Weekend Preview: UND vs. Alabama-Huntsville

Alabama-Hunstville was a Division II men’s hockey powerhouse from 1993 to 1998, amassing a record of 110-21-9 (.818) en route to two national championships and two other second-place finishes. The Chargers made the NCAA tournament twice in eleven seasons as a member of the CHA, but have struggled mightily over the past fourteen seasons, going 92-323-40 (.246) including a dreadful 47-169-21 (.243) mark as a member of the WCHA.

Eight years ago, the future of Division I hockey at Alabama-Huntsville appeared grim. After competing in college hockey’s top division from 1987-1992 and again from 1999-2010 as a member of the now-defunct CHA, the D-I Independent Chargers received news that they would be dropped down to a club program.

During this time of uncertainty, sophomore netminder Clarke Saunders decided to transfer to UND. Because the Chargers’ program appeared to be going under, Saunders was eligible to play at North Dakota right away rather than having to sit out a year (typically required by the NCAA).

According to Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy, “community support and grassroots efforts… paid off after a December 2011 meeting between the Save UAH Hockey group and the school’s new president.” (Read the full story from Greg Wyshynski here.)

After a solid eleven-year run in the CHA (158-172-34 [.481], two regular season titles, two league playoff titles, and two NCAA tournament appearances), Alabama-Huntsville has struggled to find its footing in the WCHA (no titles or NCAA tourney bids). Head coach Mike Corbett’s best year behind the UAH bench was in 2017-18, when he led the Chargers to an overall record of 12-23-2. Since joining the WCHA in 2013, Corbett’s squad has suffered twenty or more losses each season, and this year’s group (1-14-3) is well on its way to that dubious distinction yet again.

And there is more troubling news on the horizon for the Chargers. Seven WCHA schools are planning to form a new conference beginning with the 2021-22 season, shrinking the geographical footprint down to just three states – Minnesota (Bemidji State and Minnesota State), Michigan (Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, and Northern Michigan), and Ohio (Bowling Green) – and leaving Alaska (Fairbanks), Alaska Anchorage, and Alabama-Huntsville behind. UAH has since submitted a letter of withdrawal to the WCHA and plans to leave the league after the 2020-21 season.

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 (34-6-4) 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). Many fans of the Green and White are looking at this weekend’s home series against Alabama-Huntsville as this year’s version of the Canisius games, hoping against hope that North Dakota doesn’t look past the Chargers and suffer a loss or two on home ice. The difference this season is that UND has put together such an impressive first half that an unexpected loss would not be as devastating as some might guess.

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: 7-1-1 (.833)

This weekend’s games will conclude UND’s non-conference schedule for the season; after this weekend, here are North Dakota’s remaining NCHC games in the race for the Penrose Cup:

January 10-11: vs. Nebraska-Omaha
January 17-18: at Miami
January 24-25: at #10 Minnesota-Duluth
Jan. 31-Feb. 1: vs. Colorado College
February 7-8: No games scheduled
February 14-15: vs. #7 Denver
February 21-22: at St. Cloud State
February 28-29: vs. #19 Western Michigan
March 6-7: at Nebraska Omaha

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 (5-8-13), senior forward Cole Smith (6-2-8), senior forward Dixon Bowen (6-1-7), and junior defenseman Matt Kiersted (2-10-12). Those four players have combined for 40 points in 68 games played (0.59 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 seventeen games, the Fighting Hawks lead the nation in shots on goal allowed/game (21.9) and are second only to Massachusetts in two key puck possession statistics:

Corsi (% of shots taken vs. opponent): 59.1%
Fenwick (% of unblocked shots taken vs. opponent): 58.4%

By comparison, the Chargers are last in the nation in both Corsi (38.7%) and Fenwick (36.9%), averaging only 20.8 shots on goal per game (North Dakota is averaging 30.2/game) while allowing 35.3 shots on goal against/contest.

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 a staggering 13.8 percent of their shots on goal, good for second-best in the country and best among teams which have played more than twelve games. Last season, UND lit the lamp on only 7.8 percent of their shots on goal (52nd in the nation). Alabama-Huntsville’s shooting percentage this season weighs in at 8.3 percent (42nd in the country).

