Weekend Preview: North Dakota vs. Denver

As has been well-documented, the last three national champions hail from the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and #14 North Dakota (2016) hosts #6 Denver (2017) this weekend, one week after earning a road split against #4 Minnesota Duluth, winners of the 2018 NCAA title. Despite an up-and-down first half, UND (currently eighth place in the NCHC) only trails fourth-place teams Denver and Western Michigan by three points.

In the NCHC, it is clear that Denver/North Dakota is at the top of the league rivalries. The teams have played twenty times during the first five 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.)

This year’s version of the Pioneers will look noticeably different to UND fans, with four players graduated (forward Rudy Junda, defensemen Tariq Hammond and Adam Plant, and goaltender Tanner Jaillet) and a new bench boss (David Carle). Furthermore, Denver had five players leave eligibility on the table during the 2018 offseason, including three prolific goal scorers and a stalwart defenseman:

Forward Henrik Borgström (gave up two seasons of eligibility; drafted Round 1 #23 by the Florida Panthers in 2016): 45 goals and 95 points in 77 career NCAA games

Forward Troy Terry (gave up one season of eligibility; drafted Round 5 #148 by the Anaheim Ducks in 2015): 45 goals and 115 point in 115 career NCAA games

Forward Dylan Gambrell (gave up one season of eligibility; drafted Round 2 #60 by the San Jose Sharks in 2016): 43 goals and 132 points in 120 career NCAA games

Defenseman Blake Hillman (gave up one season of eligibility; drafted Round 6 #173 by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2016): 7 goals and 31 points in 123 career NCAA games

Free agent forward Logan O’Connor also gave up his final season of college eligibility to sign with the Colorado Avalanche of the NHL. O’Connor posted a line of 16-27-43 in 108 career NCAA games.

North Dakota was not immune to the early departure bug during the 2018 offseason, as defenseman Christian Wolanin (12-23-35 in 2017-18, 22-50-72 in 109 career games at North Dakota) and forward Shane Gersich (13-16-29 in 2017-18, 43-34-77 in 117 career games at North Dakota) each gave up his senior season to sign a pro contract (Wolanin with Ottawa, Gersich with Washington).

And the previous three summers haven’t been any easier for fans of the Green and White, as multiple players have left eligibility on the table to join the professional ranks (years of eligibility remaining at the time of signing):

2017: Forward Brock Boeser (2), Forward Tyson Jost (3), Defenseman Tucker Poolman (1)

2016: Forward Luke Johnson (1), Forward Nick Schmaltz (2), Defenseman Paul LaDue (1), Defenseman Troy Stecher (1), Defenseman Keaton Thompson (1)

2015: Defenseman Jordan Schmaltz (1), Goaltender Zane McIntyre (1)

In 2014, forward Rocco Grimaldi left after his sophomore campaign to sign with the Florida Panthers (NHL). In 2013, defenseman Derek Forbort signed with the Los Angeles Kings after his junior year. North Dakota also lost two players (Brock Nelson and Aaron Dell) to early departures in 2012 and two others (Jason Gregoire and Brett Hextall) in 2011.

Before last weekend, UND’s power play had been going strong (6 of 14; 42.9%) after sputtering out of the gates (6 of 43; 14.0%). In two games at Duluth, however, North Dakota went scoreless on twelve man-advantage opportunities. The power outage against the Bulldogs can be attributed to two factors: UMD’s goaltending and UND’s injury situation.

Barring a setback today, UND senior forward Nick Jones (lower body injury) is expected to return to the lineup after missing the past seven games. According to Brad Schlossman, other lineup concerns include sophomore forward Collin Adams (lower body), junior forward Dixon Bowen (undisclosed), junior forward Ludvig Hoff (lower body), senior forward Joel Janatuinen (illness), and freshman defenseman Johnny Tychonick (undisclosed).

If this were an NFL situation, I would list Hoff and Jones as probable, with Adams and Tychonick questionable. Janatuinen will be out of the lineup, and Bowen will almost certainly be a scratch as well.

