Weekend Preview: North Dakota vs. Western Michigan

North Dakota and Western Michigan have faced off sixteen times since 1997, with UND claiming victory in fifteen of those contests and outscoring WMU 68-28 in the process.

The Fighting Hawks will be fortunate to win two of the four regular-season games against the Broncos this year.

How can both of these statements be true?

Through recruiting and player development, WMU head coach Andy Murray has finally been able to put his mark on the team. Freshmen and sophomores are leading the way for the Broncos, and the combination of speed, size, and skill is one that will be barely recognizable to North Dakota fans.

For the first time since joining the NCHC, the Broncos are looking to finish in the top half of the league standings. WMU had been trending downward (eleven conference victories in 2013-14, six in 2014-15, and just five in 2015-16) but is currently in 3rd place with a mark of 3-4-1-1. North Dakota, on the other hand, sits in 6th place with a mark of 2-3-1-1. UND has not been scoring enough goals in league play, notching twelve in six games for an average of just two per contest. Western Michigan, on the other hand, has scored 23 goals in eight league games (2.88 goals/game).

If UND hopes to end 2016 on a high note, it will need to get more offensive production from junior Austin Poganski and sophomores Rhett Gardner, Joel Janatuinen and Chris Wilkie. The quartet has just eleven goals in 59 combined games this season after potting thirty goals in 152 games last year.

This weekend will mark the seventh weekend out of eight that North Dakota will face off against a ranked opponent; UND went 14-5-1 (.725) against top-twenty teams a year ago but is just 5-4-2 (.545) in those situations so far this season. Here’s a closer look at the grind that the Fighting Hawks have had to endure in the first half of the 2016-17 season:

vs. #18 Bemidji State (W 3-2, W 5-4)
at #2 Minnesota Duluth (L 2-5, L 0-3)
at #13 Minnesota (T 5-5, L 0-2)
vs. #2 Denver (T 1-1, L 2-3)
at #12 St. Cloud State (W 4-0, W 3-0)
vs. #3 Boston College (W 4-3)

Other ranked teams remaining on the second-half schedule include home series vs. #1 Minnesota-Duluth, #17 St. Cloud State, and #20 Omaha and a trip to Kalamazoo in February to face these same Broncos yet again. UND will also play a single game at #15 Union College on New Year’s Eve.

According to KRACH, North Dakota has played the second-toughest schedule in the country to date; Western Michigan’s ranks as the eighth toughest.

Another huge story line for both clubs has been the emergence of a pair of super sophomores. Second-year Bronco Matheson Iacopelli leads the NCHC with 13 goals in 14 games after scoring just once as a freshman. North Dakota sophomore Shane Gersich struggled with illness last year but is tied for the lead in the league scoring race with 22 points. Gersich had 11 points in 37 games as a freshman.

Both teams are also missing key components in their lineups. UND sophomore Brock Boeser (7-9-16 in 13 games this year; 27-33-60 last season) battled through a wrist injury for much of the first half of the season but has missed the last three games. His return to the lineup this weekend is still in question. Western Michigan has been without 6-foot-4-inch, 212 pound junior forward Aidan Muir since November 12th. Muir, a draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers, has appeared in 80 career games for the Broncos, collecting 30 points.

Western Michigan and North Dakota boast six of the top ten faceoff men in the league. For the Broncos, Colt Conrad (2nd, 58.8%) and Michael Rebry (t-4th, 54.9%) lead the way, while all four of UND’s centermen have been outstanding:

1st. Tyson Jost (63.2%)
t-4th. Ludvig Hoff (54.9%)
6th. Rhett Gardner (53.9%)
10th. Johnny Simonson (52.4%)

No other NCHC school can claim more than one of the league’s top ten in the “fastest draw” category.

A big reason for UND’s success for the better part of the past decade has been North Dakota’s ability to hold a lead. During the 2016-17 campaign, Brad Berry’s squad is unbeaten (7-0-0) when leading after the first forty minutes of play. In fact, over the past nine years, North Dakota is converting almost 90 percent of second intermission leads into victories and has just seven losses in the last 192 such situations (172-7-13).

Western Michigan Team Profile

Head Coach: Andy Murray (6th season at WMU, 88-88-30, .500)

Pairwise Ranking: 11th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #18/#17
This Season: 7-4-3 overall, 3-4-1-1 NCHC (3rd)
Last Season: 8-25-3 overall (missed NCAA tournament), 5-18-1-1 NCHC (7th)

Team Offense: 3.64 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.93 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 22.1% (21 of 95)
Penalty Kill: 81.0% (68 of 84)

Key Players: Sophomore F Mattheson Iacopelli (13-4-17), Sophomore F Griffen Molino (4-7-11), Freshman F Wade Allison (7-3-10), Senior F Sheldon Dries (4-6-10), Senior D Taylor Fleming (0-13-13), Junior D Scott Moldenhauer (3-6-9), Sophomore G Trevor Gorsuch (4-3-2, 3.07 GAA, .894 SV%)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (2nd season at UND, 42-11-7, .758)

