Weekend Preview: North Dakota vs. St. Cloud State

St. Cloud State entered the 2019 NCAA tournament as the #1 overall seed and with an overall record of 30-5-3. The Huskies quickly ran into a buzzkill – literally – as the swarming Yellow Jackets of #19 American International shocked the college hockey world and dispatched SCSU by a final score of 2-1. That defeat would be just the sixth loss for Brett Larson’s crew in his first season behind the St. Cloud State bench.

Fast forward eight months, and the Huskies have already suffered four defeats this season (2-4-4).

SCSU suffered key graduation losses (forwards Patrick Newell, Robby Jackson, and Jacob Benson; defensemen Jimmy Schuldt and Jon Lizotte) along with two forwards who left early for the pro ranks (Blake Lizotte and Ryan Poehling). Those seven players accounted for 77 goals and 201 points last season, and the Huskies lost five of their top six scorers during the offseason. Remarkably, St. Cloud State still returned 79 goals and 228 points from last year’s roster, so the cupboard is definitely not bare.

Defenseman Jack Ahcan (6-28-34) is the top returning scorer for Brett Larson’s squad, and he has contributed two goals and eight points through his first ten games. The forward duo of sophomore Sam Hentges (6-10-16) and junior Easton Brodzinski (5-6-11) have led the charge up front for SCSU. Hentges amassed a scoring line of 10-10-20 during his freshman campaign, while Brodzinski went for 14-10-24 as a freshman and 16-13-29 last season.

The Huskies have not been good defensively this season, ranking in the bottom ten in the country in goals allowed per game (3.70) and penalty kill success (67.6 percent). The shorthanded statistic is abysmal, and that starts with goaltending. Junior David Hrenak has not come into form yet this season after two stellar campaigns between the pipes:

2017-2018: 13-7-2, 2.03 goals-against average, .922 save percentage, three shutouts
2018-2019: 23-5-2, 2.18 goals-against average, .906 save percentage, four shutouts
2019-2020: 2-4-4, 3.39 goals-against average, .876 save percentage, zero shutouts

Hrenak’s only two victories this season have come against Northeastern (17 saves, one goal allowed) and at Northern Michigan (18 saves, four goals allowed). In his other eight games, he has allowed 4, 2, 3, 5, 5, 3, 3, and 3 goals.

It’s been up and down for the Huskies in the first six seasons of the NCHC, but things are definitely trending in the right direction for the Cardinal and Black. After winning the Penrose Cup in the inaugural season of the new league (2013-14) with an overall record of 22-11-5 (.645), St. Cloud State made the NCAA tournament again in 2014-15 with a relatively pedestrian mark of 20-19-1 (.512). At the end of that season, SCSU had the unfortunate circumstance of facing and falling to North Dakota in the West Regional final (Fargo, ND), a virtual home game for the Green and White.

SCSU captured the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship and another NCAA tourney bid in 2015-16 with a sparkling record of 31-9-1 (.768) but unfortunately suffered an overtime loss in the opening round of the national tournament. St. Cloud State, the top seed in the NCAA West Regional (Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, MN), rallied to tie #18 Ferris State in the third period, but the Bulldogs scored just 18 seconds into the extra session to knock off the Huskies (who were ranked #2 in the country heading into the NCAAs) by a final of 5-4.

North Dakota ended St. Cloud State’s 2016-17 campaign with a home sweep in the first round of the NCHC playoffs. UND cruised 5-2 in the opener before besting the Huskies in a 6-5 overtime thriller. As I have said before, we have come to expect close matchups in NCHC playoff games played on Saturdays (and often Sundays), as the visiting team is almost always playing to extend their season.

The 2017-2018 campaign brought more playoff agony for the Huskies, as head coach Bob Motzko brought the NCHC regular-season champions (24-9-6) into the NCAA West Regional (Sioux Falls, SD) to face Air Force (22-14-5) in the opening round. Blake Lizotte got St. Cloud State within one with 2:51 remaining in the contest, but two empty-net goals sealed the deal for the Falcons, who got 39 saves from netminder Billy Christopoulos. It was only the second time since the tournament expanded to sixteen teams that the top overall seed lost their first game.

