With all of the ties, shootouts, late-game heroics, and overtime winners as well as the disparity in each team’s number of games played in the Omaha pod and over the first few weeks of the second half, it can be difficult to get a handle on who is ahead in the conference standings. The best way I have found is to look at the average number of points earned.
With that as our guide, here’s the NCHC leaderboard (three points for a regulation win, two points for an overtime or shootout win, and one point for an overtime or shootout loss)
1. North Dakota 2.17 (26 points in 12 games)
2. Omaha 1.90 (19 points in 10 games)
3. St. Cloud State 1.80 (27 points in 15 games)
4. Minnesota Duluth 1.62 (21 points in 13 games)
5. Denver 1.25 (15 points in 12 games)
6. Western Michigan 1.19 (19 points in 16 games)
7. Colorado College 1.17 (14 points in 12 games)
8. Miami 1.07 (15 points in 14 games)
#2 North Dakota (9-2-1) played all ten scheduled games in the Omaha pod, but it has not been smooth sailing to open the second half. UND has already had four games scratched against Omaha, with those games rescheduled for later this season. Not wanting two consecutive weekends off, the Fighting Hawks worked with the NCHC to squeeze in last weekend’s Sunday-Monday series in Colorado Springs. After sweeping the Tigers (3-0, 2-1), Brad Berry’s squad returned home to prepare for a Friday/Saturday series against 18th-ranked Pioneers, only to learn on Wednesday that this series would also be pushed back two days. Playing last weekend at altitude will certainly help the Green and White this time around, and the flexibility they have shown in adjusting to game times and days will benefit this team in the national tournament.
In the NCHC, it is clear that Denver/North Dakota is at the top of the league rivalries. The teams have played 33 times during the first seven 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 to end the Fighting Hawks’ 2018-2019 campaign.
(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.)
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.
In the 2019 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.
In 2019-20, North Dakota’s Shane Pinto and Denver’s Bobby Brink were the two frontrunners for Rookie of the Year in the NCHC, with Pinto earning the honor at the end of the season and Brink nabbing a unanimous NCHC All-Rookie Team selection. Here’s how the two stat lines compared:
Bobby Brink (right wing): 11 goals and 13 assists in 24 games played (0.86 points/game)
Shane Pinto (center): 16 goals and 12 assists in 33 games played (0.85 points/game)
In the November 2019 series at altitude in Denver (1-1 tie, 4-1 UND victory), neither freshman figured in on the scoresheet. When the teams took the ice in Grand Forks for a pair of NCHC games in February 2020 (a North Dakota sweep), Shane Pinto scored the first goal of the weekend and Bobby Brink notched a “natural answer” by potting the very next goal by either team. Pinto broke the head-to-head tie with an assist on Matt Kiersted’s opening-period goal in Saturday’s rematch.
Denver netminder Magnus Chrona (16-6-4, 2.15 goals-against average, a save percentage of .920, and two shutouts last season) was also named to the All-Rookie team and was a finalist for the league’s Goalie of the Year award (which was won by Duluth senior Hunter Shepard).
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).
Turning our attention to this weekend’s matchup, Denver sophomore goaltender Magnus Chrona started out the season playing every minute in net, but he has gone just 2-7-0 while giving up nearly three goals per game (2.96) and posting a pedestrian save percentage of .893. Graduate transfer Corbin Kaczperski (2-0-1, 1.76 GAA, .891 SV%) has filled in admirably; here are Kaczperski’s career numbers from his three seasons at Yale:
29-22-4, 2.53 GAA, .911 SV%, and three shutouts.
Junior netminder Adam Scheel (8-1-1. 1.82 GAA, .927 SV%, 2 SO) has made the majority of starts for North Dakota, with senior Peter Thome (1-1-0, 3.86 GAA, .833 SV%) appearing in two games. Scheel came on in relief in UND’s loss to St. Cloud State after Thome allowed four goals on 18 shots in 33 minutes of action. After allowing just one goal in a weekend sweep at Colorado College (the first time UND has ever accomplished that feat), I believe that it’s Adam Scheel’s crease for the foreseeable future.
