Weekend Preview: North Dakota at Denver

#2 North Dakota (11-2-1, 4-0-0 NCHC) travels to Colorado this weekend to face the #3-ranked Denver Pioneers (10-3-1, 3-1-0 NCHC) in a pivotal battle of perennial powers.

Both teams have impressive non-conference victories that have vaulted them to the top of the national rankings…

North Dakota blanked #6 Wisconsin 2-0 at Ralph Engelstad Arena back on October 14th.

One week later, Denver won 4-3 at #1 Boston College.

UND was also able to avenge its only two losses of the season (vs. #7 Minnesota, at #4 Boston University) with wins the following night.

According to KRACH, North Dakota has faced the nation’s thirteenth-toughest schedule to this point of the season, while the Pioneers’ schedule weighs in as the fifteenth-most difficult.

Before we dig into this weekend’s matchup, let’s take a quick look back at the past few games between the two teams…

UND looked overmatched against the visiting Pios back in November 2022, as David Carle’s squad managed a 3-2, 6-3 road sweep over a Fighting Hawks team that had taken five of six points at Omaha the week before. Friday’s opener ended up as a one-goal DU victory, but that was only because North Dakota held the Pioneers scoreless on six man-advantage opportunities.

And in the rematch at altitude in February 2023, it was more of the same. Denver scored five goals each night and held the Fighting Hawks to five total goals on the weekend in securing the rare four-game season sweep. In Friday’s opener, UND played well enough to win but were undone by poor goaltending, as Drew DeRidder allowed four goals on the eleven shots he faced before giving way to Jacob Hellsten just five minutes into the second period. The last two goals that DeRidder allowed came just fourteen seconds apart.

In the 2021 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 advanced 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. The 2020-2021 season 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 three years ago, 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.

Denver definitely rebounded two seasons, going 31-9-1 and defeating Minnesota State 5-1 for the program’s ninth national title. That championship game was tied 1-1 until the 7:33 mark of the third period. The Pios would add two empty-net goals for the misleading final score.

Since Denver ended North Dakota’s season in 2019, UND has gone 10-6-1 against the Pios.

In the NCHC, it is clear that Denver/North Dakota is at the top of the league rivalries, with the two programs combining for eight NCHC regular season titles and averaging a top-three finish in the league standings each year (UND 2.5, DU 2.9).

The teams have played 45 times during the first ten seasons of the new conference (with the series deadlocked at 19-19-7), 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.)

The rivalry intensified three seasons ago, 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.

And in the only series played between the teams two years ago, the two sides combined for 78 penalty minutes and ten power play opportunities. UND swept the series 3-1 and 4-1, thanks in no small part to a 1-for-5 effort on the power play and a perfect penalty kill.

Ten 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 reformed beginning with the 2021-2022 campaign.

The NCHC has been the premier hockey conference since its inception, and particularly over the past nine seasons. The eight teams in the league have gone 473-239-81 (.648) in non-conference action since the start of the 2014-15 season and sent twelve 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, and Denver in 2022) over that eight-year stretch (there was no national tournament in 2020). Conference members North Dakota (2016), Denver (2017, 2022), and Minnesota Duluth (2018, 2019) have won five of the last seven national titles.

#2-ranked North Dakota has gone 11-2-1 against Army, #6 Wisconsin, #7 Minnesota, Minnesota State, #4 Boston University, Minnesota Duluth, Miami, and Bemidji State, with a record of 8-1-1 at home and 3-1-0 on the road.

How has North Dakota made such a dramatic turnaround in just one season?

After missing the national tournament last year, head coach Brad Berry and his staff brought in fourteen fresh faces, tied for the second-most in team history. More strikingly, all eight defensemen are new to the UND men’s hockey program, including four freshmen.

Coincidentally, the breakdown of first-year players and transfers into the North Dakota system is identical:


Four defensemen (Nate Benoit, Tanner Komzak, Jake Livanavage, Abram Wiebe)

Two forwards (Michael Emerson, Jayden Perron)

One goaltender (Hobie Hedquist)


Four defensemen (Logan Britt, Keaton Pehrson, Garrett Pyke, Bennett Zmolek)

Two forwards (Cameron Berg, Hunter Johannes)

One goaltender (Ludvig Perrson)

These fourteen newcomers join eleven returning forwards and second-year netminder Kaleb Johnson to form UND’s 26-player roster. The Fighting Hawks return 70 goals up front, led by senior Riese Gaber (20 goals last season) and sophomore Jackson Blake (16). With the addition of Berg (10 goals last season at Omaha), Johannes (13 at Lindenwood), and Chicago Steel (USHL) teammates Emerson (30) and Perron (24), North Dakota should easily surpass the 102 goals scored all of last season by its forward group.