And unfortunately for St. Cloud State, they duplicated that feat in the 2019 NCAA tournament by dropping their opening game to #19 American International as the #1 overall seed, bringing an abrupt end to a fantastic season. Head coach Brett Larson compiled a sparkling record of 30-6-3 in his first campaign.

Both North Dakota and St. Cloud State posted historically good records in 2015-16. Thirty-win seasons are extremely rare in today’s college hockey landscape, with more parity and more ties taking away the opportunity to rack up victories. Since I started traveling to St. Cloud for the UND/SCSU games back in 1998, the Fighting Sioux/Hawks and the Huskies have both reached the 30-victory plateau on multiple occasions. Remarkably, St. Cloud State posted identical marks of 31-9-1 (.768) in milestone seasons (2001 and 2016).

1997-98 North Dakota (30-8-1)
1998-99 North Dakota (32-6-2)
1999-00 North Dakota (31-8-5)
2000-01 St. Cloud State (31-9-1)
2003-04 North Dakota (30-8-3)
2010-11 North Dakota (32-9-3)
2015-16 North Dakota (34-6-4)
2015-16 St. Cloud State (31-9-1)
2018-19 St. Cloud State (30-6-3)

For more on the rarity and importance of a thirty-win season, follow this link.

The last two seasons have been far from milestone campaigns for Brad Berry’s squad, as his teams sputtered to records of 17-13-10 (.550) and 18-17-2 (.514). To put that in perspective, those two teams combined for 35 victories over two seasons, just one more than the 2015-16 team collected in one season on their way to the program’s eighth national title. Prior to the 2017-2018 season, 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 twelve consecutive tourney bids (2008-2019).

Last season’s losses at Canisius College in early January were certainly instrumental in keeping North Dakota out of the national tournament, but other inter-conference losses and ties last year didn’t help, either. UND went just 6-4-1 in out-of-conference games in 2018-19 and missed the NCAAs for the second consecutive season after appearing in fifteen consecutive tourneys (2003-2017).

Here’s a look at the non-conference records under fifth-year head coach Brad Berry:

2015-2016: 9-1-2 (.833) ~ National Champions
2016-2017: 7-2-2 (.727) ~ NCAA West Regional Semifinalist
2017-2018: 6-2-4 (.677) ~ missed NCAA tournament
2018-2019: 6-4-1 (.591) ~ missed NCAA tournament
2019-2020: 5-1-1 (.786)

UND’s other non-conference opponents during the 2019-20 campaign will be at unranked Minnesota (November 28th and 29th, 2019) and at home vs. unranked Alabama Huntsville (January 3rd and 4th, 2020).

For UND, the goal is simple: return to national prominence after a two-year absence from the national tournament. There is reason for optimism in Grand Forks, with an experienced d-corps, plenty of returning grit and skill, and a crop of freshmen with a tremendous amount of upside. So far this season, several returning players have seen a noticeable uptick in their production and in their overall play on the ice, most notably junior forward Collin Adams (4-5-9), senior forward Cole Smith (4-2-6), senior forward Dixon Bowen (4-1-5), and junior defenseman Matt Kiersted (1-7-8). Those four players have combined for 28 points in 44 games played (0.64 points/game) after amassing 95 points in 324 games played (0.29 points/game) prior to this year.

It is abundantly clear that North Dakota will have the puck a lot this season, and the numbers bear that out. Through eleven games, the Fighting Hawks lead the nation in shots on goal allowed/game (20.5) and are second only to Massachusetts in two key puck possession statistics:

Corsi (% of shots taken vs. opponent): 59.5%
Fenwick (% of unblocked shots taken vs. opponent): 60.3%

By comparison, St. Cloud State is 21st in both puck possession categories (Corsi 51.3%; Fenwick 53.5%) and is averaging 28.6 shots on goal per game (North Dakota is averaging 30.5/game).