And here’s another way to highlight North Dakota’s scoring prowess: UND has scored five or more goals in six of its seventeen 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 are now sitting at 53.3 percent on the season (10th) after leading the nation at 57.1 percent a year ago. Alabama-Huntsville is the second-worst team in the country with a faceoff win rate of just 42.3 percent. UND’s best faceoff man this season is Jasper Weatherby (59.4 percent).

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 eleven power play goals over its past ten games (11 for 42, 26.2 percent) and now faces a dreadful Alabama-Huntsville penalty kill that allowed nineteen power play goals in the first half of this season (53 of 72, 73.6%).

On the other side of the specialty teams ledger, UND has only allowed six power play goals all season long (54 of 60, 90.0%) and currently boasts the seventh-best penalty kill unit in men’s Division I hockey this season.

North Dakota is 1st in the country in scoring offense (4.18 goals scored/game) and 3rd in the country in scoring defense (1.59 goals allowed/game), and that leads to the country’s best goal differential (+44). Incidentally, UND’s pre-break goal differential is its best since the 1986-87 Hrkac Circus team (126-71; +55).

To put that in perspective: In 2018-2019, North Dakota outscored opponents 93-90 over 37 games (18-17-2). This season, UND (14-1-2) has throttled the opposition by a margin of 71-27 over the first 17 games of the campaign. By comparison, Alabama-Huntsville has been outscored 77-31 this year for a goal differential of minus-46.

According to KRACH, North Dakota has put up this season’s stellar results while facing the toughest schedule in the country; Alabama-Huntsville’s slate of games ranks as the 36th-most difficult out of sixty men’s Division I hockey programs.

On the injury front, North Dakota junior defenseman Gabe Bast (upper body injury; 2-1-3 in four official games played) returned to the lineup in exhibition action last Saturday night against the U.S. Under-18 Team; Bast had not played since suffering an upper-body injury on October 19th at Minnesota State. Freshman forward Harrison Blaisdell (2-6-8), junior forward Jordan Kawaguchi (7-17-24), and senior defenseman Colton Poolman (2-8-10) all missed last week’s contest due to illness but are expected to be on the ice this weekend.

Two other North Dakota players will be out of the lineup for Friday’s opener against the Chargers. Sophomore defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker (3-11-14) is playing in the World Juniors for Team Canada, which advanced to Saturday’s semifinal matchup against Finland. Freshman forward Shane Pinto (8-6-14) saw his World Junior campaign with Team USA come to an end in the quarterfinals. Pinto may be able to make it back to Grand Forks in time for Saturday’s game.

Alabama-Huntsville has been able to keep things close in the first period this season (14 goals for, 16 goals against), but the Chargers have been absolutely destroyed in the second period (8 gf, 30 ga) and third period (9 gf, 31 ga). UAH has only scored more than two goals on four occasions this season, with one lone victory (a 4-2 home win against Northern Michigan). UND has scored more than two goals twelve times this year, with only one loss (1-2 at Minnesota State), a 13-game unbeaten streak (12-0-1), and a perfect home record (9-0-0).

North Dakota is at the top of the league standings after stellar results (7-0-1-1) in its first eight conference games:

November 8-9 vs. Miami: 7-1 win, 5-4 win
November 15-16 at #2 Denver: 1-1 tie (3×3 win), 4-1 win
November 22-23 vs. St. Cloud State: 4-2 win, 2-1 win (OT)
December 6-7 at #17 Western Michigan: 1-0 win (OT), 8-2 win

Alabama-Huntsville Team Profile

Head Coach: Mike Corbett (7th season at UAH, 47-169-21, .243)

National Rankings: NR/NR

This Season: 1-14-3 overall, 1-10-3-1 WCHA (10th of 10 teams)
Last Season: 8-28-2 overall (missed NCAA tournament), 8-18-2-2 WCHA (8th)

2019-2020 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 1.72 goals scored/game – 57th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 4.28 goals allowed/game – 59th of 60 teams
Power Play: 6.4% (5 of 78) – 59th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 73.6% (53 of 72) – 57th of 60 teams

Key Players: Junior F Christian Rajic (4-6-10), Freshman F Josh Latta (3-7-10), Sophomore F Jack Jeffers (4-4-8), Sophomore F Tyr Thompson (4-2-6), Junior F Connor Wood (2-3-5), Junior F Connor Merkley (2-3-5), Freshman D Tanner Hickey (2-3-5), Senior F Connor James (0-3-3), Junior G Mark Sinclair (1-10-3, 3.91 GAA, .892 SV%)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (North Dakota ’02, 5th season at UND; 104-53-21, .643)

