Weekend Preview: UND vs. Western Michigan

When North Dakota traveled to Kalamazoo to face Western Michigan in late January, the Fighting Hawks hadn’t won a game since December 11th, 2021.

UND dropped both games against the Broncos by final scores of 4-1 and 2-0, falling to 13th in the Pairwise Rankings.

Despite the two road defeats, there were signs that Brad Berry’s squad had righted the ship…

On Friday night, North Dakota outshot the Broncos 35-23 but were undone by three WMU power play goals and an 0-for-3 performance with the man advantage.

On Saturday night, shots were nearly even, with the decisive goal coming on a shorthanded breakaway in the final minute of the first period (Western Michigan would add a late empty-net goal).

Since those defeats at the hands of the Broncos, UND has faced St. Cloud State, Omaha, Colorado College, and Minnesota Duluth, winning each weekend series and effectively going 7-1 over that stretch (21 of 24 league points) to leapfrog Denver for 1st place in the league standings.

Three weeks ago, I mentioned that it would be an uphill climb for UND to catch Denver in this year’s race for the league title despite being only three points behind with ten games to play.

With four NCHC games remaining, UND now leads Denver by one point in the race for the Penrose Cup. It’s probably still Denver’s title to lose, with the following schedules over the past two weekends:

North Dakota: vs. Western Michigan, at Omaha

Denver: at Omaha, at/vs. Colorado College (home and home series)

With last weekend’s road sweep over the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, UND also moved up to #6 in the all-important Pairwise Rankings, secured home ice for the first round of the NCHC playoffs, and guaranteed no worse than a third-place finish in the conference standings. North Dakota is currently eight points clear of Western Michigan, so a split this weekend would lock up a top-two finish for the Fighting Hawks.

Both Western Michigan and UND have put together impressive tournament resumes by playing a tough slate of games all season long; WMU has played the country’s fourth-toughest schedule according to KRACH; North Dakota’s slate of games currently ranks as the sixth-toughest in all of college hockey.

This weekend, it’ll be #7 North Dakota (19-11-1, 14-5-1 NCHC) hosting #6 Western Michigan (20-8-1, 12-7-1 NCHC) at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks.

First-year head coach Pat Ferschweiler (WMU ’93) has his team playing at an extremely high level, with the Broncos exhibiting plenty of offense, outstanding specialty teams, and excellent goaltending. Ferschweiler, who had previously been the WMU associate head coach under Andy Murray, also spent four seasons as an assistant coach for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings.

At 4th in the Pairwise and with a non-conference record of 8-1-0, Western Michigan is in line to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017 and just the fourth time since 1996. WMU’s eight losses on the season have come against Michigan (1st), Denver (3rd, three times), Minnesota Duluth (8th, twice), St. Cloud State (10th), and Omaha (23rd).

In the Division I era (since 1975), the Broncos have had fifteen twenty-win seasons, most recently in 2018-19 (21-15-1).

North Dakota’s sweep at Minnesota Duluth moved them to 19-11-1 on the season and within one victory of another 20-win campaign. Beginning in 1996-97, UND has collected twenty victories or more in 22 of 25 seasons, including last year, when the squad earned 22 wins in just 29 games.

Turning our attention to this weekend’s action, junior netminder Brandon Bussi has played extremely well for the Broncos this season, notching twenty wins against just eight defeats. After enduring a three-game losing streak from November 6th-13th (vs. UMD, at Denver x 2), Bussi went 8-1 with a goals-against average of 1.70 and a save percentage of .940 leading into the home weekend against North Dakota. During that stretch, his only defeat was a 1-0 home loss to Omaha in which he made 25 of 26 saves. And against the Fighting Hawks, Bussi was at his best, allowing just a single goal on the weekend while making 58 saves. He has come back down to earth over the past four weeks, however, allowing at least two goals in each game and surrendering a total of 29 goals.

The 6’5”, 210-pounder from Sound Beach, New York only appeared in four games last season, suffering a severe injury just eight minutes into the team’s first game of the season in the Omaha pod. Bussi, who went 18-12-4 with a goals-against average of 2.65 and a save percentage of .910. as a freshman in 2019-2020, managed to appear in the final three games of last season.

Before UND’s last 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).

After a bit of a back-and-forth between the two, Zach Driscoll has regained his status as UND’s #1 goaltender. Since taking over for Jacob Hellsten on January 29th against St. Cloud State, Driscoll has gone 5-1-1 with a goals-against average of 1.62, a save percentage of .945 (189 saves, 11 goals allowed), and three consecutive NCHC Goaltender Of The Week Awards.

