NCHC Playoff Preview: UND vs. St. Cloud State

In the 2021 NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship game, top-seeded North Dakota (20-5-1) will square off against #2 seed St. Cloud State (17-9-0).

UND has never won the postseason title in the eight-year history of the league; North Dakota’s last conference playoff championship was a WCHA Final Five title in 2012. In a nod to the Miracle On Ice, fans may well remember the 6-3 victory over Minnesota in the “Timeout Game” that year but forget that there was another game to play in the tournament. One night later, the green and white was out in full force on St. Patrick’s Day, and the Green and White dispatched Denver 4-0 to hoist the Broadmoor Trophy for the third consecutive season.

Tonight will mark St. Cloud State’s fifth appearance in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship game; the Huskies won the playoff title in 2016 and were runners-up in 2015, 2018, and 2019. SCSU’s 2016 championship (over Minnesota Duluth) was its first league playoff win since 2001, when they defeated North Dakota 6-5 in overtime after the Fighting Sioux mounted a furious third period comeback to send the game to an extra frame.

UND and SCSU only met twice this season, and both of those games took place in the Omaha pod back in December. North Dakota did not come out with enough effort in its first pod matchup with St. Cloud State, took too long to establish a forecheck, gave up two power play goals, and fell 5-3 to the Huskies. In the rematch four days later, Jordan Kawaguchi scored just eight seconds into the 3-on-3 overtime session to knot the season series at one win apiece. SCSU outshot the Fighting Hawks 27-21 in game two but were held scoreless on three man advantage opportunities while allowing a power play goal to North Dakota, and that proved to be the difference in the game.

By the way, here’s what I predicted would happen in the pod rematch:

The Prediction

It will take a stronger start for North Dakota to come out on top in this one. Both teams should be rested and ready, with a slight depth edge to St. Cloud State unless Ethan Frisch can return to the lineup for the Fighting Hawks. Five of the last ten tilts between these two squads have gone to overtime, and I feel like we’re in for another one tonight. I don’t like shootouts, but I think that the Green and White will end it before we get there. UND 4, SCSU 3 (OT).

The final score on Wednesday, December 16th? UND 4, SCSU 3 (OT).

North Dakota advanced to today’s championship game with a 2-1 overtime victory over Denver, a result that goes into the books as UND’s fifth win over the Pioneers this season (5-2-0) and eighth victory over the past two seasons (8-2-1). The Fighting Hawks outscored DU 22-14 in the 2020-2021 season series. UND allowed ten goals in the first three meetings with a record of 1-2; since their loss in game one at Denver on January 17th, the Fighting Hawks have notched four consecutive victories over DU (15 goals for, 4 goals against). That mid-January defeat was definitely a wakeup call for Brady Berry’s squad; since that time, the Green and White are 11-2-0 overall, outscoring opponents 57-21.

An NCAA tourney berth is locked up for both of the teams in tonight’s championship tilt, as the Fighting Hawks and Huskies finished 1-2 in the best conference in all of college hockey. North Dakota should be a #1 seed in the Midwest Regional (Fargo, ND) next weekend but could secure the top overall seed in the national tournament with a victory, while a St. Cloud State win could earn them a #1 seed in one of the other three regionals. Even with an SCSU victory, however, the other three top regional seeds could go to Boston College, Minnesota State, and whoever claims tonight’s Big Ten playoff championship (Minnesota or Wisconsin).

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 (30-5-3) 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.

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, where the Huskies sat with a conference record of 3-7-0. 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. St. Cloud State was sitting with an overall record of 13-15-6 and were scheduled to travel to Lawson Ice Arena to take on the Western Michigan Broncos in the first round of the NCHC playoffs when the whole world changed.

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 46-10-5 (.795) over the past two seasons.

Turning our attention to tonight’s matchup, St. Cloud State senior goaltender David Hrenak has been everything that head coach Brett Larson has needed him to be. Hrenak has appeared in 22 games this season, going 14-8-0 with a goals-against average of 2.53, a save percentage of .907, and two shutouts.

