The premier college hockey series will be in St. Cloud this weekend.

The North Dakota Fighting Hawks look to bump off the NCHC leader for the second week in a row as they prepare for a massive early season match up at St. Cloud State Huskies.  Friday’s game starts at 7:37 pm, while Saturday’s game starts at 7 pm.

Limited tickets still remain for both games. If you aren’t able to make it to the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center, both games will be on the FSN family of networks. Friday’s game is on FSN-plus. Saturday’s game is on FSN.

The recent history has greatly favored the Fighting Hawks. North Dakota is 10-3 in the last 13 games against the Huskies. The Fighting Hawks haven’t allowed a goal against the Huskies in St. Cloud since November 21st, 2015. That’s been a span of 120 minutes, 55 seconds.

Many, myself included, thought the Fighting Hawks would be a little down this year. Standout scorers Tyson Jost and Brock Boeser are gone and Tucker Poolman, who was a rock on the blue line, is also gone from this year’s model.

But, of course, North Dakota just reloaded. Freshman Grant Mismash was highly regarded coming in, but not to the level of a Jost or Boeser. Nevertheless, he currently is tied with the lead in points with junior defenseman Christian Wolanin at 14. They are getting outstanding depth scoring from Collin Adams, Ludvig Hoff and a few others. Nineteen players have scored a goal this season and no one has more than six (Nick Jones).

The key to the series for the Huskies is to keep the pressure up all series long. While North Dakota has a strong record this season at 10-4-4, they don’t light up the goal sheet. They are averaging 2.94 goals per game, which is tied for 23rd in the country. The aspect that never gets talked about enough is how well they play in their own end.

That’s a big reason why the Fighting Hawks are able to seemingly place anyone in net and the team doesn’t skip a beat. They are so defensively sound that walk-ons like Matt Hrynkiw had a career 2.09 goals against average.

The Huskies need to utilize its depth and cycle game to get North Dakota out of its comfort zone. North Dakota has only allowed an average of 2.17 goals per game, but the team save percentage is only at .896 in conference games. I like the Huskies chances if they can keep up the pressure and get shots to the net.

Fighting Hawks goalie Cam Johnson is seemingly on the Van Wilder program; it feels like he’s been there for a long time. He sustained a pregame injury on November 3rd against Wisconsin and was out for eight games straight. Freshman Peter Thome started those eight and went 3-2-3 in that stretch. I can’t see any reason why Thome would start this weekend. It will be Johnson’s net.

As for the local team, Huskies coach Bob Motzko will have to decide if he is going to keep with his goalie rotation or if he will stick with Jeff Smith. I think how Smith plays on Friday will decide that.

Both teams aren’t highly penalized. Both average about 12 penalty minutes a night. The key match-up on special teams is the Huskies power play up against the North Dakota penalty kill. I said earlier that North Dakota is very structured in the defensive zone; the penalty kill is no different. The Fighting Hawks are able to kill off penalties at an impressive 87 percent.

Since possession will also be a key part to the game, one of the more intriguing battles within the war will be in the face-off dot. North Dakota is tops in college hockey, winning 57 percent of draw. The Huskies are second, winning 55.3 percent. To put that in context, the top faceoff team in the NHL is currently at 53 percent.

It will be interesting to see if Motzko plays the match-ups or just lets his lines go. On his radio show, he said how he hasn’t done that many times this year. If that’s true, I expect it to change this game. The top defensive pair of Wolanin-Colton Poolman pairing should be kept away from Ryan Poehling’s line and Jimmy Schuldt should be over the boards anytime Mismash and Gersich are on the ice. Gersich had four goals the last series in St. Cloud. If the Huskies expect to win, they can’t let that happen again.

I can go on and on about the recent history between the two clubs, the Huskies season coming to an end at the hands of the Fighting Hawks in two of the last three season, et al. But deep down, six points are at stake and this series can be a pivotable one in deciding a NCHC regular season champion.


            -           The WJC Under-20 preliminary roster was set Tuesday. Motzko once again takes the reigns as he looks to defend his gold medal. Ryan Poehling has been announced to that team.

            Six other NCHC players made the preliminary roster: Western Michigan’s Hugh McGing and five from Minnesota Duluth, with Joey and Mikey Anderson, Dylan Samburg, Riley Tufte and Scott Perunovich. The tournament starts December 26th.

            -           Speaking of Ryan Poehling, Motzko said on his radio show that his injury isn’t serious and probably would have played if it were the playoffs. Look for him to be in the line-up Friday.

            -           I was very underwhelmed by the presentation for the Team USA roster reveal on the NHL Network. It was about a five-minute mention with no background about any of the players. It was terrible execution to try to drum up interest for the most exciting hockey of the year. I shouldn’t have to turn to TSN for my Team USA coverage. When we get to the tournament, I’ll blog about my thoughts on the tournament.

 That is all for now. Due to some family obligations, my usual Monday blog may be pushed to Tuesday. Thank you to everyone who reached out to me; it was greatly appreciated.


This blog is the opinion of Travis Weldon, College hockey fan and frequent guest of Granite City Sports. You can read more from Travis on Twitter @MoarClappers.

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