One of the more unique storylines heading into this season was how the National Collegiate Hockey Conference was going to perform the first half of their schedule.
Unlike the other five conferences, the NCHC has the widest footprint, as they have teams from Ohio to Colorado (WCHA falls out of the conversation with the Alaska teams not playing). So, to limit, travel the conference decided to split the teams into two divisions, and play their inter-divisional games in a ‘pod’ at Baxter Arena, the home of the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks.
With (mostly) neutral site games, fans have been exposed to some very entertaining matchups, and some exciting action. Let’s take a look at some the stories that came out of the NCHC Pod.
North Dakota Is the Best in the Conference
Strong words, bold statement, whatever you want to call it, the numbers do not lie.
The Fighting Hawks entered the season as the preseason No. 1 team in the country, with a lot of returning talent that had a chance to take North Dakota to the Frozen Four COVID-19 not been in the way.
They started the season strong, going 3-0 with wins over Miami (OH), rival Denver and Western Michigan. They hit a little bit of a snag in their next three. After losing to the Pioneers on Dec. 8, the Fighting Hawks fell to Minnesota-Duluth in a shootout, followed by another regulation loss, this time at the hands of St. Cloud State.
However, North Dakota bounced back. After another victory over Western Michigan, they earned a dramatic overtime win against the Huskies, then picked up a hard-fought win against the No. 3 Bulldogs.
After their second win against the RedHawks, which saw the Fighting Hawks score at least six goals for the third time in the Pod, North Dakota left the pod with a 7-2-1 record, the best record in the NCHC.
Despite the early season adversity, head coach Brad Berry expressed that veteran leadership was the key for the team to bounce back. He also admitted that the experience in the Pod was unique for everyone involved.
“It’s something that we will ever experience again,” Berry told the media after his team’s win against Miami (OH) on Dec. 20. “It is something that brings us together as a group, and I’m sure every group can say that. I enjoyed it, it was the best chance for us to get 10 games under us.”
Kawaguchi and Pinto Lead the Charge
Two of the best players in the Pod were Shane Pinto and Jordan Kawaguchi. Pinto who scored only 28 points as a freshman, really blossomed in the opening 10 games, scoring five goals and eight assists for 13 points. He had five multi-point games in Omaha, including a three-point night in the Fighting Hawks’ win over the Broncos on Dec. 6.
Kawaguchi continues to show why he is one of the most proficient offensive leaders in college hockey. After leading the team with 45 points last season, the team captain is tied with Pinto for the team lead in scoring, picking up three goals and 10 assists to start the season. Unlike Pinto, Kawaguchi has etched his name on the scoresheet every game in the Pod.
Both are also tied for the most points in the entire NCAA. Only Arizona State’s Matthew Kopperud has as many points as Pinto and Kawaguchi, but the two Fighting Hawks have tallied their points in two fewer games.
Omaha Uses Home Ice to Their Advantage
Even though they were playing in their own barn during the Pod, many wondered how the Mavericks were going to do. Especially after last season where the Mavericks went 8-13-3 in conference play and had a sub-.500 record at Baxter Arena.
Omaha proved that they were ready to play, despite dropping their season opener to No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth. In game two, they throttled the Western Michigan net 10 times, a feat the Mavs had not accomplished since January 2018. In the win, Jason Smallidge had a near-record setting performance, tying the school and NCHC record for points in a game with five points.
The Mavericks were on-and-off for the next couple of games. After an overtime win against the RedHawks, Omaha lost a tough one to St. Cloud State. Then, even though they had another offensive performance in a 6-1 win over Colorado College, the RedHawks squeaked out a 1-0 win to put the Mavs back to .500.
Beating the Big Dogs
However, Omaha did not have time to lick their wounds, as the next night they went up against St. Cloud State again. This time, the Mavericks pulled out a win thanks to goals from Kirby Proctor and Tyler Weiss and a mesmerizing performance from goaltender Austin Roden. In the sophomore’s first start of the season, he slammed the door on the Huskies offense, stopping all 41 shots he faced.
Three days later, the Mavs had another date with the Bulldogs. It was another close game, but Minnesota-Duluth held a 2-0 lead heading into the final frame. That was when Chayse Primeau helped turn the game around. After scoring early in the frame, he helped set up Taylor Ward’s third goal of the season to tie the game. After overtime solved nothing, a shootout was necessary, and that was when Primeau beat the Bulldogs’ which ended up being the clincher for the Mavericks.
Omaha picked up another win over Western Michigan, a 6-5 decision that Primeau and Ward combined for seven points, and capped off the first semester with a shutout for Isaiah Saville in a 3-0 win against Colorado College. (from ‘UNO hockey exits NCHC pod with 3-0 win over Colorado College,’ Omaha World-Herald, 12/21/220)
No question Primeau, son of longtime NHLer Keith, was the star of December for the Mavs. In those 10 games, he scored four goals and eight assists for 12 points. That is good enough to be tied for third in the NCHC and tied for fourth in the country with Minnesota-Duluth’s Nick Swaney and Wisconsin’s Cole Caufield.
Heading into the holidays, the Mavericks are 6-3-1 and went from unranked to the No. 11 team in the NCAA.
One of the most highly-touted teams coming into the season was the Denver Pioneers. They were ranked No. 4 in the preseason polls and picked to finish second in the NCHC behind North Dakota.
However, those predictions seem a little premature after DU’s month in the Pod.
The Pioneers started off their season 0-3. While on paper that seems disappointing, you have to consider the teams they went up against. DU’s opening schedule against Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota and St. Cloud State, all three of which are currently ranked in the top-10 in the country.
