UND Hockey: Trying to Find the Way Again

University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks’ logo

After putting up 74 shots in their two playoff games with Denver and only registering two goals, the University of North Dakota will go a second straight season without making it to the NCAA tournament following getting swept in Denver this past weekend. It will be the first time since 1994-95 and 1995-96 in which North Dakota has missed the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons. In fact, North Dakota missed six NCAA tournaments in a row from 1991 until 1996.

Of course, with all the success in the recent past– the questions are coming about what’s wrong with the team following a National Championship in 2016 and limited success since then. Obviously, heavy hitters offensively left the team early like Brock Boeser (who would have been a senior this year), Shane Gersich (senior), Christian Wolanin (senior) and Tyson Jost (junior); but the promise of the players who were coming in had the pedigree of being top scorers to replace those who left. With only 93 goals scored this season (tied for 36 in the nation) and only one player in double-digits for goals, a decent amount is left to be desired from this team. The 93 goals is the lowest since the 1963-64 team that only produced 79 goals in their season.

But what is to be done with this team?? It’s not like UND couldn’t get pucks on net, because they were able to put an average of 32 shots per game this season (1187 shots for, 13th in the nation), but only had 2.51 goals per game this year. They consistently outshot opponents, but whether it’s not getting bounces or poor shot selection or making every goalie look like a Richter Award nominee– the goals just didn’t come.

Jordan Kawaguchi, who was the only double-digit goal-scorer, came out of Junior A with two 30-goal seasons before coming into UND last year and has 15 goals over his two seasons as a Hawk. Though injuries hampered him this season, Grant Mismash hasn’t been as electric for goal-scoring as many thought coming out of the US Development Program. There’s plenty of role players on the team who have the ability to score, but there isn’t that one player who stands out as leader for the offensive. With three defensemen in the top-five in team scoring– people have to scratch their heads when it comes to how the offense is progressing.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, to be honest, as UND did seem to find themselves a solid line in Mark Senden, Gavin Hain, and Cole Smith as they year went on. They progressed as the energy line that UND needed and sparked plenty of offense in the latter half of the season through their fierce forechecking and solid board-play. Though Smith will be a senior next season, if this line can keep the same chemistry next season, they’ll be a tough line to play against moving forward.

Defense was obviously the top priority for the Fighting Hawks and the play of Adam Scheel and Peter Thome were solid– though there were an odd game where it went sideways. UND gave up 90 goals this year, which ranked 19th in the nation, while giving up the third least amount of shots in the nation with 858. Of course, giving up so few shots and that amount of goals gives Scheel and Thome a bit of an off-kilter save percentage (.894, tied for 48th in nation), but those two played stellar when they needed to, but couldn’t get the goal support necessary.

Special teams left plenty to be desired for UND, with the Fighting Hawks finishing 52nd in the nation on the power play working at a 14.2% efficiency on the year. The PK wasn’t great either, finishing tied for 36th in the nation and working at a 79.9% kill rate.

So how can you balance a solid defensive showing while also give goal support for that defense so it’s not as white-knuckled every game as it has been?? Maybe it’s as simple as letting the scorers be scorers, taking some of the defensive responsibilities off of the likes of Kawaguchi and Mismash and let them start to control the game on the opposite end. Two commits coming in next season in Carson Albrecht and Carter Randklev could also provide some punch offensively– though it’s hard to put that pressure on freshman, coupled with Randklev coming off an ACL tear this past season. However, something needs to click so that North Dakota doesn’t become the New Jersey Devils of the mid-90s and hope suffocating defense is the road to success.

That’s also depending on whether or not Colton Poolman returns to UND or not. His brother, Tucker, left after his junior year to play in the Winnipeg Jets organization and now a decision is to be made for Colton– who ESPN ranked in their top-15 of NCAA free agents. Poolman said he will try to make his decision quick to not drag on the process for himself or the team. We’ll see how it all shakes down, as Poolman will probably be the only non-senior to league this year if he does.

