HAT TRICK | Season's greetings with rivalries in tow

Just before teams go on their holiday breaks, and the December schedules get lighter by the week, there are always some end-of-the-year fireworks in the college hockey season.

All of the conferences are now into conference play, so there are some major rivalries being rekindled between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Midseason specials also set up some tantalizing inter-conference matchups.  This past weekend, it just so happened that the top two teams in the country were scheduled to meet in Denver.

On top of that, a rivalry across sports was renewed, as Boston College traveled to Notre Dame for the last time as a conference opponent, with other pairings between two ranked teams also in the offing, and one of college hockey’s most unique local rivalries got underway for another year.
It is always special when the top two teams in the country meet up, even better when they’re in the same conference.  Denver hosted poll leading Minnesota Duluth on Friday and Saturday night in Magness Arena for a pair of some of the best games college hockey has to offer in 2016.

On Friday night, the Bulldogs opened the scoring with an unassisted Alex Iafallo goal in the first, but the Pioneers tallied three goals in a row in the middle of the second period to take a lead they would never give back.  Kevin Conley scored his first collegiate goal for Denver’s first tally in a game they won 4-3.

Duluth came back strong on Saturday night behind a stellar goaltending performance from Hunter Miska.  The Bulldogs’ netminder saved 38 shots on the night to hold off a potent Denver attack and lead Minnesota Duluth to a 3-1 win to earn the series split.  The Bulldogs scored one goal in all six periods over the weekend, while Denver scored four of their five goals in the second period.  In another interesting wrinkle, there were no special teams goals in either game, showcasing disciplined teams with strong penalty killing units.

Denver is off for the holiday break.  They will return on Dec. 30 in a trip to Providence College.  Minnesota Duluth does play this weekend, a regional rivalry and a home-and-home series against Bemidji State.
In football, when Notre Dame meets Boston College, it is known as the Holy War.  On the ice, it has no name, except perhaps for “the reason Notre Dame is a member of Hockey East.”

In a more practical sense, it is a big rivalry for Notre Dame because it is a measuring stick of how good the Fighting Irish’s hockey program is at any given moment.  Jerry York’s vaunted squad is always a good test in that regard, and Notre Dame is not the only school that sees Boston College that way, but it is a rivalry that fans of that program care about.  Because supply outweighed demand for student tickets to the Saturday night pairing, Notre Dame had to hold a student ticket lottery of sorts.

As Hockey East rivals, Boston College was coming into Compton Family Ice Arena for the last time as the Irish are leaving Hockey East for the Big Ten.  They opened the scoring with a pair of power play goals in the first period.  It was the Fighting Irish who had the last laugh, however, as Anders Bjork scored a power play goal and a shorthanded goal as part of a three goal second period for Notre Dame.  Boston College only took 17 shots on the night, and the final score was 3-2 in favor of the home team.

It is a hallmark of Notre Dame’s team when they win that they keep their opponents from shooting.  They do not rely on a goaltender to provide their goal-prevention, preferring to control the puck and shut down shooting angles.  It is rare that they will play a game without holding a significant shot advantage.

Notre Dame is off until New Year’s Eve, when they host Alaska for a pair of games straddling the new year.  Boston College returns to action on Dec. 29 against Quinnipiac in the Three Rivers Classic.
Of all college hockey’s unique rivalries, the Governor’s Cup might have the most riding on it.

Yes, the Beanpot is a massive tournament, and none of the participants have ever won a national championship without first winning the local one.  The Minnesota schools have a tradition of excellence and few other sports in common.  North Dakota and Minnesota loom large.

At the same time, all of those teams are capable of playing for larger trophies, which is not true of late regarding Alaska-Anchorage or Alaska-Fairbanks.  These two programs, the top team sports in their respective schools, put on the largest sporting event in Alaska that doesn’t involve dogs and sleds.  Of late, their entire seasons hinge on the Governor’s Cup, the trophy awarded to the team that wins the season series between the two schools.

The first leg of this season’s edition took place over this past weekend in Anchorage, extremely late at night for those of us in the continental US.

The home team, the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves, took the opener on Friday night.  Jonah and Nathan Renouf each had two assists, and the Seawolves scored in each period to pace the action in a 3-2 win.  The Nanooks led on shots taken, most notably in a furious third period push with a sixteen shot third period, but Anchorage goalie Olivier Mantha was up to the task in the win.

On Saturday night, the Nanooks came back strong, scoring three special teams goals including a shorthanded tally from Ryker Leer to even the Cup with a 3-1 win.  Goalie Jesse Jenks kept the Seawolves off the scoreboard until late in the third period, making 26 saves on the night.

The Governor’s Cup will not be concluded until the end of February, when the teams meet for the return end of the series, this time in Fairbanks.  While Anchorage is off for the holiday break, Alaska still hosts Bowling Green in Fairbanks next weekend before stopping for the holidays.

Above: Denver's Kevin Conley celebrates his first NCAA goal. (Courtesy Denver Athletics)

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