NCHC Playoff Preview: North Dakota vs. Omaha

In an NCHC quarterfinal series that will determine the postseason fate for both teams, here are two reasons why North Dakota will advance:

1. UNO is just 5-11-0 on the road this season, with power play (20.6 percent) and penalty kill (73.5 percent) numbers far worse than their home splits (12-4-2 record, 29.8 percent power play, 81.8 percent penalty kill). The Mavericks have been outscored 65-38 on the road while being outshot 553-448.

2. Omaha’s senior class has never advanced to the NCHC Frozen Faceoff (1-6 overall in NCHC playoff games) despite an NCAA Frozen Four appearance as freshmen (2015). In fact, since joining the WCHA in 2011, the Mavs have never reached the Twin Cities for the second weekend of the conference tournament despite having home ice in three of those seven years.

And here are two reasons why Omaha will advance:

1. Mavericks junior netminder Evan Weninger has been playing much better as of late. Coming into the North Dakota series last month, Weninger had a goals-against average of 3.65 and a save percentage of .888. Over the past six games (vs. UND, vs. Colorado College, at Minnesota-Duluth), Weninger went 3-2-1 with a goals-against average of just 2.14 and a save percentage of .939.

2. North Dakota has blown two-goal leads five times in the last eleven games, including once against Omaha.

No matter which way the best-of-three series goes, it will almost certainly be decided on Sunday night:

Since 2010, UNO and North Dakota have played fourteen regular-season series, and most of them have resulted in splits. Omaha has never won more than one game in any series, while North Dakota has mixed in three sweeps and one win/tie.

In the past fifteen first-round league playoff matchups, UND has put the home fans at ease by winning Friday’s opener thirteen times (including the last eleven straight). Saturday’s games have been more difficult, as seen by the following breakdown:

Average goals scored/goals allowed in first-round home playoff games (2003-2017):

Friday: 5.00 goals scored/1.60 goals allowed (thirteen wins, two losses)
Saturday: 3.40 goals scored/2.33 goals allowed (eleven wins, four losses)
Sunday: 3.67 goals scored/1.17 goals allowed (six wins, zero losses)

Despite North Dakota’s Friday home playoff success over the past fifteen seasons, this year’s version of the Omaha Mavericks has fared far better in series openers (13-4-0) than in series finales (4-11-2). To further complicate matters, the last time North Dakota won back-to-back games was on January 6th (vs. Omaha) and January 12th (at Bemidji State), and the Fighting Hawks only accomplished two weekend sweeps all season (October 13th and 14th vs. St. Lawrence; December 1st and 2nd vs. Western Michigan).

Omaha went just 10-13-1-0 in conference play this season, which was good for fifth place in the eight-team NCHC. Despite that sub-par mark, #13 UNO is ahead of North Dakota in the Pairwise Rankings (Omaha 14th, UND 15th) thanks to a 7-2-1 non-conference record (against UMass-Lowell, Arizona State, Notre Dame, Northern Michigan, and Union).

On the plus side, Omaha is scoring 3.47 goals per game, the sixth-highest scoring offense in the country.

On the minus side, Omaha is allowing 3.71 goals per game, the worst scoring defense in the country.

And those statistics are even worse on the road, with Omaha scoring 2.38 goals per game (43rd) and allowing 4.06 (59th).

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 45-22-13 (.644) in non-conference play and could easily place four or even five teams in the NCAA tournament field. If the season ended today, St. Cloud State (1st), Denver (5th), Duluth (9th), Omaha (14th) and North Dakota (15th) would all make the tourney, with Western Michigan (t-20th), Colorado College (23rd) and Miami (29th) on the outside looking in.

Fighting Hawks’ first-year forward Grant Mismash has had an up-and-down freshman campaign. 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 was held to two goals and two assists from December 8th, 2017 through February 17th, 2018 (a stretch of thirteen games) 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 notched a goal and assist two weekends ago at Miami and duplicated that scoring effort last weekend against St. Cloud State to give him a line of 9-13-22 for the season and a spot on the NCHC 2017-18 All-Rookie Team.

Omaha has been dealing with the loss of junior forward Mason Morelli (4-10-14 in 16 games). According to the Omaha World-Herald, Morelli tore his ACL in a freak accident over the winter break and is lost for the season.

If UND hopes to make a deep playoff run, junior forward Shane Gersich (11-16-27) and senior forward Austin 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 sixteen games, the two have scored twelve goals and added fifteen assists.

It is worthy of note that Gersich has scored four goals and notched five assists in eleven career games against the Mavs while Poganski has enjoyed similar success (2-8-10 in sixteen career games).

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

Since January 1st, UND has gone just 4-7-5 and scored 47 goals (2.94/game) while allowing 44 (2.75/game) against Omaha (four games), Bemidji State, Duluth, Denver, Colorado College, Miami, and St. Cloud State. 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.

Three 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 (287) rounding out the top three.

UND’s senior class of Cam Johnson, Trevor Olson, Austin Poganski, and Johnny Simonson (98-44-20, .667) needs two more victories to become the fifteenth consecutive recruiting class to win at least 100 games. That streak is on the line this weekend in Grand Forks.

