At this time last year, goaltending was the great unknown for North Dakota. Sophomore netminder Cam Johnson had played just 43 minutes in his collegiate career, posting a ridiculously awful 5.54 goals-against average and an equally bad .765 save percentage.
Twelve months later? Johnson is a national champion. The junior from Troy, Michigan was the NCHC goaltender of the week six times last season and the league’s player of the month in December. At one point, he notched four consecutive shutouts (and a shutout streak of over 298 minutes) and was named one of five finalists for the Mike Richter Award (given to the nation’s best netminder).
Cam’s line last season reads as follows: a 24-4-2 record (including five shutouts), a goals-against average of 1.66 and a save percentage of .935.
UND’s run to the program’s eighth national title featured four impressive victories:
6-2 win over #9 Northeastern (the nation’s hottest team: 20-1-2 in their last 23 games coming in to the tournament)
5-2 win over #5 Michigan (the nation’s best line: Kyle Connor, JT Compher, and Tyler Motte combined for 83-107-190 last season)
4-2 win over #7 Denver (a conference rival which had swept UND in Denver two months earlier)
5-1 win over #1 Quinnipiac (the nation’s
best second-best team: 32-4-7 on the year)
It may take a while for North Dakota fans to get to know this year’s roster, as UND lost nine players from the 2015-16 championship squad. Last season’s senior class (forwards Drake Caggiula, Bryn Chyzyk, Coltyn Sanderson, and Colten St. Clair) would have been enough of a loss, as the quartet accounted for 44 goals and 41 assists in 116 combined games.
But the worst was yet to come as the early departure bug hit the program particularly hard. Five players gave up college eligibility to sign pro contracts, including forward Nick Schmaltz (11-35-46), who left after his sophomore season. The other four skaters would have been seniors this year:
Forward Luke Johnson (11-10-21)
Defenseman Troy Stecher (8-21-29)
Defenseman Paul LaDue (5-14-19)
Defenseman Keaton Thompson (2-15-17)
All told, the nine players accounted for exactly half of North Dakota’s goal scoring last season (81 of 162). Stecher, LaDue, and Thompson helped anchor a defensive unit that allowed only 1.84 goals/game and gave up zero or one goal 24 times in 2015-16.
North Dakota returns three accomplished goal scorers from a year ago, as junior Austin Poganski and sophomores Brock Boeser and Rhett Gardner combined for 48 goals last season. Boeser is considered a favorite for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award.
Left to anchor the blueline are four defensemen who saw action during UND’s championship run: senior Gage Ausmus, junior Tucker Poolman, and sophomores Christian Wolanin and Hayden Shaw. North Dakota will need contributions from sophomore Danys Chartrand and incoming freshmen Dixon Bowen, Casey Johnson, Andrew Peski, and Colton Poolman if they hope to defend their NCAA title.
North Dakota and Canisius have faced off just five times in history, with UND claiming wins in all five contests. The Golden Griffins have competed at the Division I level since the 1998-99 season but were known as the Ice Griffs from 1980 to 2001. Current head coach Dave Smith has been at the helm since 2005 and brought the team to its only NCAA tournament appearance following the 2012-13 season. The Golden Griffins gave #1 seed Quinnipiac a battle in the East Regional, leading 3-1 early in the third period before losing to the Bobcats by a final of 4-3. Incidentally, that game was the first NCAA tournament victory for QU, who rode that momentum all the way to the championship game before falling to Yale.
These games are critical for North Dakota’s postseason aspirations. Last season, Brad Berry’s squad went 9-1-2 in regular season non-conference action and made its fourteenth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance (the longest active streak in the country). UND’s other non-conference opponents this season will be RPI, Bemidji State, Minnesota, Michigan State, Boston College, and Union. North Dakota will play only a single game each against RPI (U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game), Boston College (College Hockey Showdown), and Union.
The Fighting Hawks open with five straight games at Ralph Engelstad Arena. After that stretch, UND will only host consecutive series once this season (January 13/14 vs. Miami and January 20/21 vs. Minnesota-Duluth).
Canisius Team Profile
Head Coach: Dave Smith (12th season at Canisius, 151-212-52, .427)
National Ranking: NR/NR
This Season: 0-0-0 overall, 0-0-0 Atlantic Hockey
Last Season: 12-22-5 overall, 10-13-5 (t-6th of 11 teams)
2015-16 Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 2.36 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 3.10 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 13.7% (20 of 146)
Penalty Kill: 77.7% (115 of 148)
Key Returning Players (2015-16 statistics): Junior F Ryan Schmelzer (10-22-32), Sophomore F Dylan McLaughlin (8-18-26), Sophomore F Felix Chamberland (6-8-14), Sophomore D Cameron Heath (7-9-16), Sophomore D Jimmy Mazza (3-10-13), Sophomore G Simon Hofley (8-12-5, 2.71 GAA, .920 SV%, 1 SO)
North Dakota Team Profile
Head Coach: Brad Berry (2nd season at UND, 34-6-4, .818)
National Ranking: #1/#1
This Season: 0-0-0 overall, 0-0-0-0 NCHC
Last Season: 34-6-4 overall (NCAA Champions), 19-4-1-1 NCHC (1st of 8 teams)
2015-16 Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 3.68 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 1.84 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 19.1% (31 of 162)
Penalty Kill: 86.4% (140 of 162)
Key Returning Players (2015-16 statistics): Sophomore F Brock Boeser (27-33-60), Junior F Austin Poganski (10-15-25), Sophomore F Rhett Gardner (11-7-18), Junior F Johnny Simonson (3-14-17), Junior D Tucker Poolman (5-19-24), Senior D Gage Ausmus (0-11-11), Junior G Cam Johnson (24-4-2, 1.66 GAA, .935 SV%, 5 SO)
By The Numbers
Last meeting: December 18, 2004 (Grand Forks, ND). North Dakota outshot the Griffs 46-17 but needed special teams scoring to put the game away. Chris Porter potted two power play tallies, Travis Zajac had a power play goal, and Colby Genoway scored shorthanded to lead UND to a 4-1 victory. The Fighting Sioux defeated Canisius 5-1 in the series opener and went 6-for-11 with the man advantage on the weekend.
All-time: North Dakota has won all five of the meetings between the teams by a combined score of 31-4.
Game News and Notes
The Golden Griffins play their home games at the newly built HarborCenter, which features an NHL sheet of ice and seating for 1800 fans. Canisius and UND each have 19 underclassmen (eight freshmen and 11 sophomores apiece) on their current roster, tied for fourth in the nation. Last season, the Golden Griffins went just 1-15-1 when trailing after one period of play. This weekend marks the 15th anniversary of the current Ralph Engelstad Arena, which hosted its first game on October 5th, 2001 (my son’s first birthday) against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. North Dakota is 207-74-35 (.710) in its current home.
North Dakota has an advantage all over the ice and will prove too much for the Griffins to handle. Saturday’s contest will be the more difficult one, with goaltending proving the difference. UND 4-1, 3-2.
All UND men’s hockey games, home and away, can be heard on 96.1 FM (The Fox) and on stations across the UND Sports Home of Economy Radio Network, as well as through the iHeart Radio app. This weekend’s series will be telecast live on Midco Sports Network, and the games will also be streamed live in high definition via NCHC.tv.
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!