Weekend Preview: North Dakota at Denver

As has been well-documented, the last three national champions hail from the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and North Dakota (2016 champions) travels to Denver (2017) this weekend, with both looking up in the standings at Duluth (winners of the 2018 NCAA title) as well as St. Cloud State and Western Michigan, two other conference opponents with lofty postseason aspirations.

In the NCHC, it is clear that Denver/North Dakota is at the top of the league rivalries. The teams have played 22 times during the first six 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 the 2017 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 looks 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), the youngest in Division I men’s college hockey. 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, the Pioneers had only lost four games all season, with three of those losses coming by a single goal (a pair of 4-3 defeats at St. Cloud State and a 4-3 overtime loss at home the following weekend against Duluth). North Dakota defeated Denver by a final score of 4-1 at Ralph Engelstad Arena nearly two months ago.

And then Denver traveled to Kalamazoo, Michigan to take on red-hot Western Michigan, and the Broncos throttled their guests 3-1 and 5-1. So far this season, the Pioneers have fared much better at home (8-1-3) than on the road (6-5-0). Similarly, North Dakota is 9-5-1 at home this season and just 4-6-0 on the road (including the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game in Las Vegas, Nevada).

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.

Last season was far from a milestone campaign for Brad Berry’s squad, as the group sputtered to a record of 17-13-10 (.550) and missed the NCAAs for the first time since the 2001-02 team finished at 16-19-2 (.459). Prior to last year, North Dakota had made fifteen consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, the second-longest streak of all time (Michigan appeared in 22 straight NCAA tourneys from 1991 to 2012). Denver now boasts the nation’s longest active streak with eleven consecutive tourney bids (2008-2018).

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 85-46-18 (.631) and would need fifteen more victories in the final nineteen games remaining on the schedule (at most) to continue that impressive streak.

Currently, UND leads the nation in faceoff efficiency (58.3 percent); Denver is 25th at 51.2 percent. North Dakota also outpaces Denver in both Corsi (58.9 to 52.4 percent) and Fenwick (58.6 to 51.7 percent). Corsi measures the percentage of shot attempts by a team compared to that of its opponents; Fenwick measures the percentage of unblocked shot attempts by a team compared to that of its opponents.

After getting swept at Canisius last month, 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: 51-43-8 (.539)
ECAC: 42-45-6 (.484)
WCHA: 22-38-5 (.377)
Atlantic Hockey: 14-44-6 (.266)

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, St. Cloud State (1st in the Pairwise rankings), Duluth (3rd), Denver (6th), and Western Michigan (8th) would make the national tourney, with North Dakota (20th) on the outside looking in and Colorado College (31st), Miami (35th), and Omaha (44th) even further back.

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

This weekend marks the fourth of eight consecutive conference opponents to finish out the regular season, and the remaining schedule is fairly daunting for North Dakota. Here are the remaining series for the Fighting Hawks:

February 1-2: at #7 Denver
February 8-9: Off
February 15-16: at #8 Western Michigan
February 22-23: vs. #3 Minnesota Duluth
March 1-2: at Colorado College
March 8-9: vs. Nebraska-Omaha

Note: North Dakota split at Omaha and vs. St. Cloud State last month and will not face NCHC foe Miami in the second half of the season.

Last weekend’s home split vs. St. Cloud State (1-3 L, 5-1 W) technically moved North Dakota into fourth place in the NCHC, one point ahead of Denver. However, the Pioneers have a game in hand due to a contest at Colorado College that was rescheduled for Tuesday, February 26th due to the weather. At 7-7-0-0 (21 points) in league play, North Dakota will likely need five more victories over its final ten conference games to secure home ice for the first round of the NCHC playoffs. Over the first five seasons of the league, 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 would need to win eight of those ten conference games to end the regular season between 6th and 14th in the Pairwise (100% chance of landing in this range). With six victories in the final ten scheduled games, North Dakota would have a 37.8% chance of heading into the first round of the conference playoffs at 14th or better in the Pairwise.

An 8-2 record will be tough to come by, given UND’s remaining opponents. To find eight victories, North Dakota would need to sweep at Colorado College and vs. Omaha plus one more series (at Denver, at Western Michigan, or vs. Duluth) and then split the other two weekends.

