Ten reasons why the UND hockey team has surged back to national prominence
UND head coach Brad Berry doesn't like to say the program is back this season.
To him, UND never left.
It's the same team, playing the same style as always. The puck is just going in the net a little bit more than the last two seasons.
But as this 14-1-2 Fighting Hawks squad buzzed through a historically impressive first half of the season -- losing once before Christmas for just the third time since 1958 -- it became clear that they're better than last year's team in numerous ways.
Here's a look at 10 ways the No. 2-ranked Fighting Hawks have surged to the top of the polls.
1. A knack for winning close games
UND has gotten the headlines, and rightfully so, for the number of blowout wins it has posted.
The Fighting Hawks have reached the seven-goal mark four times already in the first half.
But the real key has been pulling out close games.
Last season, UND was 12-11-2 in one-goal games, excluding empty-netters. This season, the Fighting Hawks are 7-1-2 in those games. Since posting a loss and tie at Minnesota State-Mankato in mid-October, UND is 7-0-1 in those one-goal games.
UND's .800 winning percentage in that category is, by far, the best in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Denver is second-best at .643, followed by Minnesota Duluth's .611 and Colorado College's .583.
|NCHC team||One-goal games*||Winning percentage|
*Excluding empty-net goals
2. Massive special teams turnaround
Much attention was placed on UND's struggling power play last season, which finished dead last in the NCHC at 14.2 percent.
But the penalty kill wasn't very good, either. It finished seventh of eight NCHC teams at 79.9 percent.
UND was minus-9 on special teams goals last season, which was seventh in the NCHC, only ahead of Miami. In fact, the only other teams in the nation with a worse goal differential on special teams were Mercyhurst, Holy Cross, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Huntsville, Ferris State, Merrimack, St. Lawrence, Colgate, RPI and Wisconsin. Not exactly great company. None of those other teams finished with a winning record.
This season, UND has completely turned that around.
The Fighting Hawks are plus-8 in special teams, which ranks second in the NCHC.
The power play is up to fourth in the league at 19.4 percent (it is clicking at 27.8 percent in conference games) and the penalty kill is second at 90 percent.
UND has been, on average, .71 goals per game better on special teams, which makes a huge difference in one-goal games.
3. Winning on the road
When examining what went wrong last season, UND's road record jumped out at Berry.
UND went 5-11-1 on the road.
The Fighting Hawks have already matched their road win total from a year ago. They're 5-1-2 on the road this season, despite having played in some of the toughest buildings.
They've played at MSU-Mankato, which is 29-2-1 at home the last two seasons.
They've played at Denver's Magness Arena, where prior to November, they last won a series in 2003. They've played at rival Minnesota in Minneapolis, where prior to Thanksgiving weekend, they swept once in the last 40 seasons. And they've played at Western Michigan's raucous Lawson Ice Arena, where the only opponents to sweep in the last three-and-a-half years were Penrose Cup or NCAA national champions.
UND's remaining road trips are at Miami University, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Omaha.
UND's road record has often been a harbinger of whether it reaches the NCAA tournament. In 29 of the last 30 years, UND has made the tournament if it has a winning record on the road and missed the tournament if it does not. The lone outlier was 2011-12, when it went 6-8 on the road but still made the NCAAs.
4. First to last in penalty minutes
Another factor that exasperated UND's poor penalty kill a season ago was its knack for taking a lot of penalties.
UND led the NCHC in penalty minutes per game at 13.9 last season.
So far this season, UND is dead last in the NCHC in penalty minutes per game at just 9.5. The Fighting Hawks have only taken one game misconduct all season (Cole Smith at Denver), which is the fewest in the league.
That means opponents aren't getting many cracks at the power play. And when they do, they have to go against a stout penalty kill.
5. Jumps from almost every returning player
UND has 12 forwards on the roster who played college hockey last season.
Nearly half of them -- five of 12 -- have more than doubled their point-per game rate from last year: Zach Yon, Jasper Weatherby, Collin Adams, Dixon Bowen and leading scorer Jordan Kawaguchi.
