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 2.11 (38 points in 18 games)
2. Minnesota Duluth 2.05 (39 points in 19 games)
3. St. Cloud State 1.95 (37 points in 19 games)
4. Omaha 1.78 (32 points in 18 games)
5. Denver 1.39 (25 points in 18 games)
6. Western Michigan 1.05 (21 points in 20 games)
7. Colorado College 0.94 (15 points in 16 games)
8. Miami 0.75 (15 points in 20 games)
#2 North Dakota (13-4-1) played all ten scheduled games in the Omaha pod, but it has not been smooth sailing in the second half. UND has already had multiple weekends scratched and rescheduled in the second half; the league has done an excellent job helping teams get games in when possible, and the flexibility the Fighting Hawks have shown in adjusting to game times and days will benefit the team in the national tournament.
Remarkably, Denver (7-10-1) has fallen out of the national rankings after appearing in each of the last 159 polls. The longest active streak now belongs to Minnesota Duluth (115). A stick tap to Twitterer @LetsGoDU for the info.
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.)
And this season has been no different, with the teams combining for 104 penalty minutes in four games. Furthermore, the last contest between the squads saw a DU goaltender run over with nine minutes remaining, which ignited tempers further (more on that below).
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.
Brink has collected four assists in his three games against UND this season. Overall, he has appeared in just nine games this year, with one goal and six assists.
Pinto has just two assists in his four games against Denver this year, but his overall play has him in the mix for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award. The sophomore from Franklin Square, New York has an overall line of 11-12-23 in eighteen games played, a faceoff win percentage of 62.8% (tops in the league), and a plus-minus rating of plus-13. Pinto has collected multiple points in his past four games and nine games overall this season, which is tied for the NCAA lead.
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 4-8-0 with a goals-against average of 2.66 and a save percentage of .901. Graduate transfer Corbin Kaczperski (3-2-1, 2.60 GAA, .868 SV%) has been up and down in his nine games played; here are Kaczperski’s career numbers from his three seasons at Yale:
29-22-4, 2.53 GAA, .911 SV%, and three shutouts.
In North Dakota’s second game at Denver last month (January 18th), UND’s Grant Mismash was issued a major penalty, a game misconduct, and an additional one-game suspension for running into DU goaltender Magnus Chrona with just over nine minutes remaining in the hockey game. Chrona, a 6’-6”, 216 lb. sophomore from Skelleftea, Sweden, has appeared in just one contest since the incident, a 3-1 victory over Omaha last Friday, February 5th in which he made sixteen saves.
Junior netminder Adam Scheel (12-3-1. 1.99 GAA, .921 SV%, 3 SO) has made the majority of starts for North Dakota, with senior Peter Thome (1-1-0, 3.18 GAA, .870 SV%) appearing in three 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 giving up just four total goals in his previous four starts, Scheel allowed five goals on 27 shots at Omaha in UND’s last game. Despite that performance, I believe that it’s Adam Scheel’s crease for the foreseeable future.
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.
To be fair, Denver’s freshman blueliners have stepped up, with Mike Benning (1-7-8), Antti Tuomisto (1-6-7), and Reid Irwin (3-0-3) ranking 1st, 2nd, and 5th in scoring among Pioneer defensemen.
North Dakota also brought in three freshmen on the back end, and Jake Sanderson (1-5-6), Tyler Kleven (3-1-4), and Cooper Moore (2-3-5) have UND boasting its finest defensive depth since the 2015-2016 championship 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 ten goals and five assists through his first eighteen 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 who has splashed through his first eighteen collegiate games. Freshman Riese Gaber (8-6-14) is an undrafted right winger from Gilbert Plains, Manitoba (a six-hour drive from Grand Forks, ND) who spent his past two seasons in the USHL, scoring 56 goals and adding 49 assists in 108 games with the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
Savoie trails only North Dakota’s Shane Pinto (11) and Minnesota Duluth’s Cole Koepke (11) 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 (10-5-15), junior forward Cole Guttman (5-10-15), junior forward Brett Stapley (4-3-7 in thirteen games), senior forward Kohen Olischefski (3-6-9), sophomore forward Bobby Brink (1-6-7 in nine games), freshman defenseman Mike Benning (1-7-8), and junior forward Hank Crone (4-1-5 in nine games).
By that same measure, eight North Dakota players make the list: sophomore forward Shane Pinto (11-12-23), senior forward Jordan Kawaguchi (5-16-21), senior defenseman Matt Kiersted (3-14-17), senior forward Grant Mismash (9-9-18), freshman forward Riese Gaber (8-6-14), senior forward Collin Adams (6-11-17), freshman defenseman Jake Sanderson (1-5-6 in eleven games), and junior forward Mark Senden(2-8-10).
