Weekend Preview: North Dakota vs. Western Michigan

Before last season’s December home series against WMU, I wrote the following:

North Dakota and Western Michigan have faced off sixteen times since 1997, with UND claiming victory in fifteen of those contests and outscoring WMU 68-28 in the process.

The Fighting Hawks will be fortunate to win two of the four regular-season games against the Broncos this year.

How can both of these statements be true?

Through recruiting and player development, Western Michigan head coach Andy Murray has finally been able to put his mark on the team. Freshmen and sophomores are leading the way for the Broncos, and the combination of speed, size, and skill is one that will be barely recognizable to North Dakota fans.

And it was certainly prophetic to suggest that UND would struggle last season against the new-look Broncos, as Andy Murray’s squad split the series in Grand Forks (1-5, 3-1) and swept North Dakota at home in February (4-2, 3-2).

It appears that WMU will bring that same combination of speed, size, and skill to Ralph Engelstad Arena this weekend, having scored 27 goals in six conference games (5-1-0). For the Broncos, junior forward Colt Conrad (9-12-21) and sophomore forward Wade Allison (10-9-19) both rank among the top ten nationally in scoring, with two other second-year forwards (Hugh McGing [4-13-17] and Dawson DiPietro [7-9-16]) not far behind.

The offensive success of Conrad, Allison, and McGing is not surprising (the trio combined for 80 points last season), but DiPietro came out of nowhere after appearing in just one game a year ago.

By comparison, junior transfer Nick Jones leads all UND forwards with a line of 5-6-11.

After this weekend, North Dakota will travel to St. Cloud to face the #2-ranked Huskies. If UND hopes to end 2017 on a high note, it will need to get more offensive production from senior Austin Poganski and juniors Shane Gersich, Rhett Gardner, and Joel Janatuinen. The quartet has just eleven goals in 62 combined games this season after potting 49 goals in 154 games last year.

Western Michigan is sitting in first place in the NCHC standings but has played only one league series away from home, a split at Duluth (WMU swept both Denver and Omaha at home). Overall, Andy Murray’s group is 9-5-1 through the first fifteen games of the season but have played only four games on the road (1-3-0). This next stretch of games will feature a much tougher test for the Broncos, with nine of their next thirteen contests away from Lawson Ice Arena.

The Fighting Hawks are getting healthier, with senior goaltender Cam Johnson (5-2-1/1.63/.925 this season; 49-19-6/2.00/.919 in his UND career) and junior forward Joel Janatuinen (1-5-6 this season; 13-21-34 in his UND career) expected to return to the lineup. Freshman netminder Peter Thome filled in admirably over the past eight games (3-2-3, 2.56 GAA, .907 SV%), but there’s no replacing Johnson’s talent and experience.

Sophomore forward Dixon Bowen (1-2-3 this season; 7-6-13 in his UND career) and senior forward Trevor Olson (0-2-2 this season; 9-16-25 in his UND career) remain out of the North Dakota lineup. UND has definitely missed Olson’s physicality up front and Bowen’s speed, particularly on the penalty kill.

Western Michigan Team Profile

Head Coach: Andy Murray (7th season at WMU, 112-102-33, .520)

National Rankings: #10/#8

This Season: 9-5-1 overall, 5-1-0-0 NCHC (1st)
Last Season: 22-13-5 overall (NCAA East Regional semifinalist), 13-9-2-1 NCHC (3rd)

2017-18 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 3.67 goals scored/game – 4th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.73 goals allowed/game – 24th of 60 teams
Power Play: 16.0% (13 of 81) – 41st of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 85.7% (72 of 84) – 12th of 60 teams

Key Players: Junior F Colt Conrad (9-12-21), Sophomore F Wade Allison (10-9-19), Sophomore F Hugh McGing (4-13-17), Sophomore F Dawson DePietro (7-9-16), Sophomore D Luke Bafia (1-8-9), Sophomore D Cam Lee (3-5-8), Sophomore G Ben Blacker (8-5-1, 2.48 GAA, .914 SV%, 1 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (3rd season at UND, 63-26-11, .685)

