NCHC Preview & Predictions: Who Can Capture the Inaugural Tournament Title?

Western Michigan had a strong 2nd half, but can they win on the road to make it to the NCAAs? - WMU Media File/GS Photo

With the NCHC Tournament set to get underway tonight, what should we expect to see from one of the most competitive conferences this season top-to-bottom?

Thanks to Demi Lovato, we start the NCHC Playoffs tonight as the Denver Pioneers head to Nebraska-Omaha to kick-off the final part of what has been a crazy fun season this year in the inaugural season of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

Over the next 10 days, we'll go from 8 teams all the way down to 1 champion, capturing the ever coveted auto-bid into the 2014 NCAA Tournament.  The bid suddenly became more important this past off-season with the addition of a conference (and thus loss of an at-large bid).  Also, with the rather soft non-conference performance as a whole, the fact that the conference may not even snag an at-large bid makes this tournament all the more crucial for the middle-to-low end teams.

Let's take a look at this week's series and then predict how the action in Minneapolis next weekend will go.

No. 6 Denver Pioneers vs No. 3 Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks

If you don't know about Josh Archibald and Sam Brittain yet, you've been living under a rock, at the bottom of the ocean, and possibly have brain damage.  You should go check yourself into a doctor ASAP.

Archibald, the high-scoring Maverick forward, is the top leading goal scorer not named Johnny Gaudreau and has paced this UNO offense, a team predicted to finish at the very bottom of the conference back in September, to a 3.29 goals/game average, 10th in the nation.  The junior Pittsburgh draft pick himself has 29 goals in 34 games, and has just been on fire since January 1st, with a pair of hat tricks and four other 2-goal games.

Meanwhile, Brittain has been a rock for Denver the past four seasons and looks to lead his team back to the NCAAs, where his career really began to take off in a 3-2 double OT win over now-conference foe Western Michigan back as a freshman.  Since then, he's struggled with injuries, but still posted semi-decent numbers (with the exception of last season).  This year, he's back to being nearly unbeatable posting a 2.09 GAA and .933 save percentage.

UNO took 3 of the 4 games between these two teams this year.  The first series in Denver were both 3-2 OT victories way back in November.  They met again 4 weeks ago in a series that Denver finally got off the schnide with a 4-1 victory in the Saturday game, which saw Evan Cowley, not Brittain, get the start in.

If Denver loses tonight, I expect Cowley in net on Friday just because it worked last time (right?).  However, Archibald is a monster and his skills require too much attention to stop and I expect the Mavericks to advance.  UNO in 2

No. 8 Miami RedHawks vs No. 1 St. Cloud State Huskies

On to the series that aren't being adjusted due to overrated pop stars (did I just go there?  You bet your ass I did).

Miami was the pre-season pick to win the NCHC, was the pre-season #2 team in the nation, and at one point was #1 overall.  Now?  Well, they're on the road at St. Cloud, who won the Penrose Cup and are coming off a Frozen Four appearance a season ago.

What happened?  I have no clue.  They started the season 7-3-1, and then just collapsed, going just 5-16-2 since November 16.  They won just a single game in both January and February (a 4-3 victory over St. Cloud oddly enough), but did end their season with a win over Denver last weekend, so yay?

Miami seems to be playing better since getting Blake Coleman back, and he accompanies possibly one of the best one-two duos in college hockey (when they're on) in Riley Barber and Austin Czarnik.  Czarnik finished with 43 points (tied with Archibald for 8th nationally) while Barber netted 18 goals.  They're good at they hockeys.

Meanwhile, St. Cloud is St. Cloud.  They're good.  And it's top-to-bottom.  Their 3.68 goals/game is 2nd nationally behind the Boston College Gaudreaus....err, I mean Eagles.  They score on the power play (25.4%, 3rd nationally), have Jonny Brodzinski (20-19-39) and Nic Dowd (19-17-36), and have a decent goaltender in Ryan Faragher (2.67 GAA, .909 save%).

However, the Huskies are vulnerable if Faragher is having an off night, and that's been happening more often than it should.  St. Cloud once had a commanding lead, and it slowly evaporated to the point where North Dakota had a shot to win the Penrose, but couldn't.  Still, this is a team fighting for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and would have a short ride to Minneapolis for the NCHC Finals.

These two teams split their season series (they first played way back in Miami's "good days"), with Faragher's lone shut-out of the season coming in their last match-up:  a 3-0 SCSU win in Oxford.  I really, really want to pick Miami to upset the Huskies here.  They have the talent, and if Ryan McKay or Jay Williams ever found their groove from last season, look out. But I can't.  Not because of the performance or anything, but because of this....

St. Cloud in 2.

