Weekend Preview: UND vs. St. Cloud State

#13 North Dakota (13-10-0, 8-4-0 NCHC) has not won a game – exhibition or otherwise – since the calendar turned to 2022, and the task doesn’t get any easier with a two-game series against #6 St. Cloud State (14-6-0, 6-4-0 NCHC) at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks this weekend.

On Friday, December 3rd in St. Cloud, the homestanding Huskies embarrassed the Fighting Hawks by a final score of 8-1. SCSU went 3-for-7 on the power play and held UND scoreless on two man-advantage opportunities. In Saturday’s rematch, North Dakota turned the specialty teams tables, going 1-for-7 on the power play and killing all four Husky power plays en route to a 5-3 road victory and a split of the weekend series.

These days, Brad Berry’s squad would love to score four goals in a weekend series. Since scoring nine goals in a road sweep at Colorado College, UND has experienced a power outage, notching a combined five goals over the course of four games (vs. Cornell, at Western Michigan). If one counts the uncountable 2-0 home exhibition loss to the US Under-18 team on New Year’s Day, the Fighting Hawks are averaging one goal per game over the past five.

For offensively-challenged North Dakota, the following information is quite troubling: including its home series against the Fighting Hawks, SCSU has scored 39 goals over the past six games, an average of 6.5 goals per game, which, as you can plainly see, is way more than one.

At 5th in the Pairwise and with a non-conference record of 8-2-0, St. Cloud State is in line to make the NCAA tourney for the fourth consecutive season. (It is worth noting that in 2019-2020 – when there was no national tournament – SCSU went just 13-15-6.) The Huskies’ six losses this season have come against Minnesota State (2nd in the Pairwise), Minnesota (11th), Omaha (20th), Western Michigan (4th, twice), and North Dakota (13th).

On the other side of the ledger, North Dakota’s four January losses (two vs. PWR 18 Cornell, two at PWR 4 Western Michigan) dropped the squad from 4th to 13th in the Pairwise rankings. At the moment, UND is being held up by early-season victories over Quinnipiac (6th) Denver (3rd, twice), Minnesota Duluth (8th), Minnesota (11th), and St. Cloud State (5th). UND ended up splitting its series with Quinnipiac, Duluth, Minnesota, and St. Cloud State; the Fighting Hawks also lost to Bemidji State (27th) and Penn State (24th) in the first half of the season

With twelve games played, Denver leads the NCHC with 27 points. Western Michigan and UND have 24 points each, with Duluth one game behind them (21 points). St. Cloud State has 18 points in 10 games played.

North Dakota (2015, 2016, 2020, and 2021) and St. Cloud State (2014, 2018, and 2019) have combined to win the regular season title in seven of the eight seasons of the NCHC. The Huskies also won the last WCHA conference title in 2013.

Given that these two squads have been at the top of the league standings since its inception, it was only fitting that they would meet in the 2021 NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship game, played in Grand Forks last March. 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. Coming into the last series against North Dakota, St. Cloud State had outscored opponents 47-28, although those numbers were buoyed by a sweep of first-year program St. Thomas (12-2, 2-0). SCSU had played its other twelve games at a more realistic goals for-goals against pace of 33-26. As mentioned above, there has been no slowing of the scoring pace, and a blistering power play (32 of 84, 38.1 percent) has the Huskies outscoring opponents 86-38 on the season (4.3 – 1.9 per game).

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 seven goals and nine assists through the first twenty 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 9-13-22 in 23 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.

With twenty juniors and seniors on the SCSU roster, Miettinen is the fifth-highest scoring forward on his team. On the contrary, Gaber leads the North Dakota forward group in scoring by five points.

A half-point per game or better is my benchmark for solid offensive production, and Brett Larson’s squad has THIRTEEN active players who meet that threshold: senior forward Kevin Fitzgerald (11-14-25), senior forward Sam Hentges (6-7-13 in nine games), junior forward Jami Krannila (9-8-17), senior forward Easton Brodzinski (11-9-20), senior forward Nolan Walker (7-8-15), sophomore forward Veeti Miettinen (7-9-16), junior forward Zach Okabe (8-9-17), junior forward Kyle Kupka (3-10-13), senior forward Micah Miller (7-4-11), senior defenseman Nick Perbix (2-18-20), freshman defenseman Jack Peart (2-12-14), senior defenseman Spencer Meier (2-9-11), senior defenseman Seamus Donahue (0-11-11)

By that same offensive metric, Brad Berry will have eight players in the lineup this weekend averaging a half point or better per game: sophomore forward Riese Gaber (9-13-22), senior forward Ashton Calder (8-7-15 in 18 games), senior forward Connor Ford (3-14-17), freshman forward Jake Schmaltz (6-8-14), freshman forward Matteo Costantini (5-6-11 in 18 games), senior forward Mark Senden (4-8-12), sophomore forward Louis Jamernik (7-6-13), and sophomore defenseman Jake Sanderson (6-16-22 in 19 games).

