Weekend Preview: UND vs. 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 during the second half of the season, 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 2.20 (44 points in 20 games)
2. St. Cloud State 1.90 (40 points in 21 games)
3. Omaha 1.90 (38 points in 20 games)
4. Minnesota Duluth 1.77 (39 points in 22 games)
5. Denver 1.25 (25 points in 20 games)
6. Western Michigan 1.23 (27 points in 22 games)
7. Colorado College 0.95 (18 points in 19 games)
8. Miami 0.82 (18 points in 22 games)

After losing last night for the third straight game, Duluth has been mathematically eliminated from the race for the Penrose Cup; the top three teams in the standings can all finish as NCHC regular season champions.

#2 North Dakota (15-4-1) 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.

#9 Omaha (13-6-1) 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, and they certainly haven’t, going a combined 7-3 against Colorado College (4-0), Denver (2-2), and North Dakota (1-1). Prior to this season, it had been six seasons since the Mavericks defeated the Pioneers (a nineteen-game wineless 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, Omaha has fared extremely well in close games, winning three games in overtime and another in a shootout.

Turning back the clock a bit: 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).

As another sign that Berry has righted the ship, UND is now 41-9-5 (.791) over the past two seasons.

Turning our attention to this weekend’s matchup, sophomore netminder Isaiah Saville (11-6-1, 2.52 GAA, .921 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 eight times all season (including both games against UND), while North Dakota’s opponents have scored more than two goals seven times.

Junior netminder Adam Scheel (13-3-1. 1.88 GAA, .925 SV%, 4 SO) has made the majority of starts for North Dakota, with senior Peter Thome (2-1-0, 2.79 GAA, .879 SV%) appearing in four 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 in UND’s last game at Omaha but rebounded with a 24-save shutout performance against Denver last Friday night. Near the end of that contest, Denver captain Kohen Olischefski tripped Scheel from behind and earned himself a major penalty and a one-game suspension. Scheel was unable to play in Saturday’s rematch but is expected to be available for this weekend’s series against the Mavericks.

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 (8-14-22), junior forward Taylor Ward (10-6-16), junior forward Tyler Weiss (5-14-19), senior forward Kevin Conley (7-7-14), freshman forward Matt Miller (7-5-12), sophomore forward Jack Randl (4-7-11), freshman forward Brock Bremer (5-6-11), sophomore forward Joey Abate (1-7-8), senior forward Martin Sundberg (6-3-9), defenseman Brandon Scanlin (2-12-14), and freshman defenseman Jake Harrison (0-3-3 in six games).

By that same measure, eight North Dakota players make the list: sophomore forward Shane Pinto (14-12-26), senior forward Jordan Kawaguchi (5-18-23), senior defenseman Matt Kiersted (3-16-19), senior forward Grant Mismash (9-9-18), freshman forward Riese Gaber (8-7-15), senior forward Collin Adams (7-12-19), junior forward Jasper Weatherby (8-4-12), and junior forward Mark Senden (2-9-11).

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 125 shot attempts this season and leads the entire league in scoring, two points ahead of Duluth’s Nick Swaney (10-14-24 in 22 games played). Both Kawaguchi (10th in the nation in scoring) and Pinto (4th) should be considered candidates for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award along with teammate Matt Kiersted, whose 19 points rank second among defensemen.

It is abundantly clear that North Dakota will have the puck a lot this season, and the numbers bear that out. After twenty games, the Fighting Hawks are 6th in the nation in shots on goal allowed/game (24.9) and are in the top seven in the country in two key puck possession statistics:

Corsi (% of shots taken vs. opponent): 55.2% (7th)
Fenwick (% of unblocked shots taken vs. opponent): 56.1% (6th)

By comparison, the Mavericks are 34th in Corsi (48.3%) and 30th in Fenwick (49.0), averaging 28.8 shots on goal per game (North Dakota is averaging 30.6/game) while allowing 32.4 shots on goal against/contest.

Remarkably, Omaha is outscoring opponents 72-52 despite being outshot 647-575 on the season (North Dakota is outshooting opponents 612-498).

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 56.2 percent, while Omaha is 21st (50.6%) 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 (61.9%), Jasper Weatherby (53.8%), and Collin Adams (56.3%). Omaha will counter with Nolan Sullivan (59.2%), Noah Prokop (51.7%), Chayse Primeau (51.3%), and Joey Abate (42.4%).

