Weekend Preview: North Dakota at Omaha

After a trip to the Frozen Four in 2015, Dean Blais could only manage a mark of 35-34-6 over his final two seasons behind the Omaha bench. He was replaced by Mike Gabinet (Omaha ’04), and Gabinet finished up his rookie campaign with an eerily similar record of 17-17-2.

Maverick fans were certainly hopeful that improvement was coming this season, but Omaha sputtered out of the gate with a record of 0-6-1. Things have certainly leveled off since then, and the Mavs bring an overall record of 6-12-2 into this weekend’s home series against North Dakota (11-9-1).

Two familiar names in UND hockey history – Morelli and Ward – have been leading the charge for Mike Gabinet’s squad. Senior forward Mason Morelli (grandson of Reg Morelli; 13-9-22 this season) and freshman forward Taylor Ward (son of Dixon Ward; 5-10-15) rank 1st and 4th in team scoring for the Mavericks. Those two followed in the footsteps of Josh Archibald (son of Jim), Dayn Belfour (son of Ed), and Dominic Zombo (son of Rick) as “legacy” players who followed Dean Blais down I-94 from Grand Forks to Omaha.

North Dakota hockey fans will also recognize another name on the Omaha roster. Junior goaltender Matej Tomek (0-1-0, 5.02 goals-against average, .828 save percentage in four appearances) spent the 2016-17 at UND, appearing in two games while backing up Cam Johnson. Tomek, who spent last season with the Waterloo Blackhawks of the USHL, is a 3rd round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers of the National Hockey League (#90 overall in 2015)

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 83-44-18 (.634) and would need 17 more victories in the final 23 games remaining on the schedule (at most) to continue that impressive streak.

After getting swept at Canisius two weekends ago, UND saw its non-conference record drop to 6-4-1 (.591) 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.

As a whole, the NCHC fared extremely well in non-conference action, collecting a combined record of 50-21-8 (.684) and sporting a winning record against four of the other five leagues across the college hockey landscape (losing the head-to-head with the ECAC, 2-3-1). Here are the inter-conference records, from best to worst:

NCHC: 50-21-8 (.684)
Big Ten: 34-22-5 (.598)
Hockey East: 51-41-8 (.550)
ECAC: 40-45-6 (.473)
WCHA: 22-38-5 (.377)
Atlantic Hockey: 13-43-6 (.258)

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. If the season ended today, Denver (2nd in the Pairwise rankings), St. Cloud State (3rd), Duluth (4th), and Western Michigan (9th) would make the national tourney, with North Dakota (23rd) and Miami (26th) on the outside looking in.

According to KRACH, Omaha has played the fourth-toughest schedule in the country this season; North Dakota’s slate of games ranks as the thirteenth-most difficult out of sixty men’s Division I hockey programs.

This weekend marks the second of eight consecutive conference opponents to finish out the regular season, and the schedule sets up favorably for North Dakota, with two of its three most difficult matchups on home ice. UND also has the benefit of playing nearly half of its remaining games against the bottom two teams in the league (Colorado College and Omaha). Here are the remaining series for the Fighting Hawks:

Home: St. Cloud State, Minnesota Duluth, Omaha
Road: Omaha, Denver, Western Michigan, Colorado College

Note: North Dakota will not face NCHC foe Miami in the second half of the season.

Last weekend’s home sweep against Colorado College (4-3 OT, 3-2 OT) vaulted UND into fifth place in the NCHC, one point behind fourth-place Duluth and three points behind third-place Denver. At 5-5-0-0 (15 points) in league play, North Dakota will likely need seven or eight wins over the last fourteen conference games to secure home ice for the first round of the NCHC playoffs. Over the first five seasons, the fourth-place finisher (final home ice spot) has averaged roughly 36 points (11-11-2-1).

According to Jim Dahl of collegehockeyranked.com, UND will likely need to win ten of those fourteen conference games to end the regular season between 8th and 12th in the Pairwise (>90% chance of landing in this range). A 10-4 record may seem unlikely, but sweeps at Omaha, at Colorado College, and vs. Omaha plus splits vs. St. Cloud State, at Denver, at Western Michigan, and vs. Duluth would do the trick.