Junior netminder Adam Scheel (18-3-1, 1.76 GAA, .929 SV%, 4 SO) has made the majority of starts for North Dakota, with senior Peter Thome (2-2-0, 2.83 GAA, .872 SV%) appearing in five games. In addition to his four shutouts, Scheel has allowed just a single goal in seven other victories this season (including last night’s semifinal). The junior from Lakewood, Ohio was recently named NCHC Goaltender of the Year and a 2021 Mike Richter Award finalist (along with eight other goaltenders; Scheel is the only finalist from the NCHC). The winner of this year’s Richter will be announced in April during the NCAA Frozen Four.

North Dakota went 7-2-1 in the pod, while St. Cloud State managed a record of 6-3-0 (SCSU’s first scheduled game against Colorado College was rescheduled and played in St. Cloud on February 20th). If one considers that 4-0 victory over the Tigers as an extension of the Omaha experience, then Brett Larson’s squad put together a record of 7-3-0.

A big reason for the gap between #1 UND (54 conference points) and #2 SCSU (45) is that the Huskies went just 2-4-0 against Western Michigan this season and dropped a game at Miami in mid-February, whereas North Dakota took care of business against Miami (2-0-0), Colorado College (4-0-0), and Western Michigan (2-0-0). Given that the final margin in the race for the Penrose Cup equated to three wins in league play, St. Cloud State could have used a few more victories (and/or a North Dakota loss or two) against the bottom three teams in the NCHC.

Freshman forward Veeti Miettinen has been the brightest spot for SCSU this season, tallying ten goals and adding thirteen assists to lead the team in points through his first 26 collegiate games. Miettinen – a 5-foot-9 right winger – is a threat to score from anywhere on the ice with an effortless wrist shot. The 19-year-old from Espoo, Finland was a 6th-round pick (168th overall) of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2020 NHL entry draft.

North Dakota also has a rookie forward who has splashed in his first college season. Riese Gaber (9-8-17 in 26 games) 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.

Miettinen and Gaber were named to the NCHC All-Rookie Team along with Denver forward Carter Savoie, North Dakota defenseman Jake Sanderson, Minnesota Duluth defenseman Wyatt Kaiser, and Miami goaltender Ludvig Persson.

A half-point per game or better is my benchmark for solid offensive production, and Brett Larson’s squad has eight active players who meet that threshold: freshman forward Vieeti Mieetinen (10-13-23), junior defenseman Nick Perbix (6-14-20), sophomore forward Zach Okabe (5-14-19), sophomore forward Jami Krannila (10-9-19), junior forward Nolan Walker (8-10-18), senior forward Easton Brodzinski (11-5-16), senior forward Kevin Fitzgerald (9-7-16), and junior forward Sam Hentges (7-8-15).

By that same measure, Brad Berry has ten players at a half point or better per game: sophomore forward Shane Pinto (15-14-29), senior forward Jordan Kawaguchi (7-24-31), senior forward Collin Adams (11-18-29), senior defenseman Matt Kiersted (3-17-20), senior forward Grant Mismash (9-9-18 in 18 games), freshman forward Riese Gaber (9-8-17), junior forward Jasper Weatherby (12-9-21), junior forward Mark Senden (3-11-14), junior defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker (3-14-17), and freshman defenseman Jake Sanderson (2-11-13 in 19 games). Pinto, Kawaguchi, Adams, and Mismash are all averaging a full point or better per contest, although Mismash (upper body injury) is expected to miss his seventh consecutive game. It also remains to be seen whether Jacob Bernard-Docker (upper body injury) and Mark Senden (upper body injury) suit up for tonight’s contest or if Brad Berry elects to hold them out of the lineup until the NCAA regionals ten days from now.

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 161 shot attempts this season and won the league scoring title over Kawaguchi and Duluth’s Nick Swaney (13-14-27). Pinto was recently named the NCHC Player of the Year, Forward of the Year, and Defensive Forward of the Year.

Both Kawaguchi (7th in the nation in scoring) and Pinto (10th) should be considered candidates for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award along with teammate Matt Kiersted, whose 20 points rank fourth among defensemen.

