the year in sweeping Bemidji State at home.

Now, it’s off to Duluth for another key series in the battle for home ice in the playoffs.

For UND, this series is business as usual. For Duluth, it’s been anything but that.

I’ve talked to many people in Duluth and there is, not surprisingly, a major divide between the athletic department and the women’s hockey team. National attention has been focused on the fact that the school fired a five-time national champion coach due to finances.

That’s hardly the whole story as Miller has run afoul of NCAA regulations before, has alienated nearly the entire department and has won just 1 of the last 29 games against UND, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

This story details some of the problems associated with Miller and the program.

The women’s games will be on the radio in Grand Forks on 1440 AM as Darrin Looker made the trip to Duluth.

Friday morning reading

TONIGHT’S GAME STARTS at 7:07 p.m., a half hour earlier than the normal Friday home start time due to CBS Sports’ coverage.

Nonconference play is over for UND. Now, the team is off to chase an NCHC championship, and this weekend will be an important one if UND is to win the Penrose Cup.

It seems pretty clear that Colorado College is going to end up finishing last this season. No, the Tigers aren’t your typical last-place team, but still, they will very likely be the last-place team.

If UND wants to win the Penrose, I believe it’s vital that the team gains six points this weekend before starting a daunting stretch to close out the regular season.

The biggest difference in Colorado College between October (when UND and CC first met) and now? That would be the special teams, which have been a strength lately for CC. They were a disaster in October.

UND has used the same lineup the past few games, and it could do the same tonight against the Tigers, though as players work their way back into the lineup, it inevitably is going to change.

Tonight, expect Tucker Poolman to remain at forward for even strength play, though. Poolman has done just about everything UND has asked this season. I wrote about that for Thursday’s paper. Read that here.

This week’s Q&A is with Brendan O’Donnell, who was injured as a freshman during the Final Five. He explained what he was doing during UND’s huge comeback win over Minnesota. Read that here.

The Colorado Springs Gazette’s preview says the Tigers are eager for another shot at UND because Colorado College likes the way it is playing right now.

On to this week’s picks…

Duluth at North Star College Cup: The Bulldogs have just one win in their last five games, but I still think the Bulldogs are an elite team. I think they get back on track this weekend and win the tournament. Duluth 4, Bemidji State 1. Duluth 3, Minnesota 2.

Denver at Miami: In Denver’s last action, it swept St. Cloud State. In Miami’s last action, it got swept by St. Cloud State. Don’t read too much into it, though. With a week off and being back at home, the RedHawks get one. Miami 3-0, Denver 3-2.

Western Michigan at St. Cloud State: The Broncos are one of the country’s hottest teams, going 7-1-2 in their last 10. They just took 5 of 6 points in Duluth. The Huskies haven’t been able to gain traction but they rarely get swept at home. SCSU 3-2, Western Michigan 4-1.

Colorado College at UND: The Tigers are coming off of their best weekend of the season, splitting with first-place Omaha. The Tigers outshot Omaha badly in the loss, too. But this UND team has preached consistency lately, and if UND can maintain that, I think it gets a sweep. UND 3-2, 4-1.

Friday morning reading

A couple of weeks ago, Tim Hennessy and I chatted during our intermission segment about the second half of the season.

I told him that I thought the most important series of the second half was the nonconference matchup against Niagara.

Why?

It’s the last chance for UND to bump up that all-important nonconference record, and because a loss could potentially be Pairwise crippling.

Yes, Niagara is ranked 59th of 59 teams in the Pairwise entering this weekend and the mathematical formula would not respond kindly if UND was to lose a game to the Purple Eagles this weekend. Read more about that here.

Niagara is coming to The Ralph as a bit of an unknown. Sure, a bunch of players on this year’s UND team played the Purple Eagles in the NCAA tournament just two years ago, but this Niagara squad clearly is a bit different than the one that earned a No. 3 seed.

Statistically, the Purple Eagles have been bad in nearly every category. They are scoring fewer than two goals per game. Their power play is converting at 7.4 percent. Yes, UND has more shorthanded goals this season than Niagara has power-play goals.

Defensively, they no longer have Hobey finalist Carsen Chubak in net.

I know I’ve said it before, but the key for this weekend’s series is for UND to build a lead in the first period.

Against Bemidji State and Air Force, UND let them settle in and get comfortable. It was a bad recipe. Early goals could demoralize Niagara and put UND in the driver’s seat. UND seemingly has allowed the first goal of the game quite often at home this season. That would not be a good route against Niagara.

A couple storylines to follow will be whether Cam Johnson gets in net this weekend and how the coaching staff uses Tucker Poolman.

