NCAA Midwest Regional Semifinal Preview: UND vs. American International

In tonight’s 2021 NCAA Midwest Region semifinal (Fargo, ND), top overall seed North Dakota (21-5-1) will square off against #4 seed American International (15-3-0).

#3 seed Minnesota Duluth (14-10-2) was set to square off against #2 seed Michigan (15-10-1) in Friday’s first regional semifinal in what was widely considered the most intriguing matchup across all four regional sites, but COVID intervened and the Michigan Wolverines became the second team to vacate their position in the tournament due to a positive case.

Earlier this week, Notre Dame withdrew from the NCAAs, advancing Boston College to its regional final.

The two-time defending national champion Bulldogs will await tonight’s AIC-UND winner with a trip to the 2021 Frozen Four (Pittsburgh, PA) on the line.

The Midwest Regional game that will actually be played today features two of the top five offenses in the country:

1st. North Dakota 3.96 goals scored per game
5th. American International 3.67

Duluth can be found in 21st place on the list (3.04).

Those same two high-scoring teams are impressive defensively as well, allowing less than two goals per contest:

3rd. American International 1.94 goals allowed per game
4th. North Dakota 1.96

Duluth is 13th on this list, allowing 2.35 goals per game.

The top three seeds in the Midwest Regional have combined to win twenty national championships; here’s how the other three regionals stack up:

Northeast Regional (Albany, NY): 10 (Boston College 5, Boston University 5)
East Regional (Bridgeport, CT): 9 (Wisconsin 6, Lake Superior State 3)
West Regional (Loveland, CO): 5 (Minnesota 5)

The Bulldogs have won the last two NCAA titles (2018, 2019) to go along with their first national championship back in 2011, a 3-2 victory over Michigan at Xcel Energy Center. North Dakota also appeared in that Frozen Four but fell to the Wolverines in the semifinals 2-0 (with an empty-net goal) despite outshooting Michigan 40-20.

Before the Wolverines were forced to withdraw, UMD and Michigan were set to square off in the national tournament for the first time since that overtime thriller in St. Paul.

The Wolverines have won nine NCAA titles but only two since 1964, those coming in 1996 and 1998.

North Dakota’s eight national titles have been spread out across the decades: 1959, 1963, 1980, 1982, 1987, 1997, 2000, and 2016.

Scheels Arena can be considered familiar territory for North Dakota, as this is the third time that UND has played in the regional just 70 miles south of Grand Forks. The Fighting Hawks rolled through Quinnipiac (4-1) and St. Cloud State (4-1) in 2015 but fell to Boston University 4-3 in double overtime in 2017.

UND did not earn a bid to the national tournament in 2019. Had they made it as one of the last teams in, it would have forced AIC to a different regional. As it turned out though, the Yellow Jackets can also consider Scheels Arena friendly, as they defeated top overall seed St. Cloud State 2-1 in the regional semis despite being outshot 34-13. The game-winning goal was scored by defenseman Brennan Kapcheck, who is now a senior captain for the Yellow Jackets and was named the Atlantic Hockey East Pod Player Of The Year. Kapcheck notched three assists in the AHA title game and now has 18 helpers on the season to lead his team.

Forward Tobias Fladeby assisted on the game winner against SCSU; the now-senior from Asker, Norway is also still on the roster.

Denver would go on to spoil AIC’s 2019 Cinderella run with a 3-0 victory, although that game was still in doubt with four minutes remaining in regulation and the Pios clinging to a 1-0 lead. American International outshot DU 10-2 in the third period of that contest (and 26-24 for the game) but could not put a puck passed Pioneers’ netminder Filip Larsson. With the victory, Denver advanced to their third Frozen Four in four seasons, but the Pios would eventually fall to #4 Massachusetts in overtime in the national semifinal.

15 years ago this week, Holy Cross defeated Minnesota at Ralph Engelstad Arena, marking the first time a four-seed defeated a one-seed since the tournament expanded to 16 teams.

It has happened every year since then. Lots of #4-overall seeds have fallen: New Hampshire (2007 and 2008), Michigan (2009), Miami (2011 and 2015), Notre Dame (2013), Wisconsin (2014), Providence (2016) and Minnesota (2017) all lost as the “last #1 seed”.

Wisconsin’s 2014 defeat came at the hands of North Dakota, just days after UW’s victory over Ohio State in the Big Ten playoff title game got UND into the tournament.

#3-overall seeds have fared better, but Clarkson (2007), Denver (2009), Cornell (2018), and Minnesota State (2019) all lost their opening round game from that position.

