NCHC Playoff Preview: North Dakota vs. St. Cloud State

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 collected just 21 victories between them in 48 conference games this season (UND 11-12-1-1, SCSU 10-13-1-0), and both squads have a vastly different identity (or are still searching for same) than they had a year 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 has been left to freshmen Zach Driscoll and Jeff Smith. Driscoll had the job early on but was pulled from a game against Omaha on December 9th, and Smith has taken the reigns, going 9-9-0 with a 2.40 goals-against average and a save percentage of .918. Since the switch, Driscoll has only appeared in two games, and it appears to be Jeff Smith’s job moving forward.

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 (40 games) and has a line of 14-15-29 in 34 games this year.

His counterpart at UND, sophomore Brock Boeser, led the Fighting Hawks with sixty points (27 goals, 33 assists) during his rookie campaign (42 games) but has managed just 13 goals and 15 assists (28 points) in 27 games this time around without linemates Drake Caggiula and Nick Schmaltz, both of whom are playing the NHL this season.

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 that gives North Dakota fits every single year. An arena that will feel like Christmas in March, with plenty of green and red to go around.

St. Cloud State made the move to Division I hockey beginning with the 1987-88 season (just months after UND’s Hrkac Circus took the college hockey world by storm) and joined the WCHA three seasons later. The Huskies have appeared in twelve NCAA Division I tournaments over the past 29 seasons but have just five tournament victories (5-12-0, .294) and one Frozen Four appearance. On the plus side, the five tourney wins have all come in the past seven years, so things are definitely looking up in St. Cloud.

Since 1987 (a national championship season), North Dakota has made the NCAA tournament twenty times, with 31 tourney wins, eleven Frozen Four appearances, and three national titles (1997, 2000, 2016) to bring the program’s total to eight. The team’s tournament record over that stretch of years is 31-18-0 (.633), and UND’s active streak of fourteen consecutive NCAA tourney bids is the longest in the nation among all Division I men’s college hockey programs.

North Dakota is hosting the first round of the conference playoffs for the 15th consecutive season, extending the longest active streak in Division I men’s hockey. UND is 28-6 (.824) in the opening round of the playoffs and has won all fourteen of its series.

With two victories this weekend, North Dakota would also reach the 20-win plateau for the fifteenth consecutive season and likely solidify a berth in the NCAA tournament field.

On the injury front, two UND sophomores are questionable this weekend: forward Brock Boeser and defenseman Hayden Shaw. Boeser has been slotted at right wing on the team’s fourth line for Friday’s opener; I would expect him to see plenty of ice time with the man advantage. Shaw has been ruled out for the first game of the weekend series.

North Dakota junior Austin Poganski (St. Cloud, Minnesota) left last Saturday’s road game against Miami (undisclosed injury) and did not return, but Poganski (five points in twelve career games against SCSU) is expected to suit up against his hometown team.

St. Cloud State senior defenseman Niklas Nevalainen suffered a leg injury on Saturday, March 4th against Colorado College and is questionable for this weekend’s action. Nevalainen (135 games played in his SCSU career) skated for the first time on Thursday and made the trip to Grand Forks with the team. I expect the Pori, Finland native to skate on the third defensive pair, logging fewer minutes than normal but still seeing significant power play time.

The Huskies will also be without the services of sophomore blueliner Will Borgen for the first two games of the series. Borgen, who leads SCSU with sixty penalty minutes this season, was suspended by the NCHC for physically abusing an official during that same game against Colorado College.

There are two competing trends to watch this weekend:

1. Over the past fourteen games this season, St. Cloud State is 6-1-0 on Fridays (22 goals for, 13 goals against) and 1-6-0 on Saturdays (12 goals for, 21 goals against).

2. Over the past fourteen first-round playoff series, North Dakota is 12-2 on Fridays (70 goals for, 22 goals against) and 10-4 on Saturdays (45 goals for, 30 goals against).

UND is 28-6 (.824) in the opening round of the conference playoffs over the past fourteen years and has won all fourteen of its series (including all six that went to a decisive Game Three).

For more on why fans should expect at least one close game this weekend at Ralph Engelstad Arena, please follow this link: The First-Round League Playoff Series: Why Is It So Difficult To Sweep?

