Weekend Preview: North Dakota vs. Denver

When these two teams met in Denver back in mid-November, North Dakota earned a hard-fought road split and could make the case that they deserved a better fate than their 4-1 loss on Saturday night. UND was done in by a potent Pios power play that went 5-for-12 on the weekend against a Fighting Hawks’ penalty kill unit ranked #2 in the country at the time (95.8 percent).

Beginning with that series, UND has killed less than 70 percent of opponent man-advantage situations, a number that tabs the unit as the second-worst set of penalty killers in the country over that stretch of games. Injuries to key penalty killers Dixon Bowen and Rhett Gardner have played a role, and the quality of competition has certainly been a factor as well. Here is a look at the power play proficiency of each of UND’s last seven opponents (total power play goals and opportunities for each weekend’s series):

Denver: 5-for-12
Union: 1-for-7
Western Michigan: 2-for-10
St. Cloud State: 1-for-8
Omaha: 2-for-6
Bemidji State: 1-for-5
Minnesota-Duluth: 6-for-11

North Dakota went just 5-6-3 (.464) over that stretch of games after beginning the year 7-2-3 (.708), and special teams will definitely need to improve if Brad Berry hopes to move his squad off of the Pairwise bubble (UND is currently 12th in the rankings which mimic the NCAA tournament selection process). North Dakota has made the tournament for fifteen consecutive seasons (every year since 2001-02), the longest active streak in Division I men’s ice hockey.

In the NCHC, it is clear that Denver/North Dakota is at the top of the league rivalries. The teams have played sixteen times during the first three seasons of the new conference, 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 ten 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 earned six victories and a tie in the last eight 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, 2016’s thrilling Frozen Four semifinal (a 4-2 UND victory) in Tampa, Florida, and last season’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff semifinal in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

(It is impossible to bring up the Paukovitch/Bina incident without also writing that Brad Malone‘s check on Denver’s Jesse Martin during an October 2010 contest at Ralph Engelstad Arena fractured three of Martin’s vertebrae and ended the hockey career of the Atlanta Thrashers’ draft pick.)

And now, on to the games this weekend…

It will not be easy to win the special teams battle against Denver (and to be fair, it will not be easy to win against Denver). The Pioneers lead the nation in special teams net with a +20. DU has already scored thirty power play goals this season while allowing only twelve. Jim Montgomery’s crew has also scored two shorthanded goals and allowed none. By comparison, North Dakota’s special teams net is even, having scored 21 power play goals while allowing 20 and giving up a shorthanded tally.

Making matters worse, UND could be without the services of three key players who spend time on the power play and the penalty kill. North Dakota’s top two centermen (juniors Rhett Gardner and Nick Jones) and freshman defenseman Gabe Bast are all questionable for this weekend’s series. Junior blueliner Christian Wolanin, Gardner, Jones, and Bast are the top four power play point producers for the Fighting Hawks. Gardner and Jones are also key penalty killers who would also be regularly called upon to shut down the opponent’s top two forward lines. Injury issues have become the norm for this year’s version of North Dakota hockey, with head coach Brad Berry utilizing a different lineup in each of UND’s 26 games to this point. The Fighting Hawks have missed 55 man-games due to injury or illness this season.

Denver’s super sophomore Henrik Borgström (16-19-35 in 23 games played) leads the NCHC in points and goals and trails only Northeastern junior forward Adam Gaudette (17-19-36 in 24 gp) in the national scoring race. The Pioneers also feature two other players among the top twenty scorers in the country: junior forward Dylan Gambrell (9-21-30 in 24 gp) is tied for 11th with Colorado College junior forward Mason Bergh (12-18-30 in 24 gp), and junior forward Troy Terry (10-19-29 in 24 gp) is tied for 16th.

By comparison, North Dakota’s top two point getters are Nick Jones (9-12-21) and Christian Wolanin (7-14-21). Those point totals put the pair in a tie for 75th-most in the nation.

Fighting Hawks’ freshman forward Grant Mismash has been invisible over the past eight games. Mismash started the season with a line of 5-9-14 through his first seventeen games in a UND uniform but has been held to one goal (and zero assists) in his past seven appearances and was a healthy scratch on January 6th vs. Omaha.

If UND hopes to make a deep playoff run, junior forward Shane Gersich (7-10-17) and senior forward Austin Poganski (9-5-14) will need to continue their recent scoring prowess. The two combined for 33 goals and 29 assists last year but struggled to find open ice in the first half of the season. From October through December, Poganski went 4-2-6 and Gersich added 5-6-11 in twenty games each. In the past six games, the two have scored seven goals and added seven assists.

