What do you get when you take the last three national champions, two of college hockey’s most storied programs and one sheet of ice? Besides a pair of likely sellout crowds at Magness Arena, the answer is a can’t-miss series between No. 4 Denver and No. 10 Minnesota Duluth.
Minnesota Duluth took the first game 3-2 behind a trio of power play goals from Nick Swaney, Justin Richards and Cole Koepke. The puck drops tonight at 9:07 p.m. ET. Here’s what you need to know about the matchup ahead of a classic NCHC showdown.
The postseason implications
First and foremost, this series takes place in the back half of the NCHC schedule. The postseason is on the minds of both Denver and Minnesota Duluth, which is understandable considering these two programs won the last three national championships.
But both teams could use a sweep over the other for different reasons.
Denver (17-4-5, 7-3-4 NCHC) is already the host school of the NCAA tournament’s Loveland Regional, meaning the Pioneers would play around 60 miles from campus if they receive a postseason invitation. Denver was a No. 1 seed in our Jan. 29 bracketology, a positive sign for their postseason aspirations. Maintaining a place on the top seed line could offer the Pioneers a more favorable path back to the Frozen Four.
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On the other hand, a Minnesota Duluth (13-9-2, 8-4-2 NCHC) sweep would help keep the Bulldogs away from the NCAA tournament cut line. Duluth struggled a bit early, going .500 through non-conference before turning things around once league play started.
They’re currently 12th in the RPI, a key metric used by the NCAA selection committee for at-large bids to the 16-team field. Something to take note of is the RPI impact of wins against the metric’s top 20 teams. Denver is currently No. 4.
Both teams rank among the top 20 per-game averages for goals scored and goals allowed. Such similarity in numbers indicate the possibility of a draw. But that’s no fun. Besides, there is a key matchup in this series, it’s an edge that will be earned through man-advantage situations.
Each team draws and commits around five penalties a game. They spend anywhere from 11 to 13 minutes killing off penalties and between 12 and 14 minutes on the power play. It is during this time that a series outcome could be decided through a battle of wills.
Denver comes into the series ranking fifth among Division I teams on the penalty kill. The Pioneers have served 132 penalties over 286 minutes, giving up 10 goals. They’ve come away unscathed on the kill better than 89 percent of the time. Factor in four shorthanded goals and that number becomes even more impressive.
Minnesota Duluth doesn’t boast as intimidating a penalty kill, ranking 44th out of 60 programs. Typically, that could spell trouble. Fortunately for coach Scott Sandelin, his team more than makes up for it on the power play. The Bulldogs convert man-up almost 27 percent of the time, a rate that ranks fifth among DI teams.
More than a third of their total goals are of the power play variety and six players have scored at least twice in those scenarios, highlighted by five from Jackson Cates. But the catalyst of the power play is Scott Perunovich, the two-way defenseman who has recorded 17 of his 28 points while the Bulldogs were on the advantage.
Friday and Saturday’s contests will be the second series between Denver and Minnesota Duluth this season after unofficially splitting the first two bouts. Denver picked up a shootout win that counts as a draw in the standings before Duluth drew level the next night.
That’s the thing, there’s going to be a sense of familiarity when matching up with a conference foe. It’s possible this won’t be the final time these two play each other. They’ve met in the NCHC tournament each of past two years with the winner eventually claiming the league’s automatic bid.
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So here’s what could be the difference-maker for each team.
Denver has the advantage of playing with momentum and being at home this weekend, where the Pioneers have posted 22 consecutive seasons with double digit wins. They haven’t lost since Dec. 6 and the last home loss predates Thanksgiving — a Nov. 22 contest against Western Michigan.
One of the best ways to combat the hostile road environment at Magness Arena is poise, and Minnesota Duluth might not have a player with more of it than Hunter Shepard. The senior goaltender set an NCAA record last week for goalies with his 105th consecutive start in net. Though his numbers are down from the past two seasons, Shepard’s remained solid in stopping better than 90 percent of shots faced with a 2.38 goals allowed average. But against Denver, his experience could be more valuable.
On Friday, it was. Shepard stopped 39 of 41 shots, including 17 in the final period to preserve the win with the Bulldogs hanging onto a one-goal lead. Shepard will make his 107th consecutive start on Saturday while going for the sweep.