Weekend Preview: North Dakota vs. Western Michigan

Here’s what I wrote back in early December before North Dakota and Western Michigan faced off in Kalamazoo, Michigan:

“Only five wins overall. Five losses in eight conference games. Unranked and on the outside looking in. That’s the situation facing Dave Hakstol and the UND men’s hockey team as they travel to Kalamazoo, Michigan to take on Andy Murray and the Western Michigan Broncos. North Dakota can’t afford too many more conference losses if it expects to host the first round of the league playoffs for the eleventh consecutive year. The only other team with as many conference losses is Colorado College (1-5-2-1 NCHC, 1-10-2 overall), and I’m certain that UND does not want to be mentioned in that company this season.”

What a difference three months makes.

Since I wrote those words, UND is 14-3-1 and has outscored opponents 64-38. Dave Hakstol’s squad, once scratching and clawing to secure home ice and a spot in the top 15 of the Pairwise rankings, now finds itself at #9 in the Pairwise with home ice secured for the first round of the NCHC playoffs and tied for first place in the race for the inaugural Penrose Cup.

Over that same stretch, North Dakota sophomore netminder Zane Gothberg has been virtually unbeatable, compiling a record of 11-1-1 with a goals-against average of 1.68 and a save percentage of .922 with one shutout. Gothberg has allowed more than two goals only once over that span, a 5-3 road victory over Colorado College.

Andy Murray, formerly head coach of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues, is hoping to get his squad back to the NCAA tournament after a disappointing bubble last season. WMU finished at 19-11-8 last year, narrowly missing the big dance. The Broncos are led up front by senior forwards Shane Berschbach (14-21-35) and Chase Balisy (12-21-33) and junior forward Justin Kovacs (12-18-30).

By comparison, North Dakota has just one forward (Rocco Grimaldi) with 30 or more points this season.

Western Michigan goaltender Frank Slubowski, who was so good in the early going, has just four wins since November 30th. Here are his first half/second half splits:

October 2013 – November 2013: 5-4-3, 2.23 goals-against average, .925 save percentage
December 2013 – February 2014: 4-4-0, 3.42 goals-against average, .891 save percentage

Slubowski’s subpar second half has opened the door for sophomore netminder Lukas Hafner to appear in 18 games (many in relief), and Hafner has delivered a record of 7-5-2 with a goals-against average of 2.14, a save percentage of .920, and two shutouts. Expect both Slubowski and Hafner to see game action this weekend in Grand Forks.

Dave Hakstol’s crew has been getting it done with balanced scoring. Nine UND players have collected more than a half point per game this season, including three defensemen. Eleven North Dakota skaters have amassed ten or more points in 2013-14, with three more players within two points of double digits.

Production from the blue line has been a theme for the Green and White this season. The top six UND blueliners have collected 23 goals and 64 assists (87 points) as a unit, while Western Michigan defensemen can claim 11 goals and 46 assists (57 points).

Specialty teams continues to be an area of concern for Andy Murray’s Broncos. WMU has converted only 12.3 percent of man advantage situations this season and currently sits at a -9 (20 power play goals scored, 29 power play goals allowed). North Dakota is clicking at 18.8% with the man advantage, and is a +1 combined (27 power play goals scored, 26 power play goals allowed).

The other key factor is that Western Michigan has already had 183 shorthanded situations this season compared to just 162 power plays. North Dakota has been called upon to kill 149 penalties and has had 144 power plays this year.

Going in to the final weekend of league play, North Dakota (42 league points) is battling with St. Cloud State (42 points) and Nebraska-Omaha (39 points) to claim the first-ever NCHC regular season title. Western Michigan (34 points), Minnesota-Duluth (34 points), and Denver (32 points) can all claim home ice for the first round of the league playoffs, while Colorado College and Miami are settled into 7th and 8th place, respectively.

Here’s the schedule for the final weekend in the NCHC:

Western Michigan at North Dakota
St. Cloud State at Colorado College
Nebraska-Omaha at Minnesota-Duluth
Miami at Denver

For those of you wondering about the possibility of an on-ice trophy presentation in one rink or another this weekend, there is an interesting article here detailing the travel plans of not one but two Penrose Cups.

Western Michigan Team Profile

Head Coach: (Andy Murray, 3rd season at WMU, 56-38-19, .580)

Pairwise Ranking: 21st (tie)
National Ranking: NR
This Season: 16-13-5 overall, 10-10-2 NCHC (t-4th)
Last Season: 19-11-8 overall (missed NCAA tournament), 15-7-6-3 CCHA (3rd)

Team Offense: 2.68 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.62 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 12.3% (20 of 162)
Penalty Kill: 84.2% (154 of 183)

Key Players: Senior F Shane Berschbach (14-21-35), Junior F Justin Kovacs (12-18-30), Senior F Chase Balisy (12-21-33), Sophomore D Kenney Morrison (3-15-18), Junior D Jordan Oesterle (2-12-14), Sophomore G Lukas Hafner (7-5-2, 2.14 GAA, .920 GAA, 2 shutouts)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Dave Hakstol (10th season at UND, 254-129-40, .648)

Pairwise Ranking: 9th
National Ranking: #9
This Season: 19-10-3 overall, 14-8-0-0 NCHC (t-1st)
Last Season: 22-13-7 overall (NCAA West Regional finalist), 14-7-7 WCHA (3rd)

Team Offense: 3.16 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.62 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 18.8% (27 of 144)
Penalty Kill: 82.6% (123 of 149)

Key Players: Sophomore F Rocco Grimaldi (13-18-31), Sophomore F Michael Parks (10-17-27), Junior F Mark MacMillan (9-11-20), Sophomore F Drake Caggiula (9-10-19), Senior D Dillon Simpson (7-14-21), Sophomore D Jordan Schmaltz (4-16-20), Sophomore G Zane Gothberg (14-6-3, 2.11 GAA, .922 SV%, 1 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: December 7, 2013 (Kalamazoo, MI). WMU netminder Frank Slubowski gave up three goals on thirteen shots before being pulled early in the second period and North Dakota held on for a 3-2 road victory. Western Michigan, which outshot UND 25-16, collected two power play goals on six attempts. The Green and White also won Friday’s opener by a 3-2 score.

Last Meeting in Grand Forks: January 3, 1998. One night after dismantling the Broncos 12-5, the Fighting Sioux played it a bit closer to the vest in a 5-1 triumph. That North Dakota team, one year removed from a national championship, would lose only eight games on the season but would fall one game short of the Frozen Four in Boston, Massachusetts.

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.

All-time Series: UND has won all seven meetings between the schools, outscoring the Broncos 37-17. The teams first met in 1997.

Game News and Notes

WMU head coach Andy Murray is in his third season behind the Bronco bench; Murray’s son, Brady, played for the Fighting Sioux from 2003-05. Western Michigan finished third in the last season of the CCHA, while North Dakota finished third in the last season of the WCHA as we knew it. UND is 9-3-0 (.750) this season when the opponent scores first. Both teams play on the narrower NHL ice surface (85 x 200 feet).

The Prediction

The first two games of this series went North Dakota’s way by identical 3-2 scores. UND has more firepower and a healthy lineup this time around, and Western Michigan is a bit shakier in net but can also score in bunches. I’ve got the Green and White winning two close games, with Saturday’s rematch a bit more wide open. UND 3-2, 4-3.

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