The Denver Pioneers host the North Dakota Fighting Hawks at Magness Arena in the first round of the NCHC playoffs
Playoff hockey is finally here, and many Pioneers fans are thankful they get to see a couple more games at Magness Arena. After falling to the Colorado College Tigers in both games last weekend, Denver drew longtime rival North Dakota in the first round of the NCHC Tournament. It hasn’t been an easy end of the regular season for the Pioneers with a slumping offense, but home ice will hopefully play a role against their first opponent on the road to the Frozen Faceoff.
In the second half of the season, the Pioneers went 7-6-3 against NCHC opponents and their goal scoring went cold. After scoring four goals in his first 7 games, freshman Emilio Pettersen has lit the lamp just once in his last 22 games. His linemate Cole Guttman had a recent stretch of seven games without any points. And most importantly, goaltending has been good overall but inconsistent between Devin Cooley and Filip Larsson in the second half.
On a team level, the Pioneers limped to the finish line going 0-2-1 in their final three games of the regular season. They gave life to the Miami RedHawks and Colorado College Tigers who both sit in the bottom half of the NCHC standings entering the playoffs.
But there is still reason for optimism.
Although the Pioneers have had some success on the road, they are still 10-3-4 at home in Denver. And lucky for them, the Fighting Hawks haven’t been a great road team. This season, their record away from The Ralph is 5-9-1. Something else to consider is that North Dakota has been a first-period team, scoring a majority of their goals in the first 20 minutes of the game, whereas the Pioneers have been a 3rd-period team this season. Maybe this explains all of the one-goal games between the two teams.
North Dakota Fighting Hawks (18-15-2)
Unlike in recent years, North Dakota has pretty much been a .500 team this season in conference and overall. They have fought the injury bug with several of their top players and haven’t gotten the offensive production that they’re used to. But like many of the teams who the Pioneers have faced in the last few weeks, they’re looking for any motivation to get hot.
UND finished the season winning their last three games, all by one goal. They split at Colorado College before sweeping Omaha at home. Against Denver this season, the Hawks went 1-2-1 with only the first game in Denver that was really out of reach losing 4-1.
The Fighting Hawks will be without senior forward Joel Janatuinen and freshman goaltender Adam Scheel this weekend per head coach Brad Berry. Scheel played 26 games this season for North Dakota and posted a record of 13-10-2 with a GAA of 2.74 and save percentage of .910. It will most likely be Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Peter Thome in net for North Dakota this weekend.
The Hawks MVP has to be sophomore forward Jordan Kawaguchi. With 10 goals and 16 assists on the season, he leads all North Dakota skaters in points and has been pretty durable this season. Two other players that will be difference-makers this weekend will be junior defenseman Colton Poolman and senior forward Nick Jones. Poolman has had a very productive college career at North Dakota and could get some interest from NHL teams to leave school early. He’s a smart two-way defenseman who finds himself on the scoring sheet a lot. Nick Jones is another player who is capable of scoring big goals. Last season, he had 15 goals and 30 assists in 34 games but didn’t find that production this season. Still, with three points in his last two games, Jones could help the Hawks with much-needed offense.
Here is North Dakota head coach Brad Berry on facing Denver this weekend:
“Both teams mirror each other quite well. There’s not going to be a lot of time and space out there in Denver and we’re going to have to make sure that when we have the puck on our tape that we make plays and get opportunities when we do.” – Brad Berry, UND head coach
Prediction – All bets are off
For a team that has been very consistent the last few years, who knows which Denver will show up this weekend. Will it be the relentless, 120% effort Pioneers or the Pioneers that we saw the last two weekends who gave up points to desperate teams? One thing for sure is that experience will carry this team. Jarid Lukosevicius, Liam Finlay, Michael Davies, Ian Mitchell, Colin Staub, and other leaders will have to guide the young players through playoff hockey. This conference is no cakewalk and Denver has been knocked off their game a lot this season with physicality. Buckle up folks, North Dakota is here probably until Sunday.
Twitter Follow – @UNDmhockey
Where to Watch/Listen
Friday – 7:08pm MT, 104.3 The Fan
Saturday – 7:08pm MT, 104.3 The Fan
Sunday (if necessary) – 6:08pm MT, ESPN Radio 1600