After a dreadful November where they went 3-6-1, North Dakota has put together a five-game win streak to move two games over .500 at the break after sweeping Northern Michigan this past weekend, 4-1 and 3-1. For fans that are accustomed to seeing second-half surges, this is good news.
In my column last week, I interviewed North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol, and he singled out the line of Rocco Grimaldi, Drake Caggiula, and Luke Johnson. The trio were all over the score sheet in both games this past weekend. On Friday, Johnson scored a goal while Grimaldi had two assists, including one on Johnson’s game-winning power-play goal.
In Saturday’s game, Caggiula scored the game-winner at 14:42 of the third on assists from Johnson and Grimaldi. The goal was part of a three-goal third period that saw North Dakota rally from a goal down.
Johnson, a Chicago Blackhawks prospect, is playing right wing on the line, a shift, as the freshman had been playing center. In an interview after Friday’s game, Johnson indicated that his confidence is increasing thanks to playing with Grimaldi and Caggiula.
“I think I just have more confidence,” Johnson said. “Obviously, my linemates are two good players that know how to distribute the puck. I think confidence is the biggest thing.”
Also contributing strongly on the weekend were defenseman Jordan Schmaltz, who had three assists, and defenseman Paul LaDue, who had a goal and an assist. Goalie Zane Gothberg made 37 saves in the two games.
North Dakota is off from official games until Jan. 10, when it hosts a two-game set against NCHC foe Colorado College. Then after a home-and-home with Bemidji, North Dakota travels to Denver for a two-game set in an always heated rivalry.
Denver stays hot
Speaking of the Pioneers, Denver has also seen a turnaround in recent weeks. After getting swept by Nebraska-Omaha on Nov. 1-2, the Pioneers’ record stood at 3-5, and included four overtime losses. Since that game, Denver has only lost once while improving to 9-6-3 on the year. The streak has included a win and shootout win against arch-rival Colorado College, a sweep of Western Michigan, a tie and win against Air Force, a win against No. 12 Miami, and, this past weekend, an overtime win and tie against No. 18 Rensselaer.
A lot of factors are at play in Denver’s turnaround. Number one is the continued excellent play of Sam Brittain, who made 40 saves over the two games against RPI. Brittain currently leads the nation in goaltending with a 1.61 GAA. His save percentage of .945 is third, behind Harvard’s Raphael Girard and Mass.-Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck. Of course, those two have played eight and 10 games respectively, while Brittain has played 17, making his stats all the more impressive. Brittain is second nationally in minutes played, behind Quinnipiac’s Michael Garteig, and is also tied for the lead in shutouts.
Goaltending isn’t the only factor in Denver’s turnaround. During its first month of play, the Pioneers were getting scoring almost exclusively from their defensemen. Of late, the forwards have been contributing. Freshman Trevor Moore leads the team with 14 points, and center Quentin Shore is second with 13 points.
Against Rensselaer on Friday, defenseman and team captain David Makowski got a goal in the second to tie the game, while freshman forward Emil Romig scored the game-winner in the third. On Saturday, forward Ty Loney got the only goal for Denver in the 1-1 tie.
Denver has a quick turnaround, as it travels to Amherst to play Massachusetts on Tuesday in its final game of the first half. The Pioneers then return with a single contest against Brown on Jan. 3 before a huge home series with conference leader St. Cloud State on Jan. 10-11.
No. 1 no more?
Speaking of St. Cloud, it is likely that the Huskies’ tenure as the country’s no. 1 team is short-lived after their loss and tie against Union at home.
On Friday, Union’s Mat Bodie assisted on two power-play goals in the first period and then scored at just .43 seconds of the third period to dash any comeback hopes for St. Cloud. Of note in that game is that St. Cloud coach Bob Motzko pulled goalie Ryan Faragher at 8:50 of the third period.
Faragher was back in net on Saturday and made 23 saves. St. Cloud took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission, then gave up three goals in the second. However, a Jonny Brodzinski extra-attacker power-play goal with 20 seconds left in the game enabled the Huskies to at least get a point on the weekend.
St. Cloud’s penalty kill hurt it in both games, as Union scored two power-play goals on Friday and another power-play goal in Saturday’s game.
St. Cloud has an exhibition against the U.S. U-18 squad on Jan. 4 before returning to action with the series at Denver on Jan. 10-11.