Last year’s senior class at North Dakota (Cam Johnson, Trevor Olson, Austin Poganski, and Johnny Simonson) went 101-45-20 (.669) and became the fifteenth consecutive recruiting class to win at least 100 games. This year’s group (Ryan Anderson, Rhett Gardner, Joel Janatuinen, and Hayden Shaw) currently sits at 80-41-18 (.640) and would need 20 more victories in the final 29 games remaining on the schedule (at most) to continue that impressive streak.

After a home sweep of Alaska Anchorage two weeks ago, UND moved its non-conference record to 6-2-1 (.722) on the season. After going 9-1-2 (.833) in non-conference play in 2015-16 and 7-2-2 (.727) out-of-conference in 2016-17, Brad Berry’s squad went just 6-2-4 (.667) last season and snapped its streak of fifteen consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. North Dakota’s only other non-conference games of the 2018-19 campaign will be a road series at Canisius (6-8-1 overall, 5-7-1 Atlantic Hockey) in Buffalo, New York on January 4th and 5th. If he is selected to Canada’s World Junior Team, Fighting Hawks’ freshman defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker will miss the games against Canisius. Bernard-Docker will leave Monday for Team Canada’s selection camp along with eleven other defensemen; Canada is expected to keep seven blueliners.

As a whole, the NCHC has fared extremely well in non-conference action, collecting a combined record of 38-14-7 (.703) and sporting a winning record against all five of the other leagues across the college hockey landscape. Here are the inter-conference records, from best to worst:

NCHC: 38-14-7 (.703)
Big Ten: 30-17-3 (.630)
ECAC: 26-28-1 (.482)
Hockey East: 27-30-5 (.476)
WCHA: 20-31-3 (.398)
Atlantic Hockey: 8-29-3 (.237)

Not only could the NCHC as a whole field four or even five teams in the NCAA tournament, but North Dakota’s record against Minnesota (1-0-0) and Wisconsin (2-0-0) will also help them specifically in Pairwise comparisons against all of the Big Ten teams.

This weekend’s games will mark the ninth consecutive weekend of hockey action for North Dakota. After Saturday’s contest, UND will enjoy a two-week holiday break.

According to KRACH, Denver has played the second-toughest schedule in the country this season (behind only Ohio State); North Dakota’s slate of games ranks seventh. The two teams will meet again in Denver on February 1st and 2nd, 2019.

The Pioneers have lost only three games this season, all by a single goal: a pair of 4-3 defeats at #2 St. Cloud State were followed a week later by a 4-3 home loss to #1 Duluth. The Pioneers have scored three or more goals in all but one game this year, and that contest went down as a 2-0 victory over the Bulldogs. The Pios are averaging 3.67 goals per game, the eighth-best scoring offense in the country.

Denver has gone 6-1-2 on home ice this season but only 1-2-0 on the road. Yes, that’s right – the Pios have played nine home games and three road games to this point in the season. Furthermore, one of the three road games was a matchup with Air Force at Cadet Ice Arena (Colorado Springs, CO). Before this weekend, David Carle had only traveled out-of-state with his team on one occasion, and that trip ended with two road defeats at the hands of St. Cloud State. In the second half of the season, DU will only enjoy eight regular-season games at Magness Arena: three in January, four in February (including a home series against North Dakota), and one in March. Including this weekend’s matchup at North Dakota, the Pios have fourteen road games remaining on their schedule.

By comparison, North Dakota has already played six road contests in the first half of the season, with a record of 3-3-0 in those games. In 2019, UND has an even split of home and road series in NCHC play (vs. Colorado College, St. Cloud State, Minnesota Duluth, and Omaha; at Omaha, Denver, Western Michigan, and Colorado College) with one out-of-conference series scheduled at Canisius in early January, for a total of eight home games and ten road games before the playoffs begin.

