The Runner Sports

Feeling The NCHC: Four In The Top 11

Summer’s beaming rays are showing their last futile efforts, and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference is gearing up to enter the season with four teams in the top 11 of both the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine and USCHO.com national preseason polls.

#1 University of Denver

The University of Denver is the unanimous No. 1 team in the nation having finished their 2016-17 campaign first place (18-3-3 NCHC, 33-7-4 overall). It was a season that began with them losing 1-0 to the University of North Dakota in the 2017 Frozen Faceoff semi-final game in Minneapolis (more on Frozen Faceoff development later) and ended ultimately in banner raising fashion. For Denver, the task to replace Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher and assistant captains Evan Janssen and Matt Marcinew is not one that the team would consider an endeavor.

Head coach Jim Montgomery was exuding with confidence when speaking with the media at NCHC media day. He understands team chemistry is also key for a championship team. Montgomery feels that this is the strongest team he has had at Denver, in an interview with the St. Cloud Times.

“The nuts and bolts of what helps you win championships is how you become a real good team that communicates well and trusts each other,” said Montgomery.

Butcher registered 37 points (7-30) last year manning the blue line for the Pioneers. However, this season, Butcher looks to test the ice in the NHL after signing a two-year entry-level deal with the New Jersey Devils. Former assistant captain, Janssen, effectively tallied 26 points (7-19) and is now transitioning into the AHL with the Iowa Wild. Similarly, former assistant captain, Marcinew, contributed to Denver’s offensive initiative by mustering up 22 points (10-12) and is situated with the Ontario Reign of the AHL.

Currently, Denver is returning their top point producers. Junior forward Troy Terry, a 2015 NHL Draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks, led the team in scoring. Terry won the Dallas Gaume Award as Denver’s top offensive player, netting 22 goals and totaling 23 assists for 45 points. Sophomore forward Henrik Borgström entered his first year of college hockey with the need to fulfill a role. Certainly, the role to serve Pioneers hockey as a goal scorer manifested itself through a 22-goal season that led all NCAA freshmen.

Sophomore forward Dylan Gambrell, a 2016 NHL Draft pick of the San Jose Sharks, summed up 13 goals and 29 assists for 42 points. Every team needs a man in net and it is safe to say that Denver has entrusted its pipes to Tanner Jalliet, who won the Mike Richter Award as the NCAA’s top goalie.

If the majority of their championship-winning team returning is not an incentive to be just as successful again, Denver is also favorite to repeat for the Penrose Memorial Cup, receiving all 30 first-place votes by the media.

#6/9 Saint Cloud State University 

The Huskies are ranked No. 6 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine preseason poll and ranked No. 9 in the USCHO.com poll. St. Cloud is overcoming a tough 2016-17 campaign finishing fifth place (10-13-1 NCHC, 16-9-1 overall). Much to the team’s dismay, their deep-consecutive postseason run streak was ousted when they were swept by North Dakota at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks during the NCHC tournament. Ostensibly, the Huskies seemed to be a team that couldn’t capitalize late in the game. Many of their losses came in overtime and at home. Having said that, there were always glimmers of hope like when they swept the University of Minnesota and winning on the road in Duluth and Grand Forks —two very difficult places to play.

Led by captains Jimmy Schuldt (named NCHC Preseason All-Conference Team) and Judd Peterson, the Huskies are returning 18 lettermen. In that group is Ryan Poehling, who was selected 25th overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Poehling did not have such a fortuitous first season as he only scored seven goals with six assists in 35 games. With that in mind, credit must be given to Poehling because he was technically still a high schooler among college-age players and played the entirety of the season. (Denver’s Jarid Lukosevicius had six goals in his first season and then increased to 16 the next year so it is not a stretch to say that type of performance is not possible from Poehling.)

Among players returning is leading scorer Mike Eyssimont (14-16) in his junior year. Eyssimont, a Los Angeles Kings draft pick, has demonstrated the ability to maintain puck possession and fits the mold of coach Bob Motzko’s system. The Huskies’ defense is overseen by 2017 IIHF World Junior champion Jack Ahcan, entering his third year. Ahcan was efficient in producing 21 points from the blue line with five goals and 16 assists.