Last season, UND trailed only national champion Duluth in both puck possession categories across all Division I teams but could not finish enough of their chances. This year, fans of the Green and White should have already noticed that more shots are going in the net. North Dakota is scoring on an astounding 13.1 percent of their shots on goal, good for fourth-best in the country and second-best among teams which have played more than six games. Last season, UND lit the lamp on only 7.8 percent of their shots on goal (52nd in the nation). St. Cloud State’s shooting percentage this season weighs in at 10.1 percent (27th in the country).

And here’s another way to highlight North Dakota’s scoring prowess: UND has scored five goals or more in four of its eleven games this season; in 2018-19, the Fighting Hawks had five such games all year.

One key area to watch this weekend is the face-off circle. The Fighting Hawks have improved on draws over the past three weekends and are now sitting at 53.0 percent on the season (9th) after leading the nation at 57.1 percent a year ago. St. Cloud State has won 48.7 percent of its faceoffs through ten games (40th in the country).

After sputtering on the power play to open the season with just two power play goals on their first 25 attempts (8.0 percent), UND has scored five power play goals over its past four games (5 for 17, 29.4 percent) and now faces a dreadful St. Cloud State penalty kill that has already allowed 11 power play goals (23 of 34, 67.6 percent).

Since allowing their first power play goal of the season on October 25th against Bemidji State, UND has killed 23 of 24 penalties (95.8%) and now sits at 94.9 percent (37 of 39) for the season, the second-best penalty kill unit in men’s Division I hockey this season.

While St. Cloud State is hoping that netminder David Hrenak can improve on his shaky start, North Dakota has its clear-cut #1 netminder in Adam Scheel (8-1-2, 1.53 goals-against average, .924 save percentage). The sophomore from Lakewood, Ohio has been equal parts steady and brilliant this season for the Fighting Hawks after struggling with injuries during his rookie campaign. In his eleven starts this season, Scheel has one shutout and seven games in which he allowed a single goal, including both games last weekend at Denver (30 saves in Friday’s tie and 27 saves in Saturday’s victory).

North Dakota is 4th in the country in scoring offense (4.00 goals scored/game) and 3rd in the country in scoring defense (1.55 goals allowed/game), and that leads to the country’s best goal differential (+27). Through the first eleven games of the season, the Fighting Hawks are outscoring opponents 44-17.

St. Cloud State Team Profile

Head Coach: Brett Larson (2nd season at SCSU, 32-10-7, .724)

National Rankings: NR/NR
This Season: 2-4-4 overall, 0-2-0-0 NCHC (8th)
Last Season: 30-6-3 overall (NCAA West Regional Semifinalist), 19-2-3-2 NCHC (1st)

2019-2020 Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 2.90 goals scored/game – 25th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 3.70 goals allowed/game – 51st of 60 teams
Power Play: 22.5% (9 of 40) – 16th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 67.6% (23 of 34) – 51st of 60 teams

Key Players: Sophomore F Sam Hentges (6-10-16), Junior F Easton Brodzinski (5-6-11), Senior F Jack Poehling (2-4-6), Senior F Nick Poehling (2-2-4), Freshman F Chase Brand (2-2-4), Freshman F Jami Krannila (1-3-4), Senior D Jack Ahcan (2-6-8), Sophomore D Nick Perbix (2-3-5), Sophomore D Spencer Meier (2-2-4), Junior G David Hrenak (2-4-4, 3.39 GAA, .876 SV%)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (North Dakota ’02, 5th season at UND; 98-53-21, .631)

National Rankings: #5/#6
This Season: 8-1-2 overall, 3-0-1-1 NCHC (1st)
Last Season: 18-17-2 overall (missed NCAA tournament), 12-11-1-0 NCHC (5th)

2019-2020 Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 4.00 goals scored/game – 4th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 1.55 goals allowed/game – 3rd of 60 teams
Power Play: 16.7% (7 of 42) – 36th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 94.9% (37 of 39) – 2nd of 60 teams

