Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Know Your Enemy: North Dakota

Pretty much since the very beginning of his tenure at RPI, Seth Appert has sought non-conference games against some of the top teams in the country. Well, it doesn't get much more "top" than playing a game at the defending national champions, something the Engineers will get to do for the third time in four seasons - the other two were kind of cheating since it was a couple of ECAC teams, but that's besides the point. It's a contest that certainly fits right into the "anyone, anywhere" mentality that we've seen in the last decade.

North Dakota
Nickname: Fighting Hawks
Location: Grand Forks, ND
Founded: 1883
Conference: NCHC
National Championships: 8 (1959, 1963, 1980, 1982, 1987, 1997, 2000, 2016)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2016
Last Frozen Four: 2016
Coach: Brad Berry (2nd season)
2015-16 Record: 34-6-4 (18-4-1 NCHC, 1st place)
Series: North Dakota leads, 8-1-0
First Game: January 2, 1960 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: November 24, 1984 (Grand Forks, ND)
Last UND win: March 26, 2011 (Green Bay, WI)

2016-17 game: October 15, 2016 (Grand Forks, ND)

Key players: D Gage Ausmus, sr.; G Cam Johnson, jr.; F Austin Poganski, jr.; D Tucker Poolman, jr.; F Nick Schmaltz, jr.; F Johnny Simonson, jr.; F Brock Boeser, so.; F Rhett Gardner, so.; F Shane Gersich, so.; F Joel Janatuinen, so.; D Hayden Shaw, so.; F Chris Wilkie, so.; D Christian Wolanin, so.; D Christian Evers, fr.; F Tyson Jost, fr.; D Matt Kierstad, fr.; F Mitchell Mattson, fr.

Previous KYE installment:
Since last we left North Dakota on the cusp of the 2011 NCAA tournament, they emerged from their thumping of RPI, quite a lot has changed. First went the name of the team, the Fighting Sioux moniker stricken in 2012. Then went the conference, as UND played a pivotal role in the founding of the NCHC in 2011 and became members in 2013. Finally, there was a coaching change in 2015 as Dave Hakstol became the first NCAA coach in over 30 years to move directly from the college ranks to a head coaching position in the NHL when he took over the Philadelphia Flyers last summer.

UND returned the next night after their 6-0 pasting of the Engineers to blitz Denver 6-1, an impressive overall regional showing that left the Fighting Sioux looking practically unbeatable heading into the Frozen Four - and then they looked fairly meek in going out in the national semis, 2-0 to eventual runners-up Michigan.

The 2011 Frozen Four was Hakstol's fifth with UND, and the fifth time they'd come up dry in their quest for the national championship. A WCHA title in 2012 was his fourth and final league title, and the NCHC regular season crown in 2015 was his the third and final time one of his teams accomplished that feat. Frozen Fours in 2014 and 2015 left Hakstol with a total of seven appearances in 11 seasons on the final weekend of the regular season - and a 1-7 record in those appearances, the lone national championship game appearance coming in his first try in 2005.

He left for the NHL, and what happens? UND - christened the Fighting Hawks in November - wins the national championship. There's not really much of a cause and effect there (first NCAA to NHL head coaching move in 30+ years and all), but it's certainly a bit odd.

Brad Berry, another UND alum who also logged time as an assistant coach under both Hakstol and his predecessor, Dean Blais, took over last summer and guided the Fighting Hawks to their second consecutive first-place finish in NCHC league play. They were upset by Minnesota Duluth in the NCHC semis, but they picked up their 8th national championship - second only to Michigan's nine - by blowing up the competition in the NCAA tournament, outscoring the opposition 20-7 in four games, including a 5-1 demolition of Quinnipiac in the national championship game that qualified as the Bobcats' worst loss (of four) on the entire season, and was probably even worse than it looks on the final scoresheet. It was less a game than a coronation.

There was nothing that UND did poorly last season. 7th best offensively (3.68 goals per game), 2nd defensively (1.84 GAA, trailing only Yale), 2nd best in scoring margin (+1.84 goals per game, trailing only St. Cloud), and 6th best in penalty kill (86.4%). The power play was a bit more pedestrian, but still well within an acceptable range at 19.1%.

It was at least a minor shock when Boeser, fifth in the nation in points per game (1.43), fourth in goals (27), and third in points (60) as a freshman didn't sign with the Vancouver Canucks. But there's at least some unfinished business, as that resume somehow didn't result in earning even a Hobey Baker finalist nod, let alone a place in the Hobey Hat Trick. With zero Hobey finalists returning to the college game next season, Boeser is the top returning points producer in the country and is inarguably returning as the best position player in the nation.

Really, if there's any opening to be prodded on this team, it's the fact that the defense (and the team in general) is going to be relatively young. Ausmus was supposed to be one of four senior defensemen on this squad, instead he's going to be just one of two upperclassmen at all after Troy Stetcher, Paul LaDue and Keaton Thompson signed NHL deals after the national championship - and what's more, Ausmus and the only other upperclassman, Poolman, had been flight risks, too. Those five guys were absolutely a big part of North Dakota's stifling defensive efforts.

Ausmus and Boeser especially could have been forgiven if they'd decided to leave, but their return along with that of Johnson, a Mike Richter Award finalist as a sophomore, provides a rock from which the Fighting Hawks will likely be able to build yet another NCAA tournament appearance upon what is already the longest active streak in the nation at 14 in a row (and 19 of the last 20).

North Dakota is going to score goals. They just are. When they lose goal scorers, they find others to fill the gap. In this century, the fewest number of goals UND has scored in a single season is 127 (2013-14). The number of times RPI has reached that number of goals in the same time frame is zero. To be extremely fair to RPI, North Dakota tends to play more games than the Engineers do every year just because they go deeper into their conference tournament and, as mentioned, they play in the NCAAs all the time, but it is what it is.

One thing that may work in RPI's favor: North Dakota has a recent history of "what the hell?" home games early in seasons. Last year they lost to Wisconsin in November. A year before that, to Bemidji State in October. Vermont managed a tie in October 2013.

It's going to be a tall task for the Engineers, no doubt. Three games into the season, there's no way we're going to know if RPI's questions on offense will be answered, and the Fighting Hawks will be a serious test of their defensive strengths. A victory in Grand Forks would be solid upset, and it would be one that would turn heads not just in the ECAC but nationally. Don't count on it, of course. But if the young defense can be exploited successfully, that door is at least open a crack.

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