In the college sports world, you won’t find two programs that draw your attention more than Michigan and Notre Dame and the same applies when it comes to college hockey.
Michigan’s legacy as one of the top programs led by a legendary coach in Red Berenson is well known through all levels of hockey. The Wolverines, ranked 10th by USCHO, take on the relative new kids on the dominating block in coach Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish. Notre Dame is ranked 7th in the nation and this coaching battle helps make tonight’s match-up (7:30 p.m. ET) the must-see game on the NCAA schedule.
Michigan heads into South Bend unbeaten in their last nine games (7-0-2) and have just gotten New Jersey Devils prospect Jon Merrill back from a team-imposed suspension. In four games the defenseman has four assists. That’ll do, kid.
Leading the way for the Wolverines is Coyotes prospect (and former Team USA World Junior gold medalist) junior Chris Brown, freshman and Stars prospect Alex Guptill, and senior Devils prospect David Wohlberg. Brown leads in points while Guptill and Wohlberg are tops in goals scored and now they all play on a line together.
The man to watch in goal for Michigan is Shawn Hunwick, brother of Avalanche defenseman Matt Hunwick. Hunwick led Michigan to the National Championship game last year before falling in overtime to Minnesota-Duluth and he’s been rock solid again this season.
Notre Dame is looking to right the ship after being swept last weekend by Western Michigan. Having to deal with the Wolverines won’t be easy, but they have the weapons to counterattack.
The Fighting Irish are led by Blue Jackets third round pick and sophomore T.J. Tynan with 31 points. Tynan’s performance this season should have Columbus heads turning as he’s been huge all year long. He along with Isles prospect, and fellow sophomore, Anders Lee have been Notre Dame’s best players this season as Lee leads the team with 14 goals. Having Red Wings prospect Riley Sheahan and undrafted senior Billy Maday give the Irish a fearsome foursome to watch offensively. Unfortunately the Irish will be without Sheahan tonight as he’s serving a suspension for delivering a head shot last weekend.
In goal is where things get a bit nervous for Notre Dame as starter Mike Johnson has had his ups and downs. When he’s good, he’s very good, but when he’s off the Irish offense has to step up big to help out. Considering that Johnson faces just barely over 20 shots per game, staying sharp behind a tough Irish defense can be difficult.
The New York Islanders made a splash on Friday, signing veteran forward Cal Clutterbuck to a five-year, $17.5 million extension — one that carries a $3.5 million average annual cap hit through 2023.
Clutterbuck, 29, has two goals and nine points through 25 games this year, while averaging 15:26 TOI per night (his highest average since joining the Isles four years ago). As per usual, he leads the club in hits — one of the staples of his game — and serves as one of the club’s alternate captains.
This new contract represents a nice raise for the former Minnesota Wild man. His last contract, set to expire in July, was of the four-year, $11 million variety, and carried a $2.75 million cap hit.
This contract also resembles the one GM Garth Snow gave another of the club’s role forwards. This summer, Casey Cizikas signed a five-year, $16.75 million extension — one with a $3.35 million hit — despite the fact he’d never scored more than 30 points in a season, or averaged more than 14 minutes of ice time.
This style of spending — along with splashes made for free agent disappointments Jason Chimera and Andrew Ladd — is sure to raise some questions. The Isles opted not to spend that money on retaining two of their key players from a season ago, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo, and the club has struggled to find its form through the first quarter of this year.
Don’t expect a big jump in next season’s salary cap.
“We’re not going to give out any numbers now,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said yesterday, per Yahoo Sports. “The cap could range from where it is now to a couple or so million up, but we’re all going to have to focus on what makes the most sense moving forward.”
The salary cap only went up slightly for the current season, from $71.4 million to $73 million. The only slight increase was due to the lower Canadian dollar, which negatively impacted last season’s league revenues by “$100 or 200 million,” Bettman said earlier this year.
The loonie has been holding relatively steady for around half a year. It’s currently worth $0.76 USD and has been helped by the recent oil rally.
A flat salary cap would be bad news for big spenders like the Chicago Blackhawks, who still need to get Artemi Panarin signed to an extension. The Los Angeles Kings could also be forced to make some tough decisions, as they’ve got Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson in need of new deals. Ditto for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have key RFAs in Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Conor Sheary.
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Henrik Lundqvist has set such a high bar that his 12-8-1 record with a .912 save percentage is cause for great concern these days in New York.
That his backup, Antti Raanta, is 6-1-0 with a .932 save percentage only contributes to that concern, because if Raanta can manage those numbers, what’s Lundqvist’s excuse?
“I feel like I’m tracking the puck well, moving well,” Lundqvist told the Daily News. “It just comes down to some bad decisions at times that cost me.”
Indeed, December has not started well for The King. He’s allowed 10 goals in three starts for a save percentage of .894. In Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Islanders, his decision to poke check a loose puck led to the winning goal by Andrew Ladd.
But while this month has been a struggle, it should be noted that Lundqvist was mostly excellent in November. He finished with a .925 save percentage, including that 40-save victory on Black Friday in Philadelphia.
Which is to say, he has more than earned the benefit of the doubt. Since 2008-09, Lundqvist has not finished a season with a save percentage below .920, and that is a remarkable achievement.
Raanta was solid again last night in Winnipeg, where the Rangers beat the Jets, 2-1. A starting goalie for tonight’s game in Chicago has not yet been announced, but Lundqvist is a good bet.
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Kyle Connor is on his way to the minors.
On Friday, Winnipeg announced that Connor — the former Michigan Wolverines star taken 17th overall in 2015 — has been assigned to the club’s AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose.
Connor, 19, had just one goal and four points through 19 games this year, struggling to adjust to life at the professional level.
He’d been a healthy scratch for each of the Jets’ last six games and, prior to that, missed five games with an upper-body injury after getting nailed into the boards by L.A. forward Kyle Clifford.
The Jets are getting healthy up front, which further explains why Connor is on his way to the Moose. Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault both recently returned from injury.