Most people mistakenly believe that Minnesota was the top team in the country before falling to Holy Cross in 2006; the Golden Gophers were actually the #2-overall seed in that tourney (the top spot belonged to Wisconsin, and the Badgers rode their seeding all the way to a national title). Other #2-overall seeds to fall in their first game include Notre Dame (2009), Denver (2010), Michigan (2012), Minnesota (2013), and St. Cloud State (2016).

And, in the ultimate of disappointments, THREE of the past five top overall seeds in the NCAA tourney have gone down to 16-seeds:

RIT defeated top-seeded Minnesota State 2-1 in 2015.
Air Force dismantled top-seeded St. Cloud State 4-1 in 2018.

And, as mentioned above, the Huskies suffered the same fate AGAIN in 2019.

North Dakota has never lost as a #1 seed since the tournament expanded to 16 teams.

Amazingly, no current UND player has appeared in an NCAA tournament game. Prior to the 2017-2018 campaign, North Dakota had made the national tournament in fifteen straight seasons (2003-2017).

Aside from two games in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs (victories over Niagara and Canisius), AIC hasn’t played since January 30th. Twelve Yellow Jackets games were canceled for COVID-19 related reasons since the start of the new year, which meant that Eric Lang’s squad had six consecutive weekends off before the Atlantic Hockey playoffs last weekend. Much like UND, the Yellow Jackets trailed in the semifinals and in the championship game before prevailing in both contests thanks to big third periods each night. AIC outscored its two playoff opponents 5-0 over the final twenty minutes of play, outshooting the Purple Eagles 12-5 and the Golden Griffins 20-4.

American International’s sixteen-game regular season schedule consisted of Air Force (a record of 2-0), Army (3-1), Bentley (2-0), Quinnipiac (0-2), Long Island (2-0), Holy Cross (3-0), and Sacred Heart (1-0).

While there was not much interleague play this year to adequately compare teams from different conferences, it is fair to say that UND – with a full slate of 27 NCHC games – has played a far tougher schedule than AIC. North Dakota posted a record of 7-3-1 against this season’s tournament teams (Minnesota Duluth, Omaha, and St. Cloud State) and also went 5-2 against Denver, a team squarely on the bubble for the NCAAs before the field was announced on Sunday evening.

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.

AIC and North Dakota are the only two teams this season to win both their regular season and postseason titles. The two squads also won regular season titles a year ago before COVID shut down the hockey world. For the Fighting Hawks, the 2021 NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship was their first postseason title in the eight-year history of the league.

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 47-10-5 (.798) over the past two seasons.

Former UND head coach Dean Blais famously said, “In the playoffs, you shouldn’t even call it ‘hockey’. Just call it ‘goalie’.” With that in mind, let’s take a look at the two players expected to be guarding the crease in this contest…

For AIC, senior Stefano Durante (9-3-0, 2.17 goals-against average, and a save percentage of .907) started both conference playoff games for the Yellow Jackets after returning from a knee injury. Prior to the AHA tournament, Durante had not played since January 13th.

In the 2019 regionals, Durante was backing up Zackarias Skog, who was a junior at the time.

Junior netminder Adam Scheel (19-3-1, 1.81 GAA, .928 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 the Frozen Faceoff semifinal against Denver). 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 was the only finalist from the NCHC). However, Scheel was not named to the “Hat Trick”; those honors went to Spencer Knight (Boston College), Jack Lafontaine (Minnesota), and Dryden McKay (Minnesota State). The winner of this year’s Richter will be announced in April during the NCAA Frozen Four.

A half-point per game or better is my benchmark for solid offensive production, and Eric Lang’s squad has nine regulars in the lineup who meet that threshold: senior forward Tobias Fladeby (9-8-17), junior forward Chris Theodore (4-14-18), senior forward Chris Dodero (7-11-18), junior forward Justin Cole (9-7-16), junior forward Elijiah Barriga (7-6-13), freshman forward Julius Janhonen (3-5-8), sophomore forward Eric Otto (2-5-7), senior defenseman Brennan Kapcheck (0-18-18), and sophomore defenseman Zak Galambos (4-6-10).

By that same measure, Brad Berry has ten players at a half point or better per game: sophomore forward Shane Pinto (15-15-30), senior forward Jordan Kawaguchi (9-25-34), senior forward Collin Adams (11-20-31), senior defenseman Matt Kiersted (3-18-21), senior forward Grant Mismash (9-9-18 in 18 games), freshman forward Riese Gaber (11-9-20), 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 (2-12-14 in 20 games). Pinto, Kawaguchi, Adams, and Mismash are all averaging a full point or better per contest, although Mismash (upper body injury) has missed seven consecutive games. 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.