It is abundantly clear that North Dakota will have the puck a lot this season, and the numbers bear that out. After eighteen games, the Fighting Hawks are fifth in the nation in shots on goal allowed/game (25.2) and are in the top seven in the country in two key puck possession statistics:
Corsi (% of shots taken vs. opponent): 55.6% (7th)
Fenwick (% of unblocked shots taken vs. opponent): 56.2 (6th)
By comparison, the Pioneers are 9th in Corsi (54.9%) and 8th in Fenwick (55.3), averaging 31.7 shots on goal per game (North Dakota is averaging 31.2/game) while allowing 24.2 shots on goal against/contest.
One key area to watch in this contest is the face-off dot. The Fighting Hawks are first in the nation in faceoff win percentage at 56.5 percent, while Denver is 46th (45.8%) 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 (62.8%), Jasper Weatherby (55.2%), and Collin Adams (56.7%). Denver will counter with Cole Guttman (57.1%), Jaakko Heikkinen (30.9%), Brett Stapley (47.3%), and McKade Webster (41.8%).
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%). In the series at altitude last month, the Fighting Hawks won the faceoff battle 68-57.
The Fighting Hawks are scoring on 12.3 percent of their shots on goal, a remarkable statistic good for 4th in the country. The Pioneers are way back in 36th place, lighting the lamp on just 8.8 percent of their shots on goal.
North Dakota’s puck possession game and sharpshooting have led to 69 goals scored by eighteen different players in eighteen games (3.83 goals scored/game); 69 goals is the high-water mark in the NCHC this season. Denver’s 50 goals have also been scored by eighteen different players.
Here are the three closest teams in terms of offensive production:
Omaha: 62 goals scored in 18 games (3.44 goals scored/game)
St. Cloud State: 63 goals scored in 19 games (3.32)
Minnesota Duluth: 62 goals scored in 19 games (3.26)
UND’s offensive prowess is matched by their stingy defense, as the Fighting Hawks have only allowed 38 goals in eighteen games (2.11 goals allowed/game), the lowest total in the NCHC. Minnesota Duluth has allowed 39 goals in 19 games this season for a better average (2.05).
By comparison, Denver is scoring 2.78 goals per game while allowing 2.83.
UND’s scoring margin of 69-38 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 (33 goals for, 29 goals against) in its other ten matchups (four games against Denver and two each vs. Duluth, Omaha, and St. Cloud State), going 5-4-1 in those contests. To this point in the season, the Fighting Hawks have outscored the Pioneers 12-11 while going 2-2-0 in the four games played.
Amazingly, Western Michigan has already allowed 79 goals through twenty games, an average of 3.95 goals allowed/game. North Dakota scored 14 of those goals in its two pod contests against the Broncos.
Through eighteen games, Denver has blocked 208 shots as a team, led by Justin Lee (22), Griffin Mendel (22), Antti Tuomisto (19), and Kohen Olischefski (19).
North Dakota has blocked 229 shots in its eighteen games, with Matt Kiersted (32), Jacob Bernard-Docker (27), and Ethan Frisch (15 in thirteen games) leading the way. Gabe Bast contributed 16 blocks in his twelve pre-injury games; he is expected to be back in the lineup this weekend.
Through each team’s first eighteen games, here is the specialty teams ledger:
Denver power play: 14 of 73, 19.2 percent
Denver penalty kill: 52 of 65, 80.0 percent
North Dakota power play: 18 of 79, 22.8 percent
North Dakota penalty kill: 68 of 80, 85.0 percent
North Dakota has scored two shorthanded goals this season, while the Pios have one to their credit. Neither team has allowed a shorthanded tally. That leaves Denver’s net specialty teams at a +2, while UND weighs in at +8.
As one of the nation’s most penalized teams, North Dakota’s penalty kill finally let them down in their last game at Omaha, allowing three power play goals to the Mavericks on five man-advantage opportunities in a 5-4 loss.
The Pioneers have scored 14 of their 50 goals this season with the man advantage, while the Fighting Hawks have scored 18 of their 69 goals this season on the power play.
Two factors are working against the Pioneers this weekend:
North Dakota held DU scoreless on nine power plays in the January series in Denver.
The Pioneers are just 2 for their last 26 with the man advantage (7.7%).
Denver must generate more five-on-five chances in this series if the Pios hope to gain league points this weekend in Grand Forks.
