As we push into the back half of the season, there are very few inter-conference match-ups left on the college hockey schedule. Arguably the biggest comes this weekend when #15 Northern Michigan travels to Ithaca, New York for a pair of games against #1 Cornell in a series that we will likely be pointing back to when the final NCAA bracket is decided in mid-March.
Northern Michigan seemed ready to take a small step backwards in the third season of head coach Grant Potulny. The Wildcats had won 20+ games in each of Potulny’s first two seasons, but a disastrous end to the month of November made a third 20-win season look like a longshot. The Wildcats were swept by Upper Peninsula rivals Michigan Tech and they had an ugly split at Alabama-Huntsville, which remains the Chargers’ only win of the season.
The Wildcats were middling near 30th in the Pairwise rankings heading into their lone series in the month of a December against WCHA leaders Minnesota State. After losing the first night, Northern Michigan rebounded with a Saturday night win. A road sweep at Bowling Green to open the new year, followed by holding serve at home against Alaska-Anchorage moved the Wildcats to 15th in the Pairwise, and at least in the conversation for an NCAA Tournament bid. It’s still an uphill climb—the Wildcats are projected to need to win around 9-11 of their remaining 14 regular season games to have a shot at an at-large bid heading into the WCHA playoffs, and some road wins over Cornell, which should carry some hefty RPI bonus points, would be a huge help.
Cornell, meanwhile, has been one of the top teams in the country the entire season. Their traditional Ivy League late-start helped keep them under the radar a bit, but they have played exceptional hockey. Their only loss of the season came in December in a one-off road game against Dartmouth. Barring sub-.500 hockey the rest of the way, Cornell will almost definitely be in the NCAA Tournament this year. From here on out, they’re likely playing for a #1 seed in the tournament. Anything but being swept this weekend likely keeps them there.
Diving into the stats, it’s no surprise that Cornell is led by their usual strong defensive play. The Big Red allow just 1.47 goals per game, which somehow, doesn’t lead the country(Minnesota State is a spot ahead of them at 1.37). Less characteristic is that they are also getting it done on the offensive end as well. They rank 6th nationally in scoring offense at 3.67 goals per game. They don’t shoot at a particularly high volume, but have made their shots count, scoring on 12.1% of their shots, sixth nationally. Part of that comes from an extremely efficient power play. They’ve scored on 27.3% of their man advantages, which also ranks in the top 10 nationally.
Northern Michigan is nearly as strong as Cornell offensively. They rank T-8th nationally in goals per game, with the 14th-best power play in the nation. But they’re not nearly as strong defensively. The Wildcats allow 2.82 goals per game, which ranks 34th nationally.
Special teams should play a huge role in this series. While, as mentioned, both teams are very strong with the man advantage, they’ve been dreadful at killing penalties. Northern Michigan creeps barely above the mean at 82.1%, 28th nationally, but Cornell is the third-worst team in the country at killing penalties. They largely mitigate that, however, by also being in the bottom 10 for penalty minutes per game.
Individually, the Wildcats are led by diminutive sophomore Griffin Loughran, who is tied for the national lead with 17 goals on the season, already more than doubling the total from his freshman season. Twelve of his goals have come at even strength, a number which is also tied for the national lead, though his numbers are somewhat inflated by a nation-leading four empty-net goals as well.
They get their secondary scoring from Vincent de Mey, whose 12 goals gives the Wildcats two strong scoring lines. Combined, Loughran and de Mey have scored about 37% of Northern Michigan’s goals this season.
Cornell has still only played 15 games, so they don’t have anybody that ranks highly in counting stats, but junior forwards Morgan Barron and Brenden Locke are both averaging a point or better per game, which is good enough to put them in the top-50 nationally in that category. Barron and Locke have scored about 30% of Cornell’s goals this season.
From that standpoint, the two teams look fairly similar: Both with two very good, but not necessarily great scorers, backed by a pretty solid surrounding cast.
Predictions are futile, but this series feels like it comes down to how well Cornell can stay out of the penalty box. Cornell is the stronger team defensively, and should win the battle 5-on-5, but too many opportunities for a pretty competent power play against Cornell’s horrendous penalty kill could be an equalizer.