Weekend Preview: North Dakota vs. Denver

In the NCHC, it is clear that Denver/North Dakota is at the top of the league rivalries. The teams have played 28 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 twelve 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 ten 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. Denver turned the tables by dispatching North Dakota in the first round of the league playoffs at Magness Arena last season (2-0, 4-2).

(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.)

Six full seasons have come and gone since the college hockey landscape changed forever. With Minnesota and Wisconsin departing the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for the Big Ten after the 2012-13 season, several other conference schools and two members of the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association created the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and left Alaska Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech, and Minnesota State behind in a watered-down WCHA.

It is abundantly clear that the NCHC has been the premier hockey conference since its inception, and particularly over the past five seasons. The eight teams in the league have gone 284-137-52 (.655) in non-conference action since the start of the 2014-15 season and sent nine teams to the Frozen Four (UND and Omaha in 2015, UND and Denver in 2016, Denver and Duluth in 2017, Duluth in 2018, and Denver and Duluth in 2019) over that five-year stretch. Conference members North Dakota (2016), Denver (2017), and Minnesota Duluth (2018, 2019) have won the last four national titles.

In last season’s NCAA tournament, league members Denver and St. Cloud State were both placed in the West Regional (Fargo, North Dakota) and were on track to face off in the regional final. The Pioneers (#6 in the country) held up their end of the bargain with a 2-0 victory over #9 Ohio State, but #19 American International shocked the college hockey world and dispatched the #1-ranked Huskies by a final score of 2-1. One night later, Denver blanked AIC 3-0 to advance to their third Frozen Four in four seasons. The Pios would eventually fall to #4 Massachusetts in overtime in the national semifinal.

Despite being picked to finish fourth in the NCHC standings this season (Minnesota Duluth was tabbed for 1st place while Denver was picked to finish 2nd), UND has fared remarkably well in conference play, with a record of 12-2-2-2 over its first sixteen league 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
January 10-11 vs. Omaha: 3-6 loss, 4-1 win
January 17-18: at Miami: 4-4 tie (shootout win), 5-3 win
January 24-25: at #11 Minnesota Duluth: 4-7 loss, 3-2 win
Jan. 31 – Feb. 1: vs. Colorado College: 1-0 win, 8-1 win

After this weekend’s series against #6 Denver, the Fighting Hawks will not face a currently-ranked opponent during the rest of the regular season:

February 21-22: at St. Cloud State (28th in the Pairwise)
February 28-29: vs. Western Michigan (18th in the Pairwise)
March 6-7: at Nebraska Omaha (25th in the Pairwise)

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: 9-1-1 (.864) ~

For UND, the goal is simple: return to national prominence after a two-year absence from the national tournament. Optimism and upside have turned into results for North Dakota, with plenty of new faces (Shane Pinto, Westin Michaud, Harrison Blaisdell, and Ethan Frisch) adding to an already-impressive lineup.

North Dakota’s Shane Pinto and Denver’s Bobby Brink are the two frontrunners for Rookie of the Year in the NCHC. Here’s how the numbers break down:

Bobby Brink (right wing): 10 goals and 13 assists in 27 games played (0.85 points/game)
Shane Pinto (center): 13 goals and 9 assists in 25 games played (0.88 points/game)

The next four freshman scoring leaders all hail from Omaha (Nolan Sullivan 16 points, Joey Abate 15, Ryan Brushett 14, Brandon Scanlin 13).

In the November series at altitude in Denver (1-1 tie, 4-1 UND victory), neither Brink nor Pinto figured in on the scoresheet. With eight conference games remaining, Brink (5-10-15 in NCHC play) leads Pinto (8-5-13) in the rookie scoring race.

So far this season, several of North Dakota’s returning players have seen a noticeable uptick in their production and in their overall play on the ice, most notably junior forward Collin Adams (8-15-23), senior forward Cole Smith (10-6-16), senior forward Dixon Bowen (6-2-8), and junior defenseman Matt Kiersted (4-19-23). Those four players have combined for 70 points in 104 games played (0.67 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 27 games, the Fighting Hawks lead the nation in shots on goal allowed/game (21.2) and are first in two key puck possession statistics:

Corsi (% of shots taken vs. opponent): 59.4%
Fenwick (% of unblocked shots taken vs. opponent): 59.8%

By comparison, the Pioneers are 3rd in Corsi (58.6%) and 2nd in Fenwick (58.9%), averaging 35.1 shots on goal per game (North Dakota is averaging 31.1/game) while allowing 25.8 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 13.5 percent of their shots on goal, good for the best mark in the country. Last season, UND lit the lamp on only 7.8 percent of their shots on goal (52nd in the nation). Denver boasts a shooting percentage of 9.1 percent (32nd of 60 teams).

