NCAA WEST REGIONAL: Denver Makes Clock Strike Midnight for AIC

FARGO, ND– In what was the probably the most unlikeliest of match-ups to determine the West Regional, the American International College Yellow Jackets took on the Denver Pioneers for a berth into the Frozen Four. Both teams played a defensive game in their Friday match-ups and it was looking like it would be quite the chess match for this Regional Final.

The first period seemed that way, but a speedy chess game. Both teams had plenty of chances, though Denver would outshoot AIC 10-4 thanks to two power plays, but Zackarias Skog was solid in the first period. AIC has some chances, but could not get it past Filip Larsson. Both teams played like they knew if they got the first goal, they could lock up the game defensively from that point forward. The period ended 0-0.

Much of the same in the second period, though AIC got more of the chances in the early going. Plenty of blocked shots, odd bounces, and great saves were seen on both ends of the ice. The sustained pressure didn’t yield much until Ryan Barrow, while taking a skate around the net, found Colin Staub camped out in front, as Staub went high blocker on Skog to break the stalemate.

“We were able to get some defensemen active and started creating havoc in front,” mentioned Staub. “The puck bounced out and luckily, Barrow was able to capitalize on the turnover. He was driving to the net and found me. I wasn’t even looking at the net, I was just trying to get it off as quick as possible.”

AIC was pressing most of the third with two power plays at their disposal, but they couldn’t get it past Larsson. While they pressed hard, a mental mistake with under five minutes left. On a breakout, AIC’s Jared Pike passed back to his defense, but Liam Finlay was able to break out the second clearing attempt  which gave Finlay a mini-breakaway, which he put passed Skog to make it 2-0 and made the clock strike midnight for the Cinderella of the NCAA tournament. Jarid Lukosevicius added an empty-netter for good measure and sealing the 3-0 win.

It will be the third time in four seasons going back to the Frozen Four. An interesting note is that Denver only combined for three third period shots in the two games of the regional. All those shots went in, though only one was with a goalie in net. It’s something that head coach David Carle doesn’t seem too bothered by.

“That how we draw it up,” Carle quipped after the game. “Yeah we’d like to shoo the puck, we’d like to generate a little bit more. At the same time, our puck pressure and our ability to defend was outstanding and our team’s commitment to defense, I think as you saw for 90% of the weekend was very good. We’re pretty proud of that and our team has bought into what we need to win hockey games.”

NCAA WEST REGIONAL: Denver’s Lockdown, AIC Upset Headline Fargo’s Regional

FARGO, ND– The NCAA West Regional kicked off in Fargo on Friday. While the University of North Dakota did not make the tournament, there were plenty of green in the stands for those who decided to make the trip.

In the early match-up, they were able to watch a familiar foe in Denver University taking on THE Ohio State University in the first round match-up.

The first twenty minutes were a bit of a feeling out point, but Ohio State gradually got better as the period went on. However, despite the traffic in front of Denver’s Filip Larsson, there were no goals to be had. On the other end, Tommy Nappier had little work, only facing five shots in the first frame, the most challenge was a double-tip in the beginning, as well as a Tyson McLellan shorthanded chance that sailed over top of the goal, as McLellan was trying to go high short-side on Nappier.

A neutral zone battle took place for most of the second frame, with both Denver and Ohio State playing tighter hockey. The most chances came in the second half of the period, with both sides exchanging quality chances, but it wasn’t until late in the period when Denver broke the draw. With less than a minute left, Emilio Petterson feathered a pass over to Les Lancaster, who then beat Nappier on the glove side to make it a 1-0 game.

“That was a heck of a pass by him,” mentioned Lancaster of Petterson’s pass. “He has some great vision. I think a big part of my game is speed and I saw an opening to go up the ice and he found me. Nappier robbed me early in the period so it was good to get that one behind him.”

Ohio State had a solid chance to tie the game after Larsson had an adventure around his net, but could not bury anything in the open cage. Denver played a very tight game, in fact– they did not get any shots on Nappier with their only goal being an empty netter by Colin Staub to seal the game and advance to the Regional Final on Saturday.

Denver Wins/Photo Jen Conway

“I don’t know how many tickets were sold tonight with that game,” joked Denver coach David Carle after the game, “But I thought it was a really tightly contested game. Not a lot of open ice for either team since both teams are heavily involved on defense

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In the second match-up, the upstart American International College Yellow Jackets looked to give the St. Cloud State Huskies a run for their money. All the while, the Huskies tried to not be eliminated in the first round by an Atlantic Hockey team– like what happened last year against Air Force. It was also AIC’s first ever tournament appearance, which could be daunting to some, but for AIC– they seemed to take it in stride.

