Weekend Preview: UND at Nebraska-Omaha

Nebraska-Omaha is just 4-8 since the calendar turned to 2016 and has been outscored 45-31 in those twelve games. More devastating for Dean Blais’ squad is that the Mavs went 3-1 at Colorado College and versus Western Michigan (scoring 15 goals and allowing 10) but 1-7 against Denver, North Dakota, Miami, and St. Cloud State, tallying only 16 goals and giving up 35 in those eight contests.

During that same stretch (January and February), North Dakota is 8-3-2, outscoring opponents 36-25. Outside of a tough series at Denver (the Pioneers swept the Hawks 6-4 and 4-1), UND has been on a roll in 2016, posting two shutouts and allowing only a single goal on six other occasions.

Aside from the two losses at altitude, Brad Berry’s only other defeat during this calendar year came at the hands of UNO. The visiting Mavericks scored halfway through the five minute overtime session to shock the home crowd. North Dakota rebounded the following night, dispatching Dean Blais’ squad by a 5-1 margin.

During that NCHC series in Grand Forks, Blais was without the services of netminder Evan Weninger (sprained ankle). Since returning from injury on January 29th, the freshman from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan has not been the same. Here are the splits:

Pre-injury (10/10/15 through 1/8/16): 10-2-0, 1.99 GAA, .942 SV%, 1 shutout
Post-injury (1/29/16 to present): 3-3-0, 2.88 GAA, .887 SV%, 0 shutouts

Weninger struggled in two losses last weekend vs. St. Cloud State, allowing eight goals on 47 shots, and his three victories came against Colorado College and a sweep of Western Michigan.

His counterpart in the UND net, sophomore Cam Johnson, rebounded from two rough losses in Denver (eight goals allowed on 54 shots; .889 save percentage) to post a home sweep of Duluth last weekend. Johnson made 59 of 61 saves in the two wins and is currently second in the nation in both goals-against average (1.54) and save percentage (.940) with 15 wins (10th in the country) and five shutouts (5th).

North Dakota’s sweep of the Bulldogs allowed them to keep pace with St. Cloud State (the two teams are tied for first in the NCHC) but came at a price. The league suspended junior defenseman Troy Stecher (6-15-21) one game for his illegal hit at the final buzzer. Stecher is UND’s top point-getting blueliner and notched two goals and two assists when the Fighting Hawks and Mavericks faced off last month. Stecher will serve his suspension during Friday’s opener and will be eligible to return in the series finale on Saturday, February 27th.

In his absence, expect both freshman defensemen (Hayden Shaw and Christian Wolanin) in the lineup. It will be interesting to see which blueliner will be paired up with Gage Ausmus (as the Grand Forks Herald’s Brad Schlossman reported, he and Stecher have played 48 consecutive games together and are 35-9-4 as partners) and called upon to defend against UNO’s most potent forward pair, Jake Guentzel (16-24-40) and Austin Ortega (19-12-31). In my opinion, Shaw and Wolanin should be split up on the second and third pairings rather than be counted on to defend together. That leaves a likely defensive corps of Ausmus with Tucker Poolman, Wolanin with Paul LaDue, and Shaw with Keaton Thompson.

A big reason for UND’s success this season has been North Dakota’s ability to hold a lead. During the 2015-16 campaign, Brad Berry’s squad is unbeaten (7-0-1) when leading after the first forty minutes of play. In fact, over the past eight years, North Dakota is converting almost 90 percent of second intermission leads into victories and has just seven losses in the last 163 such situations (145-7-11).

Omaha chose to open the brand-new Baxter Arena against Air Force (rather than North Dakota), and that set off a string of eight consecutive home victories (sweeps of the Falcons, Minnesota-Duluth, Ohio State, and Arizona State). Since that time, however, the Mavericks are just 2-6-0 in their new digs, having been swept on home ice by Denver (January 8-9), Miami (January 22-23), and St. Cloud State (February 19-20). UNO’s only home wins since December 20th came against Western Michigan.

The National Collegiate Hockey Conference as a whole has a solid record against other leagues once again this season, particularly against the Big Ten. North Dakota’s split against Wisconsin is currently the only league loss against the six teams in the conference that destroyed college hockey as we knew it.

