That was quite the first half of DI men's college hockey.
It had everything. From dominant wins to record-breaking performances, to upsets, it felt as though there was a lot to remember about the first half of the season. Just look at the fact there were five different teams that claimed the No. 1 spot in the USCHO poll.
So, it's time to rank the top 10 teams at the halfway point. I didn't base it on how they're currently doing. Instead, I based it more on the entire first half.
The top three seemed pretty clear to me. The rest? Not so much.
Let's dive into the rankings.
1. Minnesota State (16-4-0)
This shouldn't really surprise anyone. The Mavericks were college hockey's most consistent team throughout the first half, and it started with that tone-setting sweep at UMass to open the season. They also had the toughest schedule to open the season, drawing St. Cloud State, Providence and Michigan after that series at UMass. They finished that six-game stretch with a record of 4-2.
The Mavericks are the most complete team in college hockey. They're No. 2 in goals (78) while being tied for No. 4 in goals against (26). That comes from a couple of things.
RANKINGS: Here's the latest USCHO poll
For one, the 1-2 punch down the middle of juniors Nathan Smith and Brendan Furry is enough to throw any opposing team's game plan off. Smith is tied for second in the nation in points with 27. With the way in which he leads this offense, he's a sure bet to be a Hobey Baker candidate. Furry's not far behind either, ranking second on the team with 22 points. Smith has senior Julian Napravnik and junior Cade Borchardt riding shotgun with him. Furry has juniors Sam Morton and Ryan Sandelin. And with senior Reggie Lutz on line three, this team is deep.
Defensively, the Mavericks don't give up a lot of shots. And when opponents are able to land shots, they have to beat star netminder Dryden McKay, which isn't an easy task — he leads the nation in wins (16) and ranks fourth in goals-against average (1.33).
This is a great team and one you should absolutely expect to see in the Frozen Four.
2. Michigan (14-6-0)
Speaking of teams you should expect to see in the Frozen Four, here's Michigan.
The Wolverines had a dominant first half. They rank No. 1 in goals for in the nation with 81, boasting college hockey's top offense. Sophomore forward Kent Johnson and sophomore defenseman Owen Power both have 23 points, which is tied for the team lead and tied for ninth in the country. The duo was ranked second in the nation for points for most of the first half.
Along with Johnson and Power, Michigan has forwards Matty Beniers, Brendan Brisson and Thomas Bordeleau all at over a point-per-game pace. Freshman defender Luke Hughes has also stepped up a bunch, posting seven goals and 18 points in 20 games.
The only time in which the Wolverines had a bad weekend was Nov. 19 and 20 when they were swept by then-No. 14 Notre Dame. Both games were close, OT-losses. Aside from that rough showing, Michigan had big wins over Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State, Western Michigan, Penn State, Minnesota and Ohio State.
Even though USCHO's PairWise rankings have Michigan No. 1 and Minnesota State No. 2, the difference is extremely close. Watch for that to be a big battle throughout the second half of this season.
3. Quinnipiac (14-1-3)
The Bobcats opened the season at No. 9, which meant we all knew they were going to be very good. But I'm not sure many predicted they would be this good.
And by this good, I'm talking No. 1 defensive team in the nation.
Here are three stats they rank No. 1 in that say a lot about a team's defensive abilities:
- Goals against: 20
- Penalty killing percentage: 92.9 percent
- Even strength Corsi For percentage: 62.3
Of teams that have played at least 15 games, the Bobcats also rank No. 1 in shots allowed, with only 293 in 18 games — roughly 16 shots per game. No wonder they average roughly one goal allowed per game. Another huge reason for that is freshman goalie Yaniv Perets who ranks No. 1 in GAA at an incredible 0.87.
The Bobcats aren't as potent offensively, but they don't really need to be with the way in which they shut teams down in the defensive zone. Graduate student transfer forward Oliver Chau leads the way up front with 18 points in 18 games. Senior defenseman Zach Metsa is tied with Chau for the team-lead in points.
