NCHC Frozen Faceoff Day 2: Denver, Duluth Advance to Monday

GRAND FORKS, ND– Day two of the NCHC quarterfinals happened on Saturday with St. Cloud State and North Dakota awaiting their opponents for Monday night.

In the first match-up, the Omaha Mavericks came back to the Ralph for the third weekend out of the last four to take on the undermanned Denver Pioneers, who only had 10 forwards and six defensemen due to the team being under COVID quarantine. 

Despite the small roster, Denver got on the board first thanks to Hank Crone ripping a shot that ringed off both posts and behind Isaiah Saville to give the Pioneers an early lead. Denver took the play to Omaha, outshooting them 10-2 until the Mavericks struck with two quick goals. First, Jason Smallidge threw a floater on net through a screen and snuck past Magnus Chrona to tie the game. Just about a minute later, Matt Miller turned at the bottom of the face off circle on Chrona’s blocker side and went far glove side to make it 2-1 for Omaha. 

Things got chippy in the second period, with Denver losing Antti Tuomisto and Omaha losing Martin Sundberg to different head-contact game misconducts, as well as five minute majors to go along with it. One major penalty cut into the other, so neither team got the full five minutes to work with, which yielded no power play goals in that time frame. After Omaha’s major power play expired, they caught Denver in a bad line change, leading to Tyler Weiss burying home a Taylor Ward pass to make it 3-1 Mavericks. Denver cut the deficit to one on the power play, as Bobby Brink scored on a one-time attempt that he didn’t get all of, as the puck fluttered over the shoulder of Saville to make it a one-goal game. 

Denver wasted no time getting the equalizer in the third, as Mike Benning took a rebound at the face off dot and slapped it over the shoulder of Saville to tie the game only 42 seconds into the frame. The balance of the third has Omaha offensively on top of Denver, almost doubling their shot total in only ten minutes. That didn’t matter, as a Tyler Weiss tripping call  put Denver on the power play with Benning ripping a shot high over the glove of Saville– thanks to a screen by Kohen Olischefski– to give Denver the lead. The lead was short-lived, as Nate Knoepke potted his fourth of the year when a scramble in front left Knoepke open with a yawning cage in front of him to put the puck into. Denver broke the tie moments later when Bo Hanson tipped a Connor Caponi shot down in front, hit the puck with his backhand, which bounced over Saville’s legs and into the net. Despite pressure from the Mavs with Saville pulled, Denver held them off and will move onto Monday’s semifinal. 

THEY SAID IT

“We say it all the time, NCHC strength. Our only losses in the second half are North Dakota and Denver, and those are two pretty good hockey teams. With the strength of our conference, we hope to get an at-large bid.” Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet on the team’s NCAA tournament chances. 

“Just wasn’t good enough. Penalties were unacceptable. It’s up to us to play the right way and I don’t think we did that.“– Nolan Sullivan on Omaha’s penalty troubles through the game. 

“I don’t think it was too much of a factor. Our team depth is outstanding, it was something we had to rely on tonight. Just being in the moment– the excitement, the adrenaline– I don’t think it was much of a factor.”– Olischefski on the fatigue factor with only 16 skaters for Denver. 

“The biggest thing is we came here to advocate for the league that we should have four teams in the tournament. On the big picture, I think we’ve made our case to be the fourth team going 3-1-1 against Omaha. We’re going to have our hands full on Monday, but we checked a big box in beating Omaha.”– Denver head coach David Carle on his team’s chances for an at-large bid. 

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The second match-up had the defending NCAA champion Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs taking on the Western Michigan Broncos. It took less than three minutes for Dultuh to get on the board, as Koby Bender took the puck into the zone, cut across the slot, and beat Brandon Bussi far post to put the Bulldogs up 1-0. Just after the halfway mark, Western Michigan strikes back with a great redirect from Jason Polin off a wonderful feed from Ty Glover to beat Ryan Fanti and tie the game. 

The game stayed pretty neutral at the start of the third, not many shots either way. Midway through, however, the Broncos broke the tie on the power play. Drew Worrad set Ethen Frank up for a one-timer that Frank blew past Fanti to give Western the lead. With a power play of their own six minutes later, Bender tied the game for Duluth with his second of the night. Bender gathered a clearing attempt from in front of the net and put it past Bussi; who had lost the puck in the crowd in front. Late in the frame, the Broncos regained the lead, as Cole Gallant batted home an Ethen Frank rebound to make it 3-2 with under a minute remaining in the second. 

Duluth controlled the tempo to start the third, then on the power play, Kobe Roth and Noah Cates got in behind the Western Michigan defense for a 2-on-0, with Roth finishing it off and getting the game back at even. Duluth took the lead as Cole Koepke, coming out of the penalty box, picked up a pass and fired it glove side on Bussi to make it 4-3 Bulldogs. The Broncos fought back after that goal, controlling the puck in their offensive zone most of the final six minutes of regulation. That hard work paid off as with 21.8 seconds remaining and the goalie pulled, Polin got his second goal of the night after a feed in front by Josh Passolt sent the game to an extra frame, the first in the quarterfinals. 