The past two seasons, players were talking about playing the “North Dakota way”– especially when the team was going through some kind of slump. The question is now what the North Dakota way actually is and how this team is going to find it. There’s going to be plenty of time for soul-searching on this team and it’ll start with how the coaching staff wants to approach next season. Though I doubt a firing will be in the cards for Brad Berry or his staff, you’d have to think that they’ll be looked at under a bigger microscope than before with this team missing out on two straight tournaments and lacking scoring, as they have been. With this year’s team not even making it to the Frozen Faceoff (NCHC’s championship weekend), it could be the harsh wake-up call needed to really put a fire under the players and staff.

UND HOCKEY: Quick Strike in OT Gives Hawks the Weekend Sweep

Graphic from University of North Dakota Twitter (@UNDMHockey)

GRAND FORKS, ND– It was the ending of an era. Not just because the North Dakota Fighting Hawks won’t be hosting a playoff game for the first time in 17 years, but because they say goodbye to five seniors from the team on this night. Rhett Gardner, Joel Janatuinen, Hayden Shaw, Ryan Anderson, and Nick Jones all skated their last time on the ice at Ralph Engelstad Arena, but make sure to not let that emotion get in the way of the task at hand against Omaha. It took extra time, but Jordan Kawaguchi scored in OT to get the sweep of Omaha and give UND a 5-4 win and a three-game win streak heading into the NCHC playoffs.

The seniors were ready to play, as only 23 seconds into the game, Nick Jones got a lovely pass from Rhett Gardner and put in a backhand past Evan Weninger to make it 1-0 UND within the first minute of the game. UND was firing on all cylinders, putting plenty of good chances on Weninger, but getting nothing out of it. However, a wild sequence of events which saw Peter Thome stop a Nate Knoepke shot, but Dixon Bowen lost the handle of the rebound into Peter Thome, which saw Tyler Weiss crash the net, into Thome, and in the net. After a long official review, the goal stood.

After a penalty to Jordan Kawaguchi for cross-checking, Omaha’s power play struck as Fredrik Olofsson found a wide-open Zach Jordan on the far wing and put it past Thome to make it a 2-1 game. UND got a power play of its own in the middle of the frame and made short work of it, as Jones found Kawaguchi in the slot, putting it past Weninger to tie the game at twos.

While there was some offensive pressure by Omaha, a bad clearing pass found the stick of Cole Smith, who snapped it to the glove of Weninger, where it bounced off the cuff and into the net to make it 3-2. It took to the middle of the frame for Gavin Hain to make it 4-2 on a rebound off a Smith shot to make it 4-2. After a fracas in front of the Omaha net, it went to four-on-four.

While Gardner was dragged down on the play, it resumed and resulted in Knoepke streaking down the slot and putting Omaha within one-goal, with Gardner down in the Omaha zone. UND did get into some penalty trouble, going down two men following a fracas in front and a tripping call seconds after the initial penalties. However, the team sold out on the power play in order to keep the puck out of Thome’s net and preserve the one-goal lead. With only 1:07 remaining in regulation, Tristan Keck tied the game with Weninger pulled after Kawaguchi couldn’t get a handle on a cross-ice pass and it landed on Keck’s stick, who went off the cross-bar and past Thome.

It only took 16 seconds for UND to end the game with Kawaguchi picking up an interception off the stick of an Omaha defenseman with Weninger out of position to end it quick and sweep the weekend for the Hawks. It was a goal that Kawaguchi said was his after giving up the Omaha tying strike.

“You know that turnover was on me,” Kawaguchi said post-game. “I take responsibility for that. I should have gotten the puck out of that area and I didn’t and they score. Obvious feel pretty bad about myself. I got back to the bench and I told the boys, ‘It’s on me, but I can get you back, I got this one’ and just so happened first chance I got was right in the first shift.”

“I think he felt pretty bad,” mentioned coach Brad Berry after the game. “He had the puck on his tape on the tying goal and he came back to the bench and you know, I really commend him because he said, ‘You know, it was my fault guys, I got the next one, I got the one in overtime.’” And you know what, 16 seconds later he got it so it says a lot about him.”

It was also a big deal with the seniors being sent off with a win and a sweep. It was also the last class to be a part of the 2016 National Championship team.

“It was fitting with a win,” mentioned Berry. “They came in their freshman year, they only had six losses in it and they won a lot this year. This team has a lot of pride and the seniors have a lot of pride and they wanted to end their career here at the Ralph with a win. The challenge going forward from here, and our guys are embracing it, is that we’re going on the road and keep continuing this thing.”

