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Photo courtesy Minnesota Duluth Athletics

HAT TRICK | Saturday win brings Blue Ox Trophy back to Duluth

This past weekend saw an abbreviated slate of games, as most teams are off for the holidays with their schools. This far after Finals Week, most of the students remaining on most campuses either have jobs around the school or late plane tickets.

This leads to an interesting college hockey atmosphere. With so little going on around a campus at this time of the year, the hockey arena becomes that much more of a center, an oasis for the remaining stragglers. Students from around the area might bring family or old friends to the game, using it as a way to show people around. In short, they are very close to the kind of games you would encounter in a midseason tournament.

Adding to this unique atmosphere, nine of the thirteen games played over the weekend were non-conference games, pitting teams in many cases against opponents they rarely see. As always, three events highlighted the action.

1 | THE BLUE OX TROPHY

When Minnesota and Wisconsin play in football, they play for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. When Minnesota Duluth and Bemidji State play in hockey, they play for the Blue Ox Trophy. Up where what they call the yoopers live, they can’t get enough of that particular tall tale.

The trophy is not awarded annually, but rather to the team that won the most recent game between the two, like a championship belt. In this instance, that means for the first time in years the trophy is coming back to Duluth, as the Bulldogs won on Saturday to capture the trophy at the end of a home-and-home.

Not only was a trophy at stake, but conference pride was on the line as the NCHC-leading Bulldogs faced the WCHA-best Beavers. With Minnesota Duluth coming into the game as the top team in the country, this was the most meaningful set of hockey games over the weekend.

Officially, Friday’s game in Duluth will go down as a tie. However, as there is something at stake, the teams did keep playing until they had a winner, with Bemidji State winning in the unofficial 3 on 3 second overtime period. BSU freshman defenseman Zach Whitecloud scored the trophy-winning goal, for the record, whether or not it counts officially.

Saturday’s game was highlighted by defense. Neither team was able to take more than 30 shots on net, with Bemidji State being held to just 19 on the night. Duluth showed a tremendous penalty kill on Saturday night as well, running out five penalties without allowing a goal. For the entire weekend, the Bulldogs allowed just one goal against eight penalties, the kind of shorthanded prowess that can take teams deep into the NCAA Tournament.

If the two teams see each other again this season, it will be in the finals of the North Star College Cup, with another trophy in the offing. Bemidji State is back in action on Dec. 30, on the road at Alaska-Anchorage. Minnesota Duluth is off until Jan. 6, in a conference meeting with Colorado College.

2 | A STRONGER UNION

In the two years after Union College won their national championship, they went an even .500. They were one game above that mark in 2014-15, one game below last season. 32-32-11 across two seasons in the wake of a title suggested that the Dutchmen might have been riding the strength of a particularly good class of players that had gone to four straight NCAA tournaments.

Now with Union 14-3-2 and riding a six-game win streak, it’s safe to say the Dutchmen are back on the college hockey landscape. The winning program Rick Bennett has cultivated is paying off once again.

This was demonstrated as they went to Gutterson Fieldhouse to take on another surging team, the Vermont Catamounts, having lost just once in their previous eight games coming into the weekend.

Union got out to a fast start on Saturday night, chasing Vermont netminder Stefanos Lekkas after two periods and five goals en route to a 7-3 laugher. The schools combined for 69 shots on the night, making the game a battle of goaltenders. It was Alex Sakellaropoulos who came out on top, tallying 31 saves on the night. Six different Union players lit the lamp on Saturday night, and a whopping twelve different players tallied assists. It was one of the most complete offensive performances college hockey will see this season.

Saturday’s game could not have been much different, aside from the victor. After a scoreless period and a half, Vermont opened the action with a Brian Bowen goal. However, a two-goal third period for Union and 32 more saves for Sakellaropoulos held off the Catamounts and gave Union College their sixth win in a row.

The schedule does not get any easier for the Dutchmen. Three of their next four games come against teams ranked in the top ten, nationally: New Year’s Eve at home against North Dakota, Jan. 5 at Boston University, and Jan. 14 at home against Harvard. That is the kind of stretch that can really prepare a team for the big games at the end of a season. Vermont’s next games are on the 30th and 31st at home against Bentley, giving them a chance to collect themselves before the Hockey East schedule kicks in again.

3 | SUN DEVILS ON A ROLL

With no conference and a frequent flyer program spinning nearly out of control, the first two years of Division I hockey have been difficult for Arizona State. They’re a long way away from another hockey school, so local rivalries aren’t in the cards. With realignment, they’ve become a sort of game for the college hockey fan, where we all make cases for which conference really ought to take them in.

Road trips were especially hard for ASU in that first year, with their only road wins coming at Lake Superior in mid-November. This year, they won their first game in the Eastern Time zone, an overtime victory on Nov. 12 at New Hampshire, but by and large road trips had still been unkind to them.

A trip to western Massachusetts changed all that. With wins against American International on Tuesday and Massachusetts on Friday and Saturday, ASU has now won five of their last seven games, and they’re one win away from tying their longest win streak of four games.

The streak began on Tuesday as a strong third period propelled Arizona State to a win against American International in Springfield. Joey Raats had two third period assists on the evening, and the Sun Devils managed to hold AIC to just four shots in the second period.

On Friday night, Anthony Croston scored two goals, Robert Levin stopped thirty shots, and the Sun Devils picked up a win at the Mullins Center with a third period in which they scored three times. They matched their 4-1 victory again on Saturday, scoring twice in the final minute of the second period for a school record third straight road victory.

Arizona State finishes off the year by hosting the Desert Hockey Classic, with the first game coming against Brown on Dec. 30. Winning the Classic would give them their longest winning streak. From there, the road gets much tougher, with consecutive weekend series at Denver and at Ohio State.

Tim Williams is a freelance writer based in Boston. Follow him on Twitter at @TimWritesSports.

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