Weekend Preview: North Dakota at St. Cloud State

A season ago, North Dakota traveled to face St. Cloud State in November with quite a bit on the line…

It was a battle of two top-ten teams. A matchup between the first two winners of the Penrose Cup (NCHC regular season champions). A rematch of the 2015 NCAA West Regional final in Fargo, North Dakota. Two teams who battled six times in 2014-15, with North Dakota winning four. At the time, UND and SCSU were the only two undefeated teams in conference play, combining to score 84 goals in their first 22 games.

And in that November series (the only two games the squads would play against each other during the 2015-16 season), they managed a split (UND 4-3, SCSU 6-1).

The end of last season could not have gone any differently for the two conference rivals. St. Cloud State, the top seed in the NCAA West Regional (Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, MN), rallied to tie #18 Ferris State in the third period, but the Bulldogs scored just 18 seconds into the extra session to knock off the Huskies (who were ranked #2 in the country heading into the NCAAs) by a final of 5-4.

The newly-minted Fighting Hawks from the University of North Dakota fared much better in the postseason, defeating Northeastern (the nation’s hottest team), Michigan (featuring the nation’s best line), Denver (a bitter conference rival), and Quinnipiac (the nation’s best team) to hoist the program’s eighth national title. In the four games of the NCAA tournament, UND downed their opponents by a combined score of 18-7.

Things look a bit different this time around…

The two teams have just two victories between them in conference play (SCSU 2-2-0-0, UND 0-3-1-1), and both squads have a vastly different identity (or are still searching for same) than they had a season ago.

Gone from the North Dakota roster are 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.

The picture at St. Cloud State is very similar. The Huskies are learning to live without a quartet of senior forwards who contributed all over the ice last season: Kalle Kossila (14-40-54 in 2015-16), Joey Benik (23-25-48), Jimmy Murray (13-26-39), and David Morley (14-23-37). To further complicate matters, sophomore Patrick Russell (20-21-41) gave up his final two seasons of eligibility to sign with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.

On the defensive side of things, SCSU lost only one defenseman from last season’s roster: senior captain Ethan Prow, who tallied 8-30-38 a year ago and finished his career one point shy of the century mark (19-80-99). The biggest loss in their own end occurred when netminder Charlie Lindgren (30-9-1, 2.13 GAA, .925 SV%, 5 SO) gave up his senior season to join the Montreal Canadiens organization. That decision left the Huskies without any experience in net, and the job is left to freshmen Zach Driscoll, Jeff Smith, and David Zevnik. So far, it’s been Driscoll (5-2-0, 2.92 GAA, .884 SV%) in the driver’s seat with Smith (1-2-0, 3.61 GAA, .867 SV%) backing him up on most nights.

The top returning scorer for the Huskies is sophomore Mikey Eyssimont, who tallied 14 goals and 19 assists for 33 points as a freshman last season.

His counterpart at UND, sophomore Brock Boeser, led the Fighting Hawks with sixty points (27 goals, 33 assists) during his rookie campaign.

Despite all of the changes, this weekend will feel strangely familiar:

Two teams in the mix for yet another NCAA tournament appearance. A lethal St. Cloud State power play on the wide sheet of ice that gives North Dakota fits every single year. An arena that will feel like Christmas in November, with nearly half of the fans in green to combat the hometown red.

In 2004, the Center Ice Club created a commemorative trophy to mark the rivalry, and the two teams have been battling it out each season to claim the UND/SCSU Challenge Cup.

UND had the better of the play in the first eight years of the Challenge Cup era, claiming the Cup four times and sharing the trophy three times while St. Cloud State only won the trophy once (2005-06). However, the Huskies have earned the trophy two of the last four seasons and shared the Cup last season. The 2016-17 version of the Challenge Cup will be decided in February when the teams take the ice at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks.

One St. Cloud State supporter is quite familiar with this rivalry, both home and away. By his own admission, Bill Prout (@CenterIceClub, centericeview.com) has attended more SCSU hockey games than anyone else on the planet. I connected with Bill to fill us in on what to expect this weekend (and beyond) from the Huskies:

Dave Berger, SiouxSports.com: What should UND fans expect to see from SCSU this weekend?