On the injury front, North Dakota junior defenseman Colton Poolman (4-7-11, plus-7) is out of the lineup this weekend (undisclosed injury) and did not travel with the team to Denver. Poolman, the Fighting Hawks’ leading active scorer against the Pioneers (2-3-5 in nine UND/DU contests), will miss the first game of his collegiate career (13-39-52 in 105 consecutive games played). Forwards Joel Janatuinen and Grant Mismash and goaltender Peter Thome are also out this weekend.

For Denver, sophomore goaltender Devin Cooley (8-4-1, 2.08 GAA, .929 SV%, 2 SO) was injured during a January 4th contest at Wisconsin and hasn’t played since. In his absence, freshman Filip Larsson (6-2-2, 2.59 GAA, .907 SV%, 1 SO) has started the past six games. Larsson was a sixth-round pick (#167 overall) of the Detroit Red Wings in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.

Denver Team Profile

Head Coach: David Carle (Denver ’12, 1st season at DU, 14-6-3, .674)

Pairwise Ranking: 6th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #7/#7

This Season: 14-6-3 (.674) overall, 6-6-1-1 NCHC (5th)
Last Season: 23-10-8 overall (NCAA Midwest Regional Finalist), 12-6-6-4 NCHC (2nd)

2018-19 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 3.22 goals scored/game – 11th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.35 goals allowed/game – 13th of 60 teams
Power Play: 17.6% (19 of 108) – 34th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 78.7% (74 of 94) – 41st of 60 teams

Key Players: Senior F Jarid Lukosevicius (13-8-21), Freshman F Emilio Pettersen (6-16-22), Junior F Liam Finlay (11-14-25), Freshman F Cole Guttman (10-8-18), Sophomore D Ian Mitchell (3-12-15), Junior D Michael Davies (3-8-11), Freshman G Filip Larsson (6-2-2, 2.59 GAA, .907 SV%, 1 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (4th season at UND, 85-46-18, .631)

Pairwise Ranking: 20th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #21/NR

This Season: 13-11-1 (.540) overall, 7-7-0-0 NCHC (4th)
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: 2.64 goals scored/game – 37th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.52 goals allowed/game – 20th of 60 teams
Power Play: 16.0% (16 of 100) – 43rd of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 80.0% (76 of 95) – 37th of 60 teams

Key Players: Sophomore F Jordan Kawaguchi (6-12-18), Senior F Nick Jones (5-10-15 in eighteen games), Senior F Rhett Gardner (8-2-10), Junior F Cole Smith (2-7-9), Freshman D Jacob Bernard-Docker (4-10-14), Sophomore D Matt Kiersted (5-7-12), Sophomore D Gabe Bast (4-5-9), Freshman G Adam Scheel (12-8-1, 2.08 GAA, .905 SV%, 1 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: December 8, 2018 (Grand Forks, ND). North Dakota was 21 seconds away from earning a hard-fought tie against Denver, but Jarid Lukosevicius had other ideas. UND defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker had sent the game to overtime with a game-tying goal at 17:25 of the third period. In Friday’s opener, the Fighting Hawks built a 3-0 lead after forty minutes of play and defeated the Pios 4-1 despite being outshot 22-15. North Dakota blueliner Colton Poolman had one goal and two assists in the weekend series.

Last Meeting in Denver: November 18, 2017. 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 (UND enjoyed just 33 seconds of power play time on the night).

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: UND has four victories and three ties over the past ten games, outscoring Denver 23-21 over that stretch. Four of the last ten meetings have gone into overtime.

All-time Series: UND leads the all-time series, 146-125-14 (.537), although Denver enjoys a 73-54-3 (.573) advantage in games played at altitude. The teams first met in 1950, with North Dakota prevailing 18-3 in Denver.

Game News and Notes

North Dakota has not swept in Denver since 2003. Only two current active UND players have multiple career goals against the Pios (Matt Kiersted and Cole Smith, with two each). 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 game will be broadcast on Altitude 2 and available online in Canada on TSN.ca and the TSN app. A high-definition webcast of both games 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 their off-week 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 visitors in the opener, with the Fighting Hawks righting the ship to earn a close victory in the rematch. DU 4-2, 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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