Puck possession will be a key factor in tonight’s contest, and both teams are used to dominating in that area. For the first time in a long time, North Dakota will be facing an opponent with better overall advanced metrics, as the Yellow Jackets are 2nd in the country in shots on goal allowed/per game (22.2) and third in both Corsi (57.6%) and Fenwick (59.3%). By comparison, UND is 4th in the country in shots on goal allowed (24.9), 9th in Corsi (55.4%), and 6th in Fenwick (56.7%).

Corsi measures the percentage of shots taken vs. opponents; Fenwick measures the percentage of unblocked shots taken vs. opponents.

American International has outscored opponents 66-35 (an average of 3.67-1.94) in its eighteen games, outshooting the opposition 583-399 (32.4-22.2). North Dakota has outscored opponents 107-53 (3.96-1.96) and outshot opponents 858-672 (31.8-24.9) in its 27 games.

One key area to watch in this contest is the face-off dot. The Fighting Hawks are tops in the nation in faceoff win percentage at 56.1 percent, while American International is 15th (51.8%) 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 (61.8%), Jasper Weatherby (56.2%), and Collin Adams (54.3%). AIC will counter with Elijiah Barriga (55.0%), Eric Otto (52.2%), Jake Stella (48.3%), and Julius Janhonen (49.6%).

The Fighting Hawks are scoring on 12.5 percent of their shots on goal, a remarkable statistic good for 2nd in the country. AIC is not far behind in 9th place, lighting the lamp on 11.3 percent of their shots on goal.

North Dakota’s puck possession game and sharpshooting have led to 107 goals scored by twenty different players in 27 games (3.96 goals scored/game); AIC has managed to score 66 goals in 18 games (3.67 goals scored/game). Twenty different Yellow Jackets have lit the lamp this season.

UND’s offensive prowess is matched by their stingy defense, as the Fighting Hawks have only allowed 53 goals in 27 games (1.96 goals allowed/game). By comparison, American International has allowed 1.94 goals per contest (35 goals allowed in 18 games).

Through 18 games, the Yellow Jackets have blocked 226 shots as a team, led by blueliners Parker Revering (28), Nico Somerville (21), and Brennan Kapcheck (17).

North Dakota has blocked 349 shots in its 27 games, with defensemen Matt Kiersted (48), Jacob Bernard-Docker (32), Ethan Frisch (24), and Gabe Bast (22) 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. AIC’s six most likely starters on defense have combined for 7 goals and 42 assists in 95 combined games this season (0.52 points/game), while the six UND defenders expected in the lineup tonight have put together a line of 17 goals and 54 assists in 133 combined games (0.53 points/game) against superior competition. Matt Kiersted, Jacob Bernard Docker, Jake Sanderson, Ethan Frisch, Tyler Kleven, and Gabe Bast 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 if Bernard Docker is unable to suit up tonight, Brad Berry has the luxury of inserting freshman blueliner Cooper Moore into the lineup on the third pairing; Moore has scored two goals and added three assists in 18 games this season.

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

American International power play: 20 of 84, 23.8 percent (9th)
American International penalty kill: 55 of 71, 77.5 percent (36th)

North Dakota power play: 29 of 118, 24.6 percent (8th)
North Dakota penalty kill: 93 of 108, 86.1 percent (6th)

North Dakota has scored four shorthanded goals this season without allowing one to opponents, while the Yellow Jackets have scored one and allowed one this season. That leaves AIC’s net specialty teams at a +4, while UND weighs in at +18.

American International has scored 20 of their 66 goals this season with the man advantage (30.3%), while the Fighting Hawks have scored 29 of their 105 goals this season on the power play (27.6%).

In the NCHC Frozen Faceoff 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).

In the championship game, the Fighting Hawks built momentum late in the second period and finally broke through in the third, erupting for three goals in a span of 122 seconds. UND dominated in the faceoff circle all night long (50-25) and iced the game with a empty-net goal at the 19:51 mark of the final frame.

In both contests, North Dakota played with an edge and brought a heavy game, staying right on the line between finishing checks and ending up in the penalty box. UND ended up with a combined six power plays (2-for-6) and was shorthanded only four times, with three successful penalty kills.