Over the first fourteen games of the 2023-2024 season, UND forwards have scored 47 goals and are on pace for 121 goals in the regular season alone. It is also encouraging that eight North Dakota forwards already have multiple goals this season, led by Blake (10), Gaber (7), Perron (7), and Johannes (6).

Perhaps alarmingly, Fighting Hawks defensemen have only scored four goals this season (Britt 2, Livanavage 1, Pyke 1) to go along with their 24 combined assists in 86 games played (0.28 points/game). By comparison, Pioneer blueliners have a combined line of 14-53-67 in 94 games played (0.71 points/game), led by two freshman – Zeev Buium (4-14-18) and Boston Buckberger (3-10-13) – and junior Sean Behrens (1-13-14).

That production from the back end has helped Denver score more goals than any other team in the country (77). North Dakota is eighth nationally in goal-scoring with 51.

A half-point per game or better is my benchmark for solid offensive production, and David Carle’s squad has an astounding FOURTEEN players who meet that threshold. Incredibly, six of those are averaging over a point per game. The offensive leaders for Denver include junior forward Massimo Rizzo (6-19-25), junior forward Jack Devine (13-11-24), junior forward Carter King (8-11-19), senior forward McKade Webster (6-9-15), junior forward Tristan Broz (4-8-12), sophomore forward Rieger Lorenz (6-4-10), sophomore forward Aidan Thompson (2-8-10), freshman forward Miko Matikka (7-3-10), sophomore forward Jared Wright (4-4-8), senior forward Connor Caponi (2-5-7), freshman defenseman Zeev Buium (4-14-18), junior defenseman Sean Behrens (1-13-14), freshman defenseman Boston Buckberger (3-10-13), and junior defenseman Shai Buium (3-7-10).

By that same measure, North Dakota has seven lineup regulars at a half point or better: senior forward Riese Gaber (7-6-13), sophomore forward Jackson Blake (10-8-18), sophomore forward Owen McLaughlin (3-9-12), graduate forward Hunter Johannes (6-4-10), junior forward Cameron Berg (4-8-12), freshman forward Jayden Perron (7-0-7), and senior defenseman Garrett Pyke (1-9-10).

On the injury front, UND junior forward Jake Schmaltz will return to the lineup for the first time since suffering an upper body injury late in a 2-0 road victory over Minnesota Duluth on November 11th. Schmaltz notched four assists in the first ten games of the season and has been the team’s fourth option on draws, going 40-39 (50.6 percent). Graduate forward Carson Albrecht (1-1-2) sustained an injury against Bemidji State last weekend and did not make the trip to Denver.

Denver freshman defenseman Garrett Brown had surgery this past week to repair a lower-body injury and will miss the rest of the season. Fellow blueliner Shai Buium, a junior, did not play against Yale last Friday night and is questionable for this series.

DU has not had an issue scoring goals, but they have had trouble keeping the puck out of their own net. Junior goaltender Matt Davis (3-1-1, 3.22 GAA, .872 SV%) has been out of the lineup since late October, and the Pios have gone with freshman Freddie Halyk (7-2-0, 2.32 GAA, .899 SV%, 3 SO) since that time. Matt Carle did choose to add goalie Paxton Geisel from the Muskegon Lumberjacks (USHL) last week in order to bolster their netminding crew.

Denver leads the nation in shooting percentage at 17.5%. Put another way, goaltenders opposing the Pioneers have a combined save percentage of just .825. North Dakota clocks in at 11.3%, good for 17th in the country.

UND slightly outpaces DU in shots on goal, with a 453-440 (32.4/game – 31.4/game) advantage through fourteen games. North Dakota’s shot output ranks 15th; Denver’s is 23rd.

On the defensive side, UND has only allowed 341 shots on goal this season (24.4/game, 7th), while Denver has allowed only 332 (23.7, 3rd).

These two teams are both in the top quarter of all teams in the nation in two key puck possession statistics:

North Dakota: 13th in Corsi (54.1%) and 10th in Fenwick (56.1%)
Denver: 5th in Corsi (57.2%); 9th in Fenwick (56.3%)

Corsi measures the share of shot attempts for each team at even strength, while Fenwick measure the share of unblocked shot attempts for each team at even strength.