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, Denver returns 63 percent of its point production from last season, led by junior forward Cole Guttman (14-14-28), sophomore forward Bobby Brink (11-13-24 in 28 games played), junior forward Brett Stapley (5-25-30), senior forward Kohen Olischefski (9-11-20), junior forward Tyler Ward (10-9-19), senior defenseman Griffin Mendel (3-6-9), and junior defenseman Slava Demin (2-7-9). Additionally, grad transfers Steven Jandric (26-54-80 in 107 games over three seasons playing forward at Alaska Fairbanks) and Bo Hanson (11-36-47 in 102 games over three seasons playing defense at St. Lawrence) should chip in offensively.
A key issue that separated the two teams in the first half of the season is that North Dakota mostly avoided the early departure bug while Denver lost forward Emilio Pettersen (13-22-35, left two years early), defenseman Ian Mitchell (10-22-32, left one year early), and goaltender Devin Cooley (4-3-2, 2.08 GAA, .908 SV%, left one year early). Of particular concern for the Pios is that Mitchell’s absence means that they returned only seven goals and 24 total points on their blue line.
By comparison, North Dakota’s five returning defensemen (Gabe Bast, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Ethan Frisch, Matt Kiersted, and Josh Rieger scored 17 goals and added 48 assists for a total of 65 points last season.
I say UND mostly avoided the early-departure bug because while head coach Brad Berry did not see anyone leave his program early for the pro ranks, junior defenseman Jonny Tychonick transferred to Omaha. Tychonick, who put together a line of 4-7-11 in 24 games played last season, was looking for more playing time, and Maverick bench boss Mike Gabinet has certainly used the nimble blueliner in plenty of situations.
North Dakota went 7-2-1 in the pod, while Denver managed just three victories (3-6-1). In the pod, there was simply not as much time for practice, video work, and system adjustment, which meant that the teams with veteran leadership, depth, and good-to-excellent goaltending were in the best position to succeed.
Freshman forward Carter Savoie has been the brightest spot for Denver this season, tallying eight goals and five assists through his first twelve collegiate games. Savoie, a 5-foot-9 left winger who notched 84 goals and 88 assists over two seasons (112 games) with the Sherwood Park Crusaders (AJHL), is a threat to score from anywhere on the ice. The 18-year-old from St. Albert, Alberta was a 4th-round pick (100th overall) of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2020 NHL entry draft.
North Dakota also has a rookie forward with eight goals through his first twelve collegiate games. Freshman Riese Gaber, an undrafted right winger from Gilbert Plains, Manitoba (a six-hour drive from Grand Forks, ND), spent his past two seasons in the USHL, scoring 56 goals and adding 49 assists in 108 games with the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
Savoie and Gaber trail only Western Michigan senior forward Ethen Frank (ten goals in fifteen games) in the league goal-scoring race. Only one freshman has scored more than twelve goals in the history of the NCHC. North Dakota’s Brock Boeser notched 20 goals in 24 conference games in 2015-16, leading UND to its eighth national title.
A half-point per game or better is my benchmark for solid offensive production, and David Carle’s squad has seven players who meet that threshold: freshman forward Carter Savoie (8-5-13), junior forward Cole Guttman (4-6-10), junior forward Brett Stapley (4-3-7), freshman forward McKade Webster (3-4-7), senior forward Kohen Olischefski (3-3-6), sophomore forward Bobby Brink (0-3-3 in three games), and freshman defenseman Mike Benning (1-7-8).
By that same measure, nine North Dakota players make the list: sophomore forward Shane Pinto (5-10-15), senior forward Jordan Kawaguchi (3-11-14), senior defenseman Matt Kiersted (2-10-12), senior forward Grant Mismash (6-6-12), freshman forward Riese Gaber (8-2-10), senior forward Collin Adams (5-7-12), freshman defenseman Jake Sanderson (1-2-3 in five games), sophomore defenseman Ethan Frisch (2-3-5 in ten games), and junior forward Jasper Weatherby (3-3-6).
Kawaguchi was the only NCHC player to notch at least one point in each of his team’s games in the Omaha pod, although he was held scoreless on Monday evening and saw his eleven-game point streak come to an end. UND’s 44 goals this season have been scored by fifteen different players.