In their January series in Omaha, the teams were relatively even in the faceoff circle on Friday, with UND holding a slight 29-27 edge (51.2%). North Dakota dominated the dot in the rematch, winning 46 of 71 (64.8%). For the weekend, the Fighting Hawks outshot the Mavericks 83-59.

The Fighting Hawks are scoring on 12.6 percent of their shots on goal, a remarkable statistic good for 3rd in the country. The Mavericks are right behind in 5th place, lighting the lamp on 12.5 percent of their shots on goal.

North Dakota’s puck possession game and sharpshooting have led to 77 goals scored by eighteen different players in twenty games (3.85 goals scored/game); 77 goals is the high-water mark in the NCHC this season. Omaha’s 72 goals (3.60 goals/game) have been scored by seventeen different players.

After UND and the Mavericks, here are the next closest teams in terms of offensive production:

St. Cloud State: 69 goals scored in 21 games (3.29 goals/game)
Minnesota Duluth: 64 goals scored in 22 games (2.91)
Western Michigan: 64 goals scored in 22 games (2.91)

UND’s offensive prowess is matched by their stingy defense, as the Fighting Hawks have only allowed 40 goals in twenty games (2.00 goals allowed/game), the lowest total in the NCHC. Minnesota Duluth is in second place defensively, having allowed 49 goals in 22 games this season for an average of 2.23 goals allowed per game.

By comparison, Omaha is allowing 2.60 goals per contest (52 goals allowed in twenty games).

UND’s scoring margin of 77-40 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 (41 goals for, 31 goals against) in its other twelve matchups (six games against Denver and two each vs. Duluth, Omaha, and St. Cloud State), going 7-4-1 in those contests.

In late January, North Dakota traveled to Omaha for a weekend series, winning 6-2 on Friday night before losing 5-4 in the rematch.

Through twenty games, Omaha has blocked 294 shots as a team, led by Nate Knoepke (42), Jason Smallidge (42), Kirby Proctor (25), and Brandon Scanlin (18).

North Dakota has blocked 257 shots in its twenty games, with Matt Kiersted (39), Jacob Bernard-Docker (29), and Ethan Frisch (19 in fifteen games) leading the way. Gabe Bast has contributed 18 blocks in his fourteen games; he made his return to the lineup last weekend.

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 12 goals and 35 assists in 109 combined games this season (0.43 points/game), while UND’s top six have put together the exact same line (12 goals and 35 assists) in 94 games (0.50 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 exactly two goals per contest (6th in the country). By comparison, Omaha is allowing 2.60 goals per game (20th).

Through each team’s first twenty games, here is the specialty teams ledger:

Omaha power play: 18 of 82, 22.0 percent
Omaha penalty kill: 71 of 77, 92.2 percent

North Dakota power play: 20 of 89, 22.5 percent
North Dakota penalty kill: 78 of 90, 86.7 percent

North Dakota has scored three shorthanded goals this season, while the Mavericks have two to their credit. The Fighting Hawks have not allowed a shorthanded tally this year; UNO has given up four. That leaves Omaha’s net specialty teams at a +10, while UND weighs in at +11.

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. For the weekend, UND went 1 for 10 on the power play, while UNO scored four power play goals on twelve power plays.

The Mavericks have scored 18 of their 72 goals this season with the man advantage, while the Fighting Hawks have scored 20 of their 77 goals this season on the power play.

After this weekend, North Dakota is scheduled to travel to Omaha for a single game next Friday, February 26th and host the Mavericks on Friday, March 5th. Including this weekend, 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. The Fighting Hawks are 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, which seems to be a virtual lock at this point.

With two regulation victories over its final four games before the playoffs, North Dakota would win its fourth Penrose Cup as NCHC regular season champions. UND (2015, 2016, 2020) and St. Cloud State (2014, 2018, 2019) are each three-time winners of the #PennaRosa. Denver (2017) is the only other league team to earn the prestigious trophy.

