Weekend Preview: UND at Omaha

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. It is also possible that the teams will finish the regular season with an uneven number of games played; in that case, the league will use average points earned/game as the measuring stick to determine the league championship as well as the matchups in the first round of the conference playoffs.

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 2.19 (35 points in 16 games)
2. St. Cloud State 1.94 (33 points in 17 games)
3. Omaha 1.93 (27 points in 14 games)
4. Minnesota Duluth 1.80 (27 points in 15 games)
5. Denver 1.31 (21 points in 16 games)
6. Western Michigan 1.06 (19 points in 18 games)
7. Colorado College 0.94 (15 points in 16 games)
7. Miami 0.94 (15 points in 16 games)

#9 Omaha (9-4-1) has been the biggest surprise in the NCHC this season. While I expected them to have good results in the pod (and they did, posting a record of 6-3-1), I thought that they might regress in the second half. Over the past two weekends, the Mavs went out to Colorado Springs and swept the Tigers (3-2, 3-2 OT) before splitting a home series with Denver (1-4, 5-2). A home split may not seem impressive, but Saturday’s win was the first time that Omaha had beaten the Pioneers in six years, snapping a nineteen-game winless streak.

Mike Gabinet’s squad could be ranked even higher were it not for a disappointing 1-0 defeat at the hands of Miami back on December 12th. In that contest, the Mavs outshot the RedHawks 30-12 (including 15-2 in the third period) but could not solve Ludvig Persson. Other than that frustration, Miami has fared extremely well in close games, winning two games in overtime and another in a shootout.

#2 North Dakota (12-3-1) played all ten scheduled games in the Omaha pod (going 7-2-1), but the second half has had a few hiccups. 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 a Sunday-Monday series in Colorado Springs three weekends ago. After sweeping the Tigers (3-0, 2-1), Brad Berry’s squad returned home to prepare for a road series against the 18th-ranked Pioneers, only to learn on Wednesday that that series would also be pushed back two days. Last week’s home series against CC was also pushed back to a Saturday-Sunday series, with UND winning both nights. As I mentioned last week, the flexibility that the Fighting Hawks have shown in adjusting to game times and days will benefit this team in the national tournament.

After a trip to the Frozen Four in 2015, Dean Blais could only manage a mark of 35-34-6 over his final two seasons behind the Omaha bench. He was replaced by Mike Gabinet (Omaha ’04), and Gabinet finished up his rookie campaign with an eerily similar record of 17-17-2.

Maverick fans were certainly hopeful that improvement was coming two seasons ago, but Omaha struggled out of the gate with a record of 0-6-1. Things leveled off a bit after that, with a record of 6-4-1 to close out 2018. Once the calendar year turned, however, Gabinet was only able to lead his team to three more wins (the last coming on February 8th) and a season record of 9-24-3. UNO fans had to have been a bit more pleased with last season’s results, as the 2019-20 version of the Mavs collected fourteen victories (14-17-5).

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 winning its second consecutive national title (and third in team history) in 2019, the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs were picked to finish first in the NCHC and capture the program’s first-ever Penrose Cup last season. Things looked to be on schedule for UMD, as they took a 7-1-2 record into St. Cloud. The Huskies earned a home sweep over Duluth (2-1, 2-0) to send the Bulldogs home reeling. North Dakota, which held a three-point lead over Scott Sandelin’s crew before those games, took five of six points at Miami to extend its lead to eight points over Duluth and nine points over Denver. UND never looked back, securing the program’s third Penrose Cup (2015, 2016) with a conference record of 17-4-3-2.

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, sophomore netminder Isaiah Saville (7-4-1, 2.18 GAA, .928 SV%, 1 SO) has been spectacular in net for the Mavs, with classmate Austin Roden appearing in three games (2-0-0. 2.35 GAA, .933 SV%, 1 SO). Omaha has allowed more than two goals only four times all season, while North Dakota’s opponents have scored more than two goals six times.

Junior netminder Adam Scheel (11-2-1. 1.77 GAA, .928 SV%, 3 SO) has been the clear-cut #1 for North Dakota, with senior Peter Thome (1-1-0, 3.18 GAA, .870 SV%) appearing in three games. Scheel won both games against the Tigers last weekend in Grand Forks, allowing just one goal on 34 shots in the two-game sweep and earning NCHC Goaltender of the Week honors for the second time in the past three weeks.