Denver earned their first win of the season, avenging their loss to North Dakota with a 3-2, thanks to Carter Savoie’s fifth goal of the season. DU made it back-to-back wins after having their biggest offensive output of the season, so far, in a 5-1 victory over Miami (OH).
However, DU took another step back after a rough loss at the hands of the Bulldogs for the second time to fall to 2-4 on the season, a mark that is unheard of by Denver Hockey standards, especially for a team that has only had TWO losing seasons in its history dating back to the 1949-50 season.
After squeaking by Western Michigan with a 3-2 win, the Pioneers were handed their worst loss so far, a 3-0 loss to the RedHawks. The Pioneers outshot Miami (OH) by a 26-22 margin, but their offense, which was held in high regard coming into the season, was not able to beat Ludvig Persson. It was DU’s first loss to the RedHawks since February 2019.
The Pioneers rounded their Pod schedule by surviving another game against Western Michigan, a shootout win, and to St. Cloud State once again. Coming out of Omaha, the Pioneers have a 3-6-1 record, which is fifth in the NCHC. They have the third-most goals against (28) and the third least goals-for (23).
While the season is not lost on them yet, DU has to figure out a way to bounce back if they want to be considered favorites come the postseason. They restart their schedule with four games against Colorado College, another team that Denver has done fairly well against in recent years. However, as we learned from their performance in the Pod, that may not mean much.
Monday, Dec. 21
No. 17 UMass-Lowell def. Connecticut, 2-1
In only their second game of the season, the River Hawks were able to pull out the win over the Huskies. After the two traded power-play goals in the opening two periods, Zach Kaiser scored in the waning minutes of the third to give UMass-Lowell their first win of the season. Goaltender Henry Welsch was exceptional in net for the River Hawks, stopping 31 of the 32 shots he faced.
Tuesday, Dec. 22
RIT def. Niagara, 5-4
The Tigers picked up their fifth win of the year after a rather interesting game against the Purple Falcons. After Niagara, scored first, RIT reeled off four unanswered goals. Then, in the span of a little over three minutes late in the second period, the teams traded three goals, with the Purple Eagles scoring twice to get back within one. Niagara found the back of the net one more time in the third, but Tigers’ netminder Logan Drackett shut the door from there to preserve the win. Nick Bruce led the scoring for RIT with a goal and two assists.
No. 16 Quinnipiac def. Holy Cross, 6-1
The Bobcats bounced back after being swept by Bowling Green with a big win over the Crusaders. Desi Brugart had a solid game with a pair of goals, with Odeen Tufto getting the first start with a goal and two assists, and was also credited with the game-winning goal.
Wednesday, Dec. 23
No. 10 UMass def. Connecticut, 6-2
Make it three-in-a-row for the Minutemen as they beat UConn for the second time this season. Carson Gicewicz scored twice for the second game in a row, while also adding an assist on Matthew Kessel’s fourth goal of the season. Bobby Trivigno also had a good game, registering a goal and two assists for UMass.
Colgate def. No. 8 Clarkson, 5-4 in overtime
For the third time this season, the Golden Knights have lost to an unranked opponent. It certainly was a wild affair, as both teams starting goaltenders were pulled in the first period that saw each team score three times. After trading tallies in the second period, neither team scored in the third, which meant free hockey. That was when Matt Verboon scored his second of the game to give the Raiders the win.
Carter Gylander, who was making only his second appearance of his college career, earned his first win at Colgate, making 12 saves in the relief effort.
No. 16 Quinnipiac def. Holy Cross, 3-0
In a little bit closer affair, the Bobcats completed the midweek sweep of the Crusaders, as Keith Petruzzelli stopped all 26 shots he faced to earn the seventh shutout of his career. Desi Burgart scored his fourth goal in three games, with Ethan de Jong and Logan Britt scoring the other two for Quinnipiac.
Saturday, Dec. 26
No. 12 Northeastern def. Vermont, 4-1
The Huskies played well enough to earn their third win of the season, doubling up the Catamounts on shots, 40-20. Connor Murphy had another easy game, only having to make 19 saves. Gunnarwolfe Fontaine led Northeastern with three points, scoring two goals and an assist in the win.
No. 16 Quinnipiac def. No. 19 American International, 8-3
The first real test for the Yellow Jackets did not quite go as planned. After the two teams traded goals in the opening minutes, Quinnipiac scored five unanswered before the end of the second period, then three more in the third. Ty Smilanic scored a pair for the Bobcats, with Peter Deliberatore scoring a goal and an assist and Odeen Tufto picking up four helpers.
Sunday, Dec. 27
No. 12 Northeastern ties Vermont, 2-2 (Huskies win in a shootout)
Vermont picks up their first point of the season in a tight battle with Northeastern. The teams traded goals in the final two periods, with the Huskies gaining the majority of the scoring chances. The Catamounts Tyler Harmon looked solid in goal, stopping 35 of the 37 shots he faced. Neither team scored in overtime, so a shootout was needed to determine who received the extra point. Fontaine scored the only tally in the shootout to help give Northeastern the win.
No. 16 Quinnipiac def. No. 19 American International, 3-2
In a more competitive game, the Yellow Jackets played a lot better than the night before, including scoring first once again. This time, they only allowed the Bobcats to score two-in-a-row before Chris Dodero scored to tie the game at two before the end of the opening frame. Ethan de Jong scored what proved to be the decider in the second period, and Quinnipiac went on to complete the sweep. de Jong also had an assist, with Odeen Tufto picking up two more assists, giving him six in the two-game set.
I’m a broadcast journalist from West Michigan, with an incredible passion for the game of hockey. After playing in goal for 16 years, I realized that my time on the ice was up, and chose a slightly different path working in the media. It is just as demanding, just a little less physical.