Both Duluth went back and forth and had chances early in the frame. However, Connor Kelley ended the game 6:24 into the frame, with a wrister from the point, beating Bussi. Western Michigan took exception to the way the puck was dropped on the face off as it hit the hand of the Duluth centerman and didn’t hit the ice.

THEY SAID IT

“As a team we knew it was going to be like that. Western Michigan has been playing great hockey at the end of the year. We knew it was going to be a one, two goal game. We just have to stick with the game. If something happens, we have to leave it behind and move on.”– Koepke on the back-and-forth nature of the match-up.

“We got to keep an even keel. We talked about it in the second intermission, we can’t get down on those things. It’s over, you can’t change it, but you have the opportunity in front of you to win it in overtime and we did that.”– Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin on keeping his team controlled through the game. 

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Monday’s semifinals will have St. Cloud taking on Duluth in the afternoon game, while the evening game will have North Dakota taking on Denver. The winner of the semi battle it out on Tuesday for the NCHC championship and an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

UND HOCKEY: Slow Starts Sours Senior Night

GRAND FORKS, ND– On senior night when eight players from the University of North Dakota were honored, the Fighting Hawks dropped their first home game of the season to Omaha in overtime. It was the sixth meeting in five weeks between the two, who used this last game as a tune-up for the NCHC Playoffs that start on Friday. 

The opening 20 minutes yield not much of anything. Very few high quality chances on either side of the puck led to a scoreless first. At times, it seemed like each team was playing not to get injured with how conservative each side played in their last regular season game. 

“I didn’t think we had our best early in the game,” head coach Brad Berry stated, “Thirty  minutes in the game we pressed a bit, but a two-goal lead is tough to comeback from. We’ve got to start like we did the second half of the game.” 

Omaha opened the scoring by captain Kevin Conley on the power play with a heavy one-timer from the point that went right past Peter Thome for the Mavericks 1-0 lead. Seconds later, Chayse Primeau picked up a blocked shot and went under the arm of Thome to make it 2-0 Mavericks. An in-arena faux pas almost cost the Fighting Hawks another goal against, as coming out of a TV timeout; a replay on the jumbotron showed a shot from a previous sequence that Thome kicked off the goal-line. However, when the replay was shown from the in-net cam, it looked like the puck may have crossed the line. After an almost five-minute review, the goal did not count. UND turned on the pressure after that review, which paid off in the second half of the period. Louis Jamernik drove down the left side, putting a shot onto Isaiah Saville that kicked out to Jackson Keane, who put it in to halve the Omaha lead. 

It only took 15 seconds for UND to even up the game, as Jordan Kawaguchi redirected a pop-up blocked shot and went past Saville for a tie game. North Dakota kept the pressure on, dictating the play thanks to a couple of power plays in the first half of the frame. The second half of the frame, Omaha clawed back and put plenty of pressure on North Dakota, but Thome stood tall and had plenty of help from his defense to clear out any rebound in harm’s way. With no other scoring, the senior night went into overtime. 

In the extra frame, North Dakota had two solid chances from Matt Kiersted and Collin Adams, but took a penalty 50 seconds into the frame on a Kiersted slashing call. That led to a Tyler Ward deflection off a Brandon Scanlin shot to end the game 3-2. It was the first home loss of the season for North Dakota. 

“When you deviate from the game plan, it feeds into the momentum of the other team,” Berry mentioned. “This time of year, you have to be your best. It was an emotion game with it being senior night– but we have to make sure we’re dialed in for next week in the playoffs.”

THEY SAID IT

“To me there’s no pattern, we’ve lost one game at home. If it was three or four, then I’d say there’s a pattern. It’s not a panic situation, but we have to bring it and play our best in order to win games.” — Berry when asked about the first loss at home this season.

“It was a little bit of a wake-up call. We’ve played these guys a lot  and we kind of thought it was going to be easy. I like the way we battled back, but we got to be ready right from the start” — Keane on the feeling of the room after the game.

“This is a great group of guys who welcomed me with open arms. I was kind of looking up to them when I first got here and it was great to be a part of the night.” — Keane on playing in senior night despite coming in a year later than the rest of the class.

“It would have been nice to end the regular season with the win, but at end of the day; we’re still #1 in our conference and we’re moving on getting ready for the playoffs next week.” Kawaguchi on his feelings after Friday’s game. 