A half-point per game or better is my benchmark for solid offensive production, and Mike Gabinet’s squad boasts eleven players who meet that threshold: junior forward Chase Primeau (4-9-13), junior forward Taylor Ward (7-4-11), junior forward Tyler Weiss (4-7-11), senior forward Kevin Conley (5-5-10), freshman forward Matt Miller (6-3-9), sophomore forward Jack Randl (4-5-9), sophomore forward Joey Abate (1-7-8), senior forward Martin Sundberg (5-2-7), sophomore forward Ryan Brushett (0-6-6), sophomore defenseman Brandon Scanlin (1-9-10), and junior defenseman Jason Smallidge (1-7-8).

By that same measure, eight North Dakota players make the list: sophomore forward Shane Pinto (8-11-19), senior forward Jordan Kawaguchi (5-13-18), senior defenseman Matt Kiersted (3-13-16), senior forward Grant Mismash (8-7-15), freshman forward Riese Gaber (8-4-12), senior forward Collin Adams (6-10-16), junior forward Mark Senden (1-8-9), and freshman defenseman Jake Sanderson (1-4-5 in nine games).

Jordan Kawaguchi was the only NCHC player to notch at least one point in each of his team’s games in the Omaha pod. Shane Pinto has already generated 100 shot attempts this season and leads the entire league in scoring, one point ahead of Kawaguchi, Duluth’s Nick Swaney (6-12-18), and St. Cloud State’s Veeti Miettinen (9-9-18). Both Kawaguchi (6th in the nation in scoring) and Pinto (4th) should be considered candidates for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award along with teammate Matt Kiersted, whose 16 points rank third among defensemen.

It is abundantly clear that North Dakota will have the puck a lot this season, and the numbers bear that out. After sixteen games, the Fighting Hawks are fourth in the nation in shots on goal allowed/game (24.7) and are in the top ten in two key puck possession statistics:

Corsi (% of shots taken vs. opponent): 55.0% (9th)
Fenwick (% of unblocked shots taken vs. opponent): 56.2% (7th)

By comparison, the Mavs are 29th in Corsi (49.2%) and 26th in Fenwick (49.9%), averaging 28.7 shots on goal per game (North Dakota is averaging 29.9/game) while allowing 31.1 shots on goal against/contest. Remarkably, Omaha is outscoring opponents 49-32 despite being outshot 435-402 on the season (North Dakota is outshooting opponents 479-395).

One key area to watch in this contest is the face-off dot. The Fighting Hawks are leading the nation in faceoff win percentage at 56.2 percent, while the Mavericks are 15th in the country at 52.2%. To this point of the season, 51 men’s Division I college hockey teams have played at least one game.

Leading the way in the faceoff circle for North Dakota have been Shane Pinto (62.7%), Jasper Weatherby (54.2%), Collin Adams (56.6%), and Mark Senden (48.3%). Omaha will counter with Nolan Sullivan (60.8%), Chayse Primeau (51.6%), Noah Prokop (56.9%), and Joey Abate (43.6%). Pinto and Sullivan are the top two faceoff men in the NCHC.

The Fighting Hawks are scoring on 12.3 percent of their shots on goal, a remarkable statistic good for 6th in the country. The Mavs are right behind in eighth place, lighting the lamp on 12.2 percent of their shots on goal.

North Dakota’s puck possession game and sharpshooting have led to 59 goals scored by eighteen different players in sixteen games (3.69 goals scored/game); 59 goals is the high-water mark in the NCHC this season. Omaha’s 49 goals have been scored by sixteen different players.

Here are the three closest teams in terms of offensive production:

St. Cloud State: 54 goals scored in 17 games (3.18 goals scored/game)
Western Michigan: 50 goals scored in 18 games (2.78)
Omaha: 49 goals scored in 14 games (3.50)

No other league team has scored more than 43 goals this season.

UND’s offensive prowess is matched by their stingy defense, as the Fighting Hawks have only allowed 31 goals in sixteen games (1.94 goals allowed/game), the lowest total in the NCHC. Omaha has allowed 32 goals in 14 games (2.29 goals allowed/game), with Minnesota Duluth close behind (33 in 15; 2.20).

UND’s scoring margin of 59-31 is certainly impressive, but a look inside the numbers reveals that the Fighting Hawks outscored Colorado College, Western Michigan, and Miami 36-9 in eight games (8-0-0) and played relatively even (23 goals for, 22 goals against) in its other eight matchups (four games against Denver and two each vs. Duluth and St. Cloud State), going 4-3-1 in those contests.

Amazingly, Western Michigan has already allowed 70 goals through eighteen games, an average of 3.89 goals allowed/game. North Dakota scored 14 of those goals in its two pod contests against the Broncos.