National Rankings: #1/#1

This Season: 14-1-2 overall, 7-0-1-1 NCHC (1st of 8 teams)
Last Season: 18-17-2 overall (missed NCAA tournament), 12-11-1-0 NCHC (5th)

2019-2020 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 4.18 goals scored/game – 1st of 60 teams
Team Defense: 1.59 goals allowed/game – 3rd of 60 teams
Power Play: 19.4% (13 of 67) – 24th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 90.0% (54 of 60) – 7th of 60 teams

Key Players: Junior F Jordan “#HobeyGuchi” Kawaguchi (7-17-24), Senior F Westin Michaud (7-8-15), Junior F Collin Adams (5-8-13), Freshman F Harrison Blaisdell (2-6-8), Freshman F Shane Pinto (8-6-14), Senior Junior F Grant Mismash (3-7-10), Senior F Cole Smith (6-2-8), Sophomore D Jacob Bernard-Docker (3-11-14), Senior D Colton Poolman (2-8-10), Junior D Matt Kiersted (2-10-12), Sophomore D Jonny Tychonick (3-4-7 in 12 games played), Sophomore G Adam Scheel (14-1-2, 1.56 GAA, .927 SV%, 2 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: January 2, 2016 (Grand Forks, ND). UND blitzed Alabama-Huntsville from the outset, scoring 25 seconds into the game (Paul LaDue) and outshooting UAH 19-5 in the first period. However, a Richard Buri goal with just 13 seconds remaining in the opening frame tied the game and gave the visitors hope headed in to the locker room. Drake Caggiula scored shorthanded midway through the second period, and the home team added two goals in the final two minutes of the contest (Bryn Chyzyk, Tucker Poolman) to put the game away. One night earlier (on New Year’s Day), North Dakota outshot the Chargers 39-19 but could manage only a second-period Bryn Chyzyk power play goal in a 1-0 victory (Cam Johnson earned the shutout for UND).

In a similar situation to this year, North Dakota forwards Brock Boeser and Nick Schmaltz both missed the series due to their participation in the World Junior Tournament.

A Trip Down Memory Lane: October 14, 1989 (Grand Forks, ND). The Fighting Sioux rolled 11-5 over the visiting Chargers to complete the two-game home sweep. UND won Friday’s opener 12-6 behind Lee Davidson’s goal six seconds into the contest, the fastest opening goal in program history. Current UND associate head coach Dane Jackson notched a pair of assists.

All-Time Series: In the short history between the schools, UND has won all four games (noted above). The teams have never met in the Rocket City.

Game News and Notes

Huntsville, Alabama is located just 110 miles south of Nashville, Tennessee, the site of next season’s Hall of Fame Game between North Dakota and Penn State. UAH and Lake Superior State are playing a destination game next month; LSSU will host Alabama-Huntsville for a WCHA contest on February 15th at the GFL Memorial Gardens in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario (also a prominent city in the amazing “Ticket To Ride” game). UND’s 1999-2000 national championship team will be honored at a special 20th anniversary celebration on Saturday night. Chargers head coach Mike Corbett played for Denver from 1993-97, scoring two goals and adding eleven assists in 77 career games played. UND junior forward Jordan Kawaguchi is third in the country with 24 points and sixth in the country with 17 assists. #HobeyGuchi

Broadcast Information

Both games of this weekend’s series will be broadcast live on Midco Sports Network and also streamed on NCHC.tv. 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).

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.

Must-follow Twitter accounts for this weekend: @uahhockey (official men’s hockey team account), @weloveuahhockey (an independent website called UAHHockey.com), @UAHChargers (official Department of Athletics feed), and @GameDayUAH (game day updates).

The Prediction

Let’s get this out of the way first: UND and Alabama-Huntsville are polar opposites of one another – as good as the Fighting Hawks were over the first three months of the season, the Chargers were bad. Dakota has outscored opponents 40-12 in nine games at the Ralph this season, and that trend will continue this weekend. I see the first game as a close contest, with the home squad throttling UAH in the recap. UND 2-1, 7-2.

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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