If they move him up front five-on-five, we’ll likely see both Nick Mattson and Andrew Panzarella in the lineup. Speaking of Panzarella, I wrote a feature on him this week. He’s a guy who has had to work for everything throughout his hockey career.

This week’s “Get to Know” segment is with Jordan Schmaltz. Find out how much food he orders on each trip to the Red Pepper here.

On to this week’s picks….

Western Michigan at Minnesota Duluth: Quietly, Western Michigan is one of the hottest teams in the league, losing just once in the last eight games (6-1-1). The Broncos swept Notre Dame last weekend and have enough momentum to go to Duluth and take one from an elite Bulldogs team. Minnesota Duluth 4-1, Western Michigan 3-2.

Omaha at Colorado College: Speaking of hot teams, Omaha keeps cruising. The Mavs are 7-1-1 in the last nine games. Playing on the big rink in World Arena should help the Mavs keep up this torrid pace. Omaha 4-2, 5-1.

St. Cloud State at Denver: After a first half of splits, the Huskies finally made up some ground with an impressive sweep of Miami. It was just the second time all year that St. Cloud State won back-to-back games. Denver appears to be going the opposite direction with one win in its last five games. St. Cloud State 3-2, Denver 4-2.

Niagara at UND: The players and coaches know the importance of winning these games. I think UND shows up and takes care of business. UND 5-2, 3-1.

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On the women’s side, we pretty much know that Minnesota and Wisconsin are going to occupy the top two spots and St. Cloud State and MSU-Mankato will sit in the last two.

The four teams in the middle — UND, Ohio State, Bemidji State and Minnesota Duluth — will battle for two home-ice spots for the playoffs. UND’s next three opponents? Ohio State, Bemidji State and Minnesota Duluth.

Yep, the next three weeks should tell us whether UND will host a first-round WCHA playoffs series for a fifth straight year or if UND will go back on the road.

I wrote a little about that in this story.

The big question, as it has been all year, will be whether UND can finish off enough plays. It won’t be easy without Becca Kohler, but UND will get the services of Leah Jensen back.

That’s it for now. Enjoy your Friday.

Friday morning reading

VIEWING INFO FOR THIS WEEKEND: Tonight’s game is on Midco Sports Network and NCHC.tv. Saturday’s game is on CBS Sports Network (no webcast, no Midco). Sean Grande, who calls Boston Celtics games, will do the play-by-play, while Dave Starman will fly from Friday’s game in Kalamazoo to Saturday in Grand Forks.

This weekend’s series should be a very entertaining one.

According to the national polls, it’s No. 1 vs. No. 7. According to the ballot that I turned in this week, it’s No. 1 vs. No. 2.

Yes, I have been voting Minnesota Duluth at No. 1 in the polls since late November. I think the Dogs have been the country’s most impressive team.

I detail much of this in today’s preview.

The bottom line is that the Dogs are 9-2 in the last 11. One of the losses, the Dogs outshot Omaha 40-18. The other one was on a goal with 19 seconds left.

Of Duluth’s six losses this season, it has only been outshot once.

And this has come against a very difficult schedule. Only 2 of Duluth’s 18 games this season have come against unranked teams (CC series). After this weekend, a quarter of the Dogs’ games will have come against a team ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time.

While my story really focused in on the dynamic and deep forward crew for the Dogs, they would not be in this position without freshman goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo. Coach Scott Sandelin pulled him out of the NAHL and Kaskisuo has solidified that position.

The Finnish netminder has a .920 save percentage, which is the highest of any Bulldog goalie since Alex Stalock had a .924 as a junior in 2008-09.

For Thursday’s paper, I wrote a little bit about UND’s unfamiliar spot starting the second half without a hill to climb.

The big question is whether UND can sustain the level of success in the first half. Obviously, the schedule is going to be much more difficult. It’s virtually all NCHC play, and the league is loaded this season.

In the first half, UND’s nonconference opponents, with the exception of Providence, really struggled.

This week’s Q&A is with Nick Schmaltz, who just returned home from the World Juniors. He says he feels good and he will suit up tonight. I’ll link that when it appears online.

The Duluth News Tribune preview discusses some of the Dogs’ injuries. Read that here.

Duluth radio play by play guy Bruce Ciskie has a blog post about the series that shows that UND and the Bulldogs have eerily similar results against common opponents this season. Read that here.

On to the picks….

Notre Dame vs. Western Michigan: Each team gets to host one in this old CCHA battle. Western appears to be headed on the right track, going 4-1-1 in the six games since Thanksgiving. Notre Dame, a talented team trying to find itself, should be able to get one. Notre Dame 3-1, Western Michigan 4-1.