It is abundantly clear that North Dakota will have the puck a lot this season, and the numbers bear that out. After twelve games, the Fighting Hawks are fourth in the nation in shots on goal allowed/game (24.8) and are ninth in the country in two key puck possession statistics:
Corsi (% of shots taken vs. opponent): 54.3%
Fenwick (% of unblocked shots taken vs. opponent): 55.6%
By comparison, the Pioneers are 10th in both Corsi (54.2%) and Fenwick (54.7), averaging 30.0 shots on goal per game (North Dakota is averaging 29.3/game) while allowing 24.3 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 56.4 percent, while Denver is 48th (44.5%) among the 51 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 (64.0%), Jasper Weatherby (53.9%), and Collin Adams (55.2%). Denver will counter with Jaakko Heikkinen (40.8%), Cole Guttman (54.4%), Brett Stapley (48.8%), and McKade Webster (39.6%).
In their first meeting in the pod, North Dakota won 37 of 48 faceoffs (77.1%), including an incredible 18-0 performance by Shane Pinto. In the pod rematch, the faceoff battle was a bit closer, with UND winning 37 of 61 draws (60.7%). Pinto also came back to earth, going 17-9 (65.4%).
The Fighting Hawks are scoring on 12.5 percent of their shots on goal, a remarkable statistic good for 5th in the country. By contrast, the Pioneers are only lighting the lamp on 8.9% of their shots on goal (29th).
UND’s scoring margin of 44-25 through twelve games looks impressive, but a look inside the numbers reveals that the Fighting Hawks outscored Western Michigan and Miami 22-7 in four victories and was relatively even (22 goals for, 18 goals against) in its other eight matchups (two each vs. Colorado College, Denver, Duluth, and St. Cloud State).
Through twelve games, Denver has blocked 137 shots as a team, led by Antti Tuomisto (16), Kohen Olischefski (13), Griffin Mendel (12), and Justin Lee (12).
North Dakota has blocked 148 shots, with Matt Kiersted (21), Jacob Bernard-Docker (19), and Gabe Bast (16) leading the way.
Through each team’s first twelve games, here is the specialty teams ledger:
Denver power play: 12 of 48, 25.0 percent
Denver penalty kill: 31 of 40, 77.5 percent
North Dakota power play: 14 of 50, 28.0 percent
North Dakota penalty kill: 42 of 50, 84.0 percent
North Dakota has scored two shorthanded goals this season, while the Pios have none to their credit. Neither team has allowed a shorthanded tally. The Pioneers have scored 12 of their 32 goals this season with the man advantage, while the Fighting Hawks have scored 14 of their 44 goals this season on the power play. Denver must generate more five-on-five chances in this series if the Pios hope to gain a split or better against North Dakota.
UND is scheduled to host the Pios at Ralph Engelstad Arena on February 5th and 6th in the final regular season meetings between the two teams. North Dakota is also scheduled to face Omaha six times and Colorado College twice in the second half of the season. Seven of UND’s final ten regular season games will be played at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
On the injury front, it remains to be seen whether junior forward Gavin Hain makes his return to the North Dakota lineup. Hain was injured in UND’s first game against Colorado College and did not suit up for the rematch.
Denver did not play last weekend because of a positive COVID-19 test within the team, and Sunday’s lineup chart suggests that bench boss David Carle is missing a few players. Most notably, freshman defenseman Mike Benning (1-7-8 in 11 games played) will not suit up in game one. No active Pioneers defenseman has more than three points, although I expect forward Antti Tuomisto (0-4-4) to play defense against UND. Of the seven players expected to patrol the blue line for the Pios, only Tuomisto is right-handed.