As always, a key area to watch this weekend is the face-off circle. The Fighting Hawks are the nation’s third-best team on draws (55.1%), while the Pioneers clock in at just 51.7% (24th).

For UND, junior Cameron Berg has been making a living on draws, winning 150 of 238 (63.0%). Sophomore Owen McLaughlin is not far behind, having won 90 of 166 (54.2%). Senior Louis Jamernik V has been steady at 55.0% (93 of 169).

For Denver, it’s been junior Carter King (148 of 273, 54.2%) taking the majority of draws, with sophomore Aidan Thompson (110 of 206, 53.4%), freshman Kieran Cebrian (92 of 161, 57.1%), and junior Massimo Rizzo (95 of 208, 45.7%) contributing as well.

To this point in the season, Denver has had the better of the specialty teams play. DU has been a combined plus-12, with sixteen power play goals scored (16 of 66, 24.2%, 13th in the country) and nine power play goals allowed (45 of 54, 83.3%, 22nd), with FIVE shorthanded goals scored and none allowed.

The Fighting Hawks have posted a plus-6, with nine power play goals scored (9 of 52, 17.3%, 38th), just six power play goals allowed (36 of 42, 85.7%, 16th), three shorthanded goals scored, and none allowed.

It is also worth noting that UND has earned ten more power plays than penalty kill situations (52-42), while DU has had the advantage twelve more times (66-54).

Denver is 1st in the country in scoring offense (5.50 goals scored/game) but just 20th in the country in scoring defense (2.64 goals allowed/game).

North Dakota is 9th in the country in scoring offense (3.64 goals scored/game) and an even more impressive 2nd in the country in scoring defense (1.93 goals allowed/game).

A huge key to UND’s defensive turnaround this season has been the play of senior netminder Ludvig Persson. The transfer from Miami has played every minute between the pipes for the Fighting Hawks, posting a record of 11-2-1 with a goals-against average of 1.85, a save percentage of .924, and three shutouts.

Last year, UND’s team save percentage was .886, the fifth-worst mark among 62 teams. To put the difference in perspective, North Dakota allowed 110 goals on 962 shots last season. If we apply Persson’s save percentage from this year to that shot total, the Fighting Hawks would have allowed a total of only 74 goals, a difference of 36 goals over the 39-game season.

And what difference does one goal make? UND found itself in a Pairwise predicament last season due to three tough losses:

Arizona State 3, North Dakota 2 (October 29th, 2022)

Miami 4, North Dakota 3 (November 19th, 2022)

Minnesota Duluth 2, North Dakota 1 (January 21st, 2023)

All three of those games were tied in the third period.

North Dakota currently finds itself in 6th place in the all-important Pairwise rankings, with victories over Boston University (PWR 3), Wisconsin (PWR 10), and Minnesota (PWR 12) certainly helping the cause. With a current non-conference mark of 7-2-1, good results at home against Alaska (PWR 26) on January 5th and 6th, and a top-four finish in the NCHC, UND should be a lock for the national tournament. It is also important to point out that the Fighting Hawks currently have a winning record against the B1G Ten (2-1-0), the CCHA (3-0-1), and the AHA (1-0-0), with a .500 mark against Hockey East (1-1-0). Since Alaska is playing this season as an independent and thus will not impact conference comparisons, UND has itself in fine shape for the NCAAs.

At #4 in the Pairwise and 7-2-1 outside the NCHC, Denver also appears to be headed toward another NCAA tournament berth. DU’s only non-conference games remaining are vs. Niagara in early January.

Denver will travel to Grand Forks to face North Dakota at Ralph Engelstad Arena on January 26th and 27th, 2024.

