Weekend Preview: UND at St. Cloud State

In the 2021 NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship game, top-seeded North Dakota (20-5-1) squared off against #2 seed St. Cloud State (17-9-0). UND trailed 2-1 after two periods, but strung together three goals just 122 seconds apart to take a lead they would never relinquish. The victory secured North Dakota’s first NCHC postseason title in the eight-year history of the league and its first conference playoff championship since the 2012 WCHA Final Five. 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.

Both UND and St. Cloud State won their opening round games in the 2021 NCAA tournament; SCSU followed up their 6-2 victory over Boston University with a 4-1 triumph over Boston College. The Huskies’ scoring ways continued with a 5-4 thriller over Minnesota State; Nolan Walker’s game-winner was scored with 54 seconds remaining in the contest.

But that was all of the lamplighting for Brett Larson’s crew, as they were blanked 5-0 by UMass in the NCAA title game.

Last season’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship was St. Cloud State’s fifth appearance in the final game of the league playoffs; 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.

SCSU’s roster is loaded with experience (twenty juniors and seniors) and top-end talent, very similar to the lineups that North Dakota was able to field over the past two seasons. But while it may look on paper that St. Cloud State is dominating teams by scoring 47 goals and allowing just 28 to this point of the season, it is worth mentioning that SCSU swept first-year program St. Thomas by a combined score of 14-2; aside from those two games, the Huskies’ scoring margin is a more realistic 33-26.

St. Cloud State has five losses already this season; UND’s sixth loss of the season was in the West Regional final against Minnesota Duluth, a five-overtime thriller.

Perhaps even more concerning for Brett Larson’s squad is that they have dropped three straight games in league play:

Vs. Omaha: 2-3 (OT)
At Western Michigan: 2-6
At Western Michigan: 0-4

Those early league losses have St. Cloud State two games back of UND in the race for the conference title after just six league games.

Last season, 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 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.

UND and SCSU only met twice during the 2020-2021 regular 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).

Sophomore forward Veeti Miettinen was the brightest spot for SCSU last season, tallying eleven goals and adding thirteen assists to lead the team in points. In his seven playoff games, however, the 5-foot-9 right winger only managed one point, a goal against Boston University in St. Cloud State’s NCAA tournament opener. Miettinen has three goals and five assists through the first fourteen games of this season and 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 sophomore forward who has splashed in his first college season. Riese Gaber (11-10-21 in 29 games last season) 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. Gaber boasts a line of 7-8-15 in 15 games this season.

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 eleven active players who meet that threshold: senior forward Kevin Fitzgerald (6-10-16), senior forward Sam Hentges (1-4-5 in five games), junior forward Jami Krannila (6-5-11), senior forward Easton Brodzinski (6-3-9), senior forward Nolan Walker (5-3-8), sophomore forward Veeti Miettinen (3-5-8), junior forward Zach Okabe (4-4-8), senior forward Micah Miller (5-2-7), freshman defenseman Jack Peart (2-4-6), senior defenseman Seamus Donahue (0-8-8), and freshman defenseman Josh Luedtke (1-4-5).

Hentges has been out with an injury since late October and will be unavailable this weekend.

By that same offensive metric, Brad Berry has just eight players at a half point or better per game, although THREE of those are averaging a point per game or better: sophomore forward Riese Gaber (7-8-15), sophomore defenseman Jake Sanderson (6-10-16), and senior forward Ashton Calder (7-7-14), Other offensive contributors include senior forward Connor Ford (1-11-12), freshman forward Jake Schmaltz (4-7-11), junior forward Judd Caulfield (3-5-8), freshman forward Matteo Costantini (4-5-9 in 11 games), and sophomore forward Louis Jamernik (3-5-8). Calder will not make the trip to St. Cloud State this weekend, although Costantini is expected to make his return to the lineup after missing the last four games (illness).

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, North Dakota is still managing well over three goals per game (3.27); last year, UND scored 3.93 goals/game. A more glaring difference can be found on the defensive side of the puck: after allowing less than two goals per game last year (1.97), the Fighting Hawks are giving up an average of 2.67 goals per game this season.