A half-point per game or better is my benchmark for solid offensive production, and Pat Ferschweiler’s squad has ten players who meet that threshold: senior forward Drew Worrad (6-32-38), senior forward Ethen Frank (23-10-33), senior forward Cole Gallant (8-15-23), junior forward Jason Polin (7-16-23), senior forward Paul Washe (8-5-13), sophomore forward Ty Glover (6-10-16), senior forward Josh Passolt (7-16-23), freshman forward Max Sasson (7-10-17), senior defenseman Michael Joyaux (7-21-28), and junior defenseman Ronnie Attard (11-19-30).

Josh Passolt had a three-point effort on Friday night against North Dakota but was held scoreless in the rematch. Since that series, the senior from Hayward, Wisconsin has scored four goals and added six assists in the past eight games.

By that same measure, North Dakota has nine players at a half point or better, although at least two of those – sophomore defenseman Jake Sanderson (7-17-24 in 21 games) and senior forward Gavin Hain (6-3-9 in 18 games) – will not be in the lineup this weekend due to injury. Two others- sophomore forward Riese Gaber (14-21-35) and senior forward Mark Senden (injury, 5-10-15) – are also dealing with injury and will be game-time decisions.

On the plus side, Brad Berry can count on the offensive production of senior forward Connor Ford (4-18-22), senior forward Ashton Calder (10-8-18), freshman forward Matteo Costantini (6-11-17), freshman forward Jake Schmaltz (6-12-18), and sophomore forward Louis Jamernik (8-9-17).

With Sanderson out of the lineup, Brad Berry will rely on a trio of blueliners – junior Ethan Frisch (9-16-15, 106 total shot attempts), graduate student Chris Jandric (1-11-12, 80), and sophomore Tyler Kleven (5-3-8, 136) – to shoulder the offensive load. Frisch has come on after being added to the top power play unit; the third-year d-man from Moorhead, Minnesota has scored a goal in six of his past eight games and has already surpassed his goal-scoring total from his first two seasons at North Dakota (four goals in 55 games).

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 3.19 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 2.65 per game this season.

UND is scoring on 11.6 percent of its shots on goal, a mark good for 9th in the country. Western Michigan clocks in at a remarkable 12.2 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 55.0%, good for 4th in the nation. Western Michigan sits at 51.0 percent (16th).

For UND, Connor Ford (61.7% of faceoffs won) takes nearly every important draw, while Jake Schmaltz (51.8%) has improved over the course of his first college season. Louis Jamernik (54.4%) has been a steady third option for Brad Berry.

For the Broncos, it’s senior Drew Worrad (55.5%) and fifth-year senior Paul Washe (55.0%) leading the way, with underclassmen Max Sasson (41.9%), Tim Washe (50.5%), and Luke Grainger (48.1%) 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 51.6% (21st), Western Michigan 53.3% (13th)
Fenwick: UND 52.2% (18th), Western Michigan 53.2% (14th)

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 a full minor penalty more per game (12.20 – 10.20) in conference play. The Fighting Hawks have had 111 man-advantage situations this season but have been shorthanded 125 times. With 27 power play goals scored, 27 power play goals allowed, and three shorthanded goals scored, and three allowed, UND’s specialty teams net is exactly even.

Western Michigan is in better shape in the penalty department, averaging just 10.50 penalty minutes per game while seeing their opponents whistled for 12.20. This has led to 130 man-advantage situations and just 126 shorthanded situations for the Broncos. With 37 power play goals, 20 power play goals against, and a 5-3 advantage in shorthanded goals, WMU sits at +19.

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

Western Michigan power play: 37 of 130, 26.8 percent (4th)
Western Michigan penalty kill: 106 of 126, 84.1 percent (18th)

North Dakota power play: 27 of 111, 24.3 percent (10th)
North Dakota penalty kill: 98 of 125, 78.4 percent (44th)

After this weekend, the Broncos will host the Miami RedHawks to close out the NCHC regular season, while North Dakota will travel to Omaha to face the Mavericks.

Western Michigan Broncos

Head Coach: Pat Ferschweiler (1st season at WMU, 20-8-1, .707)

National Rankings: #6/#6
Pairwise Ranking: 4th
KRACH Ranking: 4th

This Season: 20-8-1 overall, 12-7-1 NCHC (3rd)
Last Season: 10-12-3 overall (missed NCAA tournament), 9-11-2-2 NCHC (6th)

2021-2022 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 3.86 goals scored/game – 4th of 59 teams
Team Defense: 2.62 goals allowed/game – 24th of 59 teams

Power Play: 26.8% (37 of 130) – 4th of 59 teams
Penalty Kill: 84.1% (106 of 126) – 18th of 59 teams

Key Players: Senior F Drew Worrad (6-32-3), Senior F Ethen Frank (23-10-33), Senior F Cole Gallant (8-15-23), Junior F Jason Polin (13-9-22), Senior F Paul Washe (8-5-13), Senior D Michael Joyaux (7-21-28), Junior D Ronnie Attard (11-19-30), Junior G Brandon Bussi (20-8-1, 2.60 GAA, .913 SV%, 3 SO)

