With college students around the country returning to campus, NCAA hockey is back in the spotlight. While games continued here and there through December, many programs returned to action the first weekend of January. The second half of the season will be more conference-centric, with teams focused on positioning themselves as best they can before conference tournaments begin in mid-March. That will all lead up to the six conference champions and ten at-large selections squaring off in the NCAA tournament. Right now, No. 2 North Dakota and No. 3 Minnesota State are the only top five teams who also lead their respective conferences, which should make for an exciting and unpredictable second half.
The Current Landscape
The biggest question entering the second half of the college season may just be whether anyone can stop No. 1 Cornell? The nation’s top team still has just one regulation loss on the year and ranks sixth in goals per game and second in goals against per game. The Big Red are also not an easy team to game plan against. While goaltender Matthew Galajda has been phenomenal while appearing in all 15 of Cornell’s games and Morgan Barron (NYR) is the undisputed star, the team gets a balanced effort from the entire lineup. With that said, the Big Red have shown some cracks in the New Year, going 2-0-2 thus far with ties against Union and No. 11 Providence.
Speaking of the Friars, Jack Dugan (VGK) continues to lead the chase for the Hobey Baker Award with the NCAA’s best total and per-game scoring numbers. He performed especially well in front of his potential future home crowd in the Ice Vegas Invitational. Line mate Tyce Thompson (NJD) remains in the scoring hunt as well, thanks in part to an NCAA-best 17 goals. Providence is currently the leader of Hockey East, but they have their work cut out for them against stiff competition, including No. 5 Boston College and No. 13 UMass Lowell, both of whom have games in hand on PC. With No. 10 UMass and No. 12 Northeastern in the mix as well, Hockey East will be a cutthroat battle the rest of the way, leading up to conference tournament that will shift the national scale.
The NCHC is no slouch either, featuring two top-five teams in No. 2 North Dakota and No. 4 Denver, not to mention two-time defending champs No. 8 Minnesota Duluth. The three teams are all set to be tested by one another in the coming weeks: the Bulldogs host the Fighting Hawks next weekend before traveling to face the Pioneers the following weekend, who themselves will visit the Hawks the weekend after that. The NCHC standings may be in for a shake-up, but none of those three teams look likely to lose their top-ten billing any time soon.
New year, same dominant lone wolf near the top of the national rankings. No. 3 Minnesota State continues to suffocate their opponents behind the stellar play of Hobey Baker hopeful Dryden McKay in net. The team is allowing an NCAA-best 1.33 goals against per game and have outscored opponents 17-2 in a perfect 4-0 start after New Year’s. With wins over UND and Duluth (twice) this season, their record is no fluke, even if they do routinely dominate their WCHA competition. Will Mankato be the team to beat come tournament time?
Kuznetsov’s Stock On The Rise
When NHL Central Scouting released their midyear rankings for the 2020 NHL Draft, it was easy to notice Wisconsin forward Dylan Holloway sitting in 10th among North American skaters. However, you may have missed UConn defenseman Yan Kuznetsov, who was 28th in the same group and has very much entered the conversation as a potential first-round pick this spring. Kuznetsov may not light up the score board, but then again no Huskies have this season. The Russian blue liner’s nine points are in fact tied for eight on the team and second among defensemen. However, the hallmarks of Kuznetsov’s game are his size and composure, especially for a 17-year-old freshman. Kuznetsov projects to be a shutdown defenseman with a high ceiling, as he is already playing at an elite level in the NCAA at a young age. UConn has slim odds of an extended postseason run this season, so scouts will be focused on the team’s remaining regular season schedule as they get a final read on Kuznetsov before he’s available for selection in June.
Pinto Receives A Suspension
Shane Pinto (OTT) has made headlines for a few different reasons lately. The North Dakota center was one of the standout performers on an otherwise disappointing Team USA entry at the recent World Junior Championship, recording seven points in five games and flashing the high-level skill that the Fighting Hawks faithful have come to love this season. The freshman then stayed loyal to his college teammates, allegedly rebuffing attempts by his NHL rights holder, the Ottawa Senators, to convince him to join the nearby Ottawa 67’s of the OHL for the remainder of the season. Pinto’s latest headline is not as positive though. The freshman forward has been handed a one-game suspension from the NCHC for an illegal check against Nebraska-Omaha last weekend, an incident that earned him a five-minute major penalty and game misconduct as well. Pinto, who has 16 points in 20 games for North Dakota this year, will sit for the team first game against Miami on Friday, but will be eligible to return for game two of the series on Saturday.