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 one season, and the Huskies went just 13-15-6 (.471).
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 (26-5-4) were ahead of the pace set by the 2015-2016 team, and, had the season continued, UND fans could have definitely seen another 30-win season from the Green and White.
Seven 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 six seasons. The eight teams in the league have gone 326-158-63 (.654) 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 (there was no national tournament last season). Conference members North Dakota (2016), Denver (2017), and Minnesota Duluth (2018, 2019) have won the last four national titles.
After sputtering to records of 17-13-10 (.550) and 18-17-2 (.514) and missing the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons, UND head coach Brad Berry got his team on the right track last year, winning the program’s third Penrose Cup as NCHC champions and collecting an overall record of 26-5-4 (.800).
The Fighting Hawks came in at number one in this season’s NCHC media preseason poll, with Denver, Minnesota Duluth, and St. Cloud State rounding out the top four. So far, the Bulldogs (14 points in 5 games played) have come out on top, with the Huskies (9 points in 4 games) and Fighting Hawks (9 points in 5 games) not far behind. Denver (7 points in 5 games) has lost to each of the other three teams in the top four of the preseason poll, but the Pios found redemption with a narrow victory over UND on Tuesday afternoon.
Although North Dakota certainly misses (among others) forwards Westin Michaud (16-12-28), Cole Smith (11-7-18), and Dixon Bowen (6-4-10) and defenseman Colton Poolman (4-13-17) from last year’s squad, the team returned 68 percent of its goal scoring (92 of 135 goals) from a year ago. Offensively, forwards Jordan Kawaguchi (15-30-45, Hobey Hat Trick finalist), Shane Pinto (16-12-28), Collin Adams (12-16-28), Grant Mismash (8-12-20), Jasper Weatherby (10-8-18), Judd Caulfield (4-8-12), Harrison Blaisdell (2-10-12), Mark Senden (5-6-11), and Gavin Hain (2-8-10) will lead the way along with defensemen Matt Kiersted (6-23-29), Jacob Bernard-Docker (7-18-25), Gabe Bast (2-3-5), and Ethan Frisch (1-4-5).
By comparison, St. Cloud State returned nearly 70 percent of its goal scoring from last season, led by senior F Easton Brodzinski (12-15-27), junior F Sam Hentges (7-17-24), junior F Micah Miller (7-11-18), sophomore F Jami Krannila (5-9-14), senior F Kevin Fitzgerald (5-7-12), junior F Nolan Walker (2-10-12), junior D Nick Perbix (4-11-15), and junior D Spencer Meier (4-6-10).
The problem is that the Huskies only scored 94 goals last season (UND scored 135).
UND rookie defensemen Jake Sanderson and Tyler Kleven will not appear in today’s contest, having arrived in Plymouth, Michigan for the 2021 U.S. National Junior Team training camp. Sanderson and Kleven are two of 29 players invited to the camp, which will run until the final roster of 25 players is announced on December 13th. On that date, the team will depart for Edmonton, Alberta for the World Junior Championships, which will be played from December 25th, 2020 through January 5th, 2021.
The absence of Sanderson and Kleven will mean that both senior Josh Rieger and freshman Cooper Moore will once again be inserted into the lineup on defense. Moore played his first collegiate game on Sunday against Western Michigan and tallied an assist. Rieger has appeared in 35 games over his four seasons at North Dakota, with one goal, three assists, and 24 penalty minutes, including two minor penalties against Denver. Moore is growing into his role on the back end, and it definitely helped both of them that head coach Brad Berry split them up against Minnesota Duluth on Thursday (they played together on the third d-pair on Tuesday vs. Denver).
Each team’s first few NCHC pod games have given us a glimpse of what we can expect over the next couple of weeks and throughout the season.
#1 North Dakota blanked Miami 2-0 to open up their pod schedule, followed that up with a 4-3 overtime victory over #4 Denver on Friday night, boat raced Western Michigan 8-2 on Sunday, fell 3-2 to the Pioneers in Tuesday’s rematch, and took #3 Minnesota Duluth to overtime on Thursday before losing in a shootout.
#13 St. Cloud State got off to a fast start in the pod, downing #17 Western Michigan (4-3), #4 Denver (4-3), and Omaha (5-3). The Huskies had a hiccup on Wednesday, however, dropping a 2-1 decision to the Western Michigan Broncos. SCSU has not played since that tilt against WMU three days ago.
Junior netminder Adam Scheel (four games, 2-1-1, 1.95 GAA, .922 SV%, 1 SO) and senior Peter Thome (one game, 1-0-0, 2.00 GAA, .889 SV%) have each seen time between the pipes for North Dakota. With so many games in a short stretch of days, I am expecting a 60/40 or 70/30 split of minutes for the Fighting Hawks, with Thome earning the start today against the Huskies.