Omaha Team Profile

Head Coach: Mike Gabinet (2nd season at UNO, 23-29-3, .445)

Pairwise Ranking: 40th of 60 teams
National Rankings: NR/NR

This Season: 6-12-2 (.350) overall, 2-7-1-1 NCHC (7th)
Last Season: 17-17-2 (.500) overall (missed NCAA tournament), 10-13-1-0 NCHC (t-5th)

Team Offense: 2.70 goals scored/game – 36th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 3.75 goals allowed/game – 58th of 60 teams
Power Play: 24.5% (23 of 94) – 8th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 78.9% (71 of 90) – 38th of 60 teams

Key Players: Senior F Mason Morelli (13-9-22), Senior F Fredrik Olofsson (7-14-21), Junior F Zach Jordan (6-12-18), Freshman F Taylor Ward, Junior D Dean Stewart (4-11-15), Junior D Ryan Jones (0-5-5), Senior G Evan Weninger (6-11-2, 3.42 GAA, .900 SV%, 3 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (4th season at UND, 83-44-18, .634)

Pairwise Ranking: 23rd of 60 teams
National Rankings: #20/#18

This Season: 11-9-1 (.548) overall, 5-5-0-0 NCHC (5th)
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: 2.52 goals scored/game – 45th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.48 goals allowed/game – 20th of 60 teams
Power Play: 16.1% (14 of 87) – 40th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 79.7% (63 of 79) – 34th of 60 teams

Key Players: Senior F Rhett Gardner (8-1-9), Sophomore F Jordan Kawaguchi (5-11-16), Senior F Nick Jones (3-10-13 in fourteen games), Junior F Cole Smith (2-6-8), Junior D Colton Poolman (4-5-9), Freshman D Jacob Bernard-Docker (4-9-13), D Gabe Bast (2-5-7), Sophomore D Matt Kiersted (4-6-10) Freshman G Adam Scheel (10-6-1, 1.97 GAA, .907 SV%, 1 SO)

By The Numbers:

Last meeting: March 10, 2018 (Grand Forks, ND). In the second and decisive game of the NCHC quarterfinal series between North Dakota and Omaha, Fighting Hawks’ forward Nick Jones scored the game-tying goal at 10:45 of the third period and the game-winner 53 seconds into overtime to propel the Green and White to their sixteenth-consecutive Twin Cities tournament weekend (WCHA Final Five/NCHC Frozen Faceoff). UND won Friday’s opener 4-0 on the strength of three second-period goals (by Christian Wolanin, Jones, and Joel Janatuinen).

Last meeting in Omaha: February 17, 2018. 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.

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 19-10-1 (.650), including a sparkling 10-4-0 record in games played in Omaha (5-1-0 at Baxter Arena). 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. Since joining the WCHA in 2011 (and later the NCHC), the Mavs have never reached the Twin Cities for the second weekend of the conference tournament despite having home ice in three of those eight years. The Mavs are 6-6-1 after an 0-6-1 start to the season. Fighting Hawks’ junior defenseman (and captain) Colton Poolman has two goals and eleven points in ten career games against Omaha.

Media Coverage

Both games this weekend can be seen live on Midco Sports Network, with a high definition webcast of the series also available to NCHC.tv subscribers. All UND men’s hockey games (home and away) can be heard on stations across the UND Sports Network (as well as through the iHeart Radio app). The flagship station for the network is 96.1 FM (The Fox). Follow @UNDMHockey for real-time Twitter updates, or follow the action via live chat at UNDsports.com.

The Prediction

If the faceoff percentages and fancy stats (Corsi, Fenwick) are any indication, North Dakota will have the puck most of this weekend. The results of this series will rest on the goaltending efforts of Omaha’s Evan Weninger. In six victories, he has allowed nine total goals (1.50 goals allowed/game); in eleven losses, he has given up 45 (4.09 goals allowed/game). The first team to three goals will win each contest, and it will be North Dakota on back-to-back nights. UND 4-3, 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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