Of UND’s four national award hopefuls, only Shane Pinto (Ottawa, #32 overall in 2019) has been drafted. Kiersted, Kawaguchi, and Scheel should all expect plenty of offers once they have used up their college eligibility. Including Pinto, the Fighting Hawks have twelve NHL draft picks on their roster, the most in the NCHC. UND is expected to bring in four more drafted players next season – Ethan Bowen, Matteo Costantini, Jackson Kunz, and Jake Schmaltz.

It is abundantly clear that North Dakota will have the puck a lot during the postseason, and the numbers bear that out. After 26 games, the Fighting Hawks are 4th in the nation in shots on goal allowed/game (24.6) and are in the top ten in the country in two key puck possession statistics:

Corsi (% of shots taken vs. opponent): 55.4% (9th)
Fenwick (% of unblocked shots taken vs. opponent): 56.7% (6th)

By comparison, the Huskies are 18th in Corsi (52.7%) and 17th in Fenwick (53.1%), averaging 29.8 shots on goal per game (North Dakota is averaging 31.7/game) while allowing 26.2 shots on goal against/contest.

Over the course of the season, St. Cloud State is leading the shot count over its adversaries by a margin of 774-681; North Dakota is outshooting opponents 823-639.

One key area to watch in this contest is the face-off dot. The Fighting Hawks are 2nd in the nation in faceoff win percentage at 55.5 percent, while St. Cloud State is 15th (52.1%) 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 (61.8%), Jasper Weatherby (55.1%), and Collin Adams (54.4%). St. Cloud State will counter with Will Hammer (55.6%), Nolan Walker (50.0%), Sam Hentges (56.7%), and Kevin Fitzgerald (60.3%).

In their first meeting in the pod, North Dakota won 36 of 62 faceoffs (58.1%), including an incredible 10-2 performance by Collin Adams. In the pod rematch, the faceoff battle was a bit closer, with UND winning 31 of 57 draws (54.5%). Shane Pinto led the way in game two by winning 19 of 27 (70.4%).

The Fighting Hawks are scoring on 12.4 percent of their shots on goal, a remarkable statistic good for 2nd in the country. The Huskies find themselves in 15th place, lighting the lamp on 10.7 percent of their shots on goal.

North Dakota’s puck possession game and sharpshooting have led to 102 goals scored by twenty different players in 26 games (3.92 goals scored/game); St. Cloud State has managed to score 83 goals over the same number of games (3.19 goals scored/game). SCSU’s 78 goals in conference play were one behind Omaha’s 79 in the race for second place (UND scored 94 goals in its 24 league games).

UND’s offensive prowess is matched by their stingy defense, as the Fighting Hawks have only allowed 50 goals in 26 games (1.92 goals allowed/game). By comparison, St. Cloud State has allowed 2.58 goals per contest (67 goals allowed in 26 games).

Through 26 games, St. Cloud State has blocked 282 shots as a team, led by blueliners Seamus Donohue (37), Nick Perbix (34), Luke Jaycox (29), and Brendan Bushy (26).

North Dakota has blocked 335 shots in its 26 games, with defensemen Matt Kiersted (45), Jacob Bernard-Docker (32), Ethan Frisch (23), and Gabe Bast (21) and forward Mark Senden (24!) leading the way.

When North Dakota is at full strength on the back end, they enjoy a roster advantage against nearly every opponent, and that will be the case again tonight. St. Cloud State’s six most likely starters on defense have combined for 11 goals and 48 assists in 154 combined games this season (0.38 points/game), while the six UND defenders expected in the lineup tonight have put together a line of 16 goals and 40 assists in 120 combined games (0.47 points/game). Matt Kiersted, Jake Sanderson, Ethan Frisch, Tyler Kleven, Gabe Bast, and Cooper Moore can all 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).

It is also worth noting that I have left Jacob Bernard-Docker (3-14-17 in 25 games) out of the comparison above; North Dakota’s advantage would be even greater if he is able to suit up tonight.

