In college football, rare do you see an Alabama or a Florida travel outside their league (or in some cases, their state) for a tough non-conference game. The risk is simply much greater than the reward. In college basketball there are some great games, but often they are hidden amidst a series of cupcake games. I think college hockey probably has the best mix. There aren’t as many games, and only 16 teams make the NCAA tournament, so scheduling is of even greater importance. The difference between an NCAA bid can be whether a team played a non-conference series against Boston College or Canisius. My five favorite non-conference games:
North Dakota at Maine
The Sioux traveled out east last year when they took one of two games from Cornell, and they play an equally tough opponent this year in the Black Bears. It truly is a matchup of irresistible force vs. immovable object. Maine had the best power play in the country last year at a 27.7% clip and was 4th nationally in scoring offense. The Black Bears return Gustav Nyquist, maybe the best player in the country, as well as Junior Brian Flynn.
North Dakota meanwhile, had the 3rd best defense last year, allowing just 2.12 goals per game, and they had an 87% penalty kill, 4th best in the country. The Sioux did all this without Chay Genoway, who missed nearly all of 2009 with a concussion. Chay is back this year, as well as the 4 best UND defensemen. As if that group needed any help they also add Derek Forbort, the 15th overall pick in this year’s NHL draft.
Miami at St. Cloud State
Two more Frozen Four hopefuls convene in Minnesota. The RedHawks, who have been to back to back Frozen Fours, boast probably the best goaltender combo in the country in Cody Reichard (1.87 GAA, .921 save%) and Connor Knapp (1.97 GAA, .921 save%). St. Cloud, meanwhile, is the only school that can threaten the RedHawks for that title with Dan Dunn (2.58 GAA, .915 save%) and Mike Lee (2.80 GAA, .917 save%).
The RedHawks and Huskies each feature offenses driven by one star player surrounded by some nice complimentary pieces. For Miami it starts with Carter Camper. Camper had 15 goals and 43 points last year, not bad at all in the CCHA. St. Cloud State is led by Garrett Roe, who is back on campus for what seems like his 15th year. Roe will be without his running mate Ryan Lasch this year, but another 20 goal season seems a certainty. Less certain is how many assists he will end up with, but Tony Mosey could step into Lasch’s shoes, and I like Ben Hanowski’s chances to be a quality WCHA player
Michigan at New Hampshire
If you like offense, this game is for you. The Wolverines put up pretty big scoring numbers in the stingy CCHA, and New Hampshire was Hockey East’s 3rd highest scoring team. UNH will be without Bobby Butler, but I like Paul Thompson and Phil DeSimone, and Blake Kessel is a legitimate Hobey threat. The Wildcats have struggled recently in big non-conference series, going 0-4 last year against both Miami and Wisconsin. Another key to watch is New Hampshire will have played Miami right before playing Michigan this year.
The Wolverines have some defense and goaltending issues, but their offensive talent is right up there with the best of them. Louie Caporusso and Carl Hagelin is my favorite duo in the CCHA, and they have very solid secondary scoring with Matt Rust, Chris Brown, David Wohlberg, and Robbie Czarnik, among others.
Bemidji State v. Alabama Huntsville
Two old CHA rivals go at it in Huntsville, but beyond the action on the ice this season could be a big one for the future of the program. Currently without a conference, Huntsville could either be destroyed or, possibly, helped by Penn State’s announcement they will field a D1 hockey team. If Penn State becomes the CCHA’s 12th team, Huntsville will likely be shutout and the program will probably fold. But if a Big 10 hockey conference is formed, there is a possibility that an existing conference will pick up Huntsville in an effort to stay afloat.