Weekend Preview: UND vs. Denver

In last season’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff semifinals (held at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks), North Dakota needed overtime to outlast a gutsy performance by a Pios squad that had been decimated by COVID-19. DU dressed only nine forwards for the contest but led 1-0 with under 90 seconds remaining. With the goalie pulled, the Fighting Hawks’ Shane Pinto blasted a shot on net that hit Jasper Weatherby on the way in to send the game to overtime. It took over eight minutes of extra time before Gavin Hain sent the home crowd into a frenzy with a blast of his own that sent the Green and White into the championship game; Denver had just killed Antti Tuomisto’s boarding minor but could not clear the zone. UND outshot the weary Pioneers 20-4 in the third period and overtime.

With the playoff victory, North Dakota moved to 20-5-1 on the season; David Carle’s squad saw its season end at 10-13-1, the first time DU failed to advance to the NCAA tournament since 2007. Last year was the first losing campaign for DU since the 1999-2000 team went 16-23-2. UND won five of the seven meetings between the teams last season, outscoring the Pios 22-14. North Dakota 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 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; from that point until the end of the season, the Green and White went 13-3 outscoring opponents 69-28.

In the NCHC, it is clear that Denver/North Dakota is at the top of the league rivalries. The teams have played 34 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 thirteen 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 last season was no different, with the teams combining for 187 penalty minutes in six regular season games (the NCHC semifinal game featured just four minor penalties). The last contest between the squads in Denver saw a DU goaltender run over with nine minutes remaining, which ignited tempers further. That spilled over to the series in Grand Forks in February, with the Pioneers “winning” the penalty minute battle 54-29. North Dakota won the specialty teams battle, scoring two goals on ten man advantage opportunities and blanking DU on its ten power play chances.

In Saturday’s series finale, North Dakota led on the scoreboard 5-2 thanks to two goals by Jasper Weatherby and 18 saves from Peter Thome, who started in place of injured netminder Adam Scheel. And how was Scheel injured, you might ask? Denver’s Kohen Olischefski ran Scheel from behind late in Friday’s 3-0 UND victory. Olischefski was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct for goaltender interference and was issued an additional one-game suspension by the league office.

Eight 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 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. And now, the WCHA is no more, and the CCHA has re-formed for the 2021-2022 campaign.

The NCHC has been the premier hockey conference since its inception, and particularly over the past five seasons. The eight teams in the league have gone 385-199-80 (.640) in non-conference action since the start of the 2014-15 season and sent eleven teams to the Frozen Four (UND and Omaha in 2015, UND and Denver in 2016, Denver and Duluth in 2017, Duluth in 2018, Denver and Duluth in 2019, Duluth and St. Cloud State in 2021) over that seven-year stretch (there was no national tournament in 2020). Conference members North Dakota (2016), Denver (2017), and Minnesota Duluth (2018, 2019) have won four of the last five national titles.

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 over the past two seasons, winning the program’s third and fourth Penrose Cup as NCHC champions and collecting an overall record of 48-11-5 (.789) during the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 seasons.

Last year, North Dakota definitely benefitted from having a number of players stick around for a title run rather than turn pro. And UND’s roster is now feeling the effects of all of those departures happening at once, with fourteen new faces in Green and White this season. Despite bringing in five experienced transfers (forwards Ashton Calder and Connor Ford, defensemen Chris Jandric and Brady Ferner, and goaltender Zach Driscoll), the Fighting Hawks lost their top five scorers (and seven of their top eight) from a season ago: Jordan Kawaguchi, Collin Adams, Shane Pinto, Jasper Weatherby, Matt Kiersted, Grant Mismash, and Jacob Bernard-Docker combined for over 60% of UND’s offense last season (69 of 114 goals and 185 of 308 total points).

In addition to those seven skaters, Brad Berry also lost forwards Jackson Keane and Harrison Blaisdell, defensemen Gabe Bast and Josh Rieger, and goaltenders Adam Scheel and Peter Thome.

Despite losing all of that firepower and scoring depth, the offensive numbers appear to be fine on the surface. UND is averaging 3.71 goals per game through its first seven contests; last year, North Dakota scored 3.93 goals/game. There is one concerning metric, however: in my opinion, the Fighting Hawks are relying too heavily on the power play (8 of 26 goals this season, 30.8% of the team’s offensive production) and not generating enough chances at even strength. Last year, the power play units were effective but not essential, accounting for 29 of UND’s 114 goals scored (25.4%).

This is concerning for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Brad Berry’s squad will not have the puck enough this season to draw the number of power plays required to win in this fashion. Through seven games, UND has had 26 man advantage opportunities (3.7/game) while finding themselves shorthanded 32 times (4.6/game) and allowing six power play goals. Last year, the Green and White averaged 4.3 power plays per game while finding themselves shorthanded exactly four times per contest. Coupled with four shorthanded goals, this led to a +17 specialty teams margin last season. This year, North Dakota sits at +2 through seven games and now enters league play against arguably stronger competition.