Here’s another way to highlight North Dakota’s scoring prowess: UND has scored five or more goals in ten of its 27 games this season; in 2018-19, the Fighting Hawks had five such games all year. In seven other games this year, Brad Berry’s crew has scored four goals, which means that the team has scored four or more goals in nearly two-thirds (63.0%) of its games this season.

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 twenty power play goals over its past twenty games (20 for 79, 25.3 percent) but now goes up against a Pioneer penalty kill that ranks 7th in the country at 86.4 percent.

On the other side of the specialty teams ledger, UND had only allowed six power play goals all season long (64 of 70, 90.8%) before road weekends at Miami and Duluth brought them crashing down to earth. The RedHawks scored four power play goals on ten opportunities in their series, and the Bulldogs scored two goals in eight man advantage situations to drop North Dakota’s season-long penalty kill percentage down to 86.4% (8th best in the country). The Fighting Hawks rebounded in their last series, holding Colorado College scoreless on eight power plays. UND’s season-long penalty kill percentage now sits at 87.5%, fourth-best in the nation.

North Dakota is 1st in the country in scoring offense (4.19 goals scored/game) and 6th in the country in scoring defense (2.04 goals allowed/game), and that leads to the country’s second-best goal differential (+58). Minnesota State (26-4-2) has put up a +69 through their first 32 games.

To put that in perspective: In 2018-2019, North Dakota outscored opponents 93-90 over 37 games (18-17-2). This season, UND (21-3-3) has throttled the opposition by a margin of 113-55 over the first 27 games of the campaign. By comparison, Denver has outscored opponents 89-61 for a goal differential of plus-28.

The other result of such a lopsided scoring margin is that nine of the top ten NCHC players in plus-minus hail from North Dakota, led by Collin Adams with a plus-24.

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

Denver has received excellent goaltending from freshman Magnus Chrona (13-5-3, 2.23 GAA, .918 SV%, SO), and, as a defensive unit, the Pioneers have only allowed 2.18 goals per game (7th best in the country). Aside from junior blueliner Ian Mitchell (6-16-22 in 28 games), however, the other five most likely starters on defense have combined for just five goals and 18 assists in 120 games played this season.

By comparison, North Dakota generates plenty of offense from the back end, with five blueliners (Matt Kiersted, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Colton Poolman, Jonny Tychonick, and Andrew Peski) reaching double-digit point totals already this season. UND’s top six have scored 15 goals and added 61 assists in 145 games.

Therefore, the comparison regarding offense from the top six defensemen for each squad (in terms of games played) looks like this:

Denver: 11 goals and 34 assists for 45 points in 148 games played (0.30 points/game)
North Dakota: 15 goals and 61 assists for 76 points in 145 games played (0.52 points/game)

UND did not have a question mark in net during the first half of the season, as sophomore Adam Scheel played every minute between the pipes on his way to a record of 14-1-2 with eye-popping goaltending statistics: a goals-against average of 1.56, a save percentage of .927, and two shutouts.
The holiday break was not kind to North Dakota’s #1 netminder.

After giving up four goals on 28 shots faced in two January home starts against Alabama Huntsville, Scheel has had three awful games in his last four outings:

January 10th vs. Omaha: 4 goals allowed on 8 shots (pulled after 32:43)
January 17th at Miami: 3 goals allowed on 8 shots (pulled after 20:00)
January 24th at Minnesota Duluth: 7 goals allowed on 38 shots (finished the game)

Adam Scheel’s GAA has ballooned to 2.08, while his save percentage has plummeted to .903.

Thankfully for fans of the Green and White, junior goaltender Peter Thome has answered the bell, relieving Scheel twice and earning four starts, going 4-0-1 with a 1.35 GAA, a save percentage of .928, and one shutout. My hunch is that Thome gets the start on Friday night, but with the extra week of practice and preparation, who knows which of them has risen to the top.

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 53.4 percent on the young season (8th) after leading the nation at 57.1 percent a year ago. Denver has won 51.4 percent of its faceoffs this season (18th in the country).

Denver Team Profile

Head Coach: David Carle (Denver ’12, 2nd season at DU, 41-18-10, .667)

Pairwise Ranking: 5th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #6/#5

This Season: 17-6-5 (.696) overall, 7-5-4-3 NCHC (t-3rd)
Last Season: 24-12-5 overall (NCAA Frozen Four Semifinalist), 11-10-3-3 NCHC (4th)

2019-20 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 3.18 goals scored/game – 18th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.18 goals allowed/game – 7th of 60 teams
Power Play: 22.0% (27 of 123) – 16th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 86.4% (89 of 103) – 6th of 60 teams