According to KRACH, Denver has played the seventh-toughest schedule in the country this season; North Dakota’s slate of games ranks 13th. The Fighting Hawks lead the country in faceoff percentage at 56.5 percent. Denver clocks in at 51.4 percent (18th).

North Dakota enters this weekend’s series needing just two more wins to reach the 1,500-win plateau all-time as a program. UND has more wins over the past eleven seasons (302) than any other program in the country (Boston College [295] and Denver [283] round out the top three).

UND’s senior class of Cam Johnson, Trevor Olson, Austin Poganski, and Johnny Simonson (96-40-16, .684) needs four more victories to become the fifteenth consecutive recruiting class to win at least 100 games.

Friday’s opener has been designated as a “Green Out” game for North Dakota. UND will be wearing its road green jerseys, and fans are asked to follow suit and wear Kelly green to the game in order to “Green Out the Ralph”.

Denver Team Profile

Head Coach: Jim Montgomery (5th season at DU, 116-53-22, .665)

Pairwise Ranking: t-4th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #4/#5

This Season: 14-6-4 (.667) overall, 8-4-2-1 NCHC (1st)
Last Season: 33-7-4 overall (NCAA Champions), 18-3-3-2 NCHC (1st)

Team Offense: 3.62 goals scored/game – 5th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.21 goals allowed/game – 7th of 60 teams
Power Play: 26.1% (30 of 115) – 5th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 84.8% (67 of 79) – 10th of 60 teams

Key Players: Sophomore F Henrik Borgström (16-19-35), Junior F Troy Terry (10-19-29), Junior F Dylan Gambrell (9-21-30), Junior F Jarid Lukosevicius (12-8-20), Freshman D Ian Mitchell (2-18-20), Junior D Blake Hillman (2-6-8), Senior G Tanner Jaillet (13-5-4, 2.00 GAA, .926 SV%, 4 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (3rd season at UND, 67-30-13, .668)

Pairwise Ranking: 12th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #11/#7

This Season: 12-8-6 (.577) overall, 6-6-2-2 NCHC (4th)
Last Season: 21-16-3 (.562) overall (NCAA West Regional semifinalist), 11-12-1-1 NCHC (4th)

2017-18 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 2.92 goals scored/game – 31st of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.35 goals allowed/game – 10th of 60 teams
Power Play: 19.3% (21 of 109) – 30th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 81.3% (87 of 107) – 27th of 60 teams

Key Players: Junior F Nick Jones (9-12-21), Junior F Shane Gersich (7-10-17), Freshman F Grant Mismash (6-9-15), Senior F Austin Poganski (9-5-14), Junior D Christian Wolanin (7-14-21), Sophomore D Colton Poolman (6-10-16), Senior G Cam Johnson (8-6-3, 2.17 GAA, .906 SV%, 1 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: November 18, 2017 (Denver, CO). One night after UND came back from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the homestanding Pios 5-4, Denver went 3-for-8 with the man advantage and turned a 1-1 third-period tie into a 4-1 victory. Fighting Hawks’ freshman Jordan Kawaguchi thought he had tied the game at two with 14:50 left in the middle frame, but the goal was overturned (goaltender interference) after a lengthy review. North Dakota was assessed eight penalties for 27 minutes, while DU was whistled for one two-minute minor penalty and enjoyed just 33 seconds of power play time on the night.

Last Meeting in Grand Forks: November 12, 2016. 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.

A Recent Memory: 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: The teams have split the last ten games with four victories each and two ties. In those ten meetings, Denver has a slight 25-24 edge in combined score.

All-time Series: UND leads the all-time series, 145-124-12 (.537), including a sparkling 84-43-8 (.652) record in games played in Grand Forks. The teams first met in 1950, with North Dakota prevailing 18-3 in Denver.

Game News and Notes

UND senior forward Austin Poganski has five goals and three assists in sixteen 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). Denver is 9-0-1 this season when leading after two periods of play but just 4-5-0 in one-goal games. By comparison, UND is 10-0-2 this season when leading after two periods of play and 5-2-0 in one-goal games. Since seven of Michigan’s nine titles were earned by 1964, I consider Denver (eight titles) and North Dakota (eight titles) to be the top two men’s college hockey programs of all time.

Media Coverage

Friday’s opener will be telecast live on CBS Sports Network, with Saturday’s rematch available on Midco Sports Network and FOX College Sports Central. A high-definition webcast of Saturday’s game will be 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.

The Prediction

North Dakota is 7-3-3 at home this season (5-5-3 on the road), and that might be just what Brad Berry’s crew needs to earn a split against one of the top teams in the country. I see the Pios handling the home team in the opener, with the Fighting Hawks righting the ship to earn a close victory in the rematch. DU 4-1, 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!