And to drill down on this point a bit further, why will UND not enjoy a power play quantity advantage over opponents this season? Quite simply, they will not possess the puck enough. The team chasing the puck will hook, hold, obstruct, interfere, and trip opponents in order to regain possession or prevent scoring chances. North Dakota made a living with the puck last season (7th and 5th in two key puck possession statistics), and it started in the faceoff circle. In particular, Shane Pinto, Collin Adams, and Jasper Weatherby had UND at #1 in the nation in faceoff percentage (56.2%); this year, the Green and White clock in at #12 (52.9%).

Having the puck most of the time also led to a 33-26 shot advantage last season; this year, it’s nearly dead even at 26-25. With top-end talent and puck possession, UND scored nearly four goals per game last year while allowing less than two (1.94); the most glaring statistic with this year’s squad is that opponents are averaging three goals per game.

This season, it’s Denver who has been dominating puck possession, sitting at #2 in the country in both Corsi and Fenwick (63.6% in each category), while North Dakota clocks in at 18th and 20th. UND fans who watched the series at Quinnipiac should expect something very similar against the Pioneers; QU played the same puck possession game to near perfection against the Fighting Hawks.

UND has been plagued by slow starts this season, allowing the first goal in four of seven contests. In two of those games, North Dakota found itself down 2-0 in short order. Brad Berry’s squad has experienced three distinct game types so far this season:

North Dakota won with relative ease against Niagara, scoring the first goal at 3:01 of the first period on Friday night and at the 1:09 mark of the opening frame on Saturday night. On the weekend, UND never trailed, was tied for just 4:10, and led for almost 116 of the 120 minutes of the series.

In two tightly contested victories (at Bemidji State, at Quinnipiac), the Fighting Hawks led for over 67 minutes, were tied for 33 minutes, and trailed just nineteen minutes combined over the two contests. More importantly, UND never trailed by more than a single goal in either game. This is the recipe for success for this year’s squad – keep games close and settle in rather than having to chase the game.

In its three losses (vs. Bemidji State, at Quinnipiac, vs. Penn State), North Dakota trailed each opponent by multiple goals at various points in the contest. BSU scored two goals in the opening 90 seconds and led until UND tied it with 38 seconds remaining, QU scored four consecutive goals to build a 4-1 lead midway through the third period, and PSU built a 2-0 lead through the first thirteen minutes of the opening frame in Nashville. In those three losses, the Fighting Hawks led for a TOTAL of five minutes and seven seconds.

The Fighting Hawks will need to do a better job of keeping games close early if they expect to complete for a top-half finish in the NCHC. To be fair, UND has played better in second periods this season – outshooting opponents 76-46 while scoring eleven goals and allowing just four – but they’ve far too often been behind and chasing the scoreboard by that point.

Why is it important to bring all of this up as UND enters league play? Because the stronger competition will expose these areas even as Brad Berry’s team develops some chemistry. Splits are very possible on home ice, something that has been nearly unheard of over the past two seasons (North Dakota went 27-2-0 over the past two seasons at the Ralph). An overall record of 45-10-5 (.792) over the past two seasons has certainly raised the already-high bar for the UND faithful, but fans should temper expectations and expect close, frustrating contests until January and beyond.

Turning our attention to this weekend’s matchup, a half-point per game or better is my benchmark for solid offensive production, and David Carle’s squad has fourteen active players who meet that threshold and SEVEN averaging a point per game or better: sophomore forward Carter Savoie (6-6-12), junior forward Bobby Brink (3-6-9), senior forward Cole Guttman (3-6-9), freshman forward Massimo Rizzo (5-3-8), junior defenseman Justin Lee (1-3-4 in three games), freshman defenseman Sean Behrens (0-7-7), and senior forward Brett Stapley (1-5-6). Rizzo was a former North Dakota recruit.

By that same measure, Brad Berry has nine players at a half point or better per game and four averaging a point per game or better: sophomore forward Riese Gaber (3-6-9), sophomore defenseman Jake Sanderson (3-5-8), freshman forward Jake Schmaltz (4-4-8), and senior forward Ashton Calder (4-3-7).

On the plus side, UND is taking advantage of scoring opportunities when they present themselves, lighting the lamp on 14.2% of shots on goal. Denver sits a ways back at 11.8%. The issue for North Dakota is that they are not generating enough shot attempts. DU is putting over 42 shots on net per game, scoring an average of five goals per contest. Remarkably, the Pioneers are allowing less than 25 shots on goal per game.

Both teams have had goaltending struggles to this point in the season, with Denver (a team save percentage of .878) and North Dakota (.880) ranking in the bottom quarter of all men’s Division I hockey teams in that statistic.