St. Cloud State Team Profile

Head Coach: Bob Motzko (12th season at SCSU, 251-181-43, .574)

Pairwise Ranking: t-18th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #20/NR
This Season: 16-17-1 overall, 10-13-1-0 NCHC (5th)
Last Season: 31-9-1 overall (NCAA West Regional semifinalist), 17-6-1-1 NCHC (t-2nd)

Team Offense: 2.88 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.88 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 19.7% (25 of 127)
Penalty Kill: 83.9% (94 of 112)

Key Players: Sophomore F Mikey Eyssimont (14-15-29), Junior F Blake Winiecki (12-11-23), Sophomore F Patrick Newell (3-20-23), Sophomore F Jacob Benson (10-10-20), Junior F Judd Peterson (11-6-17), Freshman D Jack Ahcan (5-16-21), Sophomore D Jimmy Schuldt (7-10-17), Freshman G Jeff Smith (10-11-0, 2.58 GAA, .910 SV%)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (2nd season at UND, 52-20-7, .703)

Pairwise Ranking: t-11th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #14/#13
This Season: 18-14-3 overall, 11-12-1-1 NCHC (4th)
Last Season: 34-6-4 overall (NCAA champions), 19-4-1-1 NCHC (1st)

Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 3.11 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.54 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 18.2% (27 of 148)
Penalty Kill: 84.6% (126 of 149)

Key Players: Sophomore F Shane Gersich (19-15-34), Freshman F Tyson Jost (14-15-29), Sophomore F Brock Boeser (13-15-28), Junior F Austin Poganski (9-12-21), Sophomore F Joel Janatuinen (7-10-17), Junior D Tucker Poolman (7-21-28), Sophomore D Christian Wolanin (4-13-17), Junior G Cam Johnson (17-11-3, 2.34 GAA, .905 SV%, 3 SO)

By The Numbers

Meetings during the 2016-17 season…

November 18-19, 2016 (St. Cloud, MN): UND’s Shane Gersich netted a hat trick in Friday’s 4-0 victory, and in Saturday’s rematch, North Dakota got a goal in each period and held the Huskies scoreless on four power plays to defeat SCSU 3-0 and complete the rare road shutout sweep., Cam Johnson stopped all 62 shots he faced on the weekend, helping North Dakota sweep the Huskies in St. Cloud for the first time since November 1998.

February 3-4, 2017 (Grand Forks, ND): On Friday night, St. Cloud State got a goal in each period (on 19 total shots) on netminder Matt Hrynkiw and answered UND’s only tally with one of their own 28 seconds later to secure a 3-1 road victory. Unlikely hero Mike Gornall scored both of North Dakota’s goals on Saturday night (including the game winner less than a minute into overtime) in a 2-1 triumph that also secured sole possession of the Challenge Cup.

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, 69-40-12 (.619), including a 33-17-6 (.643) record in Grand Forks. 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 been squaring off regularly since the 1989-90 season, but have only met once in the NCAA tournament (2015).

Last Ten: UND holds a 7-3-0 (.700) edge in the last ten meetings between the teams, outscoring the Huskies 26-20 over that stretch of games.

Game News and Notes

Eight players from the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks area are expected to suit up for this weekend’s series. The Huskies have been outscored 5-2 in overtime this season (2-5-1). North Dakota has dominated the middle frame, outshooting opponents 446-321 while scoring 38 goals and allowing only 22. St. Cloud State blocked forty shots during the February series in Grand Forks. UND head coach Brad Berry is 8-1-1 (.850) in the month of March. North Dakota won three of the four regular season meetings between the teams, outscoring the Huskies 10-4. Tickets (packages and single game seats) are still available for all three games of the series.

Media Coverage

The entire playoff series will be broadcast live on Midco Sports Network and streamed in high definition on NCHC.tv. All UND men’s hockey games (home and away) can be heard on 96.1 FM and on stations across the UND Sports Radio 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

I don’t see any possibility of either one of these teams sweeping this series. Each side is filled with talent and question marks, with UND having almost no advantage on home ice. St. Cloud State has the advantage on special teams and could burn the home team in those situations this weekend if it becomes a penalty fest. As I see it, the Fighting Hawks will perform well in Friday’s opener, with Bob Motzko’s squad righting the ship to take the series to a decisive tilt on Sunday. At least one of these games will go to overtime, with North Dakota’s top-end talent proving to be the difference. UND 3-1, SCSU 4-3 (OT), UND 3-2.

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!