NCHC Playoff Preview: North Dakota at Denver

It’s quite simple, really:

Win two games this weekend to continue playing.
Lose two games this weekend and it’s all over.

North Dakota finds itself in an unfamiliar position, heading on the road for the opening round of the league playoffs for the first time since March 2002. That season, the Fighting Sioux played at eventual national champion Minnesota in the opening round of the WCHA playoffs, taking the Gophers to overtime on Saturday night (losing 4-3) after getting destroyed 7-2 in Friday’s opener.

This time around, UND finds themselves in a matchup against the Denver Pioneers. The Fighting Hawks experienced some weather-related issues and delays on their way to Denver, but they managed to practice at Cadet Ice Arena (Colorado Springs, CO), the home rink of the Air Force Falcons.

As has been well-documented, the last three national champions hail from the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and fifth-place North Dakota (2016 champions) travels to fourth-place Denver (2017) this weekend for a best-of-three playoff series, with both looking up in the final regular-season standings at second-place Duluth (winners of the 2018 NCAA title) as well as Penrose Cup champion St. Cloud State and third-place 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 24 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.

After suffering an injury during a January 4th contest at Wisconsin, DU sophomore goaltender Devin Cooley (10-6-2, 1.89 goals-against average, .933 save percentage, four shutouts) was out of the lineup for five weekends before returning to the crease and pitching a shutout at Duluth on February 16th. Since that time, Cooley and freshman Filip Larsson (9-4-3, 2.29 GAA, .919 SV%, 1 SO) have basically split time between the pipes, Larsson, a sixth-round pick (#167 overall) of the Detroit Red Wings in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, has fared very well against UND this season, earning two victories and a tie while allowing only one goal in each game (0.95 GAA, .973 SV%).

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 90-50-19 (.626) and will be unable to continue that impressive streak, as only eight possible victories remain on the schedule.

After getting swept at Canisius back in January, 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.

Had one of those Canisius losses turned into a victory, UND (currently 18th in the Pairwise) would now be sitting at 14th. With a sweep over the Golden Griffins, North Dakota would be 8th. While it is true that a team’s overall record is indicative of their season-long identity, that particular weekend stands out for Fighting Hawks fans, as the Green and White outshot Canisius 82-30 over the course of two games but were outscored 5-2 in the series.

Looking ahead, UND would likely end up at 13th in the Pairwise with a sweep over Denver and 15th with two victories and a loss. Those precarious Pairwise positions would be mitigated somewhat by the fact that North Dakota would still have two games remaining on its schedule (at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff) to improve on those rankings.

A playoff series loss at Magness Arena this weekend would mark the end of the 2018-19 season for North Dakota, as they would likely drop to 21st with two losses and remain at 18th with a victory and two losses.

If the season ended today, St. Cloud State (1st in the Pairwise rankings), Duluth (4th), and Denver (7th) would be safely in the NCAA tournament, with Western Michigan (13th) on the bubble and North Dakota (18th), Colorado College (24th), Miami (38th), and Omaha (46th) even further back.

It is very likely that the DU/UND series will go to a decisive third game on Sunday, as Denver will be looking to end North Dakota’s season, and that will bring out the best in both teams. Over UND’s incredible run of home ice for the first round of the league tournament, they fared extremely well in Friday openers, with Saturday’s games invariably more tightly contested.

Here are the complete results for UND’s 38 consecutive home conference playoff games:

Year Opponent Game One Game Two Game Three
2018 Omaha 4-0 4-3 (OT)
2017 St. Cloud State 5-2 6-5 (OT)
2016 Colorado College 7-1 5-1
2015 Colorado College 5-1 3-2
2014 Colorado College 4-2 2-3 (OT) 4-3
2013 Michigan Tech 5-3 1-2 6-0
2012 Bemidji State 4-1 4-3
2011 Michigan Tech 8-0 3-1
2010 Minnesota 6-0 2-4 4-1
2009 Michigan Tech 5-1 4-3
2008 Michigan Tech 4-0 2-3 (OT) 2-1
2007 Mankato State 5-2 2-1
2006 Mankato State 2-3 (OT) 4-1 3-0
2005 Minnesota-Duluth 8-2 6-1
2004 Michigan Tech 6-2 4-3 (OT)
2003 Denver 1-4 3-2 (OT) 3-2 (OT)

On the injury front, North Dakota sophomore goaltender Peter Thome (upper body injury) has played well over the past three weekends in place of freshman netminder Adam Scheel, who suffered a lower body injury four weeks ago at Western Michigan. The timeline for Scheel’s return is officially listed as week to week, although he has been ruled out for this weekend’s action.

Thome (4-2-0, 2.02 goals-against average, .915 save percentage over his last six games) helped UND earn splits vs. Duluth and at Colorado College and a home sweep last weekend against Omaha. The sophomore from Minneapolis, Minnesota gave up exactly one goal in three of those six starts.

Forward Joel Janatuinen is also out this weekend (undisclosed), but North Dakota fans got some good news a week ago when forwards Nick Jones and Grant Mismash both returned to the lineup. Mismash, once feared gone for the season, is not fully healed but expects a larger role against the Pioneers. Junior defenseman Colton Poolman (undisclosed injury) has played the past eight games for UND after missing the Denver series back in February, the only two contests he has missed in his 113-game collegiate career.