Remarkably, the Fighting Hawks’ d-corps has put up those offensive numbers while also allowing less than two goals per contest (1.92, good for 3rd in the country). By comparison, St. Cloud State is allowing 2.58 goals per game (18th).

To this point in the season, here is the specialty teams ledger:

St. Cloud State power play: 20 of 87, 23.0 percent (13th)
St. Cloud State penalty kill: 82 of 95, 86.3 percent (6th)

North Dakota power play: 27 of 114, 23.7 percent (8th)
North Dakota penalty kill: 91 of 106, 85.9 percent (8th)

North Dakota has scored four shorthanded goals this season, while the Huskies have two to their credit, including an odd one late in period two yesterday against Duluth that stood as the game winner. Neither side has allowed a shorthanded tally this year. That leaves St. Cloud State’s net specialty teams at a +9, while UND weighs in at +16.

The Huskies have scored 20 of their 83 goals this season with the man advantage, while the Fighting Hawks have scored 27 of their 102 goals this season on the power play.

In yesterday’s late semifinal, Denver employed its game plan to near-perfection and came up 87 seconds short. UND was constantly frustrated breaking pucks out of their own end, limited in the neutral zone, and stymied by excellent goaltending. North Dakota finally wore down the Pioneers as the game went on thanks to a 28-13 differential in hits – an unheard-of disparity given the fact that the Fighting Hawks also led in shot attempts 63-39 and in shots on goal 32-18 (typically, the team without the puck has more opportunities to deliver hits and finish checks throughout the game).

It will be interesting to see whether the Huskies can handle North Dakota’s physical play throughout the game, as the Fighting Hawks are one of the heaviest teams in the country and they bring a heavy game every night. St. Cloud State certainly has the same ability as Denver to frustrate and smother teams defensively, with an even greater measure of skill and goal-scoring ability.

UND doesn’t necessarily need to score first (although the team is 18-0-0 when they do), but I do think it’s important that they don’t fall behind by more than two if they hope to claim the program’s first NCHC postseason title.

The Fighting Hawks are hosting an NCAA Regional 70 miles south in Fargo, North Dakota on March 26 and 27 and, as a lock to make the national tournament, will be automatically placed in that regional as the host school.

Of course, being the home team means familiar surroundings and last line change, and that has certainly paid off for the Green and White this season. After going 18-1-0 at REA last season, North Dakota has gone 8-1-0 at home this season, outscoring opponents 38-11 while going 8-for-41 (19.5%) on the power play and killing 28 of 31 opponent man-advantage situations (90.3%). Even though Denver won last night’s specialty teams battle on paper, it is nothing to worry about for Brad Berry’s squad, as the lone Pios goal (a power play marker by Carter Savoie) was deflected in off of a North Dakota stick, and the game winner in overtime came just seconds after the UND power play expired and while DU freshman defenseman Antti Tuomisto was still trying to get back in his defensive zone.

UND netminder Adam Scheel has been at his best at the Ralph, winning all seven of his starts with a goals-against average of 0.84, a save percentage of .959, and two shutouts.

UND’s next potential road game is on Thursday, April 8th in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the site of this season’s NCAA Frozen Four.

St. Cloud State Huskies

Head Coach: Brett Larson (3rd season at SCSU, 60-30-9, .652)
National Rankings: #8/#8

This Season: 17-9-0 overall, 15-9-0 NCHC (2nd)
Last Season: 13-15-6 overall, 10-12-2 NCHC (5th)

2020-2021 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 3.19 goals scored/game – 18th of 51 teams
Team Defense: 2.58 goals allowed/game – 18th of 51 teams

Power Play: 23.0% (20 of 87) – 13th of 51 teams
Penalty Kill: 86.3% (82 of 95) – 6th of 51 teams

Key players: Freshman F Veeti Miettinen (10-13-23), Sophomore F Zach Okabe (5-14-19), Sophomore F Jami Krannila (10-9-19), Junior F Nolan Walker (8-10-18), Senior F Easton Brodzinski (11-5-16), Senior F Kevin Fitzgerald (9-7-16), Junior F Sam Hentges (7-8-15), Junior D Nick Perbix (6-14-20), Sophomore D Chase Brand (4-4-8), Senior D Seamus Donohue (0-7-7), Senior G David Hrenak (14-8-0, 2.53 GAA, .907 SV%, 2 SO)

