25 Frozen Faceoff thoughts: Why are some NCHC teams having more issues with COVID-19 than others?
Ralph Engelstad Arena is set to host the conference tournament today through Tuesday.
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference Frozen Faceoff will open today in Grand Forks and the major storyline is, of course, the impact of the coronavirus.
Colorado College coach Mike Haviland said Thursday his team will only have 17 available players -- forwards, defensemen and goaltenders included -- for the playoff opener at 2:37 p.m. against St. Cloud State. Haviland declined to reveal which players made the trip, but it is believed that Matt Vernon is the lone goalie.
The Tigers will play without having a full team practice in a couple of weeks because of COVID-19 positive tests, contact tracing and quarantining.
This was Colorado College's third coronavirus shutdown of the season. The Tigers had one at the beginning of the year (they were the only team late to the NCHC Pod in December), another one in the middle of the season and now a third heading into the playoffs .
They're not the only Front Range team with COVID-19 issues.
Denver coach David Carle told College Hockey News that the Pioneers will play with just 16 skaters and three goalies. Denver left eight players home.
A lot of questions have been asked this week about why the Tigers have had more problems with COVID-19 positive tests among players than other teams. But it's not as simple as that.
Other teams had large outbreaks, too. They just happened before the season started. UND coach Brad Berry and Miami coach Chris Bergeron both have said their teams went through issues this fall when students returned to campus. That means teams like UND and Miami likely entered the season with fewer players vulnerable to the virus.
"We're one of those groups where it affected us earlier," Bergeron said. "So, our August and September and parts of October were quiet. We were skating in small groups and so on and so forth. Once we got in true preparation in the Pod, got through the Pod, it's been pretty good, knock on wood."
Berry said he recently had a conversation with his team, reminding them to take precautions to avoid the getting the coronavirus.
"We're winding our season down and we're focusing on the things we want to do here," Berry said. "Part of that is knowing this is your family. There's family with parents and siblings and girlfriends and people outside the circle of our family here. We really want to tighten it up and make sure everyone is focusing on what we have to do. Part of that is making the right choices and focusing on the next five weeks here and being tighter as a family."
Here are 25 things to know ahead of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff:
1. UND will still be without one key player tonight. Forward Grant Mismash (upper body) has been ruled out for the quarterfinal game against Miami. Because there are two days between the quarterfinals and semifinals, Berry said if UND happens to get past Miami, it will re-evaluate Mismash on Monday.
Mismash has not played since Feb. 12 against Denver, when he sustained an upper-body injury. He has missed the last five games. Mismash, a senior, was having a terrific season, tallying nine goals and 18 points in 18 games.
2. Miami enters the tournament as big underdogs, but the RedHawks have pulled off playoff upsets before. Since the NCHC formed in 2013, No. 8 seeds are 3-10 against No. 1 seeds. Miami has all three of those wins.
In fact, the RedHawks are 3-4 as the No. 8 seed. They're a single overtime goal away from having a winning record in the playoffs against the Penrose Cup champions.
The RedHawks notably made a run to the NCHC championship game as a No. 8 seed in the league's inaugural season, knocking out a second-seeded UND squad 3-0 in the semifinals.
3. In a traditional year, Miami would be coming to Grand Forks to play a best-of-three quarterfinal series. That would be a daunting task considering UND is 26-2 at home in its last 28 games. Miami would have to double that number of home losses for UND in a single weekend.
But this tournament format -- single-elimination -- perhaps opens the door for a Miami upset. Bergeron said from his perspective, he likes the one-and-done this season.
"I think I'd be lying to you if I pretended like I didn't," Bergeron said. "Coming into this building and beating North Dakota once is going to be difficult enough. If the thought was that we had to beat them two out of three, obviously, that would make it that much more difficult."
4. UND freshman forward Riese Gaber started the season with eight goals in 12 games. He has zero goals in the last 12. But keep an eye on him in the quarterfinal game: Gaber scored three goals and had four points in two games against Miami in the Pod. This may be the perfect time for Gaber to snap his 12-game goal drought.