Key Players: Junior F Jordan Kawaguchi (3-11-14), Senior F Westin Michaud (6-3-9), Junior F Collin Adams (4-5-9), Freshman F Harrison Blaisdell (2-5-7), Freshman F Shane Pinto (2-4-6), Senior F Dixon Bowen (4-1-5), Junior F Grant Mismash (2-3-5), Sophomore D Jacob Bernard-Docker (1-8-9), Senior D Colton Poolman (1-6-7), Junior D Matt Kiersted (1-7-8), Sophomore D Jonny Tychonick (3-2-5), Sophomore G Adam Scheel (8-1-2, 1.53 GAA, .924 SV%, 1 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: January 26, 2018 (Grand Forks, ND). North Dakota forwards Gavin Hain and Dixon Bowen each scored two goals in a 5-1 victory over the #1-ranked Huskies. SCSU’s lone goal was a shorthanded tally by Jimmy Schuldt in the second period. The game turned rough in the third period, with 42 minutes of penalties called (including 24 in the final minute of play). With the victory, UND earned a split of the weekend series, one of nine splits last season.

Most Important Meeting: NCAA West Regional Final in Fargo, ND (March 28, 2015). North Dakota scored three unassisted goals over the final two periods of the hockey game to defeat St. Cloud State 4-1 in the West Regional Final and advance to the NCAA Frozen Four. Jimmy Murray got the Huskies on the board less than 90 seconds in to the hockey game, but that did nothing to quiet the partisan crowd of 5,307 at SCHEELS Arena. Four different players scored for UND, while Zane McIntyre made 19 stops to earn his 29th and final victory of the season.

All-Time Series: North Dakota leads the all-time series, 72-44-14 (.608), including a 36-19-7 (.637) record in games played in Grand Forks. Aside from their 2015 and 2018 NCHC Frozen Faceoff semifinal victories, the Huskies also defeated North Dakota in the 2001 WCHA Final Five championship game. The teams have been squaring off regularly since the 1989-90 season, but have only met once in the NCAA tournament (2015).

Last Ten: The two teams have each won four of the last ten games, with the other two ending in ties. North Dakota has outscored the Huskies 29-26 over that stretch of games. Six of the last ten meetings have gone to overtime.

Game News and Notes

St. Cloud State has won the regular season league title four times over the past seven seasons (WCHA 2012-13; NCHC 2013-14, 2017-18, & 2018-19). Last weekend, North Dakota took five of six league points at #2 Denver, while St. Cloud State was swept on home ice by Colorado College. UND is perfect on home ice this season (7-0-0). SCSU has made the national tournament 13 times in the past twenty seasons, with one Frozen Four appearance (2013). With a sweep this weekend, UND’s Brad Berry would earn his 99th and 100th career head coaching victories.

Broadcast Information

This weekend’s action will be broadcast live on Midco Sports Network, with both games also available online at NCHC.tv. All UND men’s hockey games, home and away, can be heard on stations across the UND Sports Home of Economy Radio Network as well as through the iHeart Radio app.

Social Media

Keep up with the action live during all UND hockey games by following @UNDmhockey and @UNDInsider on Twitter. Fans can also read the action via Brad Schlossman’s live chat on the Grand Forks Herald website.

On A Personal Note

Due to a scheduling conflict, SiouxSport.com is unable to host a UND/SCSU pre-game event this weekend. We plan to resume this event next season and for many years to come. Here’s to hockey!

On A Personal Note 2.0

I have participated in Movember for the past seven years and have proudly raised over $13,000 to help change the face of men’s health. Will you join me and support the cause? Please visit my Movember fundraising page to learn more and to donate. Thank you!

The Prediction

Let’s get this out of the way first: North Dakota has proven itself to be the better, more complete team to this point of the season. However, St. Cloud State is leaving home with a sour taste after being swept out of their own rink last weekend, and for a struggling squad, a road weekend against a bitter conference opponent may be just what the doctor ordered. Regular season sweeps have been hard to come by in this rivalry, with the Fighting Hawks most recently turning this trick nearly three years ago in St. Cloud. One of these games will be close, but I like what I see with this year’s version of the Green and White. UND 4-1, 5-3.

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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