Weekend Preview: North Dakota at 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 eleven months, and the Huskies have already suffered twelve defeats this season (11-12-5).

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 was definitely not bare.

Senior defenseman Jack Ahcan (6-28-34 last season) was the top returning scorer for Brett Larson’s squad, and he has put together a line of 6-16-22 in 28 games played. The forward duo of sophomore Sam Hentges (7-16-23) and junior Easton Brodzinski (12-12-24) 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 fifteen in the country in goals allowed per game (3.14, 46th of 60 teams) and penalty kill success (76.1 percent, 54th). The shorthanded statistic is abysmal, and that starts with goaltending. Junior Dávid Hrenák has regressed 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: 10-8-5, 2.73 goals-against average, .903 save percentage, two shutouts

To be fair, Hrenák has been better lately, making 90 saves on 96 (.938) shots over his past four starts.

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.

Incidentally, the 2019-2020 North Dakota Fighting Hawks (23-3-3) are ahead of the pace set by the 2015-2016 team, which suffered its fourth loss of the season in its 29th game to move to 22-4-3 on the season. This year’s team will play between eight and eleven games before the NCAA tournament begins, so UND fans could definitely see another 30-win season from the Green and White.

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: 9-1-1 (.864) ~

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 14-2-2-2 over its first eighteen 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
February 14-15 vs. Denver: 4-1 win, 3-1 win

The Fighting Hawks have the following conference schedule remaining over the last three weeks of the regular season as they attempt to secure the program’s third Penrose Cup and eighteenth regular season championship overall:

February 21-22: at St. Cloud State (t-26th in the Pairwise)
February 28-29: vs. #19 Western Michigan (t-15th in the Pairwise)
March 6-7: at Nebraska Omaha (25th in the Pairwise)

North Dakota leads Duluth by eight points in the league standings and would clinch the Penrose by finishing the weekend with a lead of thirteen or more points.

#1-ranked UND has returned 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.

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 (10-16-26), senior forward Cole Smith (10-6-16), sophomore forward Jasper Weatherby (10-7-17), and junior defenseman Matt Kiersted (5-20-25). Those four players have combined for 84 points in 114 games played (0.74 points/game) after amassing 79 points in 262 games played (0.30 points/game) prior to this year.

Adams, Smith, and Weatherby are three of six North Dakota players with ten or more goals, joining junior forward Jordan Kawaguchi (15-29-44), freshman Shane Pinto (14-10-24), and senior transfer Westin Michaud (13-11-24).

St. Cloud State’s aforementioned Easton Brodzinski (12-12-24) is the only double-digit goal scorer for the Huskies.

Last season, Kawaguchi led all UND scorers with ten goals, while SCSU had seven players hit that milestone.

It is abundantly clear that North Dakota will have the puck a lot this season, and the numbers bear that out. After last weekend’s series against Denver (another puck possession stalwart), the Fighting Hawks are still first in the nation in shots on goal allowed/game (21.6) but are now third in two key puck possession statistics:

Corsi (% of shots taken vs. opponent): 58.2%
Fenwick (% of unblocked shots taken vs. opponent): 58.7%

By comparison, the Huskies are 35th in Corsi (48.7%) and 24th in Fenwick (50.6%), averaging 27.9 shots on goal per game (North Dakota is averaging 30.6/game) while allowing 28.6 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). St. Cloud State boasts a shooting percentage of 10.2 percent (17th 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 29 games this season; in 2018-19, the Fighting Hawks had five such games all year. In eight 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 (62.1%) 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 23 power play goals over its past 22 games (23 for 85, 27.1 percent) and now goes up against a St. Cloud State penalty kill that ranks 55th in the country at 76.1 percent. For the season, the Fighting Hawks’ power play checks in at 22.7 percent, good for sixteenth-best in the country.

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 have rebounded in their last two series, holding Colorado College scoreless on eight power plays and allowing only a Bobby Brink goal in five Denver chances last weekend. UND’s season-long penalty kill percentage now sits at 87.1%, fifth-best in the nation.

North Dakota is 1st in the country in scoring offense (4.14 goals scored/game) and 6th in the country in scoring defense (1.97 goals allowed/game), and that leads to the country’s second-best goal differential (+63). 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 (23-3-3) has throttled the opposition by a margin of 120-57 over the first 29 games of the campaign. By comparison, the Huskies have been outscored 88-80 this season for a goal differential of minus-8.

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-26.

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

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 had three awful games in his last four starts:

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 answered the bell, relieving Scheel twice and earning six starts, going 6-0-1 with a 1.26 GAA, a save percentage of .940, and one shutout. Even more remarkably, he has only allowed a total of three even-strength goals in his six starts this year. Thome will need to play in two more games this season to qualify for UND’s goaltending records, and his current GAA and SV% would be the lowest single-season marks in program history.

My hunch is that Thome will get the start again on Friday night in St. Cloud, although Adam Scheel is 3-1-0 with a 1.49 GAA and a .933 SV% in four career starts against the Huskies.