North Dakota has been best in first periods this season, outscoring opponents 36-21 and outshooting teams by a collective margin of 372-253. When scoring first during the 2018-19 campaign, the Fighting Hawks are 11-4-2. In 35 games, UND has put 1113 shots on goal (31.8/game) while allowing just 816 (23.3/game).

Denver has shined in the third period this year, outscoring opponents 35-22 and outshooting teams by a collective margin of 334-304. When scoring first, the Pioneers are 13-5-2. In 34 games, DU has put 1015 shots on goal (29.9/game) while allowing 969 (28.5/game).

Currently, UND leads the nation in faceoff efficiency (57.0 percent); DU is 18th at 51.9 percent. North Dakota is 2nd in the country in puck possession stats, outpacing Denver in both Corsi (58.3 to 52.3 percent) and Fenwick (58.4 to 51.1 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.

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

Denver Team Profile

Head Coach: David Carle (Denver ’12, 1st season at DU, 19-10-5, .632)

Pairwise Ranking: 7th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #8/#7

This Season: 19-10-5 (.632) overall, 11-1-3-3 NCHC (4th)
Last Season: 23-10-8 overall (NCAA Midwest Regional Finalist), 12-6-6-4 NCHC (2nd)

2018-19 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 2.79 goals scored/game – 29th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.15 goals allowed/game – 10th of 60 teams
Power Play: 15.7% (22 of 140) – 44th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 81.1% (103 of 127) – 33rd of 60 teams

Key Players: Senior F Jarid Lukosevicius (16-9-25), Freshman F Emilio Pettersen (6-20-26), Junior F Liam Finlay (13-19-32), Freshman F Cole Guttman (11-10-21), Sophomore D Ian Mitchell (4-17-21), Junior D Michael Davies (4-8-12), Sophomore G Devin Cooley (10-6-2, 1.89 GAA, .933 SV%, 4 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (4th season at UND, 90-50-19, .626)

Pairwise Ranking: 18th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #19/NR

This Season: 18-15-2 (.543) overall, 12-11-1-0 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: 2.60 goals scored/game – 37th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.40 goals allowed/game – 16th of 60 teams
Power Play: 14.9% (21 of 141) – 50th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 79.6% (109 of 137) – 36th of 60 teams

Key Players: Sophomore F Jordan Kawaguchi (10-16-26), Senior F Nick Jones (7-11-18), Senior F Rhett Gardner (8-7-15), Junior F Cole Smith (5-11-16), Freshman F Mark Senden (6-8-14), Freshman D Jacob Bernard-Docker (5-11-16), Sophomore D Matt Kiersted (7-11-18), Junior D Colton Poolman (5-12-17), Sophomore G Peter Thome (5-5-0, 2.74 GAA, .884 SV%)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: February 2, 2019 (Denver, CO). DU’s Brett Stapley scored with just eighteen seconds remaining in the 3-on-3 overtime session to earn the extra conference point for the Pios. That point ended up being the difference in the standings between the schools, as Denver (11-10-3-3 in league play) finished in fourth place with 39 points, two ahead of fifth-place North Dakota (12-11-1-0; 37). In Friday’s opener, UND peppered Filip Larsson with nineteen shots on goal in the opening period (46 for the game) but lost 2-1 to the homestanding Pioneers.

Last Playoff Meeting: March 17, 2017 (Minneapolis, MN). North Dakota got an early third-period goal from junior forward Austin Poganski and made the lead hold up thanks to 21 saves by Cam Johnson. The 1-0 victory in the NCHC semifinals assured UND a berth in its fifteenth consecutive NCAA tournament (the longest active streak in Division I men’s ice hockey). The teams combined to go 0-for-7 with the man advantage. Denver had won thirteen games in a row coming into the contest.

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 three victories and three ties over the past ten games, with Denver outscoring North Dakota 21-20 over that stretch. Four of the last six meetings have gone into overtime.

All-time Series: UND leads the all-time series, 146-126-15 (.535), although Denver enjoys a 74-54-4 (.576) 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. Four current active UND players have multiple career goals against the Pios (Matt Kiersted, Colton Poolman, Hayden Shaw, and Cole Smith, with two each). Denver and North Dakota have been in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff every year since its inception (2014-2018), but of course only one of them can advance this season and become the only program to play in all six tourneys in league history. UND has advanced past the first round sixteen straight times, while Denver last missed the WCHA Final Five semifinals in 2013, the Pios’ final season in that conference. 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

All games of this weekend’s series (8:08 p.m. Central Time on Friday and Saturday; 7:08 p.m. Central Time on Sunday if necessary) will be available through Midco Sports Network, which is picking up the feed from Denver’s broadcast. A high-definition webcast of the games will also be available to 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

The Prediction

North Dakota does not want to get into a track meet with the Pios. UND definitely has a chance at taking this best-of-three series, 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 will head to St. Paul for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff. North Dakota has been at their best when the chips are down, and I see that trend continuing this weekend, with plenty of Green and White in the stands at Magness Arena to cheer them on this weekend and even more making the annual trek to the Twin Cities one week from today. UND 2-1, DU 3-2 (OT), 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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