No. 7 Colorado College Tigers vs No. 2 North Dakota (Former) Fighting Sioux

Well, well, well.  After seemingly looking like they'd limp into the NCHC Playoffs as the 8 seed, the Tigers woke up and just got their Lil John on and played outta their minds.  They beat Miami, took 4 of 6 points against Western Michigan, then swept Denver to threaten for the 6-seed even.  They never were going to get it, but it was a mathematical possibility in late February.

Meanwhile, all North Dakota has done is found their stride, won a bunch of games since the start of December, and rode Zane Gothberg (2.02 GAA, .924 save%) like the stud he is.  Seriously, since the start of December, NoDak is 15-5-2.  If you take out their "bad" March record, you can move that to 14-3-2 over three months.  Let that sink in......

I'm not going to spend too much time on this one, because I think it's the most lop-sided match-up on the weekend.  Sure Josh Thorimbert and Co. have been playing better lately, but we have the one stat that'll tell the tale of the series (besides NoDak's recent record).  Save that for last.

North Dakota is 10th in the Pairwise right now, and should be in, but getting swept or losing the series to the Tigers wouldn't be good.   However, Rocco Grimaldi and Company get it done at home.  Not because of the home crowd, but because Colorado College is awful away from home.  They are 1-13-2 this year away from World Arena, and 0-12-2 this year outside the state of Colorado.  North Dakota in 2.

No. 5 Western Michigan Broncos vs No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs

Quite possibly the marquee match-up on the weekend.  These two teams finished tied in the NCHC standings with identical 11-11-2-2 records, and had nearly identical overall records with WMU finishing with an extra win and tie via the Alaskan Gold Rush tournament (reason they get two more games, and that's the results they got).  However, the Bulldogs took 3 of the 4 match-ups between the two teams, including sweeping the Broncos at the turn of January/February.

Neither team has real big goal scorers.  Nobody will start with 15 or more goals, and only WMU seniors Chase Balisy and Shane Berschbach will be averaging more than 0.90 points/game.  Both team's have streaky goaltending in Aaron Crandall (2.74, .904) and the Frank Slubowski (2.69, .911)/Lukas Hafner (2.07, .924) tandem.  Hafner, who has the stats, seems to be coming out of a slight down spot from February, having played solidly the past two weekends, giving up just 4 goals in 3 games, including a hard earned split at North Dakota.

Honestly, this series will probably come down to special teams.  Western Michigan is 2nd nationally in penalty minutes per game, while Minnesota-Duluth is 4th at 17.7 min and 16.7 respectively.  In fact, Josh Pitt (9-9-18), the strong center for WMU, will miss Friday's game as he has to serve a game suspension for his 3rd game misconduct in the conference season that he picked up during Saturday's 2-1 win.

So what do the numbers say?  Well WMU's power-play is the 3rd worst in the nation, converting just 12.35% of their chances.  UMD converts 16.46%.  However, the Broncos have the better penalty kill with a 84.2% kill mark versus the Bulldogs' 82.7%.

The loss of Pitt hurts the Broncos.  In fact, when he sat out the Colorado College series, the Broncos only managed two points against one of the weaker teams in the conference, and his physical presence seems to cause problems for teams all over the ice.  I think the Bulldogs win Friday, but Hafner's strong play and the senior leadership of Balisy and Berschbach force the upset (yes, maybe some homerism.  Sue me).  Broncos in 3

Minneapolis

So what would happen if this broke down?  We'd have the following bracket:

No. 5 Western Michigan vs No. 1 St. Cloud State
No. 3 Nebraska-Omaha vs No. 2 North Dakota

Western Michigan took 5 of 6 points in St. Cloud earlier this year when the Huskies were #3 in the country.  That was Hafner's big coming out party, and the mid-point of a WMU "hot streak" of 5-0-1 (they played 5 games against ranked opponents at the time).  However, it's so incredibly hard to win in a pressure situation with youth, and Frank Slubowski's streaky-ness has me think St. Cloud advances.

These two teams split twice:  once in November when North Dakota was ice cold and once in February when they were red-hot.  This will be interesting as both offenses are pretty solid.  Josh Archibald will try his might, but Gothberg, Grimaldi, and the mastermind Hakstol are just too much.  North Dakota wins.

So that leaves us with:

Third Place Game: No. 5 Western Michigan vs No. 3 Nebraska-Omaha
NCHC Tile Game: No. 2 North Dakota vs No. 1 St. Cloud State

For the third place game, the two teams split in February in Kalamazoo, when Western Michigan used 4 third period goals to down UNO 5-3 on Saturday.  Otherwise, the Mavericks pretty much held their own in the hostile Lawson.  But that doesn't mean it was a blow-out.  The 3rd periods were just so.....lopsided.  Western Michigan could use the win, but I doubt it's enough to earn the at-large.  Screw you, I'm giving it to WMU.  WMU wins 3rd place.

As for the title game, I'm sure you can imagine it.  The best two teams down the stretch going at it again.  I'm just leaving it at that.  So epic......North Dakota wins in 2 OT.

Take it to the bank.

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