College hockey has trickled back to action over the past four weeks, with the Big Ten and WCHA starting men's play as early as Nov. 13 and full schedules ramping up the following week. Still, as leagues and teams continued to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, there was a big something missing – the NCHC and its dominant programs.
That changed Wednesday when the puck dropped in the Omaha "Pod'' at Baxter Arena. Seven of the league's eight teams gathered in Omaha to start their seasons, and the eighth, Colorado College, will join next week after dealing with COVID-19 issues. The plan was for NCHC teams to play 40 games (later sliced to 38) in the pod to decrease travel between far-flung schools. There will be as many as three games per day in Omaha in front of no fans, and if the first three days are any indication, there's plenty to like with this format.
The games in Omaha are being produced by Midco Sports Network and are available on the NCHC.tv paid streaming service. If you're a college hockey junkie, you might find that the pod format and broadcasts have the feel of the NHL playoffs in the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles. The play might not be of midseason form quite yet, but the skill and depth displayed so far give an indication why the NCHC has produced the past four national champions.
After focusing on three local teams in the NCHC, I came away with some observations.
* North Dakota, the nation's No. 1-ranked team, doesn't appear to have missed a beat in the long offseason. The Fighting Hawks ended the shortened 2019-20 season as the top team in the PairWise Ratings, outscored opponents by a combined 67 goals and likely would have been the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. A chance at national championship banner No. 9 must wait until this spring, but UND has the talent to win it all.
In its 2-0 opening victory over Miami (Ohio) on Thursday, North Dakota was workmanlike but still showed its arsenal of skilled players. Steady defenseman Matt Kiersted scored on a power play, and freshman Riese Gaber wowed with a goal and game-high six shots on goal. Jordan Kawaguchi, a Hobey Baker Award finalist last spring, is the nation's leading returning scorer and contributed an assist, while Shane Pinto had two helpers. Goalie Adam Scheel wasn't tested often but still had a 19-save shutout. Add in top-five NHL draft pick Jake Sanderson, and the Fighting Hawks won't lack power in their quest to reign supreme.
The competition ramps up for UND with Friday night's game against No. 4 Denver. Other Fighting Hawks games in the pod to circle: Dec. 10 and 19 against No. 3 Minnesota Duluth.
* Because of Colorado College's early absence, Minnesota Duluth saw its schedule shift, and the Bulldogs opened with a 5-3 win over Nebraska Omaha on Wednesday and a 2-1 win over Denver on Thursday. In both games, UMD trailed entering the third period but showed the resiliency that helped it win the past two NCAA championships. That was especially true against Denver, when power-play goals 48 seconds apart by Jackson Cates and Kobe Roth secured the win.
The Bulldogs' start is impressive considering their losses off the 2019-20 team – Hobey Baker Award-winning defenseman Scott Perunovich, two-time NCAA title-winning goalie Hunter Shepard, clutch forward Justin Richards and reliable defensemen Nick Wolff and Dylan Samberg. Minnesota Duluth, however, isn't missing the blue-collar approach that coach Scott Sandelin instills in his teams. Freshman defenseman Wyatt Kaiser, a high-end offensive talent, was an example of that with his work late against Denver to block shots and clear the puck from the zone. Also, the work of Ryan Fanti in goal has been impressive. The sophomore has stopped 54 of 58 shots, including a 17-save second period against Denver.
* St. Cloud State faced a rebuilding job in Brett Larson's second season as coach in 2019-20, but the Huskies finished strong with a sweep of Minnesota Duluth in January and 2-1-1 mark against North Dakota and Denver in back-to-back weekends in February. That improvement carried over to the Omaha opener, when St. Cloud State edged Western Michigan 4-3 on Wednesday.
The Huskies got the victory when a Broncos player tried to bat the puck out of harm's way but instead put it in his own net with 27 seconds left in the third period. Still, St. Cloud State rallied earlier when Kyler Kupka scored at 13:40 of the third to tie it 3-3. St. Cloud State's speed and tenacity, two traits that Larson stresses, were noticeable, as was freshman Veeti Miettinen, who had 73 points in 52 games for his Finnish Under-20 team last season.
On Saturday, the Huskies meet Denver in one of their top challenges in Omaha. Another comes the following Saturday against North Dakota.
NCHC teams will return to campuses to resume play Jan. 1, but for three weeks we'll be treated to the unique setting of pod hockey in Omaha.