Zach Driscoll (4-3-0, 2.74 GAA, .890 SV%, 1 SO) has played every minute in net for UND, while junior Magnus Chrona (3-1-0, 3.12 GAA, .868 SV%) and freshman Matt Davis (1-1-0, 2.36 GAA, .911 SV%, 1 SO) have split time for the Pios.

Denver Pioneers

Head Coach: David Carle (4th season at DU, 59-36-12, .607)
National Rankings: #11/#13

This Season: 4-2-0 overall, 0-0-0 NCHC
Last Season: 10-13-1 overall, 9-12-1 NCHC (5th)

Team Offense: 5.00 goals scored/game – 2nd of 59 teams
Team Defense: 3.00 goals allowed/game – 36th of 59 teams
Power Play: 27.6% (8 of 29) – 9th of 59 teams
Penalty Kill: 57.7% (15 of 26) – 57th of 59 teams

Key players: Sophomore F Carter Savoie (6-6-12), Junior F Bobby Brink (3-6-9), Senior F Cole Guttman (3-6-9), Freshman F Massimo Rizzo (5-3-8), Senior F Brett Stapley (1-5-6), Junior D Justin Lee (1-3-4 in three games), Freshman D Sean Behrens (0-7-7), Freshman G Matt Davis (1-1-0, 2.36 GAA, .911 SV%, 1 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (7th season at UND ; 142-66-24, .664)
National Ranking: #8/#10
This Season: 4-3-0 overall, 0-0-0 NCHC
Last Season: 22-6-1 overall (NCAA Regional Finalist), 18-5-1 NCHC (1st)

Team Offense: 3.71 goals scored/game – 11th of 59 teams
Team Defense: 3.00 goals allowed/game – 26th of 59 teams
Power Play: 32.1% (9 of 28) – 5th of 59 teams
Penalty Kill: 82.4% (28 of 34) – 33rd of 59 teams

Key Players: Sophomore F Riese Gaber (3-6-9), Senior F Ashton Calder (4-3-7), Freshman F Jake Schmaltz (4-4-8), Junior F Judd Caulfield (3-3-6), Senior F Connor Ford (1-5-6), Sophomore F Louis Jamernik (1-3-4), Sophomore D Jake Sanderson (3-5-8), Sophomore D Tyler Kleven (1-1-2), Junior D Ethan Frisch (2-2-4), Senior G Zach Driscoll (4-3-0, 2.74 GAA, .890 SV%, 1 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: March 15, 2021 (Grand Forks, ND). A Denver Pioneers squad with just nine forwards due to COVID-19 protocols almost outlasted a deep and highly skilled North Dakota team in front of 2500 fans on a rare Monday showdown at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Carter Savoie scored a power play goal in the second period that nearly held up as the game-winner, but UND’s Shane Pinto had other plans: his rocket from the faceoff circle went past Magnus Chrona off of Jasper Weatherby and sent the game to overtime. Six seconds after a Fighting Hawks’ power play expired, Gavin Hain won it for North Dakota. UND outshot the Pios 32-18.

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: North Dakota won the last three meetings of the 2019-2020 season, outscoring the Pios 13-3 in the process. Splits in the Omaha pod and in Denver plus a February home sweep and the aforementioned NCHC playoff semifinal give the Fighting Hawks an 8-2-0 (.800) advantage over the last ten games. UND has outscored DU 35-17 over that stretch, including a 19-5 scoreboard advantage in five home victories.

All-time Series: UND leads the all-time series, 154-130-16 (.540), with a considerable edge of 90-44-10 (.660) in games played in Grand Forks. The teams first met in 1950, with North Dakota prevailing 18-3 in Denver. The 300 games played between the schools is the most among all of UND’s opponents.

Game News and Notes

Through six games, Denver has allowed eleven power play goals to opponents. UND captain Mark Senden has faced Denver 17 times in his collegiate career, with one goal and six assists in those contests. Senden scored the first goal in North Dakota’s Saturday night victory over Quinnipiac two weeks ago; the Fighting Hawks are now 14-2-0 when Senden scores a goal. Nine of Denver head coach David Carle’s 36 head coaching losses have come against UND. Last season, the Fighting Hawks won the Penrose Cup as NCHC regular season champions for the fourth time in the eight-year history of the league; the Pioneers have captured the Penrose only once (2016-2017). 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.

The Prediction

For the first time in a long time, Denver appears to hold the roster advantage. It will be interesting to see how this next chapter in the rivalry plays out. I expect North Dakota to trail for large stretches of this series as they have against tough opponents to this point in the season. The difference may just come down to goaltending, but I have a feeling that there will be plenty of goals scored at the Ralph this weekend. DU 5-3, UND 4-3.

Broadcast Information

Both games this weekend will be broadcast live on Midco Sports Network and also available via high-definition webcast 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.

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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