Weekend Preview: North Dakota at St. Cloud State

Last season, North Dakota and St. Cloud State battled six times, with UND clearly having the better of it:

NCHC Regular Season
November 18, 2016 (St. Cloud): UND 4, SCSU 0
November 19, 2016 (St. Cloud): UND 3, SCSU 0

NCHC Regular Season
February 3, 2017 (Grand Forks): SCSU 3, UND 1
February 4, 2017 (Grand Forks): UND 2, SCSU 1 (OT)

NCHC First Round Playoff Series
March 10, 2017 (Grand Forks): UND 5, SCSU 2
March 11, 2017 (Grand Forks): UND 6, SCSU 5 (OT)

I would expect this weekend’s games to be less like the November series in St. Cloud and more like the NCHC playoff series that these two teams played back in March, with plenty of offense and end-to-end action.

#2 St. Cloud State boasts the nation’s most potent offense (4.54 goals scored/game) and the third-best power play (17 of 62, 27.4 percent). For many teams, that commitment to getting the puck up the ice and at the net will result in plenty of chances the other way, but the Huskies also have the country’s fourth-best team defense (2.15 goals allowed/game).

SCSU is even more effective on home ice, using the wide sheet to their advantage at even strength and on the power play. Through their first eight home games (all victories), Bob Motzko’s squad has scored forty goals (5.00 goals scored/game) and allowed only fifteen (1.88 goals allowed/game).

Offensively, the Huskies are led by four forwards and a defenseman who have already reached the double-digit point plateau this season:

Junior D Jimmy Schuldt: 5-14-19
Junior F Robby Jackson: 6-10-16
Sophomore F Ryan Poehling: 3-11-14
Junior F Mikey Eyssimont: 4-9-13
Junior F Jacob Benson: 5-5-10

This quartet of forwards have led the charge, with freshman forward Kevin Fitzgerald (4-5-9), senior forward Judd Peterson (1-8-9), junior forward Patrick Newell (2-6-8), and sophomore forward Jack Poehling (6-1-7) also contributing handily. The offensive talent is spread throughout the lineup and will be a matchup nightmare for Brad Berry and his staff, as UND’s second and third defensive pairs are relatively inexperienced.

Through the first eleven games, St. Cloud State had traveled outside of Minnesota just once, losing a pair at Denver but winning all nine games played in the State of Hockey. The Huskies answered some critics last weekend, however, by sweeping a weekend series at Omaha (7-4, 5-0). Despite the disparity in home and away games through the first half of the season, SCSU has played the 4th-most difficult schedule in the country (according to KRACH). By comparison, North Dakota’s strength of schedule weighs in at #12.

It’s been up and down for the Huskies in the first five seasons of the NCHC. After winning the Penrose Cup in the inaugural season of the new league (2013-14) with an overall record of 22-11-5 (.645), St. Cloud State made the NCAA tournament again in 2014-15 with a relatively pedestrian mark of 20-19-1 (.512). At the end of that season, SCSU had the unfortunate circumstance of facing and falling to North Dakota in the West Regional final (Fargo, ND), a virtual home game for the Green and White.

SCSU captured the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship and another NCAA tourney bid in 2015-16 with a sparkling record of 31-9-1 (.768) but unfortunately suffered an overtime loss in the opening round of the national tournament. 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.

Thirty-win seasons are extremely rare in today’s college hockey landscape, with more parity and more ties taking away the opportunity to rack up victories. Since I started traveling to St. Cloud for the UND/SCSU games back in 1998, the Fighting Sioux/Hawks and the Huskies have both reached the 30-victory plateau on multiple occasions. Remarkably, St. Cloud State posted identical marks of 31-9-1 (.768) in their milestone seasons (2001 and 2016).

1997-98 North Dakota (30-8-1)
1998-99 North Dakota (32-6-2)
1999-00 North Dakota (31-8-5)
2000-01 St. Cloud State (31-9-1)
2003-04 North Dakota (30-8-3)
2010-11 North Dakota (32-9-3)
2015-16 North Dakota (34-6-4)
2015-16 St. Cloud State (31-9-1)

For more on the rarity and importance of a thirty-win season, follow this link.

