NCHC Frozen Faceoff Preview: North Dakota vs. Denver

Last season, North Dakota came into the NCHC Frozen Faceoff ranked #1 in the country but lost to #16 Minnesota-Duluth and tied #6 Denver before winning four straight NCAA tournament games and the program’s eighth national title.

UND’s 2016 title run was fueled in part by the notion that there was “unfinished business” from tournaments past. In fact, in the eleven seasons prior to last year, North Dakota had made seven Frozen Four appearances but had just one win and seven losses to put an end to all of those playoff runs.

This time around, Denver’s fire is being fueled by “the one that got away”, as North Dakota downed the Pioneers in the 2016 NCAA Frozen Four on a late goal by sophomore Nick Schmaltz.

The Pioneers boast a deep, experienced, and talented roster which is allowing under two goals per game for the season. In short, DU (28-6-4) is doing to most teams what North Dakota was able to accomplish in 2015-16.

In the NCHC, it is clear that Denver/North Dakota is at the top of the league rivalries. The teams have played fifteen times over the past three seasons, but the feud goes all the way back to Geoff Paukovitch’ illegal check on Sioux forward Robbie Bina during the 2005 WCHA Final Five.

Since that 2005 Final Five contest (a Denver victory), the two teams have met nine times in tournament play. Denver won the 2005 NCAA title with a victory over North Dakota and claimed a 2008 WCHA Final Five win as well. UND has won five of the past seven playoff games between the schools, including three consecutive victories in the WCHA Final Five (2010-2012), the 2011 NCAA Midwest Regional final which sent the Fighting Sioux to the Frozen Four, and last season’s thrilling Frozen Four semifinal (a 4-2 UND victory) in Tampa, Florida.

Two nights after dispatching their league rival, North Dakota defeated Quinnipiac in the championship game and moved ahead of DU on the list of teams with the most NCAA titles in program history (8-7). It is worth noting that Denver collected five national championships by 1969. In the past 47 seasons, the Pioneers have won two. During that same span (1970-2016), the Fighting Sioux/Hawks won six titles and are the defending national champions.

Both rosters have changed quite a bit since that April meeting in the Sunshine State…

Denver lost three forwards (Grant Arnold, Gabe Levin, and Quentin Shore) and defenseman Nolan Zajac to graduation after last season. Those four scored 26 goals and added 50 assists for 76 points in 158 games played in 2015-16.

The Pios could have kept the Pacific Rim line intact, as Dylan Gambrell, Danton Heinen, and Trevor Moore all had college eligibility remaining. The trio went an incredible 48-91-139 for Denver last season. Unfortunately for the DU faithful, Heinen (a sophomore) and Moore (a junior) left for the pros, leaving Gambrell (17-30-47 as a freshman) searching for new linemates.

All told, Denver lost 57 of 133 goals scored from last year (43 percent of goal production).

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.

Much like Denver’s Pacific Rim line, North Dakota’s CBS line (Drake Caggiula, Brock Boeser, Nick Schmaltz) was everything for UND last season, as the three scored 63 goals and added 94 assists for 157 points in 118 games. Only Boeser (27-33-60 as a freshman last year) remains on the Fighting Hawks roster.

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. According to College Hockey Ranked, North Dakota would earn a 15th straight invitation to the NCAA tournament with at least one victory this weekend.

Denver Team Profile

Head Coach: Jim Montgomery (4th season at DU, 97-46-18, .658)

Pairwise Ranking: 1st of 60 teams
National Rankings: #1/#1
This Season: 28-6-4 overall, 18-3-3-2 NCHC (1st)
Last Season: 25-10-6 overall (NCAA Frozen Four semifinalist), 17-6-1-1 NCHC (t-2nd)

Team Offense: 3.39 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 1.84 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 21.3% (36 of 169)
Penalty Kill: 83.9% (120 of 143)

Key Players: Freshman F Henrik Borgstrom (21-17-38), Sophomore F Troy Terry (19-17-36), Sophomore F Jarid Lukosevicius (11-15-26), Sophomore F Dylan Gambrell (11-26-37), Senior D Will Butcher (6-29-35), Junior D Adam Plant (2-8-10), Junior G Tanner Jaillet (24-4-4, 1.84 GAA, .929 SV%)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (2nd season at UND, 54-20-7, .710)