Head Coach: David Carle (3rd season at DU, 49-28-12, .618)
National Rankings: #18/#18
This Season: 4-7-1 overall, 4-7-1 NCHC
Last Season: 21-9-6 overall, 11-8-5-4 NCHC (3rd)
2020-2021 Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 2.67 goals scored/game – 30th of 51 teams
Team Defense: 2.75 goals allowed/game – 22nd of 51 teams
Power Play: 25.0% (12 of 48) – 10th of 51 teams
Penalty Kill: 77.5% (31 of 40) – 33rd of 51 teams
Key players: Freshman F Carter Savoie (8-5-13), Junior F Cole Guttman (4-6-10), Junior F Brett Stapley (4-3-7), Freshman F McKade Webster (3-4-7), Senior F Kohen Olischefski (3-3-6), Sophomore F Bobby Brink (0-3-3 in three games), Freshman D Mike Benning (1-7-8), Senior D Bo Hanson (0-3-3), Senior G Corbin Kaczperski (2-0-1, 1.76 GAA, .891 SV%)
North Dakota Fighting Hawks
Head Coach: Brad Berry (6th season at UND, 125-59-24, .659)
National Rankings: #2/#2
This Season: 9-2-1 overall, 9-2-1 NCHC
Last Season: 26-5-4 overall, 17-4-3-2 NCHC (1st)
2020-2021 Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 3.67 goals scored/game – 11th of 51 teams
Team Defense: 2.08 goals allowed/game – 7th of 51 teams
Power Play: 28.0% (14 of 50) – 4th of 51 teams
Penalty Kill: 84.0% (42 of 50) – 17th of 51 teams
Key players: Senior F Jordan Kawaguchi (3-11-14), Sophomore F Shane Pinto (5-10-15), Senior F Grant Mismash (6-6-12), Freshman F Riese Gaber (8-2-10), Senior F Collin Adams (5-7-12), Junior F Jasper Weatherby (3-3-6), Senior D Matt Kiersted (2-10-12), Sophomore D Ethan Frisch (2-3-5), Junior D Jacob Bernard-Docker (1-4-5), Freshman D Jake Sanderson (1-2-3 in five games), Junior G Adam Scheel (8-1-1. 1.82 GAA, .927 SV%, 2 SO)
By The Numbers
Last Meeting: Tuesday, December 8 (Omaha, NE). In their second pod matchup in five days, the Pioneers built an early 2-0 before UND clawed back to even the score late in the 2nd period. The two teams traded chances in the third before Denver’s Carter Savoie netted the game-winning power play goal with just over two minutes remaining in the contest. Each team scored two goals with the man advantage. In their first pod meeting (Friday, December 4th), the two teams needed an extra session, where frequent overtime hero Jordan Kawaguchi sent fans of the Green and White into a frenzy. UND outshot Denver 35-22, including a 14-5 advantage in the second period.
Last Meeting in Denver: November 16, 2019. One night after Colton Poolman scored during the 3-on-3 session to give the visitors the extra point, Cole Smith scored two goals in a 4-1 UND victory. Denver outshot North Dakota 28-22 but went scoreless on six power plays.
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 matchup. 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: After going 0-3-1 over the last four games of the 2018-2019 season, North Dakota went 3-0-1 against the Pioneers last year, outscoring the Pios 12-4 in the process. A split in the Omaha pod leaves the teams at 4-4-2 over the last ten games. UND has scored a total of seventeen goals in the last five games after scoring only five combined goals in the five games before that. On a positive note, the Pioneers have only scored nineteen goals in the past ten. Three of the last ten meetings have gone into overtime.
All-time Series: UND leads the all-time series, 150-129-16 (.536), although Denver enjoys a 76-55-5 (.577) advantage in games played at altitude. The teams first met in 1950, with North Dakota prevailing 18-3 in Denver.
Game News and Notes
North Dakota has won six consecutive games, outscoring opponents 23-10 over that stretch. UND and DU were tabbed to finish one-two in the league in the 2020-2021 NCHC Preseason Media Poll. To this point in the season, the Pioneers are not holding up their end of the bargain. UND is one of just five Division I men’s college hockey teams that have yet to play a home game. 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.
I don’t think that either team can pick up more than four of the six possible points this weekend. North Dakota has an edge on the back end and in net, but either team can score at any time. I give the edge to the visitors in the opener, and I’m expecting an overtime contest in the rematch. UND 4-2, DU 4-3 (OT).
Sunday evening’s game will be broadcast live on Altitude and picked up locally by MidcoSN, while Monday’s rematch will be available nationally on CBS Sports Network. Both games 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!