The First-Round League Playoff Series: Why Is It So Difficult To Sweep?

On Friday night at Ralph Engelstad Arena, #5 North Dakota (24-10-2 overall, 14-4-1-5 NCHC) will host unranked Miami (7-24-3 overall, 1-19-0-4 NCHC) to open the first round of the NCHC playoffs.

Over the past 22 seasons, UND has only been on the road twice for the first round of the conference tournament, with mixed results…

Back in 2019, the Fighting Hawks drew Denver on the road in the NCHC quarterfinals and fell in two games (0-2, 2-4).

Last season, North Dakota traveled to Omaha and dropped the first game to the Mavericks by a score of 2-1. Brad Berry’s squad fought back and won two straight (3-1, 5-2) to advance to St. Paul.

There was no tournament in 2020 (UND was set to host Colorado College), and the format was modified for the 2021 postseason.

In the other seventeen seasons since 2022, North Dakota hosted a first-round playoff series and fared extremely well on home ice, advancing to the second weekend of the conference tournament in each instance.

North Dakota has put the home fans at ease by winning Friday’s opener in each of the past thirteen series. Over the past seventeen series, Saturday’s games have been more difficult, as seen by the following breakdown:

Average goals scored/goals allowed in first-round home playoff games (2003-2022):

Friday: 4.76 goals scored/1.47 goals allowed (fifteen wins, two losses)
Saturday: 3.35 goals scored/2.29 goals allowed (thirteen wins, four losses)
Sunday: 3.67 goals scored/1.17 goals allowed (six wins, zero losses)

The way this has played out in the past is that North Dakota has typically hosted a team from the bottom third of the league (Michigan Tech five times, Colorado College four times, MSU-Mankato twice, and once each for Bemidji State, Denver, Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, Omaha, and St. Cloud State). Friday’s openers have been blowouts, with UND winning fifteen of its last seventeen openers by an average of four goals (5.20 – 1.20).

So why is it that six of the past seventeen home series have gone to a third and decisive game?

The main reason that the Green and White have played much closer games on Saturday night (twelve one-goal games) is that in every case, North Dakota was playing to extend its own season and/or end another team’s season. Elimination games bring out the best in both teams, and the results are tightly contested matches. Remarkably, UND played host to five overtime playoff contests from 2003-2008 but only three (a Game Two overtime loss to Colorado College in 2014, a 6-5 overtime victory against St. Cloud State in 2017, and a 4-3 overtime win over Omaha in 2018) since that time.

And not coincidentally, the last three times North Dakota was on the road for the first round, they demonstrated similar results…

2002: Playing at eventual national champion Minnesota in the opening round of the WCHA playoffs, UND took the Gophers to overtime on Saturday night (losing 4-3) after getting destroyed 7-2 in Friday’s opener.

2019: North Dakota traveled to Denver and dropped the opener 2-0. In the rematch, UND outshot the Pioneers 42-18 but fell by a final score of 4-2 (including an empty-net goal).

2023: One week after sweeping Omaha in Grand Forks (5-4 OT, 2-1) to end the regular season, North Dakota traveled to face UNO at Baxter Arena. The Mavericks took the opener 2-1, but the Fighting Hawks evened the series with a 3-1 victory in Game Two. In Sunday’s finale, UND outshot Omaha 36-14 and won 5-2.

The boys from Grand Forks have only given up seven total goals in six Sunday home playoff games. Two recent Game Threes went into the books as blowouts (4-1 vs. Minnesota [2010] and 6-0 vs. Michigan Tech [2013]), but the 2014 rubber match against the Tigers went right down to the wire. CC scored an extra-attacker goal with 90 seconds remaining but could not find the equalizer and fell by a score of 4-3.

North Dakota’s most recent championship season (2016) featured two blowout wins (7-1, 5-1) vs. Colorado College in the first round of the NCHC tournament. The only other playoff series in the current stretch that did not feature at least one close game was in 2005. North Dakota destroyed Minnesota-Duluth 8-2 and 6-1, with Rory McMahon (2 goals, 5 assists) and Rastislav Spirko (3 goals, 3 assists) leading the way for the Fighting Sioux. Colby Genoway added three goals and two assists, and netminder Jordan Parise turned away 34 of 37 Bulldog shots to earn two victories and the series sweep.

Here are the complete results for the last 40 home conference playoff games:

Year Opponent Game One Game Two Game Three
2022 Colorado College 2-1 2-1
2018 Omaha 4-0 4-3 (OT)
2017 St. Cloud State 5-2 6-5 (OT)
2016 Colorado College 7-1 5-1
2015 Colorado College 5-1 3-2
2014 Colorado College 4-2 2-3 (OT) 4-3
2013 Michigan Tech 5-3 1-2 6-0
2012 Bemidji State 4-1 4-3
2011 Michigan Tech 8-0 3-1
2010 Minnesota 6-0 2-4 4-1
2009 Michigan Tech 5-1 4-3
2008 Michigan Tech 4-0 2-3 (OT) 2-1
2007 Mankato State 5-2 2-1
2006 Mankato State 2-3 (OT) 4-1 3-0
2005 Minnesota-Duluth 8-2 6-1
2004 Michigan Tech 6-2 4-3 (OT)
2003 Denver 1-4 3-2 (OT) 3-2 (OT)

So how will this weekend’s series between North Dakota and last-place Miami play out? Will the teams be playing a decisive third game on Sunday evening? Please click here for a full series preview and prediction.

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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