This Week in NCHC Hockey: Nearing Penrose Cup championship, North Dakota knows ‘it’s playoff hockey right now’

Jordan Kawaguchi (North Dakota-29) 2018 November 17 The University of North Dakota hosts Western Michigan in a NCHC matchup at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, ND (Bradley K. Olson)
Jordan Kawaguchi leads North Dakota in scoring with 15 goals and 45 points heading into the penultimate weekend of the regular season (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

What do you do in late February if you’re the coach of a hockey team riding its first two-game winless streak since the last one … in October?

You keep pushing ahead.

North Dakota remains first in the PairWise Rankings after getting a shootout loss and a regulation defeat last weekend at unranked St. Cloud State, and UND coach Brad Berry has a good feel for why that happened.

The Fighting Hawks inched closer Friday to claiming the Penrose Cup as the NCHC’s regular-season champion, skating to a 3-3 tie at SCSU’s Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. Saturday night provided a much different story, as UND fell 2-1.

UND’s first regulation defeat in nearly a month came while the Hawks were without injured star forward and Hobey Baker Award candidate Jordan Kawaguchi, who ended his consecutive-game streak at 101.

Leaving early in that game was Shane Pinto, UND’s third-leading scorer who was bounced 3:11 in for a major checking-from-behind penalty. He also earned his second game misconduct of the season and would serve a one-game suspension if he receives another before the season ends.

SCSU came up empty on three power-play chances Friday. The Huskies took advantage of their five-minute, all-you-can-eat opportunity Saturday, though, when Spencer Meier opened the scoring 6:46 into the game. Collin Adams tied the game for UND midway through the second period, but Jack Poehling’s third goal of the weekend stood up as the eventual game-winner over the game’s last 14:06.

UND took one major penalty in each game, with Judd Caulfield getting five minutes for interference in Friday’s third period following a video review. That infraction and Pinto’s on Saturday helped weigh UND down.

“The one thing is you always want to take points in those games,” Berry told reporters during his weekly press conference Monday. “We just took one of five, and that’s probably one of the rare weekends that we’ve (done) that, but I just showed the analytics side to our guys today as far as, when we took those major penalties, that’s when the other team generates shots and chances.

“It takes away from our shots and chances and it exasperates our energy a little bit as far as getting guys out there, taxing guys a little bit too much, but when you really broke it down and took it away, it was pretty dominating as far as possession, as far as chances, as far as shots, what we had (last) weekend. We know that we can do that, but we have to get away from those little increments of time where the other team gets momentum on their power play.”

Pinto met with UND’s coaches Monday morning and was made aware of his situation regarding misconduct calls. No other suspensions came down after a fracas at the end of Saturday’s game in which a combined eight penalties, including four misconducts, were handed out to four players from each team.

UND (23-4-4 overall, 14-3-3-2 NCHC) is now gearing up for a home series this weekend against 16th-ranked Western Michigan (16-11-5, 10-7-3-2), currently third in the conference.

Kawaguchi is expected to return to the Hawks’ lineup Friday as they look to complete a regular-season sweep of the Broncos. A Gavin Hain goal was the difference Dec. 6 in a 1-0 overtime win, and UND won 8-2 the following night.

“They’re a heart-heavy team,” Berry said of the Broncos. “They play a physical brand of hockey (and) they’ve got some guys back in their lineup that we didn’t see back in Western, but we’re expecting a fast-paced team again.

“You’ve got a team that plays hard, plays the right way and they have things in front of them that they want to accomplish, and so do we. It’s coming down to the end where you have four games here (in the regular season), and there are things that everybody’s playing for.”

Western split last weekend at home with No. 4 Minnesota Duluth, but the Broncos are 9-2-1 in their last 12 games. Whether the Broncos take a page from what St. Cloud did last weekend against UND is yet to be seen, but the Hawks are used to getting opponents’ best efforts.

“I think every team plays like that,” Berry said. “There’s a lot of things that go into it. We’re obviously one of the top teams in the nation right now, and everyone wants to knock off a top team.

“The NCHC is filled with teams where, one to eight, everybody plays hard, they play aggressive and assertive, and I think it’s that time of year where everything ramps up. It’s playoff hockey right now. There’s a lot on the line, and I think it’s just not the way everybody plays against us. It’s our league in general, how everybody plays.”

Guttman leads way for Pios

Denver sophomore forward Cole Guttman is fresh off a big weekend in which he accounted for three points in each game of a home sweep against Miami.

The Tampa Bay Lightning prospect had two goals and an assist Friday in a 7-3 win as he marked his first three-point night of the season. On Saturday, he scored Denver’s opener and helped create two later goals in a 7-0 rout.

Guttman now leads the Pioneers with 13 goals to go with 26 points, tied for third-best on the team.

UNO’s Ward out rest of season

Omaha will be without its top scorer for the rest of the season, as sophomore forward Taylor Ward is out with a lower-body injury.

Ward was hurt Saturday a few minutes into the Mavericks’ 3-2 home loss to Colorado College. Officials reviewed the play but did not assess any penalties.

Ward had a team-best 16 goals through 32 games and is level with Kevin Conley for UNO’s points lead with 27. Ward also had five power play goals this season, best on the team.

Last season, Ward had nine goals and 27 points in 35 appearances.