The rest of Quinnipiac's schedule comes mostly against ECAC opponents, which means the biggest tests will come against Clarkson, Harvard and Cornell.
4. St. Cloud State (10-6-0)
Now we get into the extremely debatable section in the rankings. For me, St. Cloud State was the No. 4 team in the country in the first half.
The Huskies had big wins over Minnesota State and Minnesota to begin the season. In November, they scored a 5-1 win over Omaha and then to begin December, they took down North Dakota, 8-1. They spent three consecutive weeks at one point as the No. 1 team in the nation.
Offensively, they're a very deep team up front. Graduate student center Kevin Fitzgerald leads the team in scoring with 21 points. After that, forwards Easton Brodzinski, Nolan Walker and Veeti Miettinen help fill out the top six. Junior forward Jami Krannila has been a gem centering the third line, ranking third on the team in points with 12.
This crew helps make it possible for the Huskies to have the No. 1 ranked power play in the country.
WELCOME BACK: Read about Easton Brodzinski's road back from a broken leg
On the defensive end, the Huskies are the ninth-best team when it comes to goals against (34). While the defense limits opposing scoring chances, senior goalie David Hrenak has been superb so far, ranking 10th with a 2.01 GAA.
Is this the most high-flying team? No, not really. But they're deep, experienced and consistent — three traits that mean a ton come March and April.
5. Minnesota Duluth (11-6-1)
The Bulldogs are cut from a similar cloth as the Huskies. They're great in their own end, ranking 13th in goals against with only 39 allowed in 18 games, but they're not as potent offensively as some of the teams at the top of this list.
Still, Minnesota Duluth found ways to win in the first half. The Bulldogs swept then-No. 4 Minnesota late in October. They went on to earn wins over Western Michigan, North Dakota and Denver — all big, NCHC rivals. In the USCHO poll, they steadily improved for most of the first half, going from No. 6 to No. 1 over the span of the first 10 weeks. Getting swept by Northern Michigan on Dec. 3 and 4 knocked them down a few pegs, but this is still a top-five team.
Also like St. Cloud State, Minnesota Duluth still finds a way to get the job done offensively. Forwards Blake Biondi, Noah Cates, Quinn Olson, Kobe Roth and Casey Gilling all sit with double-digit point totals. Freshman defenseman Owen Gallatin leads the backend with 10 points.
The team's most valuable player, however, has been junior goalie Ryan Fanti. He ranks sixth in the nation in both GAA (1.57) and save percentage (.935). He won both HCA and NCHC goaltender of the month for November.
6. North Dakota (13-6-0)
North Dakota's 6-4 loss to Penn State at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game in Nashville on Oct. 30 was a disappointing one for Fighting Hawks fans. But, the rebound that came from it is what puts North Dakota at No. 6 in these rankings.
The Fighting Hawks won nine of 12 after that, including sweeps of Denver, Miami (OH) and Colorado College. Also in there were wins against Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota and St. Cloud State.
A lot of questions surrounded this team at the start of the year regarding scoring. North Dakota had just lost its four leading scorers from the previous season. As things stand, the Fighting Hawks have made up for their giant losses. They rank 10th in goals for with 64. Sophomore forward Riese Gaber leads the team in points with 20. Defenseman Jake Sanderson, one of the most dynamic players in college hockey, ranks second on the team with 19 points. In total, eight players have double-digit point totals.
End-to-end power move from Jake Sanderson! 🚨#UNDproud | @UNDmhockey pic.twitter.com/HVtH5U6Cnf— UND Insider (@UNDinsider) October 3, 2021
In USCHO's PairWise rankings, North Dakota is No. 3, which makes sense — that comes from the success they had against very good teams in the first half. The schedule in the second half doesn't get much easier, as the Fighting Hawks open with Cornell on Jan. 8 and 7 and then have NCHC play for the rest of the year. Expect them to hover right around the top of PairWise rankings.
7. Western Michigan (13-5-0)
Oh, look — it's another NCHC team.
