Grand Forks, ND – The University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks are a frustrated bunch right now. You can see it in their body language and you can hear it in their post game interviews. A 2-7-2 record at home since November will do it to you. After winning the national championship in 2015-16 amidst the euphoria it’s easy for fans to have lofty expectations. It holds true for the SCSU Huskies as well. After a watermark 31 wins in 2015-16 it’s easy for fans to assume that you pick up where you left off. Common sense dictates that the Fighting Hawks would have a drop off after losing nine players and 217 points of offense from last years team. The Huskies surrendered 220 points of offense from last years team plus a certain All-American goaltender in Charlie Lindgren who signed early with Montreal of the NHL.
Friday’s game was a good example of where these teams currently are at. SCSU Coach Motzko admitted it “probably wasn’t either teams finest night but we gutted through it”. UND Coach Berry stated the frustrated Fighting Hawks need to “find a way to dig yourself out.” No question the bounces went the Huskies way on Friday. An extremely bad angle shot by Grand Forks native Jacob Benson gave the Huskies the early lead and a deflection off the face mask of Ryan Poehling was a quick response to Tucker Poolman’s third period goal to narrow the SCSU lead to one. UND forward Rhett Gardner commented “we’re not getting bounces”. However with just two wins in the last 11 games on home ice it not just the bounces. It’s deeper than that. The defense took a big hit losing Stetcher, LaDue and Thompson. The offense is not the same without Drake Caggiula, Nick Schmalz and Luke Johnson. Cam Johnson’s outstanding numbers of 2015-16 have not continued into this season. And, let’s be honest, how could they considering the losses at defense.
So, what we have are two teams trying to survive the rigors of two of the toughest schedules in college hockey. With UND at #12 and SCSU at #14 in the Pairwise they are both battling to finish the brutal NCHC schedule with enough momentum and enough of a cushion in the Pairwise to not have to rely on a sweep in the NCHC’s post-season Frozen Faceoff. The immediate issue is the series conclusion tonight in Grand Forks. The Fighting Hawks need a win and the Huskies are trying to pull off something they haven’t done since December 12 – a Saturday league win. It’s refreshing to hear the confidence in the voice of SCSU goaltender Jeff Smith. Following Friday’s game, Smith commented “We need a sweep. It’s time we had a full weekend.” And, he should be confident. Since January 13th, Smith has stopped 195 of 208 shots on goal for a .9375 SV% against UMD, Denver, Bemidji State and North Dakota. That in addition to much better team defense has been the difference maker in the Huskies success in the last seven games.
Following Friday’s loss, UND Coach Brad Berry commented ” we have a lot of gut and character in the locker room and we have to come to work tomorrow and work our way out. No one’s going to do it for us.” One thing is a certainty tonight. We’ll see a strong effort out of the Fighting Hawks. Desperation tends to do that to a team. There’s still a lot of talent on this North Dakota team. Gersich and Boesser are too good to shut down two nights in a row if SCSU doesn’t get an exemplary effort out of Smith and his blueliners.
It’ll be another entertaining NCHC game for the fans. I’m glad I’m here to witness it. Enjoy the game.