On the Topic Of Transfers Returning

Photo via University of Nebraska-Omaha

On Friday night after the first period of the North Dakota/Omaha match-up, Jonny Tychonick was the last of the Omaha Mavericks to leave the ice. At the Ralph Engelstad Arena, the visitor’s locker room is across from their bench, going through a tunnel next to what usually is the student section at UND. With restrictions in place, there wasn’t that many students in that area, but the ones who were there started to give Tychonick the riot act.

Tychonick had transfer this past off-season from North Dakota to his new spot in Omaha. Citing limited playing time and the want to develop more, he enter the transfer portal and got UND’s blessing to not have to sit out a season in order to play this season. For a guy who was a scratch for a good portion his two seasons with the Fighting Hawks, it’s easy to see why he would want to move onto another school where he’ll get playing time and start to establish himself as a viable prospect. With a solid incoming class of defensemen to boot, Tychonick saw the writing on the wall and then went the transfer route.

Since going to Omaha, it does seem like Tychonick is making waves with his new squad. The Calgary native has three goals and eight points in 17 games, only a goal and three points away from matching his career high, which he notched last year in 24 games with UND.

Back to the matter at hand, though, the vilification of Tychonick is pretty unfair to him when you look at the grand scheme of things. While I understand North Dakota fans want to think that once you’re in UND, you only leave when you graduate or go to the NHL early. They don’t take into account the fact some of these players may have other reasons for wanting to leave– like in Tychonick’s case, as well as Chris Wilkie’s case, another player who left UND for another school (Colorado College) to play a bigger role than he was getting. Wilkie also got earfuls from the North Dakota faithful when he came back to play after his departure.

It’s understandable why North Dakota students and fans would be upset with two players not only wanting to leave UND, but go to schools within the same conference. But taking a step back, you can’t blame them for wanting more for themselves and their development. Neither player really deserved the backlash they had gotten, but in a school pride situation– there’s no rationale good enough to sway people away from the “traitorous acts” that these two players committed by leaving UND. Despite the fact that in the long-term, it was a better decision for those players to leave a bad situation for a better one. In a world where people are starting to look more at how mental health affects people, these two players getting out of a bad situation for themselves and going to a better one seems like it should be applauded rather than belittled.

Sometimes, however, it’s about looking out for yourself. In his first season at Colorado College, Wilkie matched his career total at UND (6g, 13a, 19) in 42 less games. Wilkie’s senior season saw him lead the team in goals (24) and points (31) before the season was ultimately cancelled. Though it looks like Tychonick won’t match his stats in year one with his new team, he’s well on his way to have a better two seasons in Omaha than he did at UND because he was able to get playing time and get to what he felt like his true potential is.

The shocking thing is that it doesn’t happen more in some cases. Plenty of college teams have depth for days and with only being able to dress 19 skaters at a time, it’s a hard decision to figure out which players are going to sit for whatever reason. It’s almost a good problem to have for schools like North Dakota that they have players who are healthy scratches in their line-up, but then give some help to another program that would kill to have a player like that.

Moral of this story is that you shouldn’t hate a player for looking out for their own interests in mind. Yes, it sucks to lose out of talent. Yes, you don’t want a unit to break up because they gel well. Yes, you want to have all the top prospect available, even if they won’t play all the time. But I’ll never understand the feeling of betrayal some people might get just because they actually wanted to play rather than sit in the stands on gameday. But at the end of the day, if these players want to make it to the next level, they need to play more. If they aren’t getting the playing time and they can get the same schooling for their major at another school where they can get more playing time– the choice for them is clear.

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: Early Period Goals Help Hawks Take Down Mavericks

University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks’ logo

GRAND FORKS, ND– The Fighting Hawks of the University of North Dakota close out their regular season and home schedule this weekend against Omaha. While there was the slimmest of margins to get home-ice for next week’s playoff round, the Hawks went about their business and found a way to win over Omaha 2-1 on Friday night.

After an early power play failed, Gabe Bast got UND on the board first with a lovely wrap-around goal. Coming down the wing, Bast sold a pass to the slot to make Evan Weninger commit to the pass, fumble on his feet, while Bast went around and tucked inside the post for the early 1-0 lead. North Dakota controlled play for the first period, outshooting Omaha 21-6 by period’s end, but did get into penalty trouble with two penalties by Zach Yon and Rhett Gardner to put the Hawks a two-man disadvantage at the end of the first and heading into the second.

The penalties paid off for Omaha, as Zach Jordan scored with the two-man advantage by banking a one-timer off the side of Peter Thome to tie the game a minute into the second period. Throughout the rest of the period, the play was fairly even, with Omaha getting more shots towards Thome, while their defense kept the shooting gallery away from Weninger. Omaha did outshoot UND in the frame by a count of 11-10.

North Dakota broke the stalemate in just under three minutes into the third period with Nick Jones tipping in Colton Poolman shot from the point, after Jones won the face-off back.