NCHC overall record vs. other conferences: 48-26-10 (.631, best in the country)

NCHC record vs. Atlantic Hockey: 4-2-0 (.667)
NCHC record vs. Big Ten: 14-1-1 (.906)
NCHC record vs. ECAC: 2-7-0 (.286)
NCHC record vs. Hockey East: 5-12-7 (.354)
NCHC record vs. WCHA: 19-4-2 (.800)

The six teams in the Big Ten (Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin) are a combined 39-39-11 (.500) in non-league play, the third-worst winning percentage in college hockey. Not including a 12-3-1 mark against Atlantic Hockey and a 2-0-0 record against D-I independents, the Big Ten sports a dismal 25-36-10 (.423) record against the other four major hockey conferences.

North Dakota’s Brock Boeser is tied with Denver’s Dylan Gambrell for the most points among first-year players in the NCHC, and both are among the best in the country. Here are the top five freshman point-getters in the nation:

1. Kyle Connor (Michigan): 24-27-51 in 28 games (1.82 points/game)
2. Colin White (Boston College): 17-22-39 in 30 games (1.30 points/game)
3. Max Letunov (Connecticut): 15-21-36 in 32 games (1.12 points/game)
4. Brock Boeser (North Dakota): 20-15-35 in 30 games (1.17 points/game)
4. Dylan Gambrell (Denver): 11-24-35 in 30 games (1.17 points/game)

Since 1999-2000, the only UND freshmen to score more goals than Boeser’s 20 are Zach Parise (26), T.J. Oshie (24), and Jonathan Toews (22). Travis Zajac also had 20 goals in his first year at North Dakota. Other Fighting Sioux freshman to score 20 or more goals in a season include Troy Murray (33 in 1980-81), Kevin Maxwell (31, 1978-79), Perry Berezan (31, 1983-84), Cary Eades (27, 1978-79), Ian Kallay (23, 1995-96), Garry Valk (23, 1987-88), Doug Smail (22, 1977-78), and Mark Taylor (22, 1976-77). Of the first twelve rookies to reach the twenty-goal plateau, ten went on to play in the NHL (Eades and Kallay were the exception).

During the 2015-16 campaign, Brad Berry’s squad is unbeaten (18-0-2) when leading after the first forty minutes of play. In fact, North Dakota has gone 66 straight games without a loss when leading after the first two periods. Amazingly, UND is 11th of 60 teams nationally in scoring offense and 2nd in scoring defense, notching 106 goals and allowing only 59 in 32 games this season. Nationally, only St. Cloud State (140 goals for/66 goals against in 32 games), Boston College (130 goals for/60 goals against in 32 games), Quinnipiac (121 goals for/63 goals against in 32 games), and Michigan (134 goals for/83 goals against in 28 games) boast a better scoring margin than North Dakota.

My article, the race for the Penrose Cup is down to North Dakota and St. Cloud State, may have been a bit premature, although it is looking likely that Denver (13-5-2-0, 41 points) will finish in third place behind the Huskies and Fighting Hawks, both of whom have a conference record of 15-4-1-1 (47 points). In the simplest terms, the Pioneers are two games back of the league leaders with four games remaining:

UND: at Omaha, vs. Western Michigan
SCSU: vs. Duluth, at Colorado College
DU: at Western Michigan, vs. Omaha

St. Cloud State and North Dakota were winners of the first two NCHC regular season league titles. Denver’s last league title came in 2010 (WCHA).

According to Jim Dahl of collegehockeyranked.com, Brad Berry’s team is a virtual lock to make their 14th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. In that same article, Dahl mentions that Omaha is unlikely to drop below 14th in the Pairwise rankings after this weekend’s action, regardless of the results. 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 4th in the Pairwise rankings, one of four NCHC teams (along with St. Cloud State, Denver, and Omaha) who would make the NCAAs if the season ended today. Miami (t-16th) and Minnesota-Duluth (25th) are within striking distance, with Western Michigan and Colorado College outside the top 30.

