Weekend Preview: North Dakota vs. St. Cloud State

Last weekend, St. Cloud State clinched the Penrose Cup as NCHC champions with a win and a tie against Denver, their third regular-season league championship in the past six seasons (2012-13 WCHA, 2013-14 NCHC).

North Dakota certainly has more to play for this weekend than their rivals from central Minnesota, as SCSU has the #1 seed and home ice for the first round of the playoffs locked up while UND is trying to stay ahead in the race for the final home-ice playoff spot:

1. St. Cloud State (15-4-3-1, 49 points)
2. Denver (11-6-5-4, 42 points)
3. Minnesota Duluth (12-10-0-0, 36 points)
4. North Dakota (8-9-5-2, 31 points)
5. Colorado College (7-11-4-3, 28 points)
5. Omaha (9-12-1-0, 28 points)
5. Western Michigan (9-12-1-0, 28 points)
8. Miami (6-13-3-1, 22 points)

UND could finish as high as third or as low as seventh in the final NCHC conference standings. Here’s a look at the other league matchups this weekend:

Miami at Denver
Omaha at Duluth
Western Michigan at Colorado College

Last season, North Dakota and St. Cloud State battled six times, with UND clearly having the better of it and earning the UND/SCSU Challenge Cup with three regular-season victories in four meetings:

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)

With a win and a tie back in December 2017, St. Cloud State would earn the Challenge Cup for this season with at least one victory this weekend in Grand Forks.

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)

With a record of 21-6-5, it is possible but unlikely that St. Cloud State will reach the thirty-victory mark this year. A sweep this weekend plus a Frozen Faceoff championship and a national title would put SCSU at 31-6-5 or 31-7-5, depending on whether their first round series would go two or three games.

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.

Since January 1st, UND has gone just 4-6-4 and scored 42 goals (3.00/game) while allowing 38 (2.71/game) against Omaha (four games), Bemidji State, Duluth, Denver, Colorado College, and Miami. One could argue that the Fighting Hawks deserved a better fate in a handful of those ties and losses, but the margin of error is so small for this team.

Out of conference, North Dakota had decent success (6-2-4, .667) against Alaska Anchorage, St. Lawrence, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Union, and Bemidji State. The league as a whole went 47-22-15 (.649) in non-conference play and could easily place five or even six teams in the NCAA tournament field. If the season ended today, St. Cloud State (1st), Denver (t-4th), and Duluth (8th) would all easily make the tourney, with North Dakota (14th) and Omaha (15th) on the bubble. Western Michigan (t-19th), Colorado College (t-23rd) and Miami (t-28th) are on the outside looking in and probably need to secure the league’s autobid as NCHC Frozen Faceoff champions to advance to the NCAAs.

Fighting Hawks’ freshman forward Grant Mismash has been nearly invisible over the past sixteen games. Mismash started the season with a line of 5-9-14 through his first seventeen games in a UND uniform (including two goals in a 6-2 victory over Colorado College in October) but has been held to three goals and three assists in his past fifteen appearances and was a healthy scratch on January 6th vs. Omaha. To be fair, the Nashville Predators draft pick (Round 2, #61 overall) from Edina, Minnesota did notch a goal and an assist last weekend at Miami.

On the injury front, North Dakota finally appears to be getting healthy after losing 76 man-games due to injury, illness, suspension, or the Olympics this season. UND has used a different lineup in 33 of 34 games this season, including 60 different line combinations at forward and eleven different defensive pairings. Expect head coach Brad Berry to keep the line of junior Rhett Gardner centering junior Shane Gerisch and senior Austin Poganski together. In their past five games as linemates, the trio combined for 20 points and four victories.

If UND hopes to make a deep playoff run, Gersich (11-15-26) and Poganski (10-7-17) will need to continue their recent scoring prowess. The two combined for 33 goals and 29 assists during the 2016-17 season but struggled to find open ice in the first half of this year. From October through December, Poganski went 4-2-6 and Gersich added 5-6-11 in twenty games each. In the past fourteen games, the two have scored twelve goals and added fourteen assists.

It is worthy of note that Gersich has scored six goals and notched two assists in nine career games against the Huskies while Poganski has enjoyed a modest amount of success (3-5-8 in sixteen career games). Rhett Gardner has also collected eight points (3-5-8) in his ten career games against St. Cloud State.

According to KRACH, Omaha has played the second-toughest schedule in the country this season; North Dakota’s slate of games ranks 13th.

UND leads the nation in faceoff efficiency (55.7 percent); St. Cloud State is 2nd at 55.4 percent. Of the top fifteen faceoff men in the NCHC (minimum 100 attempts), five wear a Fighting Hawks jersey:

1. Nick Jones (60.3 percent)
4. Collin Adams (59.1 percent)
6. Rhett Gardner (57.8 percent)
12. Ludvig Hoff (54.9 percent)
13. Johnny Simonson (54.7 percent)

Hoff recently to the team after representing his native Norway at the 2018 Winter Olympics (Pyeongchang, South Korea). Hoff and Canadian defenseman Chay Genoway became the 28th and 29th UND players to compete in men’s hockey at the Olympic Games.

On the other bench, the Huskies boast two centermen among the top fifteen:

5. Blake Winiecki (58.5 percent)
7. Judd Peterson (57.1 percent)

Two weekends ago, North Dakota reached the 1,500-win plateau all-time as a program. UND has more wins over the past eleven seasons (304) than any other program in the country, with Boston College (302) and Denver (286) rounding out the top three.