“I think we just had to play our game, the same way we played it all year,” mentioned Brennan Kapcheck. “We came in with big dreams and see the big crowd, which is not something we see all the time, but we played our game and it goes the right way.”

AIC was under the microscope, but were attacking early with plenty of chances, including one that rang off the crossbar. However, Joel Kocur found the back of the net, getting the first goal of the game by plugging away at a rebound around David Hrenak’s net and chipping it in for the 1-0 tally. After that goal, AIC went into a trap defense, which lead to more chances, as St. Cloud couldn’t get a good clean breakout, but the period ended 1-0 for AIC.

Knowing they needed to continue the pressure. AIC was able to play the trap defense perfectly against the Huskies, creating more turnovers and then creating another goal for the Yellow Jackets, as Brennan Kapcheck picked up the puck, threw it on net, and it squeaked through Hrenak’s five-hole to make it a 2-0 game. Despite power plays, the Huskes couldn’t put one past Zackarias Skog. Though AIC only put four shots on in the second, they were able to withstand the pressure of St. Cloud late in the period.

The Huskies, not wanting a repeat of last year, got off to a quick start, trying to get one goal back and start a rally. But thanks to stingy defense and Skog standing tall, their first onslaught was for naught. SCSU cut the lead in half on the power play, as a weird bounce off an AIC defender’s helmet went past Skog and was credited to Easton Brodzinski. After that, the Huskies went to work trying for the equalizer, but Skog and his defensemen in front were able to stave off the Huskies, upsetting the #1 overall seed by a score of 2-1.

It was AIC’s first tournament win in their first appearance during their first winning season, no less. It was also the second time in the entire athletics department that they have defeated a #1 seed, as the women’s soccer team defeated Saint Rose in Division II action.

“St. Cloud is a tremendous team,” mentioned AIC coach Eric Lang. “I could only take them in small doses. They’re as skilled a team that we’ve ever seen. But you know what, sometimes the puck bounces your way. I would say it’s puck luck, but in this sport in you earn your luck.”

AIC and Denver will take on each other on Saturday night to see who will represent the West Region in the Frozen Four in Buffalo.

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: Young Hawks Shine in 4-1 Victory Over Denver

GRAND FORKS, ND– Coming off a split of then #2 ranked Minnesota-Duluth, the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks were looking to build off last Saturday’s win. This weekend, they host another NCHC rival in Denver University, as the last home-games of the first half are played. Lead by Adam Scheel in net and the return of Nick Jones, the Fighting Hawks took game one of the weekend set by a score of 4-1.

“It’s been a long process,” Jones mentioned of dealing with his injuries. “It feels like forever, but it’s only been four, five weeks– whatever it’s been. It’s just nice to get back out there with the guys.

With only two shots in the first seven minutes for either team, North Dakota struck first, as Gavin Hain picked up a face-off pushed ahead by Mark Senden, cut across the crease to beat Denver’s Devin Cooley on the backhand to get the early lead.

Gavin Hain/Photo by Jen Conway

“Our face-offs rely a lot on the wingers,” Hain said post-game. “I went into help and the puck kind of squirted out and I just went in one-on-one with the goalie and was able to get my back-hand up.” When asked about his evolution through his first season, Hain replied, “I kinda had a set-back and was out for a few weeks, but coming back and getting back to pace, I feel good and I’m excited for the second half.”

Senden would be rewarded for his generosity, as he would net the second goal after Cole Smith maintained possession off a dump-in, created time and space before finding Sended streaking down the slot to make it a 2-0 lead for the Fighting Hawks. Despite a Rhett Gardner penalty, the UND PK was suffocating to the Pioneers, creating a couple of shorthanded chances while keeping Denver neutralized.

The second period saw UND get themselves into penalty trouble early. With the carryover penalty to Gardner, coupled with Matt Kiersted and Hayden Shaw getting called; the Fighting Hawks had to rely heavily on their PK to bail them out of some trouble in the frame. The period ended quietly, though there were rushes either way. For about the last 12 minutes, neither team had a shot on goal registered.

“They got a dangerous power play, they got a couple guys that are a real dangerous threat,” Jones said after the game. “Our penalty kill was great tonight. It’s struggled throughout the year a little bit, but you’ve seen it before (coach Dane) Jackson set it right and our penalty kill is one of the elite in the conference and we hope to bring that into the second half and tomorrow night as well.”