Senior forward Gavin Hain (6-3-9 in 18 games) also meets that threshold but will be out of the lineup for the next few weeks after suffering a lower-body injury against Cornell.

SCSU forward Sam Hentges and UND forward Ashton Calder did not appear in the December series in St. Cloud. North Dakota’s Jake Sanderson will skate on the United States Men’s Olympic Ice Hockey team along with Hentges and Huskies defenseman Nick Perbix. St. Cloud State head coach Brett Larson will serve as an assistant coach for the U.S. men.

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 three goals per game; 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 2.91 per game this season.

Two players in particular are driving the offense for North Dakota: forward Riese Gaber and defenseman Jake Sanderson. The two have combined for 239 shot attempts in 40 games played, almost six each per game. No one else on the team has more than 93 attempts.

UND is scoring on 10.9 percent of its shots on goal, a mark good for 15th in the country. St. Cloud State clocks in at 12.8 percent (3rd).

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 land at 54.1%, good for 6th in the nation. St. Cloud State sits in 11th nationally at 52.8%.

For UND, Connor Ford (60.6% of faceoffs won) takes nearly every important draw, while Jake Schmaltz (51.6%) has improved over the course of his first college season. Louis Jamernik (51.0%) has been a steady third option for Brad Berry.

For the Huskies, it’s seniors Kevin Fitzgerland (52.4%) and Nolan Walker (54.8%) leading the way, with junior Jami Krannila (46.3%) chipping in as well.

With both squads faring extremely well on draws, it is no surprise that each team finds itself in the upper third nationally in two key puck possession statistics:

Corsi: UND 52.6% (17th), St. Cloud State 57.3% (4th)
Fenwick: UND 53.1% (14th), St. Cloud State 57.3% (4th)

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

North Dakota’s penalty disparity is becoming problematic, as UND averages more than a full minor penalty more per game (14.08 – 11.67) in conference play than its opponents. The Fighting Hawks have had 83 man-advantage situations this season but have been shorthanded 98 times. With 19 power play goals scored, 20 power play goals allowed, one shorthanded goal scored, and a costly shorthanded goal allowed last weekend at Western Michigan, UND’s specialty teams net is at minus-1.

St. Cloud State is in better shape in the penalty department, averaging just 12.6 penalty minutes per conference game while seeing their opponents whistled for 13.8. This has led to 84 man-advantage situations on the season and just 73 shorthanded situations for the Huskies. With 32 power play goals, nine power play goals against, and an 8-4 advantage in shorthanded goals, SCSU sits at +27.

SCSU senior netminder David Hrenak has put together by far his best season in college hockey, going 12-5-0 with a goals-against average of 1.76, a save percentage of .928, and two shutouts. Hrenak started both December games against the Fighting Hawks, making 51 of 57 saves in the weekend split. Since that series, Hrenak has started three games, going 3-0 while allowing a total of two goals

Before UND’s December series at Colorado College, fifth-year senior Zach Driscoll had played nearly every meaningful minute between the pipes for North Dakota, going 11-6-0 with a goals-against average of 2.62, a save percentage of .889, and one shutout. Both Driscoll and freshman Jakob Hellsten got a start in Colorado Springs, and each performed admirably (Driscoll made 28 of 30 saves on Friday night, while Hellsten stopped 23 of 24 in the rematch). Each of the netminders also got one start in early January against Cornell, with Driscoll struggling on Friday night (13 saves on 17 shots) before giving way to Hellsten on Saturday (17 saves on 20 shots).

Fans may remember that before spending three seasons at Bemidji State, Driscoll went 6-6-1 in 14 games played for the 2016-17 edition of the St. Cloud State Huskies.

Last weekend, Driscoll again got the Friday start at Western Michigan, allowing four goals on 23 shots. Hellsten looked better in the rematch, allowing only a late first-period shorthanded goal while making 24 saves.

