We’re down to the final couple weekends in the college hockey regular season, and probably the most interesting race is out west where four teams are separated by just two points at the top of the WCHA. North Dakota is in first with 32, Denver has 31, and Minnesota-Duluth and Nebraska-Omaha are tied with 30.
North Dakota has the benefit of both being in first place and having the easiest road left. The Sioux travel to 9th place St. Cloud this weekend, host 11th place Bemidji State next weekend, and then finish the regular season at last place Michigan Tech. The Sioux have gone without Chay Genoway and Danny Kristo for the recent past (Genoway was hurt on January 28th against Colorado College, Kristo has been out since the first weekend of February with severe frostbite), but the rest of the team has picked up the slack. Jason Gregoire, who recently recovered from an injury himself, has 7 goals and 4 assists in the last 6 games. The Sioux have also allowed two goals in their last three games.
Denver is coming off a bad 7-3 loss to Minnesota, but have scored 4+ goals in 8 of their last 16 games. The Pioneers have lacked some secondary scoring this year, but Jason Zucker has been maybe my most surprising Freshman this year, scoring 18 goals and 31 points this year. Drew Shore leads the team with 34 points (17 goals) and though he hasn’t scored as many goals this year, Senior Anthony Maiani has 29 points and became the 92nd Denver player to have 100 points in his career earlier this season.
Duluth has 117 points from their first line, but the rest of the team has just 158 among them. The Bulldogs are second in the WCHA in scoring, but I would venture that in the NCAA tournament they will be facing opponents who can shut down, or at least greatly slow down, a top line, even one as good as Duluth’s. Duluth has split time fairly evenly between their two goalies, which I lean towards liking, but neither Kenny Reiter (7th in the WCHA in save percentage), or Aaron Crandall (12th) have been great in net.
Nebraska-Omaha has to play both Duluth and Denver (though they also do get to play at Alaska-Anchorage) so I would put their chances as the worst of the four contenders. Still the Mavericks have had an impressive first year in the WCHA. They are third in scoring offense, scoring 3.43 goals per game, and they have done it with balance: six Mavericks have 20 or more points, and 13 are in double digits. Defensively Omaha is 4th in the conference in goals allowed per game, and goalie John Faulkner leads the nation in shutouts with 6.
Finally I took a look at the predictor on Sioux Sports and came up with the following standings:
1. North Dakota 42 pts
2. Denver 40 pts
3. Minnesota-Duluth 38 pts
4. Nebraska-Omaha 37 pts
It should be interesting to see just how far off I am in three weeks time.