North Dakota Fighting Hawks

Head Coach: Brad Berry (6th season at UND, 136-62-24, .667)
National Rankings: #2/#2

This Season: 20-5-1 overall, 18-5-1 NCHC (1st)
Last Season: 26-5-4 overall, 17-4-3-2 NCHC (1st)

2020-2021 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 3.92 goals scored/game – 1st of 51 teams
Team Defense: 1.92 goals allowed/game – 3rd of 51 teams

Power Play: 23.7% (27 of 114) – 8th of 51 teams
Penalty Kill: 85.9% (91 of 106) – 8th of 51 teams

Key players: Sophomore F Shane Pinto (15-14-29), Senior F Jordan Kawaguchi (7-24-31), Freshman F Riese Gaber (9-8-17), Senior F Collin Adams (11-18-29), Junior F Jasper Weatherby (12-9-21), Junior F Mark Senden (3-11-14), Senior D Matt Kiersted (3-17-20), Sophomore D Ethan Frisch (3-6-9), Freshman D Jake Sanderson (2-11-13 in nineteen games), Junior G Adam Scheel (18-3-1. 1.76 GAA, .929 SV%, 4 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: December 16, 2020 (Omaha, NE). St. Cloud State rallied from a two-goal deficit to force an extra session only to see their dreams dashed after only eight seconds of 3-on-3. Jordan Kawaguchi was the overtime hero for North Dakota, which went 1-for-4 with the man advantage and held the Huskies scoreless on three power plays. SCSU outshot the Fighting Hawks 27-21.

Last Meeting Outside Of The Pod: February 22nd, 2020 (St. Cloud, MN). 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.

Last Meeting in Grand Forks: November 23, 2019. Kawaguchi was the overtime hero AGAIN as North Dakota dispatched the visiting Huskies 2-1. One night earlier, Shane Pinto potted two goals as UND doubled St. Cloud State (4-2).

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, 75-46-15 (.607), including a record of 38-19-7 (.648) in games played in Grand Forks. 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: The teams are dead even over the last ten games, with each squad claiming four victories and two others ending in ties. North Dakota has outscored St. Cloud State 27-25 over that stretch. Five of the last ten meetings have gone to overtime.

Game News and Notes

UND is 18-0-0 when it scores the first goal and just 2-5-1 when its opponent lights the lamp first, although one of those two comeback victories came last night. St. Cloud State has won the regular season league title four times over the past nine seasons (WCHA 2012-13; NCHC 2013-14, 2017-18, and 2018-19). SCSU has made the national tournament 13 times in the past twenty seasons, with one Frozen Four appearance (2013). North Dakota has outscored opponents 36-15 in third periods and overtime this season, while the Huskies have scored 32 and allowed 19 in the same frames. The Fighting Hawks have not allowed a third period goal at home this season (eleven goals for).

The Prediction

St. Cloud State is healthier and has had a few more hours to recover after yesterday’s games, but it will come down to which team wins the specialty teams battle, gets better goaltending, can better handle the momentum swings, and has an advantage in the faceoff circle and in 50/50 battles all over the ice. Brad Berry’s squad does have last line change and that counts for something, but each side wants to roll four lines as much as possible until it’s crunch time. North Dakota must avoid turning the puck over in their own end and through the neutral zone if they hope to contain the speed and skill of St. Cloud State. For once in this year’s NCHC playoffs, both teams are confidently in the tournament and we can all just sit back and enjoy the play on the ice and the atmosphere in the building. I’m torn between a one-goal regulation victory, a two-goal victory with an empty-netter, and yet another overtime between these two squads. In any event, it will be a nailbiter, with both teams in it until the very end. UND 4, St. Cloud State 3.

Broadcast Information

Tonight’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship game will be televised live on CBS Sports Network. 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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