5. The first goal of the game should be significant. UND is 17-0-0 when it scores the first goal of the game this season, 1-5-1 when it does not.
"The first five, 10 minutes are huge," Bergeron said. "We cannot be chasing the game around right away and we know our opponent is going to come out looking to do that to us in the first 10 minutes."
6. The Penrose Cup champion has never followed up its regular-season title by winning the NCHC playoff title.
If you're looking at the league's history, it has been the No. 2 seed (St. Cloud State this season) that has had the most success in the NCHC playoffs. The second-place team has won the NCHC playoff title five years in a row (last year, the coronavirus pandemic wiped it out). In the league's inaugural year, the No. 6 seed, Denver, won it.
7. Denver has the longest NCAA tournament streak in the country. The Pioneers have reached the NCAAs every year since 2007. Ironically, 2007 also was the last time Denver hosted an NCAA regional (the Pioneers are expected to host in Loveland, Colo., this season).
Denver will likely have to win the NCHC tournament to get an NCAA bid, but the Pioneers have done that before to keep their NCAA streak alive. In 2014, they were not going to make the NCAA tournament without winning the Frozen Faceoff, but they did it.
8. If Colorado College is going to pull the upset against St. Cloud State, it will need its special teams to get going. The Tigers' power play is converting at an atrocious 5.7 percent this season. Only Division-I newcomer Long Island University has a worse percentage. To illustrate how poor CC's power play has been: UND forward Shane Pinto has seven power-play goals this season. The Tigers have five.
9. Minnesota Duluth has felt the effects of losing defenseman Scott Perunovich, last year's Hobey Baker Award winner, when it comes to offense from the back end this season. The Bulldogs have three goals from defensemen this season, lowest in the NCHC (last season, Perunovich had six himself).
The NCHC's leaders in goals by defensemen: North Dakota 19, Miami 18, Western Michigan 14, Denver 13, Omaha 12, St. Cloud State 11, Colorado College 6, Minnesota Duluth 3.
The Bulldogs also have 34 points from the back end (last season, Perunovich had 40 himself).
The NCHC's leaders in points by defensemen: North Dakota 71, Western Michigan 57, St. Cloud State 57, Omaha 57, Denver 44, Miami 37, Minnesota Duluth 34, Colorado College 21.
10. Three players among the league's top 100 scorers have yet to take a penalty this season: St. Cloud State's Veeti Miettinen (10 goals, 23 points), Minnesota Duluth's Kobe Roth of Warroad (11 goals, 19 points) and UND's Judd Caulfield of Grand Forks (four goals, nine points).
Miettinen was named the NCHC's rookie of the year Thursday, a significant award considering the stature of the previous winners: Colorado College's Jaccob Slavin, Denver's Danton Heinen, UND's Brock Boeser, Denver's Henrik Borgstrom, Minnesota Duluth's Perunovich, Omaha's Taylor Ward and UND's Pinto.
11. This tournament could be strange for Miami, Western Michigan, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State. None of those teams have played in front of much of a crowd this season outside of family members and friends. Minnesota Duluth also let a small number of students attend games at the end of the regular season.
UND and Omaha are the only programs that opened up their buildings to more than a couple hundred fans. Miami, Western Michigan, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State never played in Grand Forks, and their only trip to Omaha came during the NCHC Pod, which was played behind closed doors.
"Seeing a few thousand fans is going to be a new thing, for sure," Miami forward Phil Knies said.
12. Western Michigan enters the NCHC Frozen Faceoff with the longest unbeaten streak in the league. The Broncos have won five games in a row (two against Miami, two against Minnesota Duluth and one against St. Cloud State). If Western Michigan reaches the NCHC championship game, the Broncos will be guaranteed to hit the .500 mark and become eligible to make the NCAA tournament.
