College Hockey Insider: St. Thomas men quickly vie for CCHA title

A glance at the Division I men's college hockey standings will show that traditional powers are well-represented, with North Dakota leading the NCHC and Boston College and Boston University tied atop Hockey East.

Look a little further and you'll see a newcomer on the rise. St. Thomas, in only its third year as an NCAA Division I program, is tied for the CCHA lead with Minnesota State Mankato.

For Tommies coach Rico Blasi, sitting atop the CCHA is just one step in building a consistent contender after St. Thomas made the jump from Division III.

"It's not something we actually, really talked about. Part of our culture is always to focus on the process," Blasi said. "But, of course, everybody knows where the standings are right now. It's a credit to the guys in the locker room for believing in each other and having faith in something bigger than ourselves."

Coming off a bye week, the Tommies (12-11-1, 10-6-0 CCHA) will face the team with which they share the conference lead at 30 points, Minnesota State (13-9-4, 9-5-2). St. Thomas will play host to the Mavericks at 7:07 p.m. Friday at St. Thomas Ice Arena, then will travel to Mankato for Saturday's 6:07 p.m. finale.

Blasi expects a spirited series between teams that split two games in early December.

"They're still the defending champions," said Blasi of the Mavericks, who have won the past six CCHA or WCHA regular-season titles. "You're gonna have to go through them, whether it's us or anybody else."

The Tommies took their lumps as a first-year Division I program, going 3-32-1 in 2021-22 while still skating some Division III holdovers. Last season, they improved to 11-23-2 and finished seventh in the CCHA. This season, they quickly showed they wouldn't be pushed around. The Tommies opened with a split at St. Cloud State, winning 5-4 in overtime and losing 1-0 against a team that advanced to an NCAA regional final last year. Then came a 6-5 overtime loss to the Gophers, last year's national runner-up, in which the Tommies held a two-goal lead.

"We've made strides in every area," Blasi said.

The Tommies are eligible to play in the CCHA tournament, but because of the five-year reclassification period that the school agreed to in the move from D-III to D-I, they so far can't advance to the NCAA tournament. St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten remains in touch with the NCAA on any potential change in the school's reclassification period.

Blasi is happy his team is playing conference games that matter.

"You want to be sure we have meaningful games in the month of February and early March," he said. "That means you're playing for something. As I said at the beginning of the year, pressure is privilege."

Gophers rebound

The Gophers men's team's 3-2 loss to Michigan State on Friday sure had a Quinnipiac-like feel to it. Minnesota led 2-0, gave up the tying goal with less than five minutes left in the third period and surrendered the winner with four seconds left in regulation to lose 3-2. The game didn't reach overtime, as the national title loss to Quinnipiac did, but the sudden end stunned coach Bob Motzko and his team.

"That's a disappointing way to end that," Motzko said in his 37-second postgame news conference.

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To the Gophers' credit, they flipped the script Saturday and were all business in a 5-1 rout of the first-place Spartans. Minnesota (15-7-4) played as complete a game as it has all season.

"That's what a 60-minute road victory against one of the better teams in the country looks like," said Motzko, who'll take more of the latter and less of the former this weekend at Wisconsin.

Stick taps

North Dakota (18-6-2) flexed its muscles in the NCHC, sweeping visiting Denver 5-2 and 4-2 and moving into the No. 2 spot in the PairWise Ratings. The Fighting Hawks were especially dominant in the circle, winning 83 faceoffs to the Pioneers' 38.

Augustana, a first-year Division I men's program in Sioux Falls, S.D., opened its brand-new on-campus Midco Arena against Ferris State, losing 5-2 and 4-3 in overtime in front of crowds of 3,183 and 3,141. The first Vikings goal in the new barn went to St. Louis Park's Luke Mobley, a junior forward and transfer from Clarkson.

Boston College swept Boston University 4-1 and 4-3 in a home-and-home series. The No. 1 Eagles (18-4-1) and No. 3 Terriers (16-6-1) meet again soon — next Monday in the Beanpot semifinals.

The road to St. Paul

We're less than eight weeks away from selection Sunday in men's hockey, when the 16-team NCAA men's tournament field will be revealed on March 24. The men's Frozen Four will be April 11-13 at Xcel Energy Center. Here's an early projection of the field in the four regionals:

Providence, R.I.

1. Boston College vs. 4. RIT

2. Wisconsin vs. 3. Providence

Sioux Falls, S.D.

1. North Dakota vs. 4. Minnesota State

2. Denver vs. 3. Gophers

Springfield, Mass.

1. Boston U. vs. 4. Western Michigan

2. Michigan State vs. 3. Massachusetts

Maryland Heights, Mo.

1. Maine vs. 4. St. Cloud State

2. Quinnipiac vs. 3. Michigan