The Fighting Hawks have ten ties already this season, breaking a school record set by the 2000-01 national runner-up squad that went 29-8-9. With only fourteen wins on the season, it is becoming increasingly likely that UND will finish the 2017-18 campaign with fewer than twenty victories. 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 7-10-7 (.438) over the last twelve weekends of hockey after beginning the year 7-2-3 (.708), and at the minimum, Brad Berry’s squad will need to win this weekend’s best-of-three series in order to solidify their place in the NCAA tournament. Of course, if UND advances to the NCHC Frozen Faceoff (Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minnesota) and wins both games next weekend, they would secure the league’s autobid. The loser of this series will be unlikely to earn an at-large bid to the tournament when the bracket is announced on Sunday, March 18th.

According to Jim Dahl of, UND is most likely to end up ranked 14th or 15th in the Pairwise with two victories this weekend, with an outside chance at being ranked 13th or 16th. In almost all of those scenarios, the Fighting Hawks would need to avoid two losses net weekend in St. Paul.

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.

Omaha Team Profile

Head Coach: Mike Gabinet (1st season at UNO, 17-15-2, .529)

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

This Season: 17-15-2 (.529) overall, 10-13-1-0 NCHC (t-5th)
Last Season: 16-16-5 (.500) overall (missed NCAA tournament), 9-13-2-0 NCHC (6th)

Team Offense: 3.47 goals scored/game – 6th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 3.71 goals allowed/game – 60th of 60 teams
Power Play: 25.7% (39 of 152) – 5th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 78.2% (122 of 156) – 46th of 60 teams

Key Players: Senior F David Pope (20-20-40), Senior F Tyler Vesel (11-20-31), Sophomore F Zach Jordan (16-12-28), Senior F Jake Randolph (6-19-25), Sophomore F Tristan Keck (10-12-22), Senior D Joel Messner (5-18-23), Sophomore D Ryan Jones (1-11-12), Junior G Evan Weninger (15-12-1, 3.31 GAA, .900 SV%)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (3rd season at UND, 69-34-17, .646)

Pairwise Ranking: 15th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #14/NR

This Season: 14-12-10 (.528) overall, 8-10-6-3 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: 2.86 goals scored/game – 29th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.44 goals allowed/game – 13th of 60 teams
Power Play: 20.5% (32 of 156) – 22nd of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 81.6% (120 of 147) – 27th of 60 teams

Key Players: Junior F Shane Gersich (11-16-27), Junior F Nick Jones (11-13-24), Freshman F Grant Mismash (9-13-22), Senior F Austin Poganski (10-7-17), Junior F Rhett Gardner (7-12-19), Junior D Christian Wolanin (11-21-32), Sophomore D Colton Poolman (7-16-23), Senior G Cam Johnson (9-8-7, 2.21 GAA, .905 SV%, 2 SO)

By The Numbers:

Last meeting: February 17, 2018 (Omaha, NE). UND led by a narrow 1-0 margin after two periods of play before Johnny Simonson’s third-period tally gave the visitors some breathing room. North Dakota’s Rhett Gardner added an empty-net goal with 104 seconds remaining, the Hawks’ fourteenth shot on goal of the period (to just four for the Mavs). In Friday’s opener, Omaha scored four second-period goals to erase an early 2-0 deficit and defeat the Fighting Hawks 6-3. The Mavericks went 3-for-4 with the man advantage and got 38 saves from Evan Weninger. UND outshot Omaha 78-52 on the weekend.

Last Meeting in Grand Forks: January 6, 2018. One night after Evan Weninger made 34 saves in a 4-1 road victory, the Fighting Hawks exploded for seven goals and freshman netminder Peter Thome stopped all fifteen shots he faced. In the second period alone, North Dakota scored three goals and outshot the Mavericks 19-1 (32-15 for the game). UND senior forward Austin Poganski had a three-point night with an assist on junior Rhett Gardner’s first-period goal and two third-period tallies of his own, while Gardner added two assists to match Poganski in the scoring column.

Most memorable meeting: The game that UND fans will long remember is the outdoor game played at TD Ameritrade Park (Omaha, Nebraska) on February 9th, 2013. One day after winning a tight 2-1 contest indoors, North Dakota throttled UNO 5-2 on a sunny, melty afternoon. Mavericks netminder John Faulkner was pulled after allowing three goals on five shots in just ten minutes of game action. In my opinion, this hockey weekend solidified the notion that for UND hockey, it’s always a home game.

Last ten: North Dakota has won seven of the last ten contests between the schools, outscoring the Mavericks 44-24 over that stretch. Maverick goaltender Evan Weninger made 56 combined saves in two road victories (February 2017 and January 2018).

All-time: UND leads the all-time series 17-10-1 (.625), including a slight 7-6-1 (.536) edge in games played in Grand Forks. The teams first met on November 19, 2010.

Game News and Notes

In 2015, both North Dakota and Omaha advanced to the Frozen Four but neither team made the championship game. UND fell to Boston University 5-3, while the Mavericks were upended 4-1 by eventual national champion Providence. UND junior defenseman Christian Wolanin (11-21-32) leads all Fighting Hawks scorers and is seeking to become the first blueliner to lead UND in scoring since James Patrick (12-36-48 in 1982-83, his second and final college season). The Mavericks won ten league games this season, two more than North Dakota.

Media Coverage

This weekend’s NCHC playoff action will be shown live on Midco Sports Network, with a high definition webcast also available to subscribers via

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

The Prediction

Both teams have been prone to inconsistency throughout this season, and I expect momentum to shift back and forth throughout the weekend. North Dakota has not shown the ability to protect leads, and that will come back to haunt them in at least one game of this series. All signs point to hockey in Grand Forks on Sunday night. UND 3-2, UNO 4-2, 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!

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