National Rankings: #6/#6

This Season: 8-4-4 overall, 3-2-1-1 NCHC (3rd)
Last Season: 21-16-3 overall (NCAA West Regional semifinalist), 11-12-1-1 NCHC (4th)

2017-18 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 2.81 goals scored/game – 28th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.19 goals allowed/game – 7th of 60 teams
Power Play: 20.0% (13 of 65) – 25th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 88.1% (59 of 67) – 5th of 60 teams

Key Players: Junior F Nick Jones (5-6-11), Freshman F Grant Mismash (4-7-11), Junior F Shane Gersich (5-4-9), Junior F Rhett Gardner (3-6-9), Junior D Christian Wolanin (5-8-13 and a wicked slap shot for a shootout goal), Sophomore D Colton Poolman (4-6-10), Senior G Cam Johnson (5-2-1, 1.63 GAA, .925 SV%, 1 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: February 18, 2017 (Kalamazoo, MI). North Dakota outshot WMU 46-19 (including 34-7 over the final two periods) but could not rally from a 3-0 deficit as the Broncos held on for a 3-2 victory and a series sweep over the Fighting Hawks. UND sophomore forward Brock Boeser assisted on both North Dakota goals (Shane Gersich, Austin Poganski). The goal by Gersich came just nine seconds after WMU’s Taylor Fleming made it 3-0 early in the middle frame. Western Michigan won Friday’s opener by a score of 4-2 (ENG).

Last Meeting in Grand Forks: December 10, 2016. One night after dominating every aspect of play in a 5-1 victory, UND outshot Western Michigan 33-22 (21-7 in the third period) but went 0-for-6 on the power play and allowed the game-winner with under eight minutes remaining. The Broncos’ Michael Rebry added an empty-net goal to make the final score 3-1 in favor of WMU.

Most Important Meeting: March 24, 2012 (St. Paul, MN). North Dakota upended Western Michigan 3-1 in the NCAA West Regional semifinal. Brock Nelson had two points, including an empty net goal with 25 seconds remaining that sent UND to the regional finals against Minnesota. Aaron Dell made 24 saves for the Green and White. The Broncos, who have played at the Division I level since 1975-76, have six NCAA tournament appearances.

A Trip Down Memory Lane: Saturday, March 22, 2014 (Minneapolis, MN). North Dakota faced a must-win situation in the 3rd place game at the inaugural NCHC Frozen Faceoff, and did not disappoint the partisan crowd. The Green and White rolled to a 5-0 victory behind two first period goals from Conner Gaarder. UND netminder Zane Gothberg made 25 saves for the shutout, and Dave Hakstol’s crew played the waiting game for several more hours before discovering that they had indeed made the NCAA tournament for the twelfth consecutive season.

All-Time Series: In the short history between the schools, UND has won sixteen of the twenty games, outscoring the Broncos 78-39. Before last season, WMU’s lone victory over North Dakota was a 2-1 road win on March 8th, 2014. The teams first met in 1997.

Last Ten: North Dakota is 7-3 in the last ten meetings between the teams, although the Broncos have turned the tables in the series and have won the past three games.

Game News and Notes

With six more wins, North Dakota will reach the 1500-victory milestone as a program. No other program in the country has as many wins in the past eleven years as UND (298). WMU head coach Andy Murray’s son Brady played two seasons at North Dakota (2003-05) and finished with a scoring line of 27-39-66 in 63 career games. Brady Murray spent most of his professional hockey career in the Swiss-A league (Rapperswil-Jona and Lugano, among other teams) but did appear in four NHL games with the Los Angeles Kings in 2007-08, scoring one goal.

Media Coverage

Both games this weekend will be carried live by Midco Sports Network, with Saturday’s rematch also available on FOX College Sports. This weekend’s series will also be streamed live via 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 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.

On A Personal Note

I have participated in Movember for the past five years and have proudly raised almost $9000 to help change the face of men’s health. Will you join me and support the cause? Please visit my Movember fundraising page to learn more and to donate. Thank you!

The Prediction

We are bound to see quite a bit of racehorse hockey this weekend, with the first team to four goals usually emerging victorious. I give the edge to the visitors in game one, with North Dakota rebounding on Saturday night for a split. WMU 4-2, UND 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!