Bill Prout, CenterIceView.com: Much like UND a team that is very youthful and looking for consistency in play. SCSU lost 220 points of offense from 2015-16. Against Minnesota they rallied both nights for wins. Against the Bulldogs they coughed up 3-2 leads each night to lose. They are going through a “growth” process.

DB: Who are the players to watch?

BP: Upper class leadership on offense comes from juniors Judd Peterson (7 goals) and Blake Winiecki who has a six game scoring streak. Sophomores Jimmy Schuldt (captain) and Will Borgen are providing leadership on defense. 2015-16 USHL Defenseman of the Year Jack Ahcan has been outstanding and near the top of the team scoring chart. Dennis Cholowski, a first round draft choice of Detroit, is another outstanding young defenseman. Ryan Poehling is a 17 year old who decided to forgo his senior year of high school to join twin brothers Jack and Nick. Ryan will be a first round draft choice in the 2017 NHL entry draft. Patrick Newell and Mikey Eyssimont are skilled and exciting sophomore forwards.

DB: Are the Huskies dealing with injuries right now?

BP: Only one…senior forward Ryan Papa.

DB: What will SCSU need to do to have success in this important conference series?

BP: They need to limit the mental mistakes and turnovers that have haunted them at times this season. The goaltending has been a challenge with two first-year netminders. The goaltenders need to elevate their play from 87% to over 90% save percentage. They’ll need to capitalize on UND’s struggling penalty kill when given the opportunity. Consistent play down the middle of the ice will be important.

DB: How would you describe their style of play? What do they do well?

BP: Great transistion from their defensive zone and the ability to motor up the ice. SCSU is not a physically imposing team and relies on their skill and speed to get their opponent off balance. They absolutely dominated major segments of the Minnesota and Duluth series. They can score in bunches.

DB: What are the players and coaches saying about this matchup? Is this a weekend that’s been circled on the calendar for a while? Or is it just another pair of games?

BP: Both the coaching staff and players look forward to this series. They respect the tradition and winning tradition UND has. The players particularly look forward to playing in front of the large crowds and the noise and excitement that this series brings. These teams have a history of exciting games and the players are aware of that.

DB: What is the ceiling for this team? Are supporters thinking that a Frozen Four berth is a possibility for this club?

BP: There is a whole lot of talent on this squad. However, they are very young and inexperienced. It’s always a challenge when a team has so few upperclassmen and when your starting goaltender left a year early. They will certainly be a much better team the second half of the season but it’s unlikely they’ll have the offense of the 2015-16 squad. Goaltending is a concern and may be the biggest detriment to making a strong run at the end of this season. This team may be a year off from another strong post-season run.

My thanks to Bill Prout (@CenterIceClub on Twitter) for his time and his contributions to this preview. If you’re interested, you can find his game preview for centericeview.com here.

This weekend marks the fifth consecutive weekend against a ranked opponent for North Dakota; UND went 14-5-1 (.725) against top-twenty teams a year ago but is just 2-4-2 (.375) in those situations this season. Here’s a closer look at the five-week grind that the Fighting Hawks have had to endure:

vs. #18 Bemidji State (W 3-2, W 5-4)
at #2 Minnesota Duluth (L 2-5, L 0-3)
at #13 Minnesota (T 5-5, L 0-2)
vs. #2 Denver (T 1-1, L 2-3)
at #12 St. Cloud State

St. Cloud State Team Profile

Head Coach: Bob Motzko (12th season at SCSU, 241-168-42, .581)

Pairwise Ranking: t-11th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #12/#12
This Season: 6-4-0 overall, 2-2-0-0 NCHC (5th)
Last Season: 31-9-1 overall (NCAA West Regional semifinalist), 17-6-1-1 NCHC (t-2nd)

Team Offense: 4.10 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 3.40 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 19.6% (9 of 46)
Penalty Kill: 83.3% (30 of 36)

