Weekend Preview: UND at Denver

In the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, it is clear that Denver/North Dakota will be at the top of the league rivalries.

The two schools clearly do not like each other, and the feud goes all the way back to Geoff Paukovitch’ illegal check on Sioux forward Robbie Bina during the 2005 WCHA Final Five.

Since that game (a Denver victory), the two teams have met six times in tournament play. Denver won the 2005 NCAA title with a victory over North Dakota and claimed a 2008 WCHA Final Five win as well. UND has won the last four playoff games between the schools, including three consecutive victories in the WCHA Final Five (2010-2012) and the 2011 NCAA Midwest Regional final which sent the Fighting Sioux to the Frozen Four.

Along the way, we’ve had dasher dances, brawls, illegal checks, devastating hits, and a certain coach losing his way to the visiting locker room.

Both schools seem to get hit by the “early departure” bug each off-season. For North Dakota, forward Brock Nelson (36-32-68 in 84 games) left after his sophomore campaign while goaltender Aaron Dell (49-20-5, 2.15 GAA, .912 SV%, 9 SO) gave up his final season of eligibility. On the Denver side of the ledger, three Pioneers opted not to return: Drew Shore (50-68-118 in 123 games) gave up his senior season, while fellow forwards Jason Zucker (45-46-91 in 78 games) and Beau Bennett (13-25-38 in 47 games) left two years of eligibility on the table.

Only six WCHA teams are in conference action this weekend, but those three series will clear up the playoff picture for the home stretch. After this weekend, all of the schools will have played the same number of games (24), with the exception of Duluth, who travels to face Minnesota this weekend having already played 24 games.

St. Cloud State is in the driver’s seat with 31 points in 22 games played, but faces a tough test at Colorado College. Minnesota and North Dakota are tied for second in the league in winning percentage (28 points in 22 league games), and whichever team fares better this weekend will be the toughest test for SCSU over the final two weekends.

With Colorado College and Minnesota-Duluth stuck in 8th place with 20 points each, UND fans should be cheering for those two schools to topple St. Cloud State and Minnesota, respectively, to give North Dakota the best possible chance at the MacNaughton Cup.

When Denver came up to Grand Forks in December, Gwozdecky’s squad was on top of the WCHA with a record of 7-2-1 (.750). Since that time, however, they’ve been in freefall, going 3-5-3 (.409). DU has dropped all the way to 7th place in the league and is in danger of missing out on home ice for the first round of the conference playoffs.

Denver Team Profile

Head Coach: George Gwozdecky (19th season at DU, 438-262-64 .615)
Pairwise Ranking: 11th
National Rankings: #10
This Season: 15-7-5 overall, 10-7-5 WCHA (7th)
Last Season: 25-14-4 Overall (NCAA Midwest Regional Semifinalist), 16-8-4 WCHA (3rd)

Team Offense: 3.38 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.66 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 22.0% (27 of 123)
Penalty Kill: 84.7% (105 of 124)

Key Players: Junior F Nick Shore (11-15-26), Senior F Chris Knowlton (12-12-24), Senior F Shawn Ostrow (10-10-20), Sophomore D Joey LaLeggia (10-14-24), Junior D David Makowski (6-16-22), Sophomore G Juho Olkinuora (9-3-5, 2.11 GAA, .935 SV%, 2 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Dave Hakstol (9th season at UND, 229-114-36, .652)
Pairwise Ranking: 6th
National Ranking: #6
This Season: 16-8-6 overall, 11-5-6 WCHA (t-4th)
Last Season: 26-13-3 overall (NCAA West Regional Finalist), 16-11-1 WCHA (4th)

Team Offense: 3.20 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.47 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 21.6% (25 of 116)
Penalty Kill: 83.8% (93 of 111)

Key Players: Senior F Corban Knight (13-27-40), Senior F Danny Kristo (18-21-39), Sophomore F Mark MacMillan (9-9-18), Freshman F Rocco Grimaldi (10-14-24), Junior D Derek Forbort (4-8-12), Sophomore D Dillon Simpson (2-15-17), Freshman G Zane Gothberg (6-3-2. 2.42 GAA, .918 SV%)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: December 8, 2012 (Grand Forks, ND). Carter Rowney capped a five point weekend with two goals on assists from Rocco Grimaldi as UND prevailed, 6-3. Denver scored twice on a five minute power play in the second period but could not get the equalizer. The two teams skated to a 2-2 tie in Friday’s opener, with North Dakota outshooting the Pios 33-20.

Last Meeting in Denver: February 25, 2012. North Dakota could not capitalize on an early five minute power play, and DU road the momentum all the way to a 5-3 victory over the visiting squad from Grand Forks. Chris Knowlton scored twice for DU, who needed the victory to salvage a series split with UND, who won Friday’s opener 4-3.

Most Important Meeting: It’s hard to pick just one game, as the two teams have played four times for the national title. Denver defeated UND for the national championship in 1958, 1968, and 2005, while the Sioux downed the Pioneers in 1963. And just last season, North Dakota defeated Denver in the WCHA Final Five championship game.

Last Ten Games: North Dakota has had the better of it lately, going 7-2-1 (.750) in the last ten meetings between the schools. Only two of the last ten games between the teams have taken place in Denver, with the teams splitting the weekend series. The two teams have also met three times in the WCHA Final Five (St. Paul) and once in the NCAA regionals during this most recent stretch, with UND winning all four games.

All-time Series: UND leads the all-time series, 136-116-9 (.538), but the Pioneers hold a 67-50-3 (.571) record in game played at altitude.

Game News and Notes

UND senior forward Danny Kristo is the active career scoring leader in the NCAA (148 points), and needs six more points to move into the top twenty all time at North Dakota. Both schools are 5-2 in one goal games this season, but North Dakota has scored two overtime winners in eight extra sessions (2-0-6), while DU is winless in seven overtime tries this year (0-2-5). Denver head coach George Gwozdecky just might squat on the dasher in front of his team’s bench.

The Prediction

Everything on paper points to a split this weekend. I have a sneaking suspicion that UND will get off to a slow start in Friday’s opener. A valiant effort will fall just short, but the momentum will carry over into Saturday’s rematch, and North Dakota will head home with two points. DU 4-3, UND 4-2.

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