North Dakota Fighting Hawks

Head Coach: Brad Berry (7th season at UND, 157-74-25, .662)

National Rankings: #7/#7
Pairwise Ranking: 6th
KRACH Ranking: 6th

This Season: 19-11-1 overall, 14-5-1 NCHC (1st)
Last Season: 22-6-1 overall (NCHC Midwest Regional Finalist), 18-5-1 NCHC (1st)

2021-2022 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 3.19 goals scored/game – 18th of 59 teams
Team Defense: 2.65goals allowed/game – 25th of 59 teams

Power Play: 24.3% (27 of 111) – 10th of 59 teams
Penalty Kill: 78.4% (98 of 125) – 44th of 59 teams

Key players: Sophomore F Riese Gaber (14-21-35), Senior F Connor Ford (4-18-22), Senior F Ashton Calder (10-8-18), Freshman F Jake Schmaltz (6-12-18), Junior F Judd Caulfield (7-6-13), Freshman F Matteo Costantini (6-11-17), Sophomore F Louis Jamernik (8-9-17), Junior D Ethan Frisch (9-6-15), Senior Chris Jandric (1-11-12), Sophomore D Tyler Kleven (5-3-8), Senior G Zach Driscoll (17-9-1, 2.44 GAA, .903 SV%, 2 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: January 22, 2022 (Kalamazoo, MI). WMU’s Max Sasson scored on a shorthanded breakway at the 19:14 mark of the first period, and the Broncos would make that hold up for a 2-0 (EN) victory. One night earlier, North Dakota outshot Western Michigan 35-23 but were undone by three power play goals and an ineffective power play of their own (0-for-3).

Last Meeting in Grand Forks: February 29, 2020. One first-period goal for each side would be all of the scoring until the overtime session, at which point UND’s Shane Pinto took over and made the final score 2-1. In Friday’s opener, North Dakota scored twice in the middle frame (Judd Caulfield and Matt Kiersted) and traded third-period goals with the Broncos for a 3-1 victory.

Most Important Meeting: March 24, 2012 (St. Paul, MN). North Dakota upended Western Michigan 3-1 in the NCAA West Regional semifinal. Brock Nelson had two points, including an empty net goal with 25 seconds remaining that sent UND to the regional finals against Minnesota. Aaron Dell made 24 saves for the Green and White. The Broncos, who have played at the Division I level since 1975-76, have six NCAA tournament appearances.

A Trip Down Memory Lane: Saturday, March 22, 2014 (Minneapolis, MN). North Dakota faced a must-win situation in the 3rd place game at the inaugural NCHC Frozen Faceoff, and did not disappoint the partisan crowd. The Green and White rolled to a 5-0 victory behind two first-period goals from Conner Gaarder. UND netminder Zane Gothberg made 25 saves for the shutout, and Dave Hakstol’s crew played the waiting game for several more hours before discovering that they had indeed made the NCAA tournament for the twelfth consecutive season.

All-Time Series: In the short history between the schools, UND has won 25 of the 34 games (25-9-0, .735), including 10 of the 14 games played in Grand Forks. Before the 2016-17 season in which Western Michigan won three of the four meetings, WMU’s lone victory over North Dakota was a 2-1 road win on March 8th, 2014. The teams first met in 1997.

Last Ten: North Dakota has won seven of the last ten meetings between the two teams, outscoring the Broncos 36-21 over that stretch of games. Before the Broncos’ home sweep of North Dakota last month, UND had swept the previous six with a scoring margin of 28-10.

Game News and Notes

Western Michigan moved up to the Division I ranks beginning with the 1975-76 season and has advanced to the NCAA tournament six times. The Broncos have made the NCAA tourney once (2017) in their first eight seasons in the NCHC after advancing to the national tournament twice (2011, 2012) in the last three seasons in the now-defunct CCHA. The Broncos are 14-0-0 when leading after two periods of play but just 6-8-1 when trailing or tied. Western Michigan has outscored opponents 42-20 in third periods this season.

The Prediction

So many things have changed since these two teams tangled last month. North Dakota finally has a #1 goaltender and are finding contributions up and down the lineup. With last line change, head coach Brad Berry will be able to dictate matchups and deploy the lines of Carson Albrecht – Griffin Ness – Nick Portz and Jackson Kunz – Louis Jamernik – Dane Montgomery against WMU’s top two lines. A sweep is too much to ask this weekend, but I definitely think that North Dakota will take the opener and make things difficult in the rematch. UND 4-2, WMU 3-2.

Broadcast Information

Friday’s opener will be available exclusively on CBS Sports Network, with Saturday’s rematch broadcast live on Midco Sports Network and 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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