Commentary: Halfway through the NCHC Pod, what have we learned?
As of Friday night, 19 games have been played with 19 to go.
OMAHA, Neb. -- When the final buzzer sounded Friday night in Baxter Arena, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Pod officially hit the halfway point.
Nineteen games down, 19 to go.
Considering the number of cancellations and postponements in other leagues, the NCHC is beginning to look wise to have attempted this monumental effort to kick off its season during the coronavirus pandemic.
So far, every game has been played as scheduled. That's no small feat. A lot of credit goes to the players and staffs of each team. They must be taking a lot of precautions to avoid outbreaks, especially at a time when the virus is so prevalent.
NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton isn't ready to start celebrating. There's still a long way to go to complete the Pod. But it's off to a great start.
Halfway through the event, here are a few things we've learned.
1. So far, no major team surprises
When you look at the preseason media poll, nothing seems outlandishly off yet.
Denver started 1-3, but the Pioneers pass the eye test. They look good and that record will soon correct itself.
UND, Denver, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State were picked to finish in the top four of the standings and all of that is still very possible.
2. Omaha looks pretty good
If there's one team that looks poised to sneak up into the top four and steal a spot, it's Omaha.
The Mavericks are producing way more offense than expected. And the interesting part is some of their best offensive players aren't producing huge numbers yet. Colorado Avalanche draft pick Tyler Weiss is the 13th-leading scorer on the team right now. Ryan Brushett, who looks very dynamic, is seventh. UND transfer Johnny Tychonick, an offensive defenseman, has one point. They won't remain quiet for long.
Omaha's emergence could really throw the league standings for a loop. There's an unbalanced schedule in the pandemic era, and three teams who look like top-half squads -- UND, Denver and Omaha -- are all in the same half of the division and will play each other repeatedly in the second half.
They could beat up on each other and open the door for Minnesota Duluth or St. Cloud State to make a run.
3. Savoie is better than expected
Denver freshman Carter Savoie came in with some acclaim. He was a fourth-round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers and the No. 5 incoming freshman on the Herald's rankings.
But he's been even better than that.
Savoie has jumped out to an early lead in the race for NCHC rookie of the year. He's scored goals in his first five games. There's only one other player in the entire NCHC who has a point -- not a goal, a point -- in every game this season. That's UND's Jordan Kawaguchi, who was a Hobey Baker Award finalist a year ago.
4. Underrated players
Which other players have been unexpectedly good?
Minnesota Duluth senior Kobe Roth, who played prep hockey at Warroad, has five goals in five games. He was a good goal-scorer a year ago -- he tallied 13 -- but he looks to be on another level this season.
Omaha freshman Matt Miller slipped on the No. 27 which was worn by the heavy-shooting Zach Jordan and Miller picked up where Jordan left off. Miller has a team-high four goals in five games.
Similar to Savoie, Denver rookie defenseman Mike Benning came to campus as an NHL draft pick, so he wasn't unheard of. But you rarely see rookie defensemen tally seven points in their first five college games. By comparison, Ian Mitchell, the former DU defenseman who signed with the Chicago Blackhawks, had two in his first five career games.
Western Michigan defenseman Aidan Fulp has already been promoted to the team's top pairing alongside Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Ronnie Attard. Without Cam Lee (graduated), Luke Bafia (graduated), Mattias Samuelsson (signed with Buffalo) and Jared Kucharek (season-ending injury), the Broncos needed someone to step up and Fulp has done that.
5. Shepard's replacement is fine
Minnesota Duluth had a major question mark in net with the graduation of Hunter Shepard, who played 115 consecutive games for the Bulldogs, spanning nearly three entire seasons.
But the Bulldogs will be just fine between the pipes.
Five games into the NCHC Pod, both sophomore Ryan Fanti (3-0-1, .922) and freshman Zach Stejskal (1-0, .920) have save percentages higher than what Shepard posted last season (.918).
6. Pinto could contend for league MVP
Kawaguchi, a returning Hobey finalist and All-American, has continued his stellar play in the Pod. He's one of only two players to tally a point in every game.
But he may be contending with his new linemate for postseason awards.
UND sophomore Shane Pinto has arguably been the most dominant all-around player in the NCHC Pod. At the midway point, Pinto is tied with Savoie and Minnesota Duluth's Nick Swaney as the leading scorer in the league (Kawaguchi is one point back).
Pinto also is the best faceoff man in the league at 68.7. The Franklin Square, N.Y., product has been a force in all three zones for the Fighting Hawks.
7. Intensity not lacking
The lack of fans has not equated to a lack of intensity.
Need proof? Both UND-Denver games ended with the teams yelling at each other as they left the ice.
Perhaps some of the goal celebrations have been muted without an exuberant crowd to fuel emotions of players, but the product on the ice has been outstanding.
8. Everyone's watching
NCHC TV did crash once due to an overload of traffic that Sidearm Sports knew was coming.
With little else going on in the sporting world -- there's no NHL, no AHL, hardly any junior hockey -- a lot of former players are tuning into these games to watch their old teams.
8 -- Shane Pinto, North Dakota
8 -- Carter Savoie, Denver
8 -- Nick Swaney, Minnesota Duluth
7 -- Jordan Kawaguchi, North Dakota
7 -- Josh Passolt, Western Michigan
7 -- Mike Benning, Denver
6 -- Carter Savoie, Denver
5 -- Kobe Roth, Minnesota Duluth
4 -- Matt Miller, Omaha
3 -- Shane Pinto, North Dakota
3 -- Riese Gaber, North Dakota
3 -- Martin Sundberg, Omaha
3 -- Nolan Sullivan, Omaha
3 -- Jack Randl, Omaha
3 -- Josh Passolt, Western Michigan
3 -- Paul Washe, Western Michigan
3 -- Ethen Frank, Western Michigan
Top defenseman scorers
7 -- Mike Benning, Denver
6 -- Jason Smallidge, Omaha
6 -- Brandon Scanlin, Omaha
5 -- Matt Kiersted, North Dakota
4 -- Ronnie Attard, Western Michigan
4 -- Aidan Fulp, Western Michigan
3 -- Jake Sanderson, North Dakota
3 -- Ethan Frisch, North Dakota
3 -- Nick Perbix, St. Cloud State
3 -- Nate Knoepke, Omaha
3 -- Wyatt Kaiser, Minnesota Duluth
3 -- Matt Cairns, Minnesota Duluth
3 -- Scooter Brickey, Western Michigan
Top save percentages
.922 -- Ryan Fanti, Minnesota Duluth
.922 -- Adam Scheel, North Dakota
.921 -- Ludvig Persson, Miami
.911 -- Isaiah Saville, Omaha
.910 -- David Hrenak, St. Cloud State