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  • NCAA eyes focused on the midwest, and here's why


    Okay, so that's as click-bait a title as I'm willing to allow myself. In my defense, it might be why you're reading this article.

    But in all actuality, that title is accurate. After starting the season 5-0-0, the reigning NCAA champs in North Dakota have tumbled to 5-3-1 after dropping two weekends in Minnesota. You might wonder if there's something in the water here, but I'm guessing it's probably more about what's on the ice.

    And what's on the ice for North Dakota is a team that's ridden high on its best scorers. Brock Boeser, about whom I've written way too much (sorry guys), is a solid player who looks NHL-ready despite his young age. His stick skills and quick hands are drawing attention beyond the NCAA, too. The Vancouver Canucks prospect is attracting interest from other franchises looking to cash in on what looks like a surefire prospect and Jim Benning's need to stabilize a bleeding and aging roster, according to TSN's Darren Dreger.

    So despite the elite status of its best players, the Fighting Hawks have struggled to compete with quality opponents early this year. The most obvious explanation is probably that it's my fault for writing about them and totally messing up their chances. But I think there's something else going on, and hear me out: I don't think they're scoring as many goals as their opponents. In the past two weeks, North Dakota has scored 7 goals, an average of 1.25 goals per game. Before that they were sitting on 4.75 goals per game in 5 regular season matchups.

    Part of this is due to facing tougher opponents in this new stretch, but another part is more elemental. North Dakota is built around a core of elite players, Boeser included. The rest of the team is designed to grow as the year goes on. I don't expect that these early struggles will last for the whole season, but they're certainly more pronounced than anyone expected. And they might not get any better this weekend as they take on No. 2 Denver. Look out below.

    As for the Gophers, who sank 7 goals in 2 games against North Dakota last weekend, are off this week, presumably setting their sights on the MSU Mavericks, who've dropped below them in the USCHO rankings. Eric Schierhorn, who's been up and down for the Gophers all year, stabilized somewhat against UND in the series closer, blanking them as the Gophers played a steady and determined game. These are all good signs for the Gophers as they try to routinize good habits.

    Like I mentioned, the Mavericks will take the Gophers on next weekend. But this weekend, they're facing the BSU Beavers in a match for the heart of the WCHA. Bemidji State is much improved this season and are playing all-around good hockey. They're at or near the top of the WCHA in goals for and goals against and look like mirrors of the MSU mantra. It could be a really good back and forth weekend for the teams as they look to decide whose version of well-rounded is more...well...rounded.

    Meanwhile, the Badgers are looking to get back on the right track after a weekend in Michigan turned up dry on goals. They won on Saturday with goals by Cameron Hughes and Wild prospect Luke Kunin (good job, guy), but that's no real reason to celebrate. Past versions of this Badgers squad have failed because of an absence of offense. Without a real sense of direction from up front, they'll need real consistency from their defense to maintain a good position in the Big Ten. I'm not saying they can't do that against an unranked Merrimack, but it's going to be harder if the only goals they can get are from their top lines.

    The St. Cloud State Huskies are also in action this weekend, looking to bounce back from a tough set of identical losses to the No. 1 team in the country. The Huskies were dogged by UMD, and it showed on the ice, taking silly penalties and showing signs of wear. They fought each game hard, with decent offensive production early on in each game, but it was clear that UMD was too big a match for them. They'll take on Colorado College, which should be a decidedly more comfortable opponent and can help them get back to their early season successes.

    Lastly, and obviously not least, the Bulldogs are looking good. They're sowing signs of being a real team built on solid ground this year. Despite losing some of their best players to the NHL, they're sticking with the game plan and above all else, are persisting in games that it looks like they can't win. They came back from a 2 goal deficit last Friday and didn't let up on the Huskies, showing a real dedication to the game.

    This weekend brings an easier match for the Bulldogs against unranked Western Michigan. You'd have to assume this is a weekend the Bulldogs should sweep, but the real tell will be in how they manage the lineup. How much fine tuning do the Bulldogs need to get ready for the serious stretch of games. Four of the next six matchups for the Bulldogs are against nationally-ranked opponents. These are serious tests for the Bulldogs, so this weekend is the time to get the bugs out.

    Think you could write a story like this? Hockey Wilderness wants you to develop your voice, find an audience, and we'll pay you to do it. Just fill out this form.

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