This Week in NCHC Hockey: Applause for conference in getting through ’20-21 season safely, with exciting games to boot

Miami goalie Ludvig Persson defends the RedHawks’ crease earlier this season in a game against St. Cloud State (photo: Miami Athletics).

Now that the Frozen Faceoff has ended, it seems fitting to look back on the NCHC season.

It’s likely that three teams from the conference may make the NCAA tournament, possibly four, but with so much up in the air with selection, it’s also possible only two teams, North Dakota and St. Cloud State, will be chosen.

If so, it would be a horrible way for Minnesota Duluth’s streak of three straight NCAA championship games to end. In addition to the Bulldogs, Omaha has to be sitting on the edge of its proverbial seat wondering whether the loss to Denver in the first round of the NCHC tournament will end what has been a fine season.

The waiting game is interesting.

Going strictly off the PairWise, only North Dakota is truly safe. St. Cloud currently sits at 16, Minnesota Duluth at 20, Denver at 21, and Omaha at 25. St. Cloud will likely qualify for the NCAA tournament. Minnesota Duluth sputtered down the stretch, losing five of its last seven, and that may cost the Bulldogs a spot. Omaha lost four of its last five, as well as three of five games to Denver since late January, and that will likely end the Mavericks’ season.

Denver, despite flashes of brilliance, was never quite able to establish consistency, and that will likely bring the Pioneers’ NCAA tournament streak to an end.

Back in December, just before the NCHC pod in Omaha began, I questioned whether we were really going to have a hockey season and whether it was worth the risks in our COVID-19 era. I stand by that statement, but I think we also need to give the NCHC an enormous amount of credit for how the season played out.

Each of the league’s eight teams was slated to play a 24-game schedule, and six teams actually managed that feat. Denver and Colorado College were the only two teams to not play 24 games, though they almost managed that at 22 games each.

Having said that, COVID-19 did still affect the season in multiple ways.

Four teams (CC, Denver, Minnesota Duluth, and Omaha) had games cancelled due to COVID. CC was hit the hardest, losing out on three weekends. CC was also short players in the NCHC tournament because of COVID, as was Denver; the Pioneers only had 10 forwards, yet came within inches of advancing to the Frozen Faceoff championship when Cole Guttman’s empty-net attempt just missed. North Dakota then tied it and won in OT. CC also gave St. Cloud all it could handle, losing 2-1.

The NCHC season began with a bang with the pod in Omaha, something all the league’s teams seemed to find an interesting way to manage playing hockey during a pandemic. It worked so well that the league went to a “mini-pod” for its tournament last week, bypassing the usual best-of-three first round series on campus sites in favor of a single-elimination format for all the games.

When the decision was made, league commissioner Josh Fenton acknowledged COVID was behind it while also stating that the league hoped to return to its traditional format, including the Frozen Faceoff at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minn., next season.

Said Fenton in a press release, “Due to continued challenges with COVID-19, we are forced to alter the structure and location of the 2021 NCHC Tournament. Circumstances surrounding travel, testing, and fan attendance made the traditional format difficult to complete. We are disappointed that we will not be able to culminate the season at Xcel Energy Center, but look forward to bringing one of college hockey’s best tournament experiences back to Saint Paul in 2022.”

Last week in his state of the NCHC press conference, Fenton also acknowledged that COVID may still affect the league next season.

“We’ll have to see where the virus is and the transmission of the virus across our society overall before we’re making determinations of whether there are specific protocols that we’ve been in this year, whether it be testing, masking, social distancing, attendance at games, those types of things, whether those will hold true for next year,” Fenton said.

“We certainly hope that we can return to some sense of normalcy, particularly welcoming fans back to venues, but I think there are things within that protocol that we’ll certainly want to be mindful of as we creep toward next September and October.”

Awards season

On Wednesday, the 10 candidates for the Hobey Baker Award were announced. The NCHC was represented by North Dakota’s Shane Pinto, who led the league in scoring with 28 points and finished first in scoring in the NCHC and ninth nationally.

In the league’s eight-year history, it has had at least one Hobey candidate every year. A total of 13 NCHC players have been named Hobey candidates, seven of whom have gone on to be named Hobey Hat Trick finalists.

Denver’s Will Butcher won the award in 2017 and Minnesota Duluth’s Scott Perunovich won it last season. Last year, two NCHC players, Perunovich and North Dakota’s Jordan Kawaguchi, were Hat Trick finalists. In the league’s previous seven years, 2016 is the only year an NCHC player wasn’t a Hat Trick finalist.

Pinto isn’t the only player up for an award.

North Dakota goaltender Adam Scheel has been named a finalist for the Mike Richter Award. During the regular season, Scheel had a 15-3-1 record with a 1.78 goals-against average and .928 save percentage with four shutouts. Scheel won NCHC goaltender of the year honors as well. Two NCHC goaltenders have been among the Richter Award’s seven previous winners: North Dakota’s Zane McIntyre in 2015 and Denver’s Tanner Jaillet in 2017.

Additionally, Kawaguchi and St. Cloud State forward Kevin Fitzgerald are among the 10 finalists for the Men’s Hockey Senior CLASS Award, which stands for “Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School.” Fans can help select the winner by voting at the Senior CLASS website until March 29.

Last Thursday, the NCHC announced the league awards. North Dakota coach Brad Berry was named Herb Brooks Coach of the Year, the third time he was won the award. Pinto was named conference player of the year and also earned forward of the year and defensive forward of the year honors. St. Cloud forward Veeti Miettinen was rookie of the year, and Western Michigan defenseman Kale Bennett was named NCHC senior scholar-athlete for 2020-21. Fitzgerald also won the NCHC sportsmanship award.

North Dakota’s Jacob Bernard-Docker was named defensive defenseman of the year, Western Michigan’s Ronnie Attard offensive defenseman of the year, and Miami goaltender Ludvig Persson won the league’s three stars award.