Denver Team Profile

Head Coach: David Carle (6th season at DU, 126-56-14, .679)

National Rankings: #3/#3
Pairwise Ranking: 4th
KRACH Rating: 564.2 (6th)

This Season: 10-3-1 overall, 3-1-0-0 NCHC (3rd)
Last Season: 30-10-0 overall (NCAA East Regional Semifinalist), 17-4-2-1 NCHC (1st)

2023-2024 Team Statistics:

Team Offense: 5.50 goals scored/game – 1st of 64 teams
Team Defense: 2.64 goals allowed/game – 20th of 64 teams

Power Play: 24.2% (16 of 66) – 13th of 64 teams
Penalty Kill: 83.3% (45 of 54) – 22nd of 64 teams

Key players: Junior F Massimo Rizzo (6-19-25), Junior F Jack Devine (13-11-24), Junior F Carter King (8-11-19), Senior F McKade Webster (6-9-15), Junior F Tristan Broz (4-8-12), Sophomore F Rieger Lorenz (6-4-10), Freshman D Zeev Buium (4-14-18), Junior D Sean Behrens (1-13-14), Freshman D Boston Buckberger (3-10-13), Freshman G Freddie Halyk (7-2-0, 2.23 GAA, .899 SV%, 3 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Brad Berry (9th season at UND, 191-94-32, .653)

National Rankings: #2/#2
Pairwise Ranking: 6th
KRACH Rating: 596.8 (4th)

This Season: 11-2-1 overall, 4-0-0-0 NCHC (2nd)
Last Season: 18-15-5 overall (missed NCAA tournament), 7-10-5-2 NCHC (t-5th)

2023-2024 Season Statistics:

Team Offense: 3.64 goals scored/game – 9th of 64 teams
Team Defense: 1.93 goals allowed/game – 2nd of 64 teams

Power Play: 17.3% (9 of 52) – 38th of 64 teams
Penalty Kill: 85.7% (36 of 42) – 16th of 64 teams

Key Players: Sophomore F Jackson Blake (10-8-18), Senior F Riese Gaber (7-6-13), Graduate F Hunter Johannes (6-4-10), Freshman F Jayden Perron (7-0-7), Sophomore F Owen McLaughlin (3-9-12), Junior F Cameron Berg (4-8-12), Senior D Garrett Pyke (1-9-10), Freshman D Jake Livanavage (1-4-5), Graduate D Logan Britt (2-4-6), Senior G Ludvig Persson (11-2-1, 1.85 GAA, .924 SV%, 3 SO)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: February 11, 2023 (Denver, CO). The homestanding Pios handled North Dakota in every sense of the word: on the power play (3-for-8), on the penalty kill (6-for-6), in the faceoff circle (42-23), in shots on goal (37-23), and, most importantly, on the scoreboard (5-2). In Friday’s opener, UND played well enough to win but were undone by poor goaltending, as Drew DeRidder allowed four goals on the eleven shots he faced before giving way to Jacob Hellsten just five minutes into the second period. The last two goals that DeRidder allowed came just fourteen seconds apart.

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: The Fighting Hawks have a 6-4-0 (.600) advantage over the last ten games, outscoring DU 32-25 over that stretch of games. Seven of the last ten tilts between these rivals have been played in Grand Forks.

All-time Series: UND leads the all-time series, 156-134-16 (.536), although the Pios hold a 79-56-5 (.582) advantage in games played in Denver. The teams first met in 1950, with North Dakota prevailing 18-3 in Denver. The 306 games played between the schools is the most among all of UND’s opponents.

Game News and Notes

Since Denver ended North Dakota’s season in 2019, UND has gone 10-6-1 against the Pios. UND netminder Ludvig Persson faced DU twelve times as a member of the Miami RedHawks, with dreadful numbers (1-11-0, 4.69 GAA, .879 SV%). Eleven of Denver head coach David Carle’s 56 head coaching losses have come against UND. As a team, North Dakota has blocked 198 shots this season, led by Bennett Zmolek (31), Abram Wiebe (24), and Garrett Pyke (22). Zmolek has eighteen blocks in the last seven games, all UND victories. Two seasons ago, the Fighting Hawks won the Penrose Cup as NCHC regular season champions for the fifth time in the ten-year history of the league; the Pioneers have captured the Penrose only three times (2016-2017 and back-to-back in 2021-2022 and 2022-2023). Since seven of Michigan’s nine titles were earned by 1964, I consider Denver (nine 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 forever, Magnus Chrona is not between the pipes for Denver, and that bodes well for the visitors. DU’s defensemen are active and offensive-minded, so the recipe for success is to make them work in their own end by getting pucks in and forcing them to defend and work hard to break out pucks. The Pioneers did drop a game at home to Omaha just two weeks ago, and I think they’ll do the same this weekend. UND 4-2, DU 5-2.

Broadcast Information

Friday’s opener will be broadcast live on Midco Sports Network. Both games will be available via 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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