Key Players: Senior F Liam Finlay (4-16-20), Sophomore F Brett Stapley (4-17-21), Sophomore F Emilio Pettersen (8-17-25), Senior F Tyson McLellan (5-5-10), Freshman F Bobby Brink (10-13-23), Sophomore F Cole Guttman (10-10-20), Junior F Kohen Olischefski (8-9-17), Junior D Ian Mitchell (6-16-22), Junior D Griffin Mendel (2-5-7), Senior D Michael Davies (0-3-3), Sophomore D Slava Demin (2-7-9), Freshman G Magnus Chrona (13-5-3, 2.23 GAA, .918 SV%, 2 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (North Dakota ’02, 5th season at UND; 111-55-22, .649)

Pairwise Ranking: 1st of 60 teams
National Rankings: #1/#1

This Season: 21-3-3 (.833) overall, 12-2-2-2 NCHC (1st)
Last Season: 18-17-2 overall (missed NCAA tournament), 12-11-1-0 NCHC (5th)

2019-2020 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 4.19 goals scored/game – 1st of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.04 goals allowed/game – 6th of 60 teams
Power Play: 21.2% (22 of 104) – 21st of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 87.5% (84 of 96) – 4th of 60 teams

Key Players: Junior F Jordan “#HobeyGuchi” Kawaguchi (15-26-41), Senior F Westin Michaud (12-11-23), Junior F Collin Adams (8-15-23), Sophomore F Jasper Weatherby (9-6-15), Freshman F Shane Pinto (13-9-22), Junior F Grant Mismash (8-10-18), Senior F Cole Smith (10-6-16), Sophomore D Jacob Bernard-Docker (3-14-17), Senior D Colton Poolman (2-10-12), Junior D Matt Kiersted (4-19-23), Sophomore D Jonny Tychonick (4-7-11 in 20 games played), Sophomore G Adam Scheel (17-3-2, 2.08 GAA, .903 SV%, 2 SO), Junior G Peter Thome (4-0-1, 1.35 GAA, .928 SV%, 1 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: November 16th, 2019 (Denver, CO). One night after skating to a 1-1 tie and earning the extra point on Colton Poolman’s 3-on-3 goal, visiting North Dakota took care of business with a 4-1 road victory. Senior Cole Smith notched two goals against the Pios, giving him four in fourteen career meetings. UND’s Westin Michaud added an empty-net goal with 24 seconds remaining, his fifth career tally against DU. North Dakota outshot Denver by the narrowest of margins on the weekend (60-59) and killed all ten Pioneer power play opportunities.

Last Meeting in Grand Forks: December 8, 2018. Denver’s Jared Lukosevicius scored the overtime winner with just 21 seconds remaining in the extra frame as DU prevailed 2-1. North Dakota won Friday’s opener 4-1 behind 21 saves and an assist from Adam Scheel.

Last Season: March 16, 2019 (Denver, CO). North Dakota’s season came to an end despite peppering DU netminder Filip Larsson with 42 shots on goal. Denver scored twice in the middle frame (Colin Staub, Jarid Lukosevicius) and added an empty netter for the 4-2 final score. Senior forward Nick Jones scored both goals for UND, and Fighting Hawks goaltender Peter Thome made 14 saves in the losing effort. One night earlier, the Pioneers blanked UND 2-0 despite being outshot 32-17, a common theme for the Green and White last season.

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 two victories and four ties over the past ten games, with both teams scoring 18 goals over that stretch. Five of the last ten meetings have gone into overtime.

All-time Series: UND leads the all-time series, 147-128-16 (.533), including a record of 85-44-10 (.652) in games played in Grand Forks. The teams first met in 1950, with North Dakota prevailing 18-3 in Denver.

Game News and Notes

North Dakota is 14-1-0 at home this season. Brad Berry is 7-8-6 (.476) in his coaching career vs. the Pioneers. UND graduate transfer Westin Michaud has already played eighteen games against Denver in his collegiate career, scoring five goals and adding two assists. Aside from Michaud, three other North Dakota players have scored multiple career goals against DU (Cole Smith 4, Matt Kiersted 2, Colton Poolman 2). 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.

The Prediction

Get ready for some bonus hockey this weekend. At least one of these games will go to overtime, with last line change proving quite important for the home squad. As always, goaltending and special teams play may very well decide the series. Given North Dakota’s earlier results in Denver (five of six league points) and UND’s remaining schedule, a split would be just fine. Both teams have had an extra week to rest and prepare, so expect the best that each side can offer. I’ve got Denver winning in overtime on Friday night, with North Dakota pulling away in Saturday’s finale. DU 3-2 (OT), UND 4-2 (ENG).

Broadcast Information

CBS Sports Network will have the exclusive telecast of Friday’s opener, with Saturday’s rematch available live on Midco Sports Network, TSN2 (Canada), and 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.

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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