For SCSU, senior David Hrenak (2-1-0, 2.70 GAA, .910 SV%) has been solid in the pod so far, and Wednesday’s loss to the Broncos was certainly not on him (30 saves on 32 shots). Sophomore goaltender Jaxon Castor (1-0-0, 3.00 GAA, .889 SV%) got the start against Omaha, but I can’t imagine that it’s not Hrenak’s crease this afternoon.
Brett Larson has to be impressed with his group through four games, with forwards Kevin Fitzgerald (2-1-3), Jami Krannila (1-2-3), Veeti Miettinen (1-2-3), and Easton Brodzinski (1-1-2) and defensemen Nick Perbix (2-1-3), Spencer Meier (1-1-2), and Brady Ziemer (1-1-2) leading the charge.
North Dakota has eight players at three points or better through five games, led by forwards Shane Pinto (3-5-7), Jordan Kawaguchi (2-5-7), Grant Mismash (2-1-3), Collin Adams (1-3-4), and Riese Gaber (3-0-3) and defensemen Ethan Frisch (1-2-3), and Matt Kiersted (1-4-5). Although the Fighting Hawks will sorely miss freshman blueliners Jake Sanderson (1-2-3 in three games) and Tyler Kleven (1-0-1 in three games) for the remainder of their games in the Omaha pod, they will certainly contend for the highest-scoring defensive unit in the country.
It is abundantly clear that North Dakota will have the puck a lot this season, and the numbers bear that out. After five games, the Fighting Hawks are eighth in the nation in shots on goal allowed/game (24.0) and are fifth in the nation in two key puck possession statistics:
Corsi (% of shots taken vs. opponent): 58.2%
Fenwick (% of unblocked shots taken vs. opponent): 59.9%
By comparison, the Huskies are 32nd in both Corsi (45.0%) and Fenwick (44.9%), averaging 27.8 shots on goal per game (North Dakota is averaging 32.6/game) while allowing 29.0 shots on goal against/contest.
One key area to watch in this contest is the face-off dot. The Fighting Hawks are second in the nation in faceoff win percentage at 60.9 percent, while the Huskies are 16th (51.0%) among the 44 men’s college hockey teams to have played at least one game this season.
Leading the way in the faceoff circle for North Dakota have been Shane Pinto (68.7%, 7th in the country), Jasper Weatherby (66.7%, 10th in the country), and Collin Adams (50.0%). St. Cloud State will counter with Will Hammer (60.6%), Nolan Walker (53.1%), and Sam Hentges (50.9%).
The Huskies (12.6%) and Fighting Hawks (11.0%) are both scoring on a high percentage of their shots on goal, good for 5th and 10th in the country.
Up to this point in the season, here is the specialty teams ledger and team offense/defense for each side:
St. Cloud State team offense: 3.50 goals scored/game
St. Cloud State team defense: 2.75 goals allowed/game
St. Cloud State power play: 0 of 9, 0.0 percent
St. Cloud State penalty kill: 15 of 17, 88.2 percent
North Dakota team offense: 3.60 goals scored/game
North Dakota team defense: 2.00 goals allowed/game
North Dakota power play: 8 of 22, 36.4 percent
North Dakota penalty kill: 17 of 22, 77.3 percent
After today’s tilt with the Huskies, the Fighting Hawks will face St. Cloud State just one more time this season: next Wednesday, December 16th at 7:35 p.m. in the Omaha pod. After its pod games are complete, the Fighting Hawks are not scheduled to face Miami, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State, or Western Michigan during the remainder of the regular season. In addition to four second-half games against Denver, UND will face Omaha six times and Colorado College six times.
Here is the complete NCHC Pod schedule and results for North Dakota:
Pod Game #1: 2-0 win vs. Miami
Pod Game #2: 4-3 overtime win vs. Denver
Pod Game #3: 8-2 win vs. Western Michigan
Pod Game #4: 2-3 loss vs. Denver
Pod Game #5: 2-2 tie/shootout loss vs. Minnesota Duluth
Pod Game #6: St. Cloud State
(Saturday, December 12th at 4:05 p.m.)
Pod Game #7: Western Michigan
(Sunday, December 13th at 4:05 p.m.)
Pod Game #8: St. Cloud State
(Wednesday, December 16th at 7:35 p.m.)
Pod Game #9: Minnesota Duluth
(Saturday, December 19th at 12:05 p.m.)
Pod Game #10: Miami
(Sunday, December 20th at 8:05 p.m.)
For a complete NCHC pod preview and information about all eight league teams, please click this link.