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 struggled early but now clock in at 54.7%, good for fifth in the nation. St. Cloud State sits in 17th nationally at 52.4%.

North Dakota is 5-1-0 in NCHC play; St. Cloud State sits at 3-3-0. The teams will also square off on January 28th and 29th in Grand Forks. Whoever takes the season series between the two programs will be more likely to contend with Minnesota Duluth for the league title.

St. Cloud State Huskies

Head Coach: Brett Larson (4th season at SCSU, 72-37-9, .648)
National Rankings: #5/#6

This Season: 9-5-0 overall, 3-3-0 NCHC (t-4th)
Last Season: 20-11-0 overall, 15-9-0 NCHC (2nd)

2021-2022 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 3.36 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.00 goals allowed/game

Power Play: 33.9% (20 of 59)
Penalty Kill: 84.0% (42 of 50)

Key players: Senior F Kevin Fitzgerald (6-10-16), Junior F Jami Krannila (6-5-11), Senior F Easton Brodzinski (6-3-9), Senior F Nolan Walker (5-3-8), Sophomore F Veeti Miettinen (3-5-8), Junior F Zach Okabe (4-4-8), Senior F Micah Miller (5-2-7), Freshman D Jack Peart (2-4-6), Senior D Seamus Donahue (0-8-8), Freshman D Josh Luedtke (1-4-5), Senior G David Hrenak (8-4-0, 1.83 GAA, .927 SV%, 1 SO)

North Dakota Fighting Hawks

Head Coach: Brad Berry (7th season at UND, 148-68-24, .667)
National Rankings: #7/#7

This Season: 10-5-0 overall, 5-1-0 NCHC (1st)
Last Season: 22-6-1 overall, 18-5-1 NCHC (1st)

2021-2022 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 3.27 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.67 goals allowed/game

Power Play: 24.5% (13 of 53)
Penalty Kill: 80.6% (50 of 62)

Key players: Sophomore F Riese Gaber (7-8-15), Senior F Connor Ford (1-11-12), Freshman F Jake Schmaltz (4-7-11), Junior F Judd Caulfield (3-5-8), Freshman F Matteo Costantini (4-5-9 in 11 games), Sophomore F Louis Jamernik (3-5-8), Sophomore D Jake Sanderson (6-10-16), Junior D Ethan Frisch (3-4-7), Senior G Zach Driscoll (10-5-0, 2.42 GAA, .895 SV%, 1 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: March 16, 2021 (Grand Forks, ND). One night before St. Patrick’s Day, North Dakota enjoyed playing for the NCHC playoff title in front of a whole bunch of green. St. Cloud State led 2-1 after two periods, but the Fighting Hawks stormed back with four third-period goals – including three in the span of 122 seconds early in the final frame and an empty-netter to seal the 5-3 victory and the program’s first Frozen Faceoff championship. UND senior Jordan Kawaguchi and freshman Riese Gaber each had two goals and an assist.

Last Meeting In St. Cloud: 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.

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, 77-45-15 (.617), including a record of 29-23-0 (.558) in games played in St. Cloud. 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: St. Cloud holds a slight lead of 5-4-1 (.550) in the last ten tilts between the teams, although North Dakota has outscored St. Cloud State 30-26 over that stretch. Three of the last ten meetings have gone to overtime.

Game News and Notes

Since 2012, the teams have played to an even record (6-6-2) in games played in St. Cloud. UND’s Mark Senden, Gavin Hain, and Riese Gaber each have four career points against the Huskies. North Dakota netminder Zach Driscoll spent the 2016-2017 season at St. Cloud State before transferring to Bemidji State; Driscoll appeared in 14 contests at SCSU, amassing a record of 6-6-1.

The Prediction

Both teams will be looking to play to their identity this weekend, and on the wide sheet, that favors St. Cloud State. North Dakota will need to play a tight-checking game in all three zones to keep these games close, and I don’t see that happening on consecutive nights. SCSU has an advantage on special teams, so the Fighting Hawks will need to stay out of the penalty box and roll four lines to have a shot. The Huskies should come out of this series with four or five league points and tighten up the race for the league title. SCSU 4-3, 3-3 tie.

Broadcast Information

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