Following a couple weeks off, it’s “North Dakota week” as the No. 18 Pioneers host the No. 2 Fighting Hawks this weekend in a rare Sunday-Monday series at Magness Arena. These teams met in the bubble twice just a month ago and split two nail-biting games that concluded with a Jordan Kawaguchi OT goal and a Carter Savoie go-ahead power play goal. This series shouldn’t be any different as DU is coming off a 6-1 game vs Colorado College and North Dakota is riding a six-game winning streak. Cue the fireworks.
If the Pioneers want to climb their way up in the NCHC standings before the NCHC playoffs, the time is now to get started but it won’t be easy. They will face No. 2 North Dakota and No. 10 Omaha four times each over the next month, then conclude the season against Colorado College. And if the playoffs started today, Denver would draw the Fighting Hawks, again.
When head coach David Carle met with the media this week, he described the Pioneers’ games with UND this season as “two of our more complete efforts in the pod,” then further added that this week’s matchup is “what we need in our next step of our journey.”
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) January 14, 2021
This week, the Pioneers get some reinforcements back in the lineup as sophomore forward Bobby Brink returns from the World Junior Championship with a gold medal. In seven games played, Brink had two goals and four assists and was plus-8 in the tournament. Brink only played the first three contests with Denver in the NCHC pod but he tallied three assists, including two against North Dakota. His playmaking abilities will surely bring a boost to the team in the second half of the season.
In other Pioneers news, former captain Ian Mitchell made his NHL debut with the Chicago Blackhawks. He referenced staying an extra year at Denver as a reason he feels comfortable and ready to play at the pro level.
"I'm just looking to prove myself, that I belong with these guys. It's been a great challenge for me."
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) January 11, 2021
North Dakota Fighting Hawks (9-2-1)
The Fighting Hawks are off to a tremendous start winning every game this season except for three games in the pod from Dec. 8 to Dec. 12 including a 3-2 loss to Denver. Led by senior captain Jordan Kawaguchi, North Dakota plays a style of hockey focused on puck possession. Every player is involved when the Fighting Hawks control the puck and each one of them is a threat to make a play. No wonder they match up so well with Denver.
With five players who average a point-per-game in the lineup, one of them is sophomore standout Shane Pinto who is having another great season. The Ottawa Senators 2nd round pick from 2019 has five goals and ten assists this season including three powerplay goals. His ability to win offensive zone faceoffs enable the UND defenseman to get clean shots from especially on the powerplay.
Set up by yet another clean face-off win by Shane Pinto, Riese Gaber gets his own rebound and puts North Dakota up 1-0 on Colorado College. pic.twitter.com/ko7xZfCslY
— Chris Dilks (@ChrisDilks) January 12, 2021
One thing the Pioneers need to be cognizant of is North Dakota’s play behind the goal line in the offensive zone. They love to cycle the puck down below to take away the opposing goaltender’s eyes, then setup their forwards with one-time shots in the slot if they can get passes through. Denver’s defenseman will have to win one-on-one battles in those areas and transition the puck quickly up the wall to prevent those long shifts defending in their zone.
In net, Adam Scheel’s numbers look great, but they also could be the product of a great team. Seeing 25 shots a night, Scheel averages just under two goals per game while the Fighting Hawks are scoring just under four goals each night. It seems that if you can hold UND to under three goals, you have a shot at beating them. It wouldn’t hurt either to score the first goal as they are 8-0-0 when scoring first this season.
Prediction – Split
Sometimes hitting the reset button can help the Pioneers refocus and get back to winning hockey. Historically Denver would have really tough non-conference games to start the season, followed by more difficult series with rivals in the NCHC. With just three teams left to play before the season is over, Denver should be able to pull out some key wins and finish the season with some momentum. It’s time for the upperclassmen to lead the way, starting with North Dakota.
Twitter Follow – @UNDmhockey
Where to Watch/Listen
Sunday – 7:07pm MT – tv: Altitude 2 radio: ESPN DENVER 1600
Monday – 7:07pm MT tv: CBS Sports Net radio: ESPN DENVER 1600
Top photo: Mark Kuhlmann/NCHC