Miami at St. Cloud State: The Huskies have had a tough time gaining traction all season. It has been one step forward, one step back. I think that’s the same story this weekend. St. Cloud State 4-2, Miami 3-2.

Denver at Nebraska Omaha: The Mavs put together a great first half of the season. But we’ve heard this story before. Can they sustain it in the second half? That’s the big question. Omaha 5-2, Denver 3-0.

Minnesota Duluth at UND: An intriguing matchup awaits between Duluth’s deep and talented group of forwards and UND’s experienced defensive corps. The safe bet in the NCHC these days is a split. UND 4-3, Duluth 3-2.

That’s all for now.

Friday morning reading

For as average as UND has been in the first half of seasons, December has not been part of that.

UND is 19-1-2 in December in the last five years (the lone loss being in overtime) and is 10-0-2 in the last 12 December games.

This year, UND is 2-0, but it has a huge test this weekend at Magness Arena, a place that UND has not swept since 2003. Nearly all of the series in Magness have been splits.

Traditionally, it has been a fan-friendly place for UND with tons of alums in the area. Denver ditched the ticket policy it had a year ago, where fans couldn’t purchase single-game tickets (they instead had to buy a group deal of 25+ or get tickets to three other weekends).

Many UND fans seemed to just get the 25 and distribute them among friends. It certainly didn’t keep the fans out.

I think this series is a great one for the NCHC.

A lot of in-conference rivalries have died off, but this is one that has been heated for the past decade, and it’s important to stay intact.

In fact, one Denver player told the Denver Post that North Dakota’s visit is his “favorite weekend of the year.”

For Thursday’s paper, I wrote about a few of the incidents that have happened in this rivalry, including George Gwozdecky’s infamous walk across the ice. Isn’t that what comes to everyone’s mind when thinking about this rivalry?

Speaking of Gwozdecky, I think his absence leaves a tiny void in this rivalry. His personality was great for it. I never got a sense that many UND fans hated Gwozdecky. I think they loved to hate him, and they were sad to see him go.

For today’s paper, I wrote a larger piece on goal scoring in college hockey hitting an all-time low this season. Is it a problem? Or are games entertaining enough as is? What say you?

There’s also a “Get to Know” segment with Austin Poganski. The freshman says that he hated hockey after his first day of practice as a kid and quit for that season. He gave it another try the next year, and that was a good decision.

What’s the scouting report on Denver?

UND can sort of look in the mirror. The Pioneers are getting outstanding goaltending from Evan Cowley, who took the reigns from Sam Brittain. Cowley is at .922 and 1.98. For UND, Zane McIntyre has been very good (.929, 1.94).

On the defensive corps, both teams are exceptionally skilled. UND fans are quite familiar with Joey LaLeggia and Nolan Zajac. Will Butcher also is turning into the standout he was projected to be when he committed.

UND will counter with a very good D-corps, but one that’s without Troy Stecher. Who replaces Stecher? That’s hard to say. Nick Mattson brings skill and power play ability to UND’s lineup. Andrew Panzarella brings the grit and the penalty killing ability. Those attributes may decide who plays.

The good news is that Bryn Chyzyk continued to practice this week and it’s likely that he’ll play in the series opener tonight. Chyzyk is off to a nice start to the season and will help UND’s penalty kill. That’s crucial because Denver has the league’s top power play.

Up front, I think DU is like UND. They are not as skilled as Miami or Duluth, but they have a lot of really good players, including Ty Loney, who is expected to return to the lineup tonight after missing four games. Loney has played some of his best hockey against UND, tallying six points in the last six games in the rivalry.

Predictions for this weekend…..

Colorado College at Western Michigan: Colorado College is 1-10 in its last 11 games and 0-8 on the road this season. It has been a disastrous start. Western Michigan is only 1-4-1 at home this season. I say the Tigers get a point but not a win. CC 2, WMU 2; WMU 5, CC 2.

Minnesota Duluth at Michigan Tech: Probably will be Tech’s most challenging opponent to this point in the season (yes, Mankato is good, too). But the Bulldogs have been getting my No. 1 vote in the polls, and I think they will prove why this weekend. Duluth 4-1, 3-2.

St. Cloud State at Omaha: The Huskies don’t have many breaks in the schedule this season, do they? Another weekend, another tough series in Omaha. The Huskies haven’t been able to gain any traction this season with a sweep yet, and I don’t see it coming against a good Mavs team. St. Cloud State 4-1, Omaha 4-2.

UND at Denver: Expecting a good crowd and very good entertainment between these teams. When has there ever been a boring game at Magness? Exciting games are the norm and so are splits. Denver 3-1, UND 4-2.

Lastly, I will leave you with the video that never gets old. Thanks to Pat Sweeney for the great call.