“They put so much into this program and we wanted to show them how much they meant to us,” said Smith. “They’ve given everything they’ve had. They got us the start we needed and the finish we needed.”

Now, UND will travel to Denver next weekend to take on the Pioneers in a best-of-three series for the right to play in the Frozen Faceoff in St. Paul in two weeks.

UND HOCKEY: Late Goal Ties It, Then Loses It For Fighting Hawks

GRAND FORKS, ND– In the last game before the winter break, the University of North Dakota looked to close out a sweep of the Denver Pioneers. However, either scoring early and then scoring at the latest point of the game– the Pioneers were able to split the series with a 2-1 overtime victory against the Fighting Hawks.

Denver got on the board just 1:10 into the game, with Jaakko Heikkinen getting his third of the year off a pass from behind the goal-line from Colin Staub and just a quick snap for the Finn to put Denver up. The period was a neutral zone battle, a continuation of last night, leaving the shots at 6-5 to end the frame for UND. Denver was held without a shot for close to 15 minutes for the period.

The Fighting Hawks played a spirited second frame, with many chances coming from the point. However, Detroit draft pick, Filip Larsson, was equal to the task. Larsson even looked dead to rights on a shot that deflected in front and went right to Mark Senden, but Larsson got his side in front of the shot to preserve the 1-0 lead.

While the Fighting Hawks were pressing, they couldn’t get anything passed Larsson, who played lights out. That was until late, when with 2:35 left, Jacob Bernard-Docker broke Larsson after a Colton Poolman take away found JBD streaking and he went top shelf for the tying goal.

A frantic overtime saw UND with plenty of chances. Cole Smith had a puck squeak just wide of the post after it went through Larsson, while Gavin Hain redirected a shot that went right into the blocker of Larsson. The game ended with Jarid Lukosevicius tipping a Slava Demin shot that went right under Adam Scheel to end the game and split the weekend.

Brad Berry/Photo by Jen Conway

“We battled until we could score a goal,” head coach Brad Berry said post game. “Took until our 30th shot to get a goal and we found a way to get the tie. It’s one of those things where we left points on the table and it’s disappointing.”

“I think we’re not happy, but I think we learned a lot about our team,” Cole Smith remarked about the first-half of the season. “We learned we can play against top teams in the nation, it’s comes down to executing on it.”

It’s not all dire to end the first half, as Bernard-Docker will now go to Canadian National Junior camp in preparation for the World Junior tryouts. He said that he looks forward to the chance, even if it’s just a tryout.

“Any time you get a chance to represent your country, it’s an honor. I think that just going over there and playing with skilled players and learning from them will help. For the second half, we believe in ourselves and we’re going to make a huge push,” said JBD before he headed out.

Berry added, “Once we gets back and in position and get good line combination, then we’ll be able to have the depth on a nightly basis. Depth is a big thing and we’ll get it back in the second half.”

It’s a long break for the Fighting Hawks, as they’ll head to winter break and comeback for an exhibition on December 30th against the US Under-18 team.

UND HOCKEY: Fighting Hawks Get First Win, Just In Time For Gopher Weekend

University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks' logo

GRAND FORKS, ND– After a disappointing showing on Friday, the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks looked to come out of the weekend with a split against Minnesota State-Mankato on Saturday. With some line-up shake-up that saw junior defenseman Andrew Peski become a scratch, Jackson Keane get the 19th skater role and Adam Scheel starting his second game of the season, which ended up being his first NCAA win, as the Fighting Hawks avenged Friday’s loss with a 4-3 win on Saturday.

It took to the middle of the first frame for UND to get on the board, with Grant Mismash getting his second of the season on the power play after Gabe Bast set him up for a one-timer off a crucial Nick Jones face-off win. Cole Smith got into the act 38 seconds later, ripping a wrister from the top of the circle, getting a tip from Mankato’s Riese Zmolek, and potting it over the shoulder of Dryden McKay to make it a quick 2-0 lead for the Hawks. After a Joel Janatuinen cross-checking call, Mankato struck on their own power play as Julian Napravnik got open down the far side, Max Coatta led a pass to him, and Napravnik put it glove side past Scheel to cut the UND lead to 2-1. After a Nick Jones slashing call, Max Coatta made short work of the power play, putting up his four goal of the weekend after getting a pass from Jared Spooner to tie the game up.