Through fourteen games, Omaha has blocked 208 shots as a team, led by Nate Koepke (35), Jason Smallidge (29), and Kirby Proctor (15).

North Dakota has blocked 209 shots in its sixteen games, with Matt Kiersted (31), Jacob Bernard-Docker (26), and Ethan Frisch (15 in eleven games) leading the way. Gabe Bast contributed 16 blocks in his twelve games but is expected to be out of the lineup again this weekend.

Special teams will be a huge battle this weekend, with both squads boasting terrific power play and penalty kill units.

Omaha has scored eleven power play goals this season and has successfully killed 47 of 50 opponent man advantage opportunities (94.0%, the best penalty kill in the country). To their credit, the Mavs have scored two shorthanded goals, but they have also allowed four to their opponents. This brings their net special teams margin to +6.

North Dakota has scored seventeen power play goals this season and has successfully killed 60 of 68 opponent man advantage opportunities, including 41 of its last 42 to bring its season-long average to 88.2% (tenth-best in the nation). The Fighting Hawks have also scored two shorthanded goals while not allowing any, for a net special teams margin of +11.

As mentioned above, UND is expected to once again be without the services of senior defenseman Gabe Bast, who was injured three weekends ago at Colorado College and has not returned to the lineup. Bast has appeared in 97 games in his North Dakota hockey career. On the plus side for UND, sophomore blueliner Ethan Frisch will make his return to the lineup in this series after missing the past three games. In the absence of Bast and Frisch, head coach Brad Berry went with a third D-pair of freshman Cooper Moore and senior Josh Rieger last weekend against the Tigers. Thankfully for the Fighting Hawks, both Moore and Reiger got extended playing time in the Omaha pod while freshmen Jake Sanderson and Tyler Kleven were off winning gold medals at the World Junior Championships. I expect Frisch to displace Rieger on the blueline against the Mavericks, as Cooper Moore has developed nicely over the first half of the season and deserves to see the ice.

When North Dakota is healthy on the back end, they enjoy a roster advantage against nearly every opponent, and that will be the case again this weekend. Omaha’s six most likely starters on defense have combined for seven goals and 23 assists in 74 combined games this season (0.41 points/game), while UND’s top six have scored eleven goals and added 28 assists in 73 games (0.53 points/game). All six UND blueliners expected in the lineup this weekend can defend, move the puck, and score, and Brad Berry has the luxury of trusting all of his defensemen in all situations, much like he had during North Dakota’s run to the national title in 2016 (with Gage Ausmus, Paul LaDue, Tucker Poolman, Hayden Shaw, Troy Stecher, Keaton Thompson, and Christian Wolanin manning the back end).

Remarkably, the Fighting Hawks’ d-corps has put up those numbers while also allowing just 1.94 goals per contest (5th in the country). By comparison, Omaha is allowing 2.29 goals per game (13th).

After this weekend, UND and Omaha are scheduled to play four more times; here is North Dakota’s remaining regular season schedule (subject to change, of course):

January 29 and 30: at Omaha
February 5 and 6: No games scheduled
February 12 and 13: vs. Denver
February 19 and 20: vs. Omaha
February 26: at Omaha
March 5: vs. Omaha

NCHC quarterfinals are scheduled at home venues on March 12-14, with the NCHC Frozen Faceoff the following weekend at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. UND is hosting an NCAA Regional in Fargo, North Dakota on March 26 and 27 and would be automatically placed in that regional if they are selected for the national tournament.

Omaha Mavericks

Head Coach: Mike Gabinet (4th season at UNO, 49-62-11, .447)
National Rankings: #9/#9

This Season: 9-4-1 overall, 9-4-1 NCHC
Last Season: 14-17-5 overall, 8-13-3-0 NCHC (6th)

Team Offense: 3.50 goals scored/game – 15th of 51 teams
Team Defense: 2.29 goals allowed/game – 13th of 51 teams
Power Play: 20.4% (11 of 54) – 22nd of 51 teams
Penalty Kill: 94.0% (47 of 50) – 1st of 51 teams

Key Players: Junior F Chase Primeau (4-9-13), Junior F Taylor Ward (7-4-11), Junior F Tyler Weiss (4-7-11), Senior F Kevin Conley (5-5-10), Freshman F Matt Miller (6-3-9), Sophomore F Jack Randl (4-5-9), Sophomore F Joey Abate (1-7-8), Sophomore D Brandon Scanlin (1-9-10), Junior D Jason Smallidge (1-7-8), Sophomore G Isaiah Saville (7-4-1, 2.18 GAA, .928 SV%, 1 SO)