It will be interesting to see whether the Yellow Jackets can handle North Dakota’s physical play throughout the game, as the Fighting Hawks are one of the heaviest teams in the country, averaging over 190 pounds per player. AIC weighs in at 185.7, right between St. Cloud State (186.6) and Denver (184.3).

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 advance to tomorrow night’s regional final.

This is the first-ever meeting between the two teams. American International began play at the Division I level in 1998, although the team has been competing since the 1948-49 season.

American International Yellow Jackets

Head Coach: Eric Lang (5th season at AIC, 82-72-14, .530)
National Rankings: #15/#14

This Season: 15-3-0 overall, 11-1-0 AHA (1st)
Last Season: 21-12-1 overall, 21-6-1 AHA (1st)

2020-2021 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 3.67 goals scored/game – 5th of 51 teams
Team Defense: 1.94 goals allowed/game – 3rd of 51 teams

Power Play: 23.8% (20 of 84) – 9th of 51 teams
Penalty Kill: 77.5% (55 of 71) – 36th of 51 teams

Key players: Senior F Tobias Fladeby (9-8-17), Junior F Chris Theodore (4-14-18), Senior F Chris Dodero (7-11-18), Junior F Justin Cole (9-7-16), Junior F Elijiah Barriga (7-6-13), Freshman F Julius Janhonen (3-5-8), Sophomore F Eric Otto (2-5-7), Senior D Brennan Kapcheck (0-18-18), Sophomore D Zak Galambos (4-6-10), Senior G Stefano Durante (9-3-0, 2.17 GAA, .907 SV%)

North Dakota Fighting Hawks

Head Coach: Brad Berry (6th season at UND, 137-62-24, .668)
National Rankings: #1/#1

This Season: 21-5-1 overall, 18-5-1 NCHC (1st)
Last Season: 26-5-4 overall, 17-4-3-2 NCHC (1st)

2020-2021 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 3.96 goals scored/game – 1st of 51 teams
Team Defense: 1.96 goals allowed/game – 4th of 51 teams

Power Play: 24.6% (29 of 118) – 8th of 51 teams
Penalty Kill: 86.1% (93 of 108) – 6th of 51 teams

Key players: Sophomore F Shane Pinto (15-15-30), Senior F Jordan Kawaguchi (9-25-34), Freshman F Riese Gaber (11-9-20), Senior F Collin Adams (11-20-31), Junior F Jasper Weatherby (12-9-21), Junior F Mark Senden (3-11-14), Senior D Matt Kiersted (3-18-21), Sophomore D Ethan Frisch (3-7-10), Freshman D Jake Sanderson (2-12-14 in twenty games), Junior G Adam Scheel (19-3-1. 1.81 GAA, .928 SV%, 4 SO)

Game News and Notes

UND is 18-0-0 when it scores the first goal and just 3-5-1 when its opponent lights the lamp first, although two of those comeback victories came in its past two games. The Fighting Hawks have outscored opponents 40-16 in third periods and overtime this season, while the Yellow Jacket have scored 23 and allowed 10 in the same frames. UND is 3-1-1 in overtime this season; American International won its only overtime game of the year. This is North Dakota’s 33rd appearance in the NCAA tournament, while AIC is making its second consecutive appearance and second overall.

The Prediction

If my Twitter poll is any indication, North Dakota has an 85% chance of advancing through to face Duluth in the regional final. On the ice, however, it’s a different story. It is hard to believe, but AIC has more tournament experience than the Fighting Hawks, and – more importantly – belief that they can win this game. As is so often the case, this game 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. If the Yellow Jackets have a weakness, it’s on the penalty kill, and although the Fighting Hawks don’t rely on the power play as much as some teams, it would help matters if they could get one to go. Expect a ten-minute “feeling out” period to open the contest, with UND’s depth and top-end talent making the difference in the end. UND 3, American International 2.

Broadcast Information

Tonight’s NCAA Midwest Regional Semifinal will be televised live on ESPN3 and available on several streaming services, including YoutubeTV (a free trial is available); puck drop has been moved up to 7:30 p.m. Central Time. Leah Hextall (play-by-play) and Dave Starman (color commentary) will handle the call from Fargo; Hextall’s uncle Dennis played at North Dakota for two seasons (31-56-87) and was the program’s first NHL player in 1968 (New York Rangers, and later with the Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Detroit Red Wings, and Washington Capitals). Furthermore, Leah Hextall’s second-cousin Brett played three years at UND (39-42-81 in 115 games) and helped the team make it all the way to the NCAA Frozen Four in 2011.

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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