After this weekend, North Dakota is scheduled to host Omaha next weekend (February 19th-20th) as well as on Friday, March 5th and travel to Omaha for a single game on Friday, February 26th. Five of UND’s final six regular season games – as well as all of its games in the league playoffs – will be played at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Head Coach: David Carle (3rd season at DU, 52-31-12, .611)
National Rankings: NR/NR
This Season: 7-10-1 overall, 7-10-1 NCHC
Last Season: 21-9-6 overall, 11-8-5-4 NCHC (3rd)
2020-2021 Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 2.78 goals scored/game – 30th of 51 teams
Team Defense: 2.83 goals allowed/game – 26th of 51 teams
Power Play: 19.2% (14 of 73) – 27th of 51 teams
Penalty Kill: 80.0% (52 of 65) – 24th of 51 teams
Key players: Freshman F Carter Savoie (10-5-15), Junior F Cole Guttman (5-10-15), Junior F Brett Stapley (4-3-7), Freshman F McKade Webster (3-5-8), Senior F Kohen Olischefski (3-6-9), Sophomore F Bobby Brink (1-6-7 in nine games), Freshman D Mike Benning (1-7-8), Freshman D Antti Tuomisto (1-6-7), Junior D Slava Demin (3-3-6), Sophomore G Magnus Chrona (4-8-0, 2.66 GAA, .901 SV%)
North Dakota Fighting Hawks
Head Coach: Brad Berry (6th season at UND, 129-61-24, .659)
National Rankings: #2/#1
This Season: 13-4-1 overall, 13-4-1 NCHC
Last Season: 26-5-4 overall, 17-4-3-2 NCHC (1st)
2020-2021 Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 3.83 goals scored/game – 6th of 51 teams
Team Defense: 2.11 goals allowed/game – 9th of 51 teams
Power Play: 22.8% (18 of 79) – 14th of 51 teams
Penalty Kill: 85.0% (68 of 80) – 12th of 51 teams
Key players: Senior F Jordan Kawaguchi (5-16-21), Sophomore F Shane Pinto (11-12-23), Senior F Grant Mismash (9-9-18), Freshman F Riese Gaber (8-6-14), Senior F Collin Adams (6-11-17), Junior F Mark Senden (2-8-10), Senior D Matt Kiersted (3-14-17), Sophomore D Ethan Frisch (3-3-6), Junior D Jacob Bernard-Docker (1-7-8), Freshman D Jake Sanderson (1-5-6 in eleven games), Junior G Adam Scheel (12-3-1. 1.99 GAA, .921 SV%, 3 SO)
By The Numbers
Last Meeting: January 18, 2021 (Denver, CO). One night after dropping a 4-1 decision to the homestanding Pioneers, North Dakota earned a split on the weekend series with a 5-1 victory despite being outshot 33-26. A key factor in the game was an 0-for-7 performance by the Pios on the power play. UND’s Grant Mismash was issued a major penalty, a game misconduct, and an additional one-game suspension for running into DU goaltender Magnus Chrona with just over nine minutes remaining in the hockey game. Fighting Hawks netminder Adam Scheel was pulled in the opener after allowing four goals on twenty shots through the first two periods but rebounded nicely in the rematch, making 32 of 33 saves.
Last Meeting in Grand Forks: Saturday, February 15, 2020. #1 North Dakota built a 2-0 lead after two periods before #6 Denver’s Brett Edwards cut the lead in half midway through the third period. A furious Pioneers rally fell short as UND’s Jasper Weatherby potted an empty-net goal with 12 seconds remaining. In Friday’s opener, the Fighting Hawks downed the Pios 4-1 behind power play goals from Westin Michaud and Jacob Bernard-Docker. Peter Thome made 51 saves for the Green and White in the weekend sweep.
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 losing the last two 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. Splits in the Omaha pod and in Denver give the Fighting Hawks a slight 5-4-1 (.550) advantage over the last ten games. UND has outscored DU 26-21 over that stretch, including a 12-11 scoreboard advantage this season.
All-time Series: UND leads the all-time series, 151-130-16 (.535), with a considerable edge of 87-44-10 (.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
Denver has been outscored 24-18 in third periods and overtime this season, while UND is outscoring opponents 24-13 in the same frames. North Dakota 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. 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.
Denver’s pattern over the last three weekends has been to come out strong in game one (outscoring opponents 11-3) and fade in game two (outscored 7-15). That’s what I’m going with here as well, with North Dakota’s depth shining through in the series finale. DU 3-2, UND 5-2.
Both games 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!