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.
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.