Last season was far from a milestone season for Bob Motzko’s squad, as the group sputtered to a record of 16-19-1 (.458) and missed the NCAAs for the first time since the 2011-12 team finished at .500 (17-17-5). North Dakota has made fifteen consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, the longest active streak in Division I men’s ice hockey and the second-longest streak of all time (Michigan appeared in 22 straight NCAA tourneys from 1991 to 2012).

North Dakota ended St. Cloud State’s 2016-17 campaign with a home sweep in the first round of the NCHC playoffs. UND cruised 5-2 in the opener before besting the Huskies in a 6-5 overtime thriller. As I have said before, we have come to expect close matchups in NCHC playoff games played on Saturdays (and often Sundays), as the visiting team is almost always playing to extend their season.

North Dakota and St. Cloud State will also face off in Grand Forks on March 2nd and 3rd, one week before the start of the league playoffs. It is very likely that the games this weekend and the series in March will determine whether one of these two teams (or Denver) will win the NCHC regular season title. Furthermore, the games this weekend give UND a chance to take over the top spot in the NCHC standings heading into the Christmas break, with the Fighting Hawks (5-2-1-1 in the NCHC, 17 points) trailing St. Cloud State (6-2-0-0 in the NCHC, 18 points) by a single point in the league standings.

For both UND and SCSU (and for the league as a whole), non-conference records will definitely help them down the road. St. Cloud State is a perfect 5-0-0 against Minnesota State (one game), Alaska, and Boston College while North Dakota is 5-2-3 against Alaska Anchorage, St. Lawrence, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Union.

In the second half, the Huskies will face Princeton, Minnesota, and Minnesota State (one game), while UND has only a home-and-home series with Bemidji State on the second half schedule. The league as a whole has gone 36-16-9 (.664) in non-conference play and could easily place five teams in the NCAA tournament field.

On the injury/illness front, St. Cloud State is completely healthy and North Dakota is…well….getting there. Senior goaltender Cam Johnson (7-2-1/1.71/.921 this season; 51-19-6/2.00/.918 in his UND career) and junior forward Joel Janatuinen (1-6-7 this season; 13-22-35 career) made their return to the lineup in last weekend’s sweep of Western Michigan. Junior forward Nick Jones (6-7-13) also played last Saturday after missing Friday due to illness.

Senior forward Trevor Olson (0-2-2 in seven games this season; 9-16-25 career) is expected to return and bring his physical style of play to the lineup this weekend, but the Fighting Hawks are still without the services of Dixon Bowen (1-2-3 this season; 7-6-13 career). UND has definitely missed Bowen’s speed, particularly on the penalty kill.

Sophomore forward Ludvig Hoff (2-4-6 this season; 6-16-22 career) and sophomore defenseman Andrew Peski (0-2-2 this season; 0-5-5 career) both left the UND lineup last weekend against the Broncos, and it is unclear whether either one will be available for Brad Berry in the last hockey action before the holiday break.

St. Cloud State Team Profile

Head Coach: Bob Motzko (13th season at SCSU, 262-185-43, .579)

National Rankings: #2/#2

This Season: 11-2-0 overall, 6-2-0-0 NCHC (1st)
Last Season: 16-19-1 overall (missed NCAA tournament), 10-13-1-0 NCHC (5th)

2017-18 Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 4.54 goals scored/game – 1st of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.15 goals allowed/game – 4th of 60 teams
Power Play: 27.4% (17 of 62) – 3rd of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 81.1% (43 of 53) – 33rd of 60 teams