Pairwise Ranking: t-8th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #8/#9
This Season: 8-5-3 overall, 2-3-1-1 NCHC (6th)
Last Season: 34-6-4 overall (NCAA Champions), 19-4-1-1 NCHC (1st of 8 teams)

Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 3.06 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.31 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 18.1% (13 of 72)
Penalty Kill: 79.7% (59 of 74)

Key Players: Sophomore F Brock Boeser (7-9-16 in 13 games), Sophomore F Shane Gersich (11-11-22), Freshman F Tyson Jost (7-10-17), Junior F Austin Poganski (3-7-10), Junior D Tucker Poolman (4-10-14), Sophomore D Christian Wolanin (0-6-6), Junior G Cam Johnson (8-5-3, 2.24 GAA, .907 SV%, 3 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: March 5, 2016 (Grand Forks, ND). One night after a dominating 8-1 performance that clinched the Penrose Cup outright, North Dakota held on for a 5-4 victory in the regular season finale. The Broncos skated to a 3-1 lead after the first period (chasing netminder Cam Johnson in the process), but UND flipped the script in the middle frame to knot the game at four goals apiece. Drake Caggiula, the ninth different goal-scorer in the contest, potted the game-winner early in the third period. North Dakota won the special teams battle, scoring on the power play, while shorthanded, and during four-on-four action.

Most Important Meeting: March 24, 2012 (St. Paul, MN). North Dakota upended Western Michigan 3-1 in the NCAA West Regional semifinal. Brock Nelson had two points, including an empty net goal with 25 seconds remaining that sent UND to the regional finals against Minnesota. Aaron Dell made 24 saves for the Green and White. The Broncos, who have played at the Division I level since 1975-76, have five NCAA tournament appearances but have not been in the national tournament since 2012.

Lone Broncos Highlight: March 18, 2014 (Grand Forks, ND). Western Michigan’s Colton Hargrove scored a shorthanded goal (his second of the game) eight minutes into the third period to break a 1-1 tie, and the Broncos held on to defeat homestanding North Dakota 2-1 in front of almost 12,000 fans at Ralph Engelstad Arena. WMU’s victory was its first and only win in sixteen games against UND, who won Friday’s opener 2-0. The loss cost North Dakota a chance to win the first-ever Penrose Cup as NCHC champions.

A Trip Down Memory Lane: Saturday, March 22, 2014 (Minneapolis, MN). North Dakota faced a must-win situation in the 3rd place game at the inaugural NCHC Frozen Faceoff, and did not disappoint the partisan crowd. The Green and White rolled to a 5-0 victory behind two first period goals from Conner Gaarder. UND netminder Zane Gothberg made 25 saves for the shutout, and Dave Hakstol’s crew played the waiting game for several more hours before discovering that they had indeed made the NCAA tournament for the 12th consecutive season.

All-Time Series: In the short history between the schools, UND has won fifteen of the sixteen games, outscoring the Broncos 68-28. WMU’s lone victory over North Dakota was the aforementioned 2-1 road win on March 8th, 2014. The teams first met in 1997.

Game News and Notes

UND sophomore forward Brock Boeser collected ten points in the four meetings between the teams as a freshman, including six of his 27 goals on the season. With one victory this weekend, Western Michigan (7-4-3) will equal their win total from all of last year (8-25-3). WMU head coach Andy Murray’s son Brady played two seasons at North Dakota (2003-05) and finished with a scoring line of 27-39-66 in 63 career games. Brady Murray spent most of his professional hockey career in the Swiss-A league (Rapperswil-Jona and Lugano, among other teams) but did appear in four NHL games with the Los Angeles Kings in 2007-08, scoring one goal.

Media Coverage

Both games this weekend will be carried live by Midco Sports Network, with Saturday’s rematch also available on FOX College Sports Central. This weekend’s series will also be streamed live via NCHC.tv. All UND men’s hockey games (home and away) can be heard on 96.1 FM and on stations across the UND Sports Network (as well as through the iHeart Radio app). Follow @UNDMHockey for real-time Twitter updates, or follow the action via live chat at UNDsports.com.

The Prediction

For the second weekend in a row, UND has an edge between the pipes, and that might make all the difference. On a normal Friday night in Grand Forks, it takes the visitors some time to adjust to the atmosphere and the speed of play. I expect tonight’s opener to be just the opposite, with the Broncos showcasing a new brand of hockey from the opening faceoff. If North Dakota can survive the first period relatively unscathed, there will be time to adjust in the locker room. Look for two entertaining games this weekend, with at least one contest headed to overtime. 3-3 tie, UND 4-3.
As always, thank you for reading. I welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions. Follow me on Twitter (@DBergerHockey) for more information and insight. Here’s to hockey!