After winning the 2018 NCHC Frozen Faceoff (3-1 over Duluth; 4-1 over St. Cloud State), Denver’s season fizzled out in the 2018 Midwest Regional (Allentown, PA). The Pioneers easily handled Penn State 5-1 in the opening round but were done in by Ohio State by an identical score.

Denver Team Profile

Head Coach: David Carle (Denver ’12, 1st season at DU, 7-3-2, .667)

National Rankings: #6/#5

This Season: 7-3-2 (.667) overall, 3-3-0-0 NCHC (t-4th)
Last Season: 23-10-8 overall (NCAA Midwest Regional Finalist), 12-6-6-4 NCHC (2nd)

Team Offense: 3.67 goals scored/game – 8th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.25 goals allowed/game – 13th of 60 teams
Power Play: 21.7% (13 of 60) – 13th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 82.5% (47 of 57) – 24th of 60 teams

Key Players: Senior F Jarid Lukosevicius (8-6-14), Freshman F Emilio Pettersen (5-9-14), Junior F Liam Finlay (7-6-13), Freshman F Cole Guttman (7-4-11), Sophomore D Ian Mitchell (2-9-11), Junior D Michael Davies (2-4-6), Sophomore G Devin Cooley (7-3-1, 2.08 GAA, .933 SV%, 2 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (4th season at UND, 80-41-18, .640)

National Rankings: #14/#14

This Season: 8-6-1 (.567) overall, 2-4-0-0 NCHC (8th)
Last Season: 17-13-10 (.550) overall (missed NCAA tournament), 8-10-6-1 NCHC (4th of 8 teams)

2018-19 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 2.60 goals scored/game – 40th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.60 goals allowed/game – 22nd of 60 teams
Power Play: 17.4% (12 of 69) – 36th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 75.9% (41 of 54) – 51st of 60 teams

Key Players: Senior F Rhett Gardner (8-1-9), Sophomore F Jordan Kawaguchi (3-8-11), Sophomore F Grant Mismash (5-4-9), Senior F Nick Jones (1-5-6 in eight games), Junior F Cole Smith (2-4-6), Junior D Colton Poolman (3-2-5), Freshman D Jacob Bernard-Docker (3-6-9), D Gabe Bast (2-4-6), Sophomore D Matt Kiersted (3-6-9) Freshman G Adam Scheel (7-3-1, 1.98 GAA, .910 SV%, 1 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: January 27, 2018 (Grand Forks, ND). For the second consecutive night, the two teams skated to a tie before the Pios earned the extra league point with a goal (Ian Mitchell) during the second overtime session (3×3). Christian Wolanin (Gersich, Kawaguchi) scored the lone goal for the Fighting Hawks, a second-period power play marker. In Friday’s opener, UND opened the scoring with two early goals before Denver roared back with three straight. North Dakota’s Hayden Shaw sent the game to overtime with a tying goal at 18:28 of the third period.

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 three victories each and four ties. In those ten meetings, Denver has a slight 23-20 edge in combined score. Five of the last ten meetings in Grand Forks have gone into overtime, and all five of them went without a winner.

All-time Series: UND leads the all-time series, 145-124-14 (.537), including a sparkling 84-43-10 (.650) 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

North Dakota is third in the NCAA in team faceoff percentage (56.8 percent), while DU checks in at #12 (52.7%). Pioneers first-year bench boss David Carle is the youngest head coach in NCAA Division I men’s hockey. Only one current UND player has multiple career goals against the Pios (Cole Smith, with two). 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

Both games will be available on Midco Sports Network, with Saturday’s finale also available on 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 does not want to get into a track meet with the Pios. UND definitely has a chance at more than a split this weekend, with at least one of these tilts headed to overtime. If the Fighting Hawks can win the goaltending battle and end up on the plus side of the special teams ledger, they could go into the holiday break on a three-game winning streak. However, there are still too many injuries and question marks to feel certain about anything surrounding this program right now. I see the Pios outlasting the home team in the opener, with the Fighting Hawks righting the ship to earn a close victory in the rematch. DU 2-1, UND 3-2 (OT).

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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