Game Preview: North Dakota at Union

The last time Union was on the college hockey map was during the 2013-14 season, when the Flying Dutchman turned a 1-2-1 start into a 32-6-2 record and an NCAA championship behind balanced scoring (seven players scored 31 points or more that year), excellent defensive play, and solid goaltending. This year, the Dutchmen have found themselves back on the map with a record of 14-3-2 behind the top two scorers in the nation and a team that is highly capable of repeating that level of success.

Through nineteen games this season, Union is scoring an astounding 4.05 goals/game (4th overall) but is allowing a somewhat average 2.79 goals/game (26th). North Dakota, on the other hand, is in the middle of the pack both offensively (3.06 goals scored/game, 24th) and defensively (2.28 goals allowed/game, 11th). The Dutchmen are 9-0-0 when scoring five or more goals and 10-1-1 when scoring four or more.

Both teams also boast impressive goaltenders. Senior Alex Sakellaropoulos has posted an incredible 13-1-1 record through 15 games this year for the Dutchmen, with a goals-against average of 2.45 and a save percentage of .920 in those games. His counterpart, junior Cam Johnson, has been putting up solid numbers with nine wins, a 2.16 GAA, a .910 SV%, and three shutouts through 18 games.

If UND hopes to finish the season strongly, 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 thirteen goals in 67 combined games this season after potting thirty goals in 152 games last year.

This weekend will mark the eighth weekend out of nine 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 6-5-2 (.556) 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)
vs. #18 Western Michigan (W 5-1, L 1-3)

Other ranked teams remaining on the second-half schedule include home series vs. #1 Minnesota-Duluth, #18 St. Cloud State and #20 Omaha and road series at #20 Omaha and #16 Western Michigan.

According to KRACH, North Dakota has played the third-toughest schedule in the country to date; Union’s ranks 36th of 60 teams.

Union boasts the two top scorers in the nation in seniors Mike Vecchione (37 points) and Spencer Foo (34). Mike Vecchione is the front-runner for this year’s Hobey Baker award, leading the country in points (37) and goals (18), while Spencer Foo leads the country in assists with 21.

A big storyline this week will be if UND can produce offense with two of their top three scorers out. 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 five games. He will not be returning to the lineup on Saturday but is gearing towards a return for next weekend’s series against Nebraska Omaha. Freshman Tyson Jost (7-11-18) will also be out of the lineup this week, as he is representing Team Canada at the World Juniors in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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 (9-0-0) 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 (174-7-13).

Union Team Profile

Head Coach: Rick Bennett (6th season at UC, 112-59-27, .634)

Pairwise Ranking: t-4th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #9/#10
This Season: 14-3-2 overall, 8-1-1 ECAC (1st)
Last Season: 13-14-2 overall (missed NCAA tournament), 6-10-6 ECAC (9th 0f 12 teams)

Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 4.05 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.79 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 14.91% (17 of 114)
Penalty Kill: 21.6% (71 of 86)

Key Players: Senior F Mike Vecchione (18-19-37, 1.95 points/game), Junior F Spencer Foo (13-21-34), Sophomore F Sebastian Vidmar (8-13-21 in 16 games), Sophomore F Brett Supinski (2-13-15 in 18 games), Senior D Jeff Taylor (6-12-18), Senior G Alex Sakellaropoulos (13-1-1, 2.45 GAA, .920 SV%)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (2nd season at UND, 43-12-7, .750)

Pairwise Ranking: 10th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #8/#8
This Season: 9-6-3 overall, 3-4-1-1 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: 2.28 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 17.28% (14 of 81)
Penalty Kill: 80% (64 of 80)

Key Players: Sophomore F Shane Gersich (13-11-24), Junior F Austin Poganski (5-8-13), Sophomore F Rhett Gardner (4-5-9 in 16 games), Junior D Tucker Poolman (4-10-14), Sophomore D Christian Wolanin (0-8-8), Junior G Cam Johnson (9-6-3, 2.16 GAA, .910 SV%, 3 SO)

By The Numbers

All Time Series: Saturday’s contest will be the first meeting between North Dakota and Union in the Division I era., and, as such, will be the most important meeting between the two programs.

Game News and Notes

Messa Rink seats approximately 2225 people and will be the smallest venue in which the UND men’s hockey team has played in 14 years (North Dakota played Providence at Hobey Baker Arena [capacity 2092] on November 1st, 2002). With 14 victories, Union has the most wins in men’s Division I college hockey this season. At this point last season, North Dakota had 15 wins. Shayne Gostisbehere, Union’s Frozen Four MVP in 2014, is now coached by Dave Hakstol as a member of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers. My son, Alex (16), wrote this article on my behalf. Follow him on Twitter @AlexBerger_Fake. Puck drop is set for 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time (3:00 p.m. Central).

Media Coverage

Saturday’s game will only be televised locally on Time Warner Cable’s Spectrum Sports (channel 50 in the Schenectady, New York viewing area). The game will also be streamed live at www.unionathletics.tv (for a fee of $8.95). 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 North Dakota to have a chance on Saturday afternoon, they will need to do three things: generate scoring opportunities from the 3rd and 4th lines, shut down the duo of Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo, and score at least three goals. With both Boeser and Jost out of the lineup, however, I would be very surprised to see UND score at that rate and shut down Union’s top two scorers. North Dakota will jump out to an early lead but will not be able to keep up the offensive pressure. Union 3, UND 1.