Pairwise Ranking: 11th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #11/#11
This Season: 20-14-3 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: 3.24 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.59 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 19.0% (29 of 153)
Penalty Kill: 84.0% (131 of 156)

Key Players: Sophomore F Shane Gersich (21-16-37), Freshman F Tyson Jost (15-16-31), Sophomore F Brock Boeser (15-16-31), Junior F Austin Poganski (11-13-24), Sophomore F Joel Janatuinen (8-10-18), Junior D Tucker Poolman (7-23-30), Sophomore D Christian Wolanin (5-14-19), Junior G Cam Johnson (19-11-3, 2.40 GAA, .904 SV%, 3 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: Saturday, November 12th (Grand Forks, North Dakota). Rookie Henrik Borgstrom’s even-strength marker broke a 2-2 tie less than seven minutes into the second period and held up as the game-winner in a 3-2 Denver victory. Borgstrom’s goal came less than a minute after Shane Gersich scored his second of the game to bring UND even with the Pioneers. In Friday’s opener, the two teams skated to a 1-1 tie, with Borgstrom potting the equalizer with just over five minutes remaining in regulation. North Dakota’s Shane Gersich scored a highlight reel goal during the 3-on-3 overtime session to earn an extra league point for the Fighting Hawks.

One Year Ago: April 7, 2016 (Tampa, Florida). In the semifinals of the NCAA Frozen Four, the two league rivals squared off in a tightly-contested contest. Senior forward Drake Caggiula scored twice early in the middle frame to stake UND to a 2-0 lead, but the Pioneers battled back with a pair of third period goals. The CBS line came through when it mattered most, with Nick Schmaltz scoring the game winner off of a faceoff win with 57 seconds remaining in the hockey game. North Dakota blocked 27 Denver shot attempts and goaltender Cam Johnson made 21 saves for the Fighting Hawks, who won the program’s eighth national title on the same sheet of ice two nights later.

Most Important Meeting: It’s hard to pick just one game, as the two teams have played four times for the national title. Denver defeated UND for the national championship in 1958, 1968, and 2005, while the Sioux downed the Pioneers in 1963. But the game that stands out in recent memory as “the one that got away” was DU’s 1-0 victory over the Fighting Sioux in the 2004 NCAA West Regional final (Colorado Springs, CO). That North Dakota team went 30-8-4 on the season (Dean Blais’ last behind the UND bench) and featured one of the deepest rosters in the past twenty years: Brandon Bochenski, Zach Parise, Brady Murray, Colby Genoway, Drew Stafford and David Lundbohm up front; Nick Fuher, Matt Jones, Matt Greene, and Ryan Hale on defense; and a couple of goaltending stalwarts in Jordan Parise and Jake Brandt.

Last Ten Games: Denver has a 4-3-3 (.550) advantage in the last ten games between the schools, although North Dakota has outscored DU 27-25 over that stretch. Six of those ten games occurred a season ago, with both teams sweeping on home ice before tying 1-1 in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff third-place game. North Dakota broke the tie in the season series with a dramatic 4-2 victory in the NCAA Frozen Four.

All-time Series: UND leads the all-time series, 143-123-12 (.536), although the Pioneers hold a 8-5-1 (.607) advantage in games played on neutral ice. The teams first met in 1950, with North Dakota prevailing 18-3 in Denver.

Game News and Notes

UND sophomore forward Brock Boeser has eight points (four goals, four assists) in eight career games against the Pioneers. Denver (16) and North Dakota (15) have more consecutive seasons with twenty or more victories than any other Division I men’s hockey team in the country (Boston College is third with eight straight twenty-win seasons; Quinnipiac has accomplished the feat six consecutive times). Over the past six games, DU has only allowed one power play goal in sixteen penalty kill situations.

Media Coverage

Friday night’s game will be telecast live by CBS Sports Network and can also be seen on DirecTV (221) and DISH Network (158). There will be no live stream for Friday’s semifinals. 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

All signs point in Denver’s favor, although UND is playing its best hockey of the season right now. The first period will be key: if North Dakota can score early and get the partisan crowd at Target Center into the game, it might make things difficult for the Pioneers. With thoughts of securing an NCAA tournament bid, the Fighting Hawks also have more to play for than their rivals. I feel like this one goes to overtime, with an advantage to the green on St. Patrick’s Day. UND 3, DU 2 (OT).

Bonus Prediction

In Friday’s first semifinal, Minnesota-Duluth will upend the Western Michigan Broncos by a score of 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!