Some might think Western Michigan is a little low on these rankings. Honestly, I think all four of these NCHC teams have a case to be above the other. I just have Western Michigan at No. 7. Still, it's safe to say the Broncos exceeded all expectations in the first half. They set the tone for a great season when they took down then-No. 1 Michigan, 5-2, on Oct. 22. Almost a month later, they swept St. Cloud State and from that point on, they won seven of their next eight.
The Broncos are one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation, ranking No. 6 in goals with 70. The duo of fifth-year forward Ethen Frank and senior Drew Worrad has cashed in the most offensively. Worrad is tied for second in the nation in points with 27 and Frank leads the country in goals with 17. Junior defenseman Ronnie Attard is tied for fourth among all defensemen in points with 18.
WHERE THEY STAND: Here's the last Power 10 of the first half
Part of what makes Western Michigan so dominant against the opposition is they're the tallest and heaviest team in the nation. The Broncos have no issue creating space and winning puck battles. Those are two qualities that are huge for a team — especially one that's in the loaded NCHC.
8. Denver (11-5-0)
The Pioneers hovered around the top 10 throughout the entire first half. At times, they just missed but at the end of the first half, they come in at No. 8.
Denver had some tough, early losses to ranked teams such as Providence, Boston College and North Dakota. After that, however, the Pioneers went on a seven-game win streak with sweeps of Western Michigan, Miami (OH) and Arizona State. They finished the first half with a split against Minnesota Duluth. That has all led to Denver ranking No. 4 in PairWise.
The biggest strength of this Denver squad is its ability to score goals. It ranks No. 4 in the nation with 73. It also has the No. 6 power play with a 26.4 percent conversion percentage. Denver's top six crew has produced extremely well. Sophomore forward Carter Savoie leads the team in points with 22. Bobby Brink, his linemate, is right behind him with 21 points. Freshman Massimo Rizzo, the second line center, is tied with Brink in points.
9. Cornell (9-1-1)
Even though the Big Red have the least amount of games played of any team on this list, I still have them at No. 9.
Ever since losing to Harvard, 3-2, on Nov. 5, Cornell rattled off seven-straight wins and ended the first half with a 4-4 tie against Clarkson. Its biggest win came at Madison Square Garden against Boston University, as they took down the Terriers, 6-4.
On offense, Cornell has two of the most effective forwards in the country in junior Matt Stienburg and senior Max Andreev. Stienburg leads the nation with 1.63 points per game and Andreev is fourth with 1.45. Along with those two leading the way, the Big Red ranks fourth in the nation in Corsi For percentage at 58.8 percent.
Cornell has a much tougher second half. It opens with Arizona State and then travels to North Dakota for a weekend set against the Fighting Hawks on January 7 and 8. The rest of the schedule is ECAC play, which means dates with Harvard, Clarkson and Quinnipiac. The Big Red are currently No. 19 in PairWise. With wins in those games, they'll go up a lot more.
10. UMass (9-4-2)
This one was really tough. It came down to Minnesota and UMass for this spot. Ultimately I went with UMass.
The Minutemen overcame a lot in the first half. It started when sophomore center Josh Lopina went down at the end of October. That created a massive hole on UMass' top line. Then more forwards went down throughout November. Cal Kiefiuk, Eric Faith and Garrett Wait all saw time on the shelf.
Despite all of that, UMass found ways to win. After opening the season with two losses to Minnesota State, UMass never lost in regulation again. A lot of that came from its stout defense — UMass ranks No. 7 in the nation in goals against (33).
On offense, senior captain Bobby Trivigno leads the way in points with 16. But some new faces stepped up big in the first half. Freshman defensemen Scott Morrow and Ryan Ufko rank second and third on the team in points with 15 and 12. Senior forward Anthony Del Gaizo has stepped up big, ranking fourth on the team in points with 10.
The Minutemen enter the break at No. 9 in PairWise, which is solid considering all they went through in half 1.