“I won the draw a little too clean,” mentioned Jones, “I was trying to win it to Yon there and it got back to Colton. He made a hell of a play with me off the to the side there and I was able to get a stick on it. I felt like the tips all year haven’t gone my way and I was fortunate enough to get it.”

After that, it seemed like a methodical game with not a lot of chances getting through to Thome or Weninger. Despite the last two minutes playing with an extra attacker, North Dakota held on for the 2-1 win.

The game marked the return of two key elements to the UND line-up in Jones and Grant Mismash. Mismash has been out since January 25th after take a knee-on-knee hit from Jimmy Schuldt of St. Cloud and was used as the extra skater tonight.

“We wanted to use him early,” said coach Brad Berry after the game. “In a one goal game with a guy who’s been out for six weeks, it’s tough to give him a regular shift. With conditioning, he’s not quite there yet, but he’ll get there. We thought by putting him in there a bit five-on-five that we might get a spark offensively.”

Western Michigan won against Miami, which meant that regardless of UND’s result– they will be on the road for their playoff match-up next weekend for the first time since 2002. The team found out about the game before the third period, but it did not shake them at all.

“We knew it wasn’t in our hands this weekend,” Jones mentioned. “We know we’re going to have to win two on the road next weekend. You’d obviously love to play at home– especially me with my last game at home tomorrow– at the end of the day, we have to win two games no matter where it is.”

“It doesn’t change anything that we have to do,” Bast said. “If we got to win a series on the road we’re going to do that. We’ve got to string a few games together and get into the national tournament that way. We have the group to do that right now. Home ice is home ice, but we’re confident going on the road and getting two wins.”

The last home game of the season and Senior Night is Saturday at the Ralph.

UND HOCKEY: Statement Game for UND in Big Game One Victory

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Photo via @UNDmHockey

GRAND FORKS, ND– With their tournament hopes on the line with this single series, the University of North Dakota and University of Nebraska-Omaha took to the ice in the first of a best-of-three NCHC Quarterfinal match-up on Friday night. With each team splitting the regular season series at two wins apiece, each side knew they were in for a tough series for a chance to make it to the Frozen Faceoff in St. Paul next weekend, as well as having a better chance of getting into the NCAA Tournament. Knowing they needed a solid showing, UND came through in a big way in front of 10,125 at the Ralph Engelstad Arena, taking Game One 4-0 over Omaha.

After a steady first 14 minutes, UND broke the ice as Shane Gersich rifled a wrist shot home from the the top of the circle and thanks to a screen by Colton Poolman, was able to get past Omaha’s Evan Weninger to make it 1-0 Fighting Hawks. A very quiet frame before and after with shots registering in at 11 for UND to Omaha’s six.

With 1:54 left in a carry-over power play, UND made the most of it with many great chances, but Christian Wolanin’s wrister hit the back-bar past Weninger to make it 2-0 for UND. The pace of play stayed consistent with not many good chances either way, but Nick Jones changed that with 7:21 left in the second. Coming off the bench to a loose puck, Jones went wide, then made a little flip of the puck over the Omaha’s defender’s stick and took a diving shot that went past Weninger to make it 3-0. Four minutes later, Omaha’s Joel Messner fumbled a breakout attempt, in which Joel Janatuinen made no mistake to bury it past Weninger to make it 4-0.

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Christian Wolanin/Photo by @NHLHistorygirl

“Our forwards were working so hard on the forecheck, maintaining pressure and making it hard on their defense,” said Christian Wolanin. “Our defenseman did a good job moving it north quickly. All the little things made up for some big goals for us.”

One big chance in the third saw Weninger make his best save of the night with a big cross-crease glove save on Grant Mismash to deny UND a fifth goal. UND outshot Omaha 34-25 in the game. It was Cam Johnson’s third shutout of the season and 12th all-time at UND.

“The key for us was to make them play defense,” mentioned Wolanin of UND’s ability to shut down Omaha’s threats. “If we don’t give them the puck and eliminate time and space, we’re going to have success against them.”

“It’s a good start. That’s the key word: start,” North Dakota coach Brad Berry said. “It’s just one game. I thought our guys did a lot of good things. The biggest thing is focusing on tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day and our lives are on the line still. There’s going to be a business-like mentality there.”

With the win, UND moved to 14th in the Pairwise Rankings, which is heavily used in helping determine the at-large bids for the tournaments. With that win, they move ahead of Omaha and would give themselves a better chance of moving up if they can sweep the series on Saturday.

“You kind of hear about what people are saying, but we’re focused on tomorrow,” defenseman Colton Poolman said of the Pairwise. “All that stuff is in the rear-view for us. We’re just focused on tomorrow.”

Puck drop is 7:07 at The Ralph, as UND looks to move onto the Frozen Faceoff next weekend and then to the National Tournament.