Despite the recent trend of Driscoll on Friday nights and Hellsten on Saturday nights, I have a sneaking suspicion that Brad Berry may mix things up this weekend by starting the freshman in tonight’s opener.

St. Cloud State Huskies

Head Coach: Brett Larson (4th season at SCSU, 77-38-9, .657)

National Rankings: #6/#6
Pairwise Ranking: 5th

This Season: 14-6-0 overall, 5-3-11 NCHC (4th)
Last Season: 20-11-0 overall (NCAA National Runner-Up), 12-6-3-3 NCHC (2nd)

2021-2022 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 4.30 goals scored/game – 1st of 59 teams
Team Defense: 1.90 goals allowed/game – 5th of 59 teams

Power Play: 38.1% (32 of 84) – 1st of 59 teams
Penalty Kill: 87.7% (64 of 73) – 8th of 59 teams

Key players: Senior F Kevin Fitzgerald (11-14-25), Junior F Jami Krannila (9-8-17), Senior F Easton Brodzinski (11-9-20), Senior F Nolan Walker (7-8-15), Sophomore F Veeti Miettinen (7-9-16), Junior F Zach Okabe (8-9-17), Senior F Sam Hentges (6-7-13 in 9 games), Senior F Nick Perbix (2-18-20), Freshman D Jack Peart (2-12-14), Senior D Seamus Donahue (0-11-11), Senior D Spencer Meier (2-9-11), Senior G David Hrenak (12-5-0, 1.76 GAA, .928 SV%, 2 SO)

North Dakota Fighting Hawks

Head Coach: Brad Berry (7th season at UND, 151-73-24, .657)

National Rankings: #13/#13
Pairwise Ranking: 13th

This Season: 13-10-0 overall, 8-4-0 NCHC (t-2nd)
Last Season: 22-6-1 overall (NCAA Midwest Regional Finalist), 18-5-1 NCHC (1st)

2021-2022 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 3.00 goals scored/game – 25th of 59 teams
Team Defense: 2.91 goals allowed/game – 31st of 59 teams

Power Play: 22.9% (19 of 83) – 11th of 59 teams
Penalty Kill: 79.6% (78 of 98) – 34th of 59 teams

Key Players: Sophomore F Riese Gaber (9-13-22), Senior F Connor Ford (3-14-17), Senior F Ashton Calder (8-7-15 in 18 games), Freshman F Jake Schmaltz (6-8-14), Junior F Judd Caulfield (4-5-9), Freshman F Matteo Costantini (5-6-11 in 18 games), Sophomore F Louis Jamernik (7-6-13), Senior F Mark Senden (4-8-12), Sophomore D Jake Sanderson (6-16-22 in 19 games), Junior D Ethan Frisch (3-5-8), Senior G Zach Driscoll (12-8-0, 2.74 GAA, .884 SV%, 1 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: December 4, 2021 (St. Cloud, MN). North Dakota rebounded from an 8-1 shellacking at the hands of the homestanding Huskies by scoring two goals in the middle frame to break a 2-2 tie. Each team scored once in the third period to bring the final score to 5-3 in favor of the Fighting Hawks. St. Cloud State outshot UND 33-29 for the game and 65-57 over the course of the weekend series.

Last Meeting in Grand Forks: March 16, 2021. 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.

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, 78-46-15 (.615), including a record of 39-19-7 (.654) 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: UND holds a slight lead of 5-4-1 (.550) in the last ten tilts between the teams, although both teams have scored a total of 34 goals over that stretch of games. Two of the last ten meetings have gone to overtime, with North Dakota’s Jordan Kawaguchi scoring the game winner in both contests.

Game News and Notes

UND’s Mark Senden and Riese Gaber each have six 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. SCSU has outscored opponents 30-5 in first periods this season.

The Prediction

It probably goes without saying that whichever team produces better results this weekend is more likely to challenge Denver, Western Michigan, and Duluth for the 2022 NCHC regular season title. UND will need to challenge St. Cloud State in the neutral zone, taking away time and space while avoiding unnecessary penalties. A good start will be key for Brad Berry’s squad, as the North Dakota faithful will be anxious after losing four straight games. There is no doubt that the Huskies are the better team with a deeper, more talented roster, but I expect Hellsten to start in Friday’s opener and steal a game for the homestanding Hawks. UND 3-2, SCSU 6-1.

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!

Leave a Reply