Yes, the Huskies did not have quite the season that they wanted. With that in mind, they only finished four points behind rival North Dakota —the defending champions at the time. Look for St. Cloud State to improve from last year. Prior to Media Day, SCSU was picked to finished second in the NCHC.

#6 University of Minnesota-Duluth 

Minnesota-Duluth will begin the 2017-2018 season as the No. 6 team in the country according to the USCHO.com preseason poll. They are placed at No. 11 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.

The Bulldogs had a rather successful season despite losing in the championship game of the 2017 Frozen Four in Chicago. Delving into the larger picture, the Bulldogs actually had their second most successful season in school history with a 28-7-7 overall record and a 15-5-4 NCHC second-place finish. Furthermore, the Bulldogs were the Frozen Faceoff champions and the North Star College Cup champions. A lot swung in the favor of Duluth but it is clear that there is speculation about how the team will respond to losing both their top goalie, Hunter Miska, and their leading scorer, Alex Iafallo.

Due to the Bulldogs’ positive season, it may be hard to pick out the nuances of bad play, but head coach Scott Sandelin sees a definite point of vulnerability. Iafallo was a senior and signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Kings. Miska was also a free agent signing for the Arizona Coyotes.

“Number one I don’t think we were a very good faceoff team,” said Sandelin. “I think that we chased the puck a lot and we need to improve there. The funny thing is that the team had a real calmness to it, a very low panic point so if we had some bad stretches we could correct it but we need to improve in our consistency.”

The Bulldogs are going to be a much younger team than last year. Sophomore Joey Anderson, an NCHC All-Rookie Team selection, had 12 goals and 25 assists and was third in UMD points with 37, will be a pivotal part of the offense. A couple players who the team often looked to for resolve, Karson Kuhlman and Riley Tufte, will complete a trifecta of forwards that coach Sandelin is expecting to step up and really mature. If anybody else is to step up it would have to be between goalies Nick Deery and Hunter Shephard in order to fill the void that was left by Miska’s early exit.

#7 University of North Dakota

North Dakota is going into the season ranked No. 7 in both preseason national polls. They were also chosen to place third overall behind SCSU in the NCHC conference. Last year, the Fighting Hawks went 11-12-1-1 NCHC, 21-16-3 overall. The Fighting Hawks’ season culminated in a rather distasteful manner. In other words, the pill was difficult to swallow when their overtime game winning goal in the NCAA West Regional Semifinal game was overturned. Double-overtime ensued and Boston University upset an enraptured crowd at Scheels Arena in Fargo.

Of the team that night, 18 lettermen will return including top goal scorer and point producer Shane Gersich. Gersich had 21 goals and 16 assists for 37 points but the Fighting Hawks took a blow when losing their next two leading scorers. Tyson Jost posted 35 points in the season but is now many games deep in his professional career with the Colorado Avalanche. For Brock Boeser, the loss on the night of March 24 this year was bittersweet. As his team faced the questions that come with losing a playoff game, he was able to feel some joy in his subsequent call to the Vancouver Canucks.

Head coach Brad Berry has made it clear that a key part of the gameplan will be to let forward Nick Jones flourish as he proved in the BCHL with the Penticton Vees marking 25 goals and 37 assists for 62 points and winning a championship last season. A very like minded role can be expected for Austin Poganski in order to circumvent the loss of players like Boeser. Defender Colton Poolman will also be looked to in order to provide the team with another 20-plus point season. His defensive versatility becomes essential especially since he is a player that averages 24 minutes against every teams’ top line.

 

NCHC Frozen Faceoff Has A New Home 

According to a press release from the NCHC, the Frozen Faceoff championship weekend will no longer be held at Target Center in Minneapolis. The new home of the tournament will be at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul for the next five years. Mayor of Saint Paul, Chris Coleman, expressed his upmost gratitude and enthusiasm on media day for bringing back a college hockey championship tournament to the city.

Manuel Brizuela

A native of Los Angeles, Manny is a graduate student at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications with an emphasis in journalism at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Since sports is ultimately where Manny would like to end up as a digital media producer, particularly with the sport of hockey, he felt it necessary to make connections in the state of hockey. Thus, moving across the country and landing opportunities to dabble with NCAA Division 1 hockey.