North Dakota Fighting Hawks

Head Coach: Brad Berry (6th season at UND, 128-60-24, .660)
National Rankings: #2/#3

This Season: 12-3-1 overall, 12-3-1 NCHC
Last Season: 26-5-4 overall, 17-4-3-2 NCHC (1st)

2020-2021 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 3.69 goals scored/game – 10th of 51 teams
Team Defense: 1.94 goals allowed/game – 5th of 51 teams
Power Play: 24.6% (17 of 69) – 8th of 51 teams
Penalty Kill: 88.2% (60 of 68) – 10th of 51 teams

Key players: Senior F Jordan Kawaguchi (5-13-18), Sophomore F Shane Pinto (8-11-19), Senior F Grant Mismash (8-7-15), Freshman F Riese Gaber (8-4-12), Senior F Collin Adams (6-10-16), Junior F Mark Senden (1-8-9), Senior D Matt Kiersted (3-13-16), Sophomore D Ethan Frisch (2-3-5 in eleven games), Junior D Jacob Bernard-Docker (1-5-6), Freshman D Jake Sanderson (1-4-5 in nine games), Junior G Adam Scheel (11-2-1. 1.77 GAA, .928 SV%, 3 SO)

By The Numbers:

Last meeting: March 7, 2020 (Omaha, NE). One night after dropping a 4-1 decision to the Mavs, North Dakota rebounded with a resounding 5-0 triumph, highlighted by two power play goals and Colton Poolman’s shorthanded marker late in the first period. Jacob Bernard-Docker scored twice while netminder Peter Thome stopped all 17 shots he faced. Saturday’s game would be the last of the season for the Fighting Hawks, ending a fantastic campaign at 26-5-4.

Most memorable meeting: The game that UND fans will long remember is the outdoor game played at TD Ameritrade Park (Omaha, Nebraska) on February 9th, 2013. One day after winning a tight 2-1 contest indoors, North Dakota throttled UNO 5-2 on a sunny, melty afternoon. Mavericks netminder John Faulkner was pulled after allowing three goals on five shots in just ten minutes of game action. In my opinion, this hockey weekend solidified the notion that for UND hockey, it’s always a home game.

Last ten: North Dakota has won seven of the last ten contests between the schools, outscoring the Mavericks 35-26 over that stretch.

All-time: UND leads the all-time series 24-13-1 (.645), including a 12-6-0 (.667) record in games played in Omaha. North Dakota owns a record of 19-10-1 (.650) against the Mavericks since both teams joined the NCHC. The teams first met on November 19, 2010.

Game News and Notes

In 2015, both North Dakota and Omaha advanced to the Frozen Four but neither team made the championship game. UND fell to Boston University 5-3, while the Mavericks were upended 4-1 by eventual national champion Providence. Since joining the WCHA in 2011 (and later the NCHC), the Mavs have never reached the Twin Cities for the second weekend of the conference tournament despite having home ice in three of those eight years. UND senior forward Jordan Kawaguchi has ten points in thirteen career games against Omaha. The Mavericks have not made the national tournament since their run to the Frozen Four in 2015. Johnny Tychonick has scored one goal and added one assist in his eleven games with the Mavs. Tychonick was a member of the North Dakota men’s hockey team for the past two seasons. Incredibly, UND’s Collin Adams has scored six goals in only 25 shots on net. North Dakota’s Brad Berry is 15-7-0 (.682) in his head coaching career against Omaha. Since coming out flat in game one at Denver two weekends ago, UND has won three straight, outscoring opponents 14-2.

The Prediction

I am very interested to see just how the season series between these two squads plays out. With so many games in just a few short weeks – and with so much on the line, including NCAA tournament berths and the Penrose Cup – I expect every game to be tightly contested and have a playoff atmosphere despite limited fans. The last two series in Omaha have been splits, and I can’t deviate from that formula until I see both teams hit the ice tonight. The Mavericks are coming off of a huge victory against the Pios, and the first ten minutes will tell the tale. If North Dakota can weather the early storm and play large stretches of the weekend at 5-on-5, they’ve got a shot at putting some more distance between themselves and the Mavs. As it is, though, I see each side claiming one victory, and, with three of the remaining four head-to-head matchups taking place at Ralph Engelstad Arena, the Fighting Hawks should have the inside track to the Penrose Cup. Omaha 4-3, UND 3-1.

Broadcast Information

Friday’s opener (7:00 Central Time) will be broadcast live on CBS Sports Network, with Saturday’s rematch (6:00 Central Time) available on 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.

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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