Nebraska-Omaha has finally figured out who will replace Ryan Massa in net (the four-year starter logged over 4000 career minutes between the pipes for the Mavs and was a key component in their Frozen Four run a year ago). In twelve starts, freshman netminder Evan Weninger ranks second in the league in save percentage (.942) and third in goals-against average, allowing less than two goals per game.
Fortunately for North Dakota, Weninger will not be in uniform this weekend due to an injury. Surprisingly, Mavericks’ head coach Dean Blais has elected to give freshman Alex Blankenburg his first career start in Friday’s opener rather than tab junior Kirk Thompson, who has performed capably in eight starts this season. Thompson has amassed a record of 4-3-1 with a 2.75 goals-against average and an .889 save percentage. Blankenburg has no official NCAA statistics (of course) and is listed at 5-8 and 162 pounds.
His counterpart in the UND net, sophomore Cam Johnson, has been absolutely incredible since returning from injury in late November. Johnson has won eight consecutive games (four by shutout) and allowed a total of four goals over that stretch (one each in the other four victories). The Flint, Michigan native went nearly 300 consecutive minutes without allowing a goal (a UND record and the second-longest in the history of NCAA Division I men’s hockey) and was named both the Hockey Commissioners’ Association and NCHC Player of the Month for the month of December.
Johnson’s play, equal parts steady and spectacular, has meant that North Dakota has been able to hold leads. During the 2015-16 campaign, Brad Berry’s squad is unbeaten (11-0-1) when leading after the first forty minutes of play. In fact, North Dakota has gone 62 straight games without a loss when leading after the first two periods. Amazingly, UND is 11th nationally in scoring offense 2nd in scoring defense, notching 75 goals and allowing only 35 in 22 games this season. By comparison, UNO has outscored opponents 66-47 over their first 20 games. Nationally, only Quinnipiac (87 goals for/35 goals against in 23 games) boasts a better scoring margin than North Dakota.
Omaha was swept by visiting Denver last weekend, the second sweep the Mavericks have suffered this season (UNO also lost a pair of games at Western Michigan in late October). Omaha’s first period on Friday night will set the tone for the entire weekend, as head coach Dean Blais will have his squad prepared to rebound from their first two home losses of the season.
Berry has his team in very good position for a 14th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. UND went 9-1-2 in non-conference games this season, with a home split with Wisconsin accounting for the only loss in twelve games. The Fighting Hawks are currently 2nd in the Pairwise rankings, one of four NCHC teams (along with Omaha, St. Cloud State, and Denver) who would make the NCAA’s if the season ended today. Minnesota-Duluth sits squarely on the bubble at 16, with Western Michigan, Miami, and Colorado College outside the top 25.
Omaha will host North Dakota in late February for UND’s first games in the newly-opened Baxter Arena (capacity 7,898). With hockey back on the UNO campus, North Dakota can expect a raucous, rowdy atmosphere next month. Brad Berry has his squad playing well on the road, going 10-1-2 in the first half of the season. No team in the country has more road wins than North Dakota.
UND’s next home victory will mark 200 home wins since the current Ralph Engelstad Arena opened prior to the 2001-2002 season. North Dakota is 199-73-34 (.706) all-time at the Palace on the Prairie, including an 8-1-1 record this season. The team will be wearing green jerseys at home for the first time in the Ralph, and a Green Out is planned for Friday’s opener. Fans are encouraged to wear green to match and support the home squad. NCHC teams will wear dark jerseys at home and white jerseys on the road for the second half of the season (conference games only).