Key Players: Junior F Judd Peterson (7-3-10), Sophomore F Patrick Newell (2-8-10), Sophomore F Mikey Eyssimont (6-3-9), Junior F Blake Winiecki (6-3-9), Freshman D Jack Ahcan (2-8-10), Sophomore D Jimmy Schuldt (2-6-8), Sophomore D Will Borgen (0-7-7), Freshman G Zach Driscoll (5-2-0, 2.92 GAA, .884 SV%)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (2nd season at UND, 39-10-6, .764)

Pairwise Ranking: t-8th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #8/#8
This Season: 5-4-2 overall, 0-3-1-1 NCHC (7th)
Last Season: 34-6-4 overall (NCAA Champions), 19-4-1-1 NCHC (1st of 8 teams)

Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 3.00 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.55 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 13.7% (7 of 51)
Penalty Kill: 78.2% (43 of 55)

Key Players: Sophomore F Brock Boeser (7-6-13), Sophomore F Shane Gersich (6-8-14), Freshman F Tyson Jost (3-8-11), Junior F Austin Poganski (3-3-6), Junior D Tucker Poolman (2-7-9), Senior D Gage Ausmus (0-2-2), Junior G Cam Johnson (5-4-2, 2.45 GAA, .895 SV%, 1 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: November 21, 2015 (St. Cloud, MN). One night after senior Drake Caggiula’s hat trick gave UND a 4-3 road victory, it was all Huskies in a 6-1 shellacking of the Fighting Hawks. No amount of bird noise from the North Dakota road trippers could prevent six different Huskies from scoring on a total of only 21 shots on goal. St. Cloud State went 2-for-5 with the man advantage and held UND scoreless on three power play chances.

Most Important Meeting: NCAA West Regional Final in Fargo, ND (March 28, 2015). North Dakota scored three unassisted goals over the final two periods of the hockey game to defeat St. Cloud State 4-1 in the West Regional Final and advance to the NCAA Frozen Four. Jimmy Murray got the Huskies on the board less than 90 seconds in to the hockey game, but that did nothing to quiet the partisan crowd of 5,307 at SCHEELS Arena. Four different players scored for UND, while Zane McIntyre made 19 stops to earn his 29th and final victory of the season.

All-time Series: North Dakota leads the all-time series, 66-39-12 (.615), including a 27-21-6 (.556) record in St. Cloud. Aside from their 2015 NCHC Frozen Faceoff semifinal victory, the Huskies also defeated North Dakota in the 2001 WCHA Final Five championship game. UND is 10-3-0 (.769) against St. Cloud State in the conference playoffs, with their most recent triumph coming in the 2012 WCHA Final Five quarterfinals. The teams have only met once in the NCAA tournament (2015).

Last Ten: UND holds a 6-4-0 (.600) edge in the last ten meetings between the teams, but each squad has scored 26 goals over that stretch of games.

Game News and Notes

North Dakota junior forward Austin Poganski (St. Cloud, MN) has four points in eight career games against his hometown team. No team has swept this series in the past 15 years. UND sophomore forward Brock Boeser has been held off of the score sheet in three straight games and five of the past six. He was only scoreless in 10 of 42 contests (and only 4 of the last 32) a year ago. When these two teams met a year ago, SCSU was allowing 1.50 goals/game. This year, St. Cloud State is allowing 3.40 goals/game. The last time UND swept the Huskies in St. Cloud was in November of 1998.

Media Coverage

Both games this weekend will be televised. Friday’s opener can be seen on FOX Sports North PLUS, and Saturday’s finale will be produced by the SCSU Sports Network and also carried by Midco Sports Network. A high definition stream of both games is 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.

Pregame Event

The annual gathering of SCSU and North Dakota fans will take place on Saturday, November 19th from 4:00-6:00 p.m. on the second level of Brothers Bar and Grill (119 5th Avenue South) in St. Cloud. Complimentary appetizers will be served, and the Challenge Cup will be on hand. All St. Cloud State and UND fans are encouraged to attend.

The Prediction

I don’t see any possibility of either one of these teams getting out of this weekend with two victories. Each side is filled with talent and question marks, with the Huskies getting a slight advantage on home ice. I see this series playing out in a very similar fashion to last year, although the rematch will be closer this time around. UND 3-2, SCSU 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!