Last season, both North Dakota and Omaha advanced to the Frozen Four but neither team made the championship game. UND fell to Boston University 5-3, while the Mavericks were upended 4-1 by eventual national champion Providence.

The Hawks-Mavericks rivalry isn’t quite there yet, but as Tom Shatel (Omaha World Herald) writes, “UNO is ripe for rivalry with North Dakota green.”

Nebraska-Omaha Team Profile

Head Coach: Dean Blais (7th season at UNO, 129-110-25, .536)

Pairwise Ranking: 11th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #13/#13
This Season: 18-11-1 overall, 8-11-1-0 NCHC (t-4th)
Last Season: 20-13-6 overall (NCAA Frozen Four appearance), 12-8-4-3 NCHC (3rd)

Team Offense: 3.13 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.83 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 16.3% (21 of 129)
Penalty Kill: 82.5% (99 of 120)

Key Players: Junior forward Jake Guentzel (16-24-40), Junior F Austin Ortega (19-12-31), Junior F Justin Parizek (8-19-27), Sophomore F Jake Randolph (9-12-21), Sophomore D Luc Snuggerud (3-13-16), Junior D Ian Brady (3-10-13), Freshman G Evan Weninger (13-5-0, 2.31 GAA, .926 SV%, 1 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (1st season at UND, 24-5-3, .797)

Pairwise Ranking: 4th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #4/#4
This Season: 24-5-3 overall, 15-4-1-1 NCHC (t-1st)
Last Season: 29-10-3 overall (NCAA Frozen Four appearance), 16-6-2-0 NCHC (1st)

Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 3.31 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 1.84 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 17.6% (22 of 125)
Penalty Kill: 87.0% (107 of 123)

Key Players: Senior F Drake Caggiula (15-18-33), Sophomore F Nick Schmaltz (4-25-29), Freshman F Brock Boeser (20-15-35), Senior F Bryn Chyzyk (9-8-17), Junior D Troy Stecher (6-15-21), Sophomore F Tucker Poolman (3-13-16), Junior D Paul LaDue (3-9-12), Sophomore G Cam Johnson (15-3-1, 1.54 GAA, .940 SV%, 5 SO)

By The Numbers:

Last meeting: January 16, 2016 (Grand Forks, ND). North Dakota spotted UNO the a 1-0 lead in the first period, but it wouldn’t last long. Drake Caggiula potted a power play goal with seven seconds remaining in the opening frame and UND added two goals in each of the next two periods to defeat the visiting Mavericks 5-1. Omaha won Friday’s opener 4-3 in overtime, helped along by Jake Randolph’s tally with one tick left on the second period clock.

Last meeting in Omaha: January 31, 2015. 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.

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. In my opinion, this hockey weekend solidified the notion that for UND hockey, it’s always a home game.

All-time: UND leads the all-time series 10-7-1 (.583), including a 5-3-0 (.625) record in games played in Omaha. North Dakota has picked up five wins and a tie in the last ten games between the schools, outscoring the Mavs 31-29 over that stretch. Four of the last six games have gone to overtime.

Game News and Notes

The Mavericks are 2-6-0 against teams in the top 15 of the Pairwise rankings (St. Cloud State, North Dakota, Denver) and 16-5-1 against other opponents. North Dakota is 8-4-0 against nationally-ranked teams this season. The Fighting Hawks have already clinched home ice for the first round of the NCHC playoffs and will host the first round for the 14th consecutive season, the longest active streak in men’s college hockey. 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. Omaha has scored eight shorthand goals this season (4th in the country); while UND has netted seven (7th). The Mavericks have only three seniors on their roster — defenseman Brian Cooper (captain) and forwards Tanner Lane and Aaron Pearce. The classmates will be honored during Saturday’s senior night.

Media Coverage

Friday’s game will not be televised, but Saturday’s rematch will be available on American Sports Network, Midco Sports Network, and WDAY’Z Extra. A high definition webcast of both games will be 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.

The Prediction

UND needs more than a split this weekend to keep pace with St. Cloud State, but positive results will be hard to come by, particularly on Friday night. At least one of these tilts will go to overtime, and North Dakota’s goaltending edge will be the difference. UND 3-2 (OT), 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!

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