2016 NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Championships - Semifinals
2016 NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Championships - Semifinals

MEN'S COLLEGE HOCKEY | North Dakota still the team to beat in NCHC

In a way the NCHC is in for a historic season.

The National Collegiate Hockey Conference kicks off its fourth year in existence this weekend with a bit of a swagger over what the league has accomplished:

  •  The senior class will be the first to have played every season in the NCHC.

  • Among the six Division I conferences, the NCHC has finished with the best inter-conference record two of the past three seasons.

  • It has sent five teams to the Frozen Four in three seasons.

  • Last season, North Dakota became the NCHC’s first national champion in coach Brad Berry’s first season at the helm. The seniors on this season’s team have advanced to the Frozen Four every year.

  • The league created an exciting 3-on-3 overtime followed by sudden-death shootout that the WCHA has now adopted.

“This is a tough league,” Miami (Ohio) coach Enrico Blasi said. “I tell people that by Sunday morning I’m completely drained every weekend. Every time you go on the road it’s a hostile environment and you have to be ready to go every game.”

Last season NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton’s focus was on the ice with the new overtime rule change. At last week's media day the conference shifted its focus toward being more fan-friendly and interactive.

All 16 players and coaches were interviewed on Facebook’s live section on the conference’s page, giving fans who watched a chance to chime in with questions for both players and coaches.

Each player also spent a 15 minutes on the league's Twitter site answering fan questions, some about hockey, some just from friends.

“I got one asking how I got my parking spot," UND captain Gage Ausmus said.

League stability is also a focus this year.

“Our focus this season has been internally and what is best for all eight teams at this time,” Fenton said, unveiling a revamped website and new options to watch live and archived games as well social media expansion.

Fenton said the league has no timetable to expand after turning down requests from Arizona State and Minnesota State over the summer. With both Alaska schools contemplating dropping their programs for fiscal reasons and Notre Dame leaving Hockey East after this season for the Big Ten, the league looks closely at all options.

On the ice, North Dakota carries the favorite tag to win the Penrose Cup after winning its eighth national title but first in 16 years. UND graduated four seniors who advanced to the Frozen Four every season and had five more underclassmen sign with NHL teams.

However, it gathered 25 of the 30 preseason poll’s first-place votes because it not only returns all three goalies, led by Cam Johnson, but arguably the top player in college hockey in sophomore Brock Boeser. Boeser, who totaled 60 points as a freshman, was a first-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks last season and both his linemates, Drake Caggiula and Nick Schmaltz, signed with NHL teams. Highly touted Tyson Jost, the 10th pick overall of the Colorado Avalanche, leads the class of incoming freshmen.

“Right after we won Brock came into my office and said definitively, ‘Coach, I know there is a lot of talk about me leaving but I want to stay,’” Berry said. “He told me that this place is special to him and he wants to win it again. He said you never know if the next stop will be as special. For a 17-year-old to have that perspective tells you he’s got his priorities and head on straight.

“Gage is another guy I wasn't sure we’d get back. All of his friends left early. That says a lot about our program.”

Boeser and Ausmus aren’t the only two underclassmen in the league who turned down the pros for another shot at the Frozen Four. Will Butcher of Denver, Dominic Toninanto of Minnesota Duluth, Austin Ortega of Omaha, Jimmy Schuldt of St. Cloud and Louie Belpedio of Miami all opted to continue their development and work toward their degrees.

Ortega, who scored 11 game-winning goals last season, now has 20 for his career and can tie the NCAA record with three more this season.

As for the favorite tag, Berry doesn’t buy into it and calls the difference between finishing first or eighth razor slim.

He points to Denver (thee votes) with both goalies returning and a strong incoming class with seasoned vets, as a team beat along with Minnesota Duluth (two votes) and St. Cloud State, which may have the deepest blue line in the country.

Both Duluth and SCSU lost goalies to the NHL, much like UND did the previous season before winning the title last year. Tough to play and they played everyone tough last season. They’ll be better than people think.”

WMU is picked seventh, and projected eighth-place finisher Colorado College is also expected to close the gap after an eight-win season.

“This season every player on the team completed the conditioning challenge on the first try since I’ve been here,” CC coach Mike Haviland said. “It feels like we’re all on the same page from the start for the first time since I’ve been here. I like the direction we’re going.”

Graduation and early NHL entry took its toll on every team in the league, but that’s to be expected, said Denver coach Jim Montgomery.

“At Denver we know players will leave early,” he said. “What’s fun is the journey, seeing who will step up and become the Trevor Moore or Danton Heinen. That’s college hockey.”

Now it's your turn. Who do you think will win the NCHC this season?

[poll id="94"]

Above: North Dakota's Drake Caggiula celebrates his second goal of the team's Frozen Four semifinal victory. (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

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