Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography
Tonight, the Fighting Hawks take on the Pioneers in a battle of two teams going in different directions.
UND is fighting for the Penrose Cup to stay in Grand Forks against the Huskies of St. Cloud State, while Denver is fighting to get into consideration for an at large selection. In the NCHC Pod, when these teams played, skill was on top display as Carter Savoie and Riese Gaber seemed to do battle to provide the best highlights in the Pod.
For Denver, the Pioneers have all of the skill they have had in years past. The fact that Carter Savoie took as long as he did to get drafted (fourth round by Edmonton) is somewhat shocking given how he has played for this team. Players that played in the USHL with worse statistics for his same player profile were taken ahead of him. He is a rookie of the year candidate and has 13 points in 12 games so far. The forward group of this team has what they need to go far, the back end is reeling from the departure of Ian Mitchell. Magnus Chrona is still the main player in net, and for the Pioneers to turn things around, he has to be their best defender on some nights and take a few games they did not deserve.
With that intro out of the way, here are three things to watch in the series.
Where the penalties happen
With UND playing Denver, we expect plenty of penalties to happen. The Fighting Hawks have a proclivity for taking offensive zone penalties due to their over aggressive tendencies on the forecheck. For a team that controls possession as much as UND does, they should not have to do too much to maintain it, and offensive zone penalties, with the team they are facing tonight and tomorrow are an invitation for more goals scored by the Pioneers. Carter Savoie, Bobby Brink, and the rest of Denver does not need any more time and space, and the penalty kill numbers of UND, while great, will suffer if this trend continues. For the Pioneers, if you see a lot of penalties taken in their own end that is indicative of how well UND is holding the puck. The longer teams cycle on offense, the more defensive penalties are taken. The Fighting Hawks have turned drawing penalties on those long shifts into an art form, and deserve accolades for that.
Who Scores First
If the Fighting Hawks score first, good luck coming back. This statement applies to any team they will face this season. Brad Berry’s team is uniquely capable of holding possession against most teams in this game for stretches’ of time that go for perceived eternities. The teams with the best success against UND in the past few seasons are ones that eschew possession metrics when they play the Fighting Hawks. That is, they get into the zone fast, and score off the rush. They take what the defense gives them and capitalize on mistakes. If the Fighting Hawks have one potential weakness its the offensive nature of the defense corps. This team has offensive defenders on every pair capable of joining the rush. They also have a tendancy to go for stretch passes in a way that often comes back to harm them. If Denver scores first, they can force UND to make more of those mistakes via necessity. If not, their task becomes tougher.
Who wins the turnover battle
This fact will determine who wins the game more than shots on net. That is, how many turnovers each team gives up, and what is done with each of them ultimately impacts the final score more than saves made. By this, i reference the previous two categories. If Denver can catch the defenders of UND a bit off guard, and steal a pass or two through the neutral zone more than UND can, they will get a few more grade-a looks on Adam Scheel and likely bury a couple of them. If , on the other hand, Denver tries something remotely similar and gets away from being cohesive, than the veteran Fighting Hawks will take control of this one, and pretty early.
All of these facts, beyond the top line statistics will play a key role in determining how this series goes. If UND can get some points, they will remind the nation of their status in the NCHC. If Denver surprises some folks this weekend, they can show that the Pioneers belong back in the national conversation.
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