The Broncos recently got a big lift with the return of goalie Brandon Bussi, who was injured in the first game of the season. Bussi returned for Western Michigan's two most recent games, Feb. 26 and Feb. 28 against Miami.
13. One player to watch is Western Michigan defenseman Ronnie Attard, who was named the NCHC's offensive defenseman of the year this week. Attard has racked up 10 points during Western Michigan's current five-game winning streak.
"He's taken it to another level this year," Western Michigan coach Andy Murray said. "To see the other coaches in the league recognize him as someone deserving of this award is really special. He's certainly a leader on our team. He logs the most minutes on any given night. He's a force out there, no question about it."
14. Haviland on Colorado College playing shorthanded: "I always say this, as long as I live, 'a wounded dog hunts best.' You've got to be smart now. If you're wounded, you've got to be smart. That's how we've got to play -- a smart, simple game."
15. Omaha has not had much success in the NCHC playoffs. The Mavericks are 2-12 and have never reached the Frozen Faceoff (which in a typical year is just the semifinals and championship/third-place game). This time, the Mavericks are reaching it by default, because the quarterfinals are included.
16. That doesn't mean the fourth-place Mavericks should be overlooked. In the last two seasons, only one visiting team has won in Ralph Engelstad Arena -- Omaha. The Mavericks have actually done it twice. They won in January 2020 and they also won just a week ago on a Ward overtime goal. Outside of the Mavericks, nobody has even tied in The Ralph the last two seasons.
17. Who should you expect to see shooting the puck this weekend? Minnesota Duluth. Bulldogs forwards Cole Koepke (115 shots), Nick Swaney (102) and Jackson Cates (72) rank 1-2-4 in the NCHC in shots on goal.
18. Who is likely to score if their shots wind up on net? There are six players in the NCHC with shooting percentages higher than 20: St. Cloud State's Jami Krannila (23.1 percent), UND's Pinto (21.4), Omaha's Matt Miller (21.2), Western Michigan's Ethen Frank (20.7), UND's Collin Adams (20.5) and UND's Tyler Kleven (20.0).
19. Omaha forward Joey Abate leads the NCHC in both penalties (20) and penalty minutes (59). But if the Mavericks can keep Abate out of the penalty box, it has been a good thing for them. Omaha is 9-2 when Abate does not take a penalty and 2-6-1 when he does.
20. Minnesota Section 8 will be well represented in the Frozen Faceoff: UND defenseman Ethan Frisch (Moorhead), St. Cloud State assistant coach Nick Oliver (Roseau), Husky defenseman Brendan Bushy (Thief River Falls), Husky defenseman Luke Jaycox (Warroad) and Minnesota Duluth forward Kobe Roth (Warroad).
21. New graphics are being installed on the dasher boards to make Ralph Engelstad Arena as much NCHC Frozen Faceoff-themed as it can. The UND logo at center ice has already been taken out in place of a Frozen Faceoff logo.
22. The Grand Forks Visitors Bureau left a gift bag in the hotel room of participating coaches, NCHC staff members and CBS Sports crew members. Colorado College assistant coach Leon Hayward tweeted that he's already finished off his bag of Chippers from Widman's.
Hey Grand Forks, 1st class as always. Thank you for always making feel welcome! Stick tap to our friends at @visitgrandforks pic.twitter.com/FvEfHYQFW9— Dave Starman (@DStarmanHockey) March 11, 2021
23. The NCHC championship game is typically officiated by the two referees who grade out the highest during the regular season. That's always something to watch.
24. Due to a request by CBS Sports, which Midco Sports Network accommodated, Dave Starman will serve as the color commentator for both Friday games -- Colorado College vs. St. Cloud State and UND vs. Miami -- while Jake Brandt serves as the color commentator for both Saturday games. Brandt normally calls UND games.
25. CBS Sports Network will handle both of Monday's semifinals and Tuesday's championship. While the CBS announcers have called games remotely this season, they'll be on site in Grand Forks this weekend.