St. Cloud State Huskies
Head Coach: Brett Larson (3rd season at SCSU, 46-22-9, .656)
2019-20 Season Results: 13-15-6 overall, 10-12-2-1 NCHC (5th)
2019-20 Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 2.76 goals scored/game
(29th in the nation)
Team Defense: 3.18 goals allowed/game
(48th in the nation)
Power Play: 18.1% (21 of 116)
(34th in the nation)
Penalty Kill: 79.1% (91 of 115)
(43rd in the nation)
Key graduation losses: F Nick Poehling (8-18-26), F Jack Poehling (9-11-20), F Jake Wahlin (4-8-12), D Jack Ahcan (7-18-25)
Key returning players: Senior F Easton Brodzinski (12-15-27), Junior F Sam Hentges (7-17-24), Junior F Micah Miller (7-11-18), Sophomore F Jami Krannila (5-9-14), Senior F Kevin Fitzgerald (5-7-12), Junior F Nolan Walker (2-10-12), Junior D Nick Perbix (4-11-15), Junior D Spencer Meier (4-6-10), Senior G David Hrenak (12-11-6, 2.76 GAA, .906 SV%, 2 SO)
Additions: Senior F Jared Cockrell (23-29-52 in 112 games over four seasons at Colgate, including an injury-shortened seven-game season in 2018-19), Senior D Seamus Donohue (7-48-55 in 117 games over three seasons at Michigan Tech)
Potential impact freshmen: F Veeti Miettinen, F Joe Molenaar, D Brady Ziemer
North Dakota Fighting Hawks
Head Coach: Brad Berry (6th season at UND, 119-58-24, .652)
2019-20 Season Results: 26-5-4 overall, 17-4-3-2 NCHC (1st)
2019-20 Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 3.86 goals scored/game
(4th in the nation)
Team Defense: 1.94 goals allowed/game
(4th in the nation)
Power Play: 21.2% (29 of 137)
(17th in the nation)
Penalty Kill: 88.0% (103 of 117)
(5th in the nation)
Key graduation losses: F Westin Michaud (16-12-28), F Cole Smith (11-7-18), F Dixon Bowen (6-4-10), D Colton Poolman (4-13-17), D Andrew Peski (1-9-10)
Departures: Junior D Jonny Tychonick (4-7-11, transferred to Omaha)
Key returning players: Senior F Jordan Kawaguchi (15-30-45), Sophomore F Shane Pinto (16-12-28), Senior F Collin Adams (12-16-28), Senior F Grant Mismash (8-12-20), Junior F Jasper Weatherby (10-8-18), Senior D Matt Kiersted (6-23-29), Junior D Jacob Bernard-Docker (7-18-25), Junior G Adam Scheel (19-4-2, 2.07 GAA, .904 SV%, 2 SO)
Additions: Sophomore F Brendan Budy (19-30-49 in 50 games with the Langley Rivermen [BCHL]. In 2018-19, Budy split time between Denver [scoreless in six games] and the USHL’s Tri-City Storm [11-21-31 in 31 games]. In two previous seasons with the Rivermen, the hometown hero from Langley, British Columbia put up a line of 37-64-101 in 105 games.)
Potential impact freshmen: F Griffin Ness, F Riese Gaber, D Jake Sanderson, D Tyler Kleven
By The Numbers
Last Meeting: February 22nd, 2020 (St. Cloud, MN). In the last college hockey game I watched in person, St. Cloud’s Jack Poehling broke a 1-1 tie six minutes into the third period and the Huskies made it hold up despite being outshot 13-5 in the final frame and 30-19 for the game. One night earlier, the teams skated to a 3-3 tie before St. Cloud State notched the extra league point with a shootout win.
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, 74-45-15 (.608). 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: SCSU has won five of the last ten meetings between the teams, with two others ending in ties. Each team has scored 24 goals over that stretch of games. Five 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). UND senior forward Jordan Kawaguchi (32-65-97 in 113 games) is three points shy of reaching 100 points in his North Dakota career. SCSU has made the national tournament 13 times in the past twenty seasons, with one Frozen Four appearance (2013).
Two things stick out to me: St. Cloud State has not scored a power play goal through four games, and, despite their team speed, they have been in 17 shorthanded situations against just nine man-advantage opportunities. SCSU has more offensive skill on the blue line than most of North Dakota’s opponents thus far, but the Fighting Hawks should be able to generate chances off of the forecheck and cycling the puck down low. This feels like the game where things really start to click for the Green and White. UND 4, SCSU 2.
Saturday afternoon’s contest will be broadcast live on Midco Sports Network and will also be available online at NCHC.tv. All UND men’s hockey games can be heard on stations across the UND Sports Home of Economy Radio Network as well as through the iHeart Radio app.
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!