Nebraska-Omaha Team Profile
Head Coach: Dean Blais (7th season at UNO, 125-104-25, .541)
Pairwise Ranking: 7th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #9/#9
This Season: 14-5-1 overall, 4-5-1-0 NCHC (5th)
Last Season: 20-13-6 overall (NCAA Frozen Four appearance), 12-8-4-3 NCHC (3rd)
Team Offense: 3.30 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.35 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 17.9% (14 of 78)
Penalty Kill: 87.5% (70 of 80)
Key Players: Junior forward Jake Guentzel (10-17-27), Junior F Austin Ortega (16-8-24), Junior F Justin Parizek (6-15-21), Sophomore F Jake Randolph (8-9-17), Sophomore D Luc Snuggerud (2-6-8), Junior D Ian Brady (1-5-6), Freshman G Evan Weninger (10-2-0, 1.99 GAA, .942 SV%, 1 SO)
North Dakota Team Profile
Head Coach: Brad Berry (1st season at UND, 18-2-2, .864)
Pairwise Ranking: 2nd of 60 teams
National Rankings: #1/#2
This Season: 18-2-2 overall, 9-1-0-0 NCHC (t-1st)
Last Season: 29-10-3 overall (NCAA Frozen Four appearance), 16-6-2-0 NCHC (1st)
Team Offense: 3.41 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 1.59 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 17.9% (15 of 84)
Penalty Kill: 84.7% (72 of 85)
Key Players: Senior F Drake Caggiula (14-15-29), Sophomore F Nick Schmaltz (3-23-26), Freshman F Brock Boeser (13-8-21), Senior F Bryn Chyzyk (8-3-11), Sophomore D Tucker Poolman (3-11-14), Junior D Troy Stecher (3-12-15), Freshman D Christian Wolanin (3-6-9), Sophomore G Cam Johnson (9-0-1, 1.07 GAA, .957 SV%, 4 SO)
By The Numbers:
Last meeting: January 31, 2015 (Omaha, NE). UND flipped the script from Friday’s opener as Brendan O’Donnell potted the game-winner two minutes into overtime to give North Dakota a 4-3 victory. One night earlier, Omaha forward Austin Ortega’s goal with 33 ticks remaining in the extra frame spoiled UND’s third period comeback. Five of the twelve goals in the series were scored on the power play.
Last meeting in Grand Forks: November 29, 2014. Zane McIntyre made 32 saves as the Green and White built a 3-1 lead and held on for a 3-2 home victory. North Dakota senior forward Mark McMillan scored a second period goal that withstood a lengthy review, and senior captain Stephane Pattyn potted a shorthanded tally late in the middle frame for the game winning goal. UND and UNO skated to a 2-2 tie in Friday’s opener, but Nebraska-Omaha won the shootout for the extra league point.
Most memorable meeting: The game that UND fans will long remember is the outdoor game played at TD Ameritrade Park (Omaha, Nebraska) on February 9th, 2013. One day after winning a tight 2-1 contest indoors, North Dakota throttled UNO 5-2 on a sunny, melty afternoon. Mavericks netminder John Faulkner was pulled after allowing three goals on five shots in just ten minutes of game action.
All-time: UND leads the all-time series 9-6-1 (.594), including a 4-3-1 (.563) record in games played in Grand Forks. North Dakota has picked up six wins and a tie in the last ten games between the schools, outscoring the Mavs 30-27 over that stretch. Three of the last four games have gone to overtime.
Game News and Notes
Dean Blais, who was the head coach at UND from 1994-2004, collected 262 victories at North Dakota and led the school to national titles in 1997 and 2000. Senior forward Drake Caggiula has appeared in 144 games in his North Dakota career, tied with Minnesota State’s Bryce Gervais for the most among all active NCAA Division I men’s hockey players. Prior to last weekend’s sweep at the hands of Denver, UNO had gone 8-1-1 in its previous ten games. Both UND and Omaha are tied for second in the nation with six shorthanded goals, one behind first-place Penn State. North Dakota has not lost since November 21st, a string of eight consecutive victories.
Both games this weekend will be televised on Midco Sports Network. Saturday’s contest will also be featured on FOX College Sports Central. A high definition webcast of the games is also available to NCHC.tv subscribers. 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.
Here are the key questions for this series: Which defensive pairing will Brad Berry match up against Jake Guentzel’s line (with RW Austin Ortega and whoever plays left wing), and will those blueliners be effective? How will the CBS line (Caggiula, Brock Boesser, and Nick Schmaltz) fare against a rookie netminder making his first start in a hostile environment? And how will the officials call a game that is certain to be hard-nosed, gritty, and physical? The fans are in for a treat this weekend, and both teams will leave with points. 2-2 tie (North Dakota wins the shootout), UND 4-1.