Omaha Mavericks

Head Coach: Mike Gabinet (4th season at UNO, 53-64-11, .457)
National Rankings: #9/#10

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

Team Offense: 3.60 goals scored/game – 12th of 51 teams
Team Defense: 2.60 goals allowed/game – 20th of 51 teams
Power Play: 22.0% (18 of 82) – 14th of 51 teams
Penalty Kill: 92.2% (71 of 77) – 3rd of 51 teams

Key Players: Junior F Chase Primeau (8-14-22), Junior F Taylor Ward (10-6-16), Junior F Tyler Weiss (5-14-19), Senior F Kevin Conley (7-7-14), Freshman F Matt Miller (7-5-12), Sophomore F Jack Randl (4-7-11), Sophomore F Joey Abate (1-7-8), Sophomore D Brandon Scanlin (2-12-14), Junior D Jason Smallidge (1-8-9), Sophomore G Isaiah Saville (11-6-1, 2.52 GAA, .921 SV%, 1 SO)

North Dakota Fighting Hawks

Head Coach: Brad Berry (6th season at UND, 131-61-24, .662)
National Rankings: #2/#1

This Season: 15-4-1 overall, 15-4-1 NCHC
Last Season: 26-5-4 overall, 17-4-3-2 NCHC (1st)

2020-2021 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 3.85 goals scored/game – 3rd of 51 teams
Team Defense: 2.00 goals allowed/game – 6th of 51 teams

Power Play: 22.5% (20 of 89) – 12th of 51 teams
Penalty Kill: 86.7% (78 of 90) – 10th of 51 teams

Key players: Senior F Jordan Kawaguchi (5-18-23), Sophomore F Shane Pinto (14-12-26), Senior F Grant Mismash (9-9-18), Freshman F Riese Gaber (8-7-15), Senior F Collin Adams (7-12-19), Junior F Jasper Weatherby (8-4-12), Junior F Mark Senden (2-9-11), Senior D Matt Kiersted (3-16-19), Sophomore D Ethan Frisch (3-3-6), Junior D Jacob Bernard-Docker (1-8-9), Freshman D Jake Sanderson (1-5-6 in thirteen games), Junior G Adam Scheel (13-3-1. 1.88 GAA, .925 SV%, 4 SO)

By The Numbers:

Last meeting: January 30, 2021 (Omaha, NE). Specialty teams was the difference in this one, as UND allowed three power play goals on five attempts to the homestanding Mavericks, including one to former North Dakota defenseman Jonny Tychonick, who scored his second goal of the season with eleven seconds remaining in the first period. Omaha netminder Isaiah Saville made 43 saves in the 5-4 victory. One night earlier, the Fighting Hawks scored five unanswered goals in the second and third periods to earn a 6-2 road victory.

Last meeting in Grand Forks: January 11, 2020. One night after the Mavericks handed North Dakota its only home loss of the season by scoring six goals on thirteen shots and chasing Adam Scheel (four goals allowed, four saves), the Fighting Hawks scored three first-period goals (Casey Johnson, Collin Adams, and Mark Senden) in a 4-1 victory. Omaha’s Taylor Ward scored the lone goal for the visiting side, while UND’s Shane Pinto earned himself a one-game suspension for a third period cross-check across the back of Joey Abate. North Dakota outshot Omaha 56-32 in the two-game series.

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 six of the last ten contests between the schools, outscoring the Mavericks 37-30 over that stretch.

All-time: UND leads the all-time series 25-14-1 (.638), including a 12-7-1 (.625) record in games played in Grand Forks. North Dakota owns a record of 20-11-1 (.641) 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 thirteen points in fifteen career games against Omaha. The Mavericks have not made the national tournament since their run to the Frozen Four in 2015. North Dakota’s Brad Berry is 16-8-0 (.667) in his head coaching career against Omaha. Since coming out flat in game one at Denver three weekends ago, UND has outscored opponents 32-11 and won six of seven contests. At home, it’s been even better for the Fighting Hawks, with four straight victories and a combined scoreboard of 17-3.

The Prediction

If the first goal is important in determining the winner of Friday’s opener, then the winner of Friday’s opener may just determine how the rest of the season series goes between these two squads. If Omaha can narrow the Penrose Cup race with a victory in game one, the intensity will ratchet up for the rematch. If North Dakota can defeat the Mavericks in the opener and open up a nine-point advantage with three games remaining on each team’s schedule, the race will be all but over. If UND netminder Adam Scheel can make two starts in his return from injury, I give the advantage to the home team. I expect both games to be tightly contested and have a playoff atmosphere despite limited fans. 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 more than a split, and that’s what I’m going with here, with Friday’s game decided in the extra session. UND 4-3 (OT), 4-2.

Broadcast Information

Both games will be broadcast live on Midco Sports Network and also 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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