It was just under two minutes into the second when, on a delayed boarding call to Coatta; Smith drove to the net to create havoc on McKay and with Mark Senden hacking at it, Gabe Bast got a stick on it to put UND up 3-2. A minute after that, Ludvig Hoff got a breakaway and was hauled down to create a penalty shot, but was unable to convert on the one-on-one with the goalie. While Coatta got a tripping call late in the second frame, Mankato took advantage of a UND power play mishandle, as Marc Michaelis got a semi-breakaway and put it past Scheel with 00.4 left on the clock to end the period tied.

It took midway through the methodical third for UND to get the next goal, as Smith hustled on a dump-in, which Dryden McKay bobbled the puck behind the net and Smith got his second of the night to put UND up 4-3. Makato kept pressing, as they made some shifts late in the third look like they were on the power play.

“I tried to fake like I was going to his backhand side and went to his forehand side,” Cole Smith described of his winning goal after the game. “He’s had some iffy plays under pressure this whole weekend and he happened to just leave one there for me. It’s something we picked up on the whole weekend and I almost picked one off Friday. We knew we had to put pressure on the goalie.”

Try as they might, Mankato couldn’t get the equalizer, even with get some extra time on the clock at the end due to a quick whistle by the referees.

“Big relief. It’s one of those things where you try to do all the things and you finally get rewarded for it,” said Brad Berry postgame. “I thought our guys had a lot of resolve, especially after giving up the shorty at the end of the second and coming out in the third and checked tightly. It’s one step and we gotta keep moving.”

“That one was special,” defenseman Gabe Bast mentioned. “The past two weeks we’ve been working hard and the result haven’t gone our way. Tonight we stuck to the process and we got our bounces.”

“That was our demise last year, we couldn’t finish out games,” Bast continued. “This year we’ve been playing the right way and finishing that game was huge heading into Gopher weekend.”

And that’s where UND heads next, as the Fighting Hawks take on their blood rivals in the Minnesota Golden Gophers for the one-off US Hockey Hall of Fame game in Las Vegas on Saturday night. Minnesota played two exhibition games this past weekend, winning 7-1 in each, while they are 1-0-1 on the year after their first week’s set against Minnesota-Duluth.

UND HOCKEY: Quick Start, Sloppy Second, Tense Third Have UND Salvage Tie Versus Denver

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Photo from @UNDmhockey

GRAND FORKS, ND– Coming off of getting swept last weekend, the University of North Dakota came back to Grand Forks in front of 11,845 at the Ralph to take on long-time rival Denver University for a weekend set. Friday, North Dakota would have to do without their top two centers in Rhett Gardner and Nick Jones, both out with injuries. After a quick start, but then sloppy second and half of the third, UND was able to salvage a 3-3 tie.

With the intensity level up, Cole Smith got UND out to the lead just 1:02 into the game, as he banked it off Denver’s Tariq Hammond’s torso to get the big start that the Fighting Hawks have been wanting so badly this entire season. After a Jake Durflinger hooking call, UND went on the power play, something they worked on all week. It seemed to pay off as Shane Gersich took a Grant Mismash rebound and buried it to make it 2-0. UND did get into some penalty trouble late, but were able to kill them both off– something coach Brad Berry had been working on all week, as well.

It was pretty even up for the first part of the second, but Dylan Gambrell got Denver on the board after he rifled a lovely set-up pass from Henrik Borgstrom over the blocker shoulder of Cam Johnson to cut UND’s lead to 2-1. Denver had possession for a good part of the second frame, mostly due to UND’s sloppy play in their own end with bad breakout passes and inability to clear the zone, thus allowing the Pioneers to get some chances. However, Johnson was equal to the task each time outside of that Gambrell goal.