Key Players: Junior F Robby Jackson (6-10-16), Sophomore F Ryan Poehling (3-11-14), Junior F Mikey Eyssimont (4-9-13), Junior F Jacob Benson (5-5-10), Junior D Jimmy Schuldt (5-14-19), Sophomore D Jack Ahcan (1-7-8), Junior D Will Borgen (1-7-8), Sophomore G Jeff Smith (7-1-0, 2.13 GAA, .927 SV%, 1 SO), Freshman G David Hrenak (3-1-0, 1.50 GAA, .959 SV%, 2 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (3rd season at UND, 65-26-11, .691)

National Rankings: #5/#5

This Season: 10-4-4 overall, 5-2-1-1 NCHC (2nd)
Last Season: 21-16-3 overall (NCAA West Regional semifinalist), 11-12-1-1 NCHC (4th)

2017-18 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 2.94 goals scored/game – 23rd of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.17 goals allowed/game – 5th of 60 teams
Power Play: 20.5% (16 of 78) – 24th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 87.0% (67 of 77) – 8th of 60 teams

Key Players: Junior F Nick Jones (6-7-13), Freshman F Grant Mismash (5-9-14), Junior F Shane Gersich (5-6-11), Junior F Rhett Gardner (3-7-10), Junior D Christian Wolanin (5-9-14 and a wicked slap shot for a shootout goal), Sophomore D Colton Poolman (4-7-11), Senior G Cam Johnson (7-2-1, 1.71 GAA, .921 SV%, 1 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: March 11, 2017 (Grand Forks, North Dakota). North Dakota finished off St. Cloud State in a wild contest that featured eleven goals, six lead changes, and an overtime winner by junior forward Trevor Olson. UND sophomore defenseman Christian Wolanin tied the game at 5-5 with just over four minutes remaining to send the game to an extra session. SCSU sophomore blueliner Will Borgen was ineligible to play in the first two games of the playoff series due to his suspension for physically abusing an official in a game against Colorado College. Had the Huskies held on to defeat the Fighting Hawks,

Last Meeting in St. Cloud: November 19, 2016. One night after making 26 saves in a 4-0 road victory, North Dakota netminder Cam Johnson bettered himself by making 36 stops in a 3-0 win. In the impressive weekend sweep, the Fighting Hawks went 3-for-8 on the power play and held SCSU scoreless on eight man-advantage situations. North Dakota sophomore forward Shane Gersich found the net four times over the two games, including a hat trick in Friday’s opener. The two wins, coupled with a 2-1 overtime victory in February, meant that UND won the Challenge Cup outright last season.

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, 71-40-12 (.626), including a 29-21-6 (.571) record in games played 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. 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 31-24 over that stretch of games.

Game News and Notes

St. Cloud State is perfect at home this season (8-0-0); North Dakota is 4-2-2 (.625) on the road. UND forwards Shane Gersich and Austin Poganski have each scored eight career points against SCSU, although it took Poganski fourteen games and Gersich only seven. The Fighting Hawks (57.0 percent) and Huskies (55.3 percent) are the top two faceoff teams in the country. Furthermore, nine of the top twenty centermen in the NCHC (according to faceoff stats) will be on the ice this weekend in St. Cloud. North Dakota netminder Cam Johnson is undefeated in his career against SCSU, with a 5-0-0 record, a goals-against average of 1.45, a save percentage of .931, and two shutouts.

Media Coverage

Both games will be streamed in high definition on NCHC.tv and available live on FOX College Sports Pacific as well as DirecTV and DISH channels. Friday’s opener will also be carried on FOX Sports North PLUS, with Saturday’s rematch on FOX Sports North. 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.

A Personal Note

All North Dakota and St. Cloud State hockey fans are invited and encouraged to attend an informal pre-game social on Saturday, December 9th beginning at 4:00 p.m. at Brothers (119 5th Avenue South in St. Cloud). Just a note that there will not be food or door prizes provided, but the Challenge Cup will make an appearance. Come and meet fans on both sides of this rivalry – here’s to hockey!

The Prediction

It will take North Dakota’s young group of defensemen some time to adjust to the wide sheet, particularly in the corners. I give St. Cloud State the advantage in the opener, with the Fighting Hawks roaring back to earn a road split. SCSU 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!