North Dakota faces off against St. Cloud State this weekend in a huge series at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud. The two teams are tied with each other for first place in the NCHC with 39 points each, with only four conference games remaining. In advance of the big games in St. Cloud, CBS Sports Network analyst Dave Starman was gracious enough to answer a few questions on this weekend's series, as well as a few questions on the NCHC heading into the final weeks of the regular season.
Starman will provide color, alongside play-by-play voice Ben Holden for Friday's game which will air on CBS Sports Network at 8:07 CST. We'll have live coverage from St. Cloud the following night for the second game of the series.
SBNCH: After a rough start to the season, North Dakota is 14-2-1 in their last 17 games. What changes have you seen North Dakota make to play so much better over that stretch?
Starman: They are healthy and that is huge. They have tweaked lines here and there but mostly it takes the team a couple of months to acclimate to the way the staff wants them to play. Wisconsin is a structured as a team can be but North Dakota is underrated for the structure they play with. Combine that with the fact that they can physically beat the hell out of you and you have a winning formula.
I think NoDak's defense is really under the radar nationally. I know everyone in the NCHC knows who they are because the first thing every coach I talk to says is "man is their defense corps mobile and pretty high end." The key with Nodak is they are balanced, mobile, hostile, and agile. Rocco Grimaldi gives them a lot of speed and play making but players like Mitch MacMillan, Michael Parks, Luke Johnson and at times Drake Caggiula have been terrific offensively. They are led emotionally by Stef Pattyn, known as The General. Overlooked has been the goaltending, both guys have given them a chance to win every night.
SBNCH: St. Cloud head coach Bob Motzko likes to talk about St. Cloud "getting their ground game going". What does he mean by that, and what are some things people should look for if St. Cloud is doing that effectively?
Starman: Motz first used that term when we were getting ready for the WJC. Chatting before the first USA game against the Czech's he described the Matteau-Copp-Fasching line as the guys who can establish a ground game. Basically they were the guys who can run people over, establish a forecheck, get a cycle and low game going and control the puck. Similar to the way fullbacks would establish the run early in a football game and then keep pounding.
St Cloud has balance also but they have good size throughout the lineup. Not just height but build. Murray, Papa, Rabey, Brodzinski, Thorson, are all pretty solid. STC is effective on their forecheck and are excellent locking lanes on the backcheck to make the neutral zone a hard place to be in for an opponent offensively. Their bottom six forwards are great getting pucks in and controlling the walls and the top six guys have no problems playing in hard areas. When the Huskies are spending a lot of time moving the puck around in the offensive zone that ground game is working.
SBNCH: This series will be played on the Olympic-sized ice in St. Cloud. How will that extra 15 feet affect the way each team plays, and do you see it being an advantage for one team over the other?
Starman: North Dakota always looked comfy at Minnesota and Wisconsin so as a team I'm not sure its that big a problem. One thing STC can do is use their rink well, they manipulate the extra space and use the extra second they get to their advantage but Nodak plays a disciplined game away from the puck so I think it doesn't really affect them. Grimaldi will be a kid in a candy store on the big sheet. Dillon Simpson and Jordan Schmaltz on the power play will also utilize the extra ice.
SBNCH:Just behind St. Cloud and North Dakota in the standings, there's a block of four teams in Nebraska-Omaha, Western Michigan, Denver, and Minnesota-Duluth that have all had moments where they look great, but haven't been able to put things together consistently. Which two do you see emerging down the stretch to get home ice and potentially make some noise in the NCHC playoffs?
Starman: All four have a good chance to make some noise.
Denver has skill and goaltending, UNO has a ton of grit, speed and have been playing with house money all year. UMD can score, Crandall has been terrific in goal and they can transition well.
WMU is the wildcard here. If they get saves, and I know Hafner and The Big Slubowski have been wildly inconsistent, they can beat anyone. They are well coached and the staff there has created a plan that plays into the strengths of that team which is to play big, play tough, and go straight at your opponent. They aren't fancy, just efficient. They lack explosive scoring and finding a late goal if they need one is an isue but they have won some huge games this year minus the luxury of being the team in the game with the best players.
SBNCH:One of the most frequent questions we get around here is what went wrong with Miami this season? Do you think they can find a way to turn things around and surprise somebody in the playoffs?
Starman: I'm not sure any member of the national media, or even the NCHC media has seen as much Miami as I have the past few years and especially this year. What went wrong is unfair, what didn't go as expected is a better way to look at it.
Miami's strength was their forwards but they lost Jimmy Mullin all season and Blake Coleman for a huge chunk of conference play. They have been banged up as a whole and the d corps is thin and inexperienced. The goaltending has not been good enough and that was not the case last season. when your two sophomores in goal have a sophomore slump at the same time its tough sledding. In past years Miami has gotten scoring depth throughout the lineup. they aren't as deep and high end as past years though Riley Barber, Austin Czarnik and Sean Kuraly can make it a long night for opposition defenses.
Miami can make a run but when healthy and at full strength they should look like they did in October and early November. That team split at PC and at STC looked pretty good early.
SBNCH: It's easy for people to look at the top of the league stat sheet and see guys like Dowd, Brodzinski, Czarnik, Barber, and Archibald have all had good years. Who are a few other players in the league that may not necessarily have incredible statistics, but have stood out to you as having a really good season?
Starman: Paul LaDue at Nodak has been steady and solid. So has Troy Stecher. Balisy and Bershbach at WMU both have been great for them game in and game out. Aaron Crandall at UMD has given them stability in goal. The two kid defensemen at CC Olafsson and Slavin are going to be great pros, they have shown real growth as the season has moved on. Joey LaLeggia is a one man breakout, he reminds me a little of when Kevin Shattenkirk was at BU, same type of player. Prochno and Prow as a defense pair at STC are as good as any defense pair out there right now.