The Hawks got on the board early in the third, as Nick Jones found Kiersted streaking to the top of the circle and blasted a shot past Cooley, who was screened masterfully by Ludvig Hoff  to make it a 3-0 game. Denver cut into UND’s lead, as Colin Staub posted up at the top of the crease and got a pass from Ryan Barrow from behind the net and batted in past Scheel. Some last gasps for Denver, as they were awarded a penalty shot after Colton Poolman fell on the puck in the crease, but Scheel stopped Brett Stapley on the attempt. Right after that, with the goalie pulled, UND put the dagger away as Colton Poolman picked up a puck from Scheel and shot it down the ice for a 4-1 win.

A point of possible concern for the Fighting Hawks is one that they haven’t experience this season: lack of shots on goal. Through the last 32 minutes of the game, the Hawks only mustered three shots.

“Well, that’s part of the game,” lamented head coach Brad Berry, “You look at the score clock and there’s not a lot of shots– but it’s going both ends. There was a lot of neutral zone play and a lot of tight checking. It’s one of those things you don’t want to give an inch and that’s what happens when two good teams play. Time and space is a big deal and we want to make sure we eliminate that for them.”

UND will close out the first half of the season on Saturday, looking for a sweep of the Pioneers at The Ralph.

UND HOCKEY: Two Ties Guide Fighting Hawks Into Bye Week

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Photo by @UNDmhockey

GRAND FORKS, ND– With both Rhett Gardner and Nick Jones still out with injury and Cole Smith suspended for his hit on Adam Plant on Friday, the University of North Dakota showed plenty of grit in the second game of the series with the Denver University Pioneers, with 12,002 at The Ralph, which is the highest of the season for UND. Even with all the players out and defenseman Casey Johnson playing forward, North Dakota came away with another tie on the weekend– this time by the count of 1-1.

North Dakota had some visitors, as Tucker Poolman (Winnipeg Jets), Nick Schmaltz (Chicago Blackhawks), and Drake Caggiula (Edmonton Oilers) were all in attendance for their alma mater during the NHL All-Star Weekend. However, despite the old UND guard in the building, Denver was first to strike, as they held possession of the puck most of the first half of the first period. They finally got through after Kohen Olischefski throw a shot on from an odd angle that beat Cam Johnson, as Johnson was unable to hug the post enough to keep it out. The rest of the period was possessed by Denver, who outshot the Fighting Hawks 9-5 in the period, with UND getting their first shot of the game 13:52 into the period. Though Denver got a late power play due to a Grant Mismash interference, nothing came of it and the period ended 1-0 for Denver.

“I don’t even know,” said Johnson of the goal during post-game. “It just found a hole there. But I felt good, it was a weak goal. I like to think that’s how our luck is going, just not getting the bounces. I just tried to refocus and think of it as a 0-0 game.”

A tense moment early in the second, as Andrew Peski let a shot from the point go that hit referee Nick Krebsbach in the hand, as he was protecting his face; sending the former AHL official down to the ice. After a few minutes and some work on the bench, he was up and ready to keep going. While Denver did get some chances, they also got a crucial penalty after Liam Finlay bowled over Cam Johnson to get a goalie interference call. In that ensuing power play, Christian Wolanin got his eighth of the season, blowing a shot over the glove of Tanner Jaillet.

Not much to speak of in the third, though Denver did have a scramble in front, where Cam Johnson was equal to the task. Plenty of clogging up the shooting and passing lanes from both sides, resulting in a second overtime in as many nights. Very few chances for each side on the overtime period, which resulted in yet another tie between these two teams. In the NCHC overtime, Ian Mitchell scored for Denver after Hayden Shaw’s pass got intercepted Logan O’Connor in the UND offensive zone, which moved to Mitchell, who deked out Johnson for the NCHC extra point. The NCAA official tie is UND’s eighth of the season.

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Christian Wolanin/Photo by @NHLHistorygirl

“A tie gets frustrating,” mentioned Wolanin on the result. “For not having our full roster and playing a great team like Denver, we showed heart and resiliency. To get two ties out of it is okay. Just okay.”

The main point of this week was the special teams. Last week, UND gave up six power play goals in their weekend set against Duluth and it was a sticking point for the team in the practice this week.

“When you have someone like Coach (Dane) Jackson, who puts his heart and soul into everything; for him to come in and think that the PK didn’t do their job– we held a lot of meetings for penalty kill this week,” said Wolanin. “In Duluth, it wasn’t a matter of Coach Jackson not preparing us enough, it was us being undisciplined.”

The Fighting Hawks are off next weekend, but will be back home on February 9th and 10th against Colorado College. With the bye week, UND hopes to have a lot of their walking wounded back– as it was the second game without Rhett Gardner and Nick Jones. They’ll also get Cole Smith back from suspension; though Ludvig Hoff will be away for the Olympics.

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.)