UND’s senior class of Cam Johnson, Trevor Olson, Austin Poganski, and Johnny Simonson (98-42-18, .677) needs two more victories to become the fifteenth consecutive recruiting class to win at least 100 games.

The Fighting Hawks have nine ties already this season, tying a school record set by the 2000-01 national runner-up squad that went 29-8-9. With only fourteen and two regular-season games remaining before the NCHC playoffs, it is very possible that UND will finish the 2017-18 campaign with fewer than twenty wins. The last time a North Dakota men’s hockey team fell below that number was in 2001-02, when a Dean Blais-led group went 16-19-2 (.459) and missed the NCAAs.

North Dakota has gone just 7-9-6 (.455) over the last eleven weekends of hockey after beginning the year 7-2-3 (.708), and Brad Berry’s squad will need a victory or two this weekend in order to solidify their place in the NCAA tournament.

According to Jim Dahl (collegehockeyranked.com), UND would most likely move to 10th or 11th in the Pairwise rankings (which mimic the tourney selection process) with two wins this weekend, settle in at 14th with a split, and drop to 16th or 17th with two losses. Due to autobids and tournament upsets, teams with postseason aspirations hope to be no lower than 12th or 13th after the final games have been played on Saturday, March 17th.

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. If Brad Berry can lead the program to its sixteenth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, North Dakota would be placed in the 2018 West Regional (Sioux Falls, South Dakota) as the host school. The 2018 NCAA Frozen Faceoff will take place at Xcel Energy Center (St. Paul, Minnesota).

St. Cloud State Team Profile

Head Coach: Bob Motzko (13th season at SCSU, 272-189-48, .582)

Pairwise Ranking: 1st of 60 teams
National Rankings: #1/#1

This Season: 21-6-5 (.734) overall, 15-4-3-1 NCHC (1st)
Last Season: 16-19-1 (.458) overall (missed NCAA tournament), 10-13-1-0 NCHC (5th)

2017-18 Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 3.81 goals scored/game – 2nd of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.44 goals allowed/game – 14th of 60 teams
Power Play: 21.9% (32 of 146) – 12th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 81.3% (87 of 107) – 30th of 60 teams

Key Players: Junior F Robby Jackson (15-20-35), Sophomore F Ryan Poehling (8-17-25), Junior F Mikey Eyssimont (14-19-33), Junior F Patrick Newell (5-19-24), Junior D Jimmy Schuldt (7-26-33), Sophomore D Jack Ahcan (2-13-15), Junior D Will Borgen (2-10-12), Freshman G David Hrenak (9-4-1, 1.75 GAA, .935 SV%, 3 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (3rd season at UND, 69-33-16, .653)

Pairwise Ranking: 14th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #13/#14

This Season: 14-11-9 (.544) overall, 8-9-5-2 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: 2.88 goals scored/game – 29th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.41 goals allowed/game – 13th of 60 teams
Power Play: 20.0% (29 of 145) – 21st of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 82.6% (114 of 138) – 20th of 60 teams

Key Players: Junior F Shane Gersich (11-15-26), Junior F Nick Jones (10-12-22), Freshman F Grant Mismash (8-12-20), Senior F Austin Poganski (10-7-17), Junior F Rhett Gardner (6-11-17), Junior D Christian Wolanin (10-19-29), Sophomore D Colton Poolman (7-15-22), Senior G Cam Johnson (9-7-6, 2.15 GAA, .907 SV%, 2 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: December 9, 2017 (St. Cloud, MN). One night after UND grabbed the extra league point with a 2-2 tie and a shootout win, the Huskies scored three goals on six shots in the second period to take a 3-1 home victory. North Dakota outshot SCSU 35-18 in Saturday’s rematch but went scoreless on the power play (0-for-3) while allowing Mikey Eyssimont’s power play tally (his second in one minute of game action) in the middle frame. Huskies netminder David Hrenak made 34 saves.

Last Meeting in Grand Forks: March 11, 2017. 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, Borgen would certainly had an impact in a decisive Game Three.

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, 71-41-13 (.620), including a 35-17-6 (.655) record in games played 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. 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 6-3-1 (.650) edge in the last ten meetings between the teams, outscoring the Huskies 29-25 over that stretch of games.

Game News and Notes

St. Cloud State has outscored opponents 54-27 in third periods this season. North Dakota leads the nation in attendance once again this season (11,475/game) and is bidding to lead the NCAA in total attendance for the seventh consecutive year and in average attendance for the fourth consecutive year. SCSU clocks in 16th in the country, with an average of 4307 fans per game.

Media Coverage

Both games will be streamed in high definition on NCHC.tv and available live on Midco Sports Network. Saturday’s rematch will also be shown live on FOX College Sports Central. 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, March 3rd beginning at 3:00 p.m. at El Roco (1730 13th Avenue North) in Grand Forks. Guests will enjoy free appetizers, door prizes, a chance to view the Challenge Cup, and a bus to Ralph Engelstad Arena and back. Due to the venue, all those in attendance must be 21 years of age or older. Come and meet fans on both sides of this rivalry – here’s to hockey!

The Prediction

Let’s get this out of the way first: St. Cloud State is a better team than North Dakota this season. However, UND has some intangibles in its favor, including playoff positioning, a home ice crowd, a smaller ice surface, and Senior Night on Saturday night. The Fighting Hawks will play with a sense of urgency this weekend, and while a better result is certainly possible, I’m going with a split. UND 3-2, SCSU 4-2.

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!

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