One key area to watch this weekend is the face-off circle. The Fighting Hawks have improved on draws over the past four weekends and are now sitting at 54.3 percent on the season (5th) after leading the nation at 57.1 percent a year ago. St. Cloud State has won 48.2 percent of its faceoffs this season (47th in the country).

Leading the way in the faceoff circle for North Dakota have been Jasper Weatherby (60.0%), Shane Pinto (59.1%), and Collin Adams (53.4%). This weekend, St. Cloud State will counter with Nick Poehling (56.0%), Sam Hentges (51.1%), and Kevin Fitzgerald (50.7%).

St. Cloud State Team Profile

Head Coach: Brett Larson (2nd season at SCSU, 41-18-8, .672)

Pairwise Ranking: t-26th of 60 teams
National Rankings: NR/NR
This Season: 11-12-5 (.482) overall, 8-9-1-0 NCHC (5th)
Last Season: 30-6-3 overall (NCAA West Regional Semifinalist), 19-2-3-2 NCHC (1st)

2019-2020 Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 2.86 goals scored/game – 28th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 3.14 goals allowed/game – 46th of 60 teams
Power Play: 18.1% (17 of 94) – 36th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 76.1% (70 of 92) – 54th of 60 teams

Key Players: Sophomore F Sam Hentges (7-16-23), Junior F Easton Brodzinski (12-12-24), Senior F Jack Poehling (6-9-15), Senior F Nick Poehling (7-13-20), Freshman F Chase Brand (5-6-11), Freshman F Jami Krannila (3-7-10), Senior D Jack Ahcan (6-16-22), Sophomore D Nick Perbix (4-8-12), Sophomore D Spencer Meier (3-5-8), Junior G Dávid Hrenák (10-8-5, 2.73 GAA, .903 SV%, 2 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (North Dakota ’02, 5th season at UND; 113-55-22, .653)

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

This Season: 23-3-3 (.845) overall, 14-2-2-2 NCHC (1st)
Last Season: 18-17-2 overall (missed NCAA tournament), 12-11-1-0 NCHC (5th)

2019-2020 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 4.14 goals scored/game – 1st of 60 teams
Team Defense: 1.97 goals allowed/game – 6th of 60 teams
Power Play: 22.7% (25 of 110) – 16th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 87.1% (88 of 101) – 5th of 60 teams

Key Players: Junior F Jordan “#HobeyGuchi” Kawaguchi (15-29-44), Senior F Westin Michaud (13-11-24), Junior F Collin Adams (10-16-26), Sophomore F Jasper Weatherby (10-7-17), Freshman F Shane Pinto (14-10-24), Junior F Grant Mismash (8-11-19), Senior F Cole Smith (10-6-16), Sophomore D Jacob Bernard-Docker (4-16-20), Senior D Colton Poolman (2-11-13), Junior D Matt Kiersted (5-20-25), Sophomore D Jonny Tychonick (4-7-11 in 22 games played), Sophomore G Adam Scheel (17-3-2, 2.08 GAA, .903 SV%, 2 SO), Junior G Peter Thome (6-0-1, 1.26 GAA, .940 SV%, 1 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: November 23, 2019 (Grand Forks, ND). One night after handling St. Cloud State by a final score of 4-2, North Dakota needed overtime to dispatch the visiting Huskies. Jordan Kawaguchi, who picked up two assists in Friday’s win, was the hero on Saturday night, scoring 3:41 into the extra session after assisting on the game-tying goal. For the weekend, North Dakota outshot SCSU 54-31 and scored a power play goal each night.

Last Meeting in St. Cloud: December 9, 2017. One night after UND grabbed the extra league point with a 2-2 tie and a shootout win, the Huskies scored three goals on six shots in the second period to take a 3-1 home victory. North Dakota outshot SCSU 35-18 in Saturday’s rematch but went scoreless on the power play (0-for-3) while allowing Mikey Eyssimont’s power play tally (his second in one minute of game action) in the middle frame. Huskies netminder Dávid Hrenák made 34 saves.

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, 74-44-14 (.614), including a 29-22-7 (.560) record in games played in St. Cloud. 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 28-26 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). North Dakota has appeared in six overtime games this season, going 3-0-3 in those games. SCSU has made the national tournament 13 times in the past twenty seasons, with one Frozen Four appearance (2013).

On A Personal Note

I will be performing a short acoustic set (10:30-11:15 p.m.) in the Red Carpet Band Room (11 5th Avenue South) after Friday night’s game. Please join me!

Broadcast Information

Friday’s game will be available on Fox9+ (Twin Cities) and on Midco Sports Network. Saturday’s rematch will be broadcast on FOX Sports North. Both games will be 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.

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, strange things can and often do happen on the wide sheet of ice in St. Cloud, and SCSU is 7-2-1 in the last ten games at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. Normally, it’s the Huskies’ power play that can do damage early and often, but this year’s version of the Cardinal and Red has only scored 17 power play goals in 28 games, ranking in the bottom half in the nation. After a hard and heavy rivalry series against DU, North Dakota could be due for a letdown. I can’t see the Fighting Hawks earning less than three points this weekend, but it will get interesting. 2-2 tie, UND 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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