Denver didn’t waste much time, as Tariq Hammond’s shot got redirected by Rudy Junda to tie the game up for the Pioneers 2:11 into the third frame. The tide turned away from UND further, with Cole Smith getting a five-minute major and a game misconduct after an elbow to the head of Denver’s Adam Plant, which saw Plant on the ice for several minutes before skating off with the aide of Denver’s trainer. It looked like Denver may have gotten a goal from Gambrell again, but due to goaltender interference, the goal was waved off. However, Denver didn’t let that faze them, as Troy Terry got a pass from Gambrell, made a little curl at the top of the circle and put it high glove on Johnson to give Denver their first lead of the game, which was their only PP goal of the extended time. While Denver held possession for the majority of the third, UND kept pressing. With 1:32 left, Hayden Shaw floated a shot towards Tanner Jaillet that had eyes and went over Jaillet’s shoulder to tie the game and force overtime.

The five-minute overtime yielded nothing, so it all ended in a tie in the record books, but there was still the need to see who was gets the NCHC extra point. Denver got the extra NCHC point with a Troy Terry goal on the three-on-three goal, giving Denver the extra conference point.

(Due to a late game and real work happening, I didn’t get quotes post-game, so please to be reading Brad Schlossman and Tom Miller of the Grand Forks Herald for quotes and more analysis of the game.)

UND HOCKEY: Fighting Hawks Get Back Into Form With Exhibition Victory

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Photo from @UNDmhockey

GRAND FORKS, ND– With wind chills hitting -30 to -50 Fahrenheit; 10,113 came out to the Ralph Engelstad Arena to see the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks take on the US National Team Development Program Under-18 team. While many didn’t know what to expect, UND got out to an early lead and didn’t look back winning 5-2. There were some scares for UND during the game, but they got the job done in their first game back after the semester break.

The first period saw UND score early with Cole Smith deflecting a Colton Poolman shot past Michigan State commit Drew Deridder just two and a half minutes into the game. However, the US was able to get some sustained offense with Boston University commit Jake Wise ringing one off the post past Cam Johnson’s blocker. It would take until the half-way point of the 1st for UND to score again, with Austin Poganski picking up the puck in the neutral zone and going in alone to put one past Deridder and make it 2-0. Five minutes later, Matt Kiersted fired a laser of a shot high blocker after Grant Mismash set him up on a silver platter to make it 3-0. Team USA would get one back late in the first with Ryan Savage (Miami-Ohio) gathering up a rebound off a Patrick Giles (Boston College) shot.

UND didn’t wait in the second period, as they were put on the power play and make short work of it with Jordan Kawaguchi going high blocker on Deridder to make it 4-1. USA’s first chance of the period came when Erik Middendorf (Denver) streaked away short-handed, but couldn’t get a handle on the puck, making it a routine pad save for Johnson. However, at the middle of the segment, Oliver Wahlstrom (Harvard) cut down the slot and went backhand farside on Johnson to make it 4-2.

Peter Thome came on in relief of Cam Johnson in the third. Johnson’s night ended with the two goals against and 16 saves. USA tried to sustain some pressure in the offensive zone, with Jack Hughes impressing with his stickhandling through the neutral zone, but yielded nothing. Third-string goalie Ryan Anderson got into the game in the last 2:44 to keep warm during the exhibition game. Shane Gersich sealed the deal into the empty net to make it 5-2 UND.

While the game and stats don’t count for anything, it was something that many on the Fighting Hawks roster thought was a good idea.

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Cole Smith/Photo by @NHLHistorygirl

“It was a good exhibition,” said forward Cole Smith. “Something to knock the rust off and not get out huge. Just to get guys back into the flow of things.”

Christian Wolanin echoed, “The exhibitions work well. I think it was my freshman year, we played Huntsville, which was tough to get up for because you’re a little heavy and need to work the kinks out. These exhibition games work out well and we take advantage it of it.”

Even with the win, there’s always room to improve. With an almost 100% healthy roster, coach Brad Berry still says there are some things to iron out as UND gets into a bulk of their conference play in the final half of the season.

“When you have a nine, ten game break, coming off a break, there’s a little rust– as you could tell,” mentioned Berry. “I think we competed hard and execution was a little off. Defensive zone, we have to tighten up on a few things. We played against a skilled team, they played fast and we have to make things better for next week.”

UND resumes conference play as Nebraska-Omaha comes into the Ralph for next weekend’s set.