Minnesota Duluth is the new #1 team in the country this week in the major polls, thanks to an impressive sweep of defending national champion North Dakota in Duluth last weekend. It’s a quick ascent for a team picked to finish third in their own conference prior to the season. But it also really shouldn’t come as a major surprise.
Here are four reasons why Minnesota Duluth is currently sitting at the top of the polls, and why they might be there for a while.
Goaltending has been better than expected
The biggest question mark heading into the season for Minnesota Duluth, and a big part of the reason many were hesitant to pick them at the top of a very conference, is what they would do in goal. Kasimir Kaskisuo had played pretty much every minute of consequence over the prior two seasons and was very good, before signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer. In his stead were three goalies that had never played a minute of college hockey.
The early returns have been magnificent though. The minutes have been split 56% for Hunter Miska, 32% for Nick Deery, and 12% for Hunter Shepard, and combined, they have a .925 save percentage and 1.96 goals against average. It’s great for them that Miska has come in and looks to have established himself as the starter for the time being, and a huge bonus that it looks like they’ve got got capable back-ups should he falter as well.
They were pretty good last year
Though they came out alright in the end, last season didn’t go as smoothly as Minnesota Duluth planned. The Bulldogs were picked by many to finish atop the NCHC, but some shaky stretches and inexplicable losses in non-conference play kept the Bulldogs out of the national conversation most of the year. They pulled it together at the end of the year to win seven of their last eight games and back into the NCAA Tournament, where they played quite well, but it’s tough to say they met expectations.
Disappointing results on the scoreboard hid just how good Minnesota Duluth was, however. Even though they weren’t winning as many games as they should, they were dominating team in terms of possession. The Bulldogs fired 356 more shots on goal than their opponents over the course of the season for an average of 8.9 more shots on goal per game. That number was third-best in the nation behind Minnesota State, who flooded their numbers against weak WCHA competition, and Quinnipiac. National champion North Dakota was sixth in that stat.
Shots on goal margin is an imperfect marker of possession, but by the end of the season it provides a relatively accurate picture of how good a team is, and in Minnesota Duluth’s case, it suggests they were one of the best teams in the country, though some bad luck kept them from having better results.
Their exhibition loss was misleading
A lot of people were shocked to see the Bulldogs fall 2-1 to the US NTDP U18s two weeks ago, especially after Minnesota had beaten that team 9-0 the week prior.
But having watched that game, again, I can’t stress enough how badly the Bulldogs outplayed the U18s, though they failed to put the game away, and gave up a goal on a flukey turnover at the end of the game. The Bulldogs outshot the U18s 33-18, and if you added in shot attempts, I would expect that margin to grow much wider. The point is, they looked just fine in a game where the end result didn’t really mean anything.
It perhaps speaks to a bigger problem, and one of the Bulldogs faced last year, in that they have a lot of guys that are really fast, strong, good college hockey players, which allows them to generate a ton of possession, but they lack some true snipers to take advantage of all that zone time and finish off goals.
It’s something to watch out for, and may affect the Bulldogs from time-to-time this season. But over a long enough timeline, controlling the play that often is going to lead good results regardless.
North Dakota isn’t as strong
North Dakota came into their series against Minnesota Duluth as the unanimous #1-ranked team in the country, and they certainly deserved to be. They’re the defending national champions and were unbeaten in five games coming into the weekend. But this is not the same North Dakota that won a national title last season, at least at this point.
Losing Drake Caggiula, Nick Schmaltz, Bryn Chyzyk, and Luke Johnson at forward, and Troy Stecher, Paul LaDue and Keaton Thompson on defense left some huge holes to fill in their line-up that aren’t easily replaced.
North Dakota skated by early in the season thanks to a weak schedule, and a terrific effort Brock Boeser, who helped carry them through a tough series against Bemidji State. But it’s going to take a while for North Dakota’s secondary lines to gel and start producing at a level they need to in order for the Fighting Hawks to be a top team. Minnesota Duluth was able to keep Brock Boeser quiet on the weekend, and North Dakota wasn’t able to counter back.