Jackson Keane, Grant Mismash and graduate transfer Westin Michaud are all ahead of last year's pace, too.
Linemates Gavin Hain, Mark Senden and Cole Smith, who were magic a season ago, aren't far off of last year's pace, either, while playing a key shutdown role again for the Fighting Hawks.
|Player||2018-19 ppg||2019-20 ppg||Change|
|J. Kawaguchi||.70||1.41||+101.7 percent|
|W. Michaud||.73||.88||+20.5 percent|
|C. Adams||.22||.76||+245 percent|
|G. Mismash||.42||.59||+40.5 percent|
|J. Weatherby||.14||.53||+278.6 percent|
|C. Smith||.47||.43||-9 percent|
|D. Bowen||.19||.41||+115.8 percent|
|M. Senden||.39||.29||-.25.6 percent|
|G. Hain||.29||.25||-13.8 percent|
|Z. Yon||.07||.38||+443 percent|
|J. Keane||.21||.33||+57 percent|
6. The rookies are producing
There has been just one year since the formation of the NCHC in 2013 where UND had more than one rookie averaging .50 points per game at Christmas break.
That was 2015-16, when Brock Boeser and Christian Wolanin were both at that mark for the eventual national championship team. No other UND squad in the NCHC era had more than one rookie produce a half point per game during his first college semester.
This rookie class has three.
Shane Pinto is at .82, Harrison Blaisdell is at .53 and Judd Caulfield is at .50.
It can be difficult for rookies to produce in college hockey, especially young ones. Pinto, Blaisdell and Caulfield are all true freshmen coming straight from high school without an extra year of juniors. But they're showing their talent.
Even more impressive is that Pinto is the only one who was a regular on the power play during the first half. Blaisdell and Caulfield combined for 15 points -- 14 of them came at even strength.
7. The shots are coming from closer
UND often dominated puck possession and shot totals last season, but wasn't rewarded for it in goals.
One reason could be that most of the shots were coming from the outside. That was reflected in the statistics. UND's top four players in shot attempts were all defensemen.
That has changed this season.
While defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker leads the team with 90 shot attempts, six of the top eight are forwards: Pinto is second with 83, Weatherby is third with 74, Michaud is fifth with 72, Mismash is sixth with 71, Kawaguchi is seventh with 68 and Senden is eighth with 50.
8. Scoring depth has arrived
Given all of the other impressive offensive statistics, it's probably no surprise that UND's scoring depth is vastly improved.
But for good measure, consider this: Last year, UND's 10th-, 11th- and 12th-leading forward scorers (think of the fourth line) combined for 17 points. This year, UND's 10th-, 11th- and 12th-leading forward scorers already have 16 points.
Because of that, the Fighting Hawks are averaging 4.18 goals per game. That's way ahead of the pace of the 2015-16 NCAA national championship team (3.68) and even ahead of the 2010-11 team (4.05).
The last UND team to average a higher goals per game than 4.18 was the 2003-04 squad, which averaged 4.44, led by an explosive top line of Zach Parise, Brandon Bochenski and Brady Murray.
9. Adam Scheel is coming up big
UND goalie Adam Scheel had an excellent freshman season that ended prematurely due to a knee injury he sustained at Western Michigan.
But Scheel has been better as a sophomore in virtually every statistical category.
His save percentage has gone from .910 to .927.
His goals-against average has improved from 2.10 to 1.56.
His shorthanded save percentage has improved from .887 to .922.
His save percentage in 'close' situations (within a goal in the first or second period or tied in the third) has improved from .926 to .940.
10. They're having fun
Players have frequently stated in interviews that they're having more fun than ever this season. That tends to happen when teams win, but it actually started long before this 13-game unbeaten streak.
Earlier this season, players privately talked about how much more relaxed the atmosphere was on the bench and in the locker room this season.
Sometimes you see glimpses of it, like when Josh Rieger had to be called out of the Cherry Cricket to play a game at last minute in Denver. Rieger shrugged it off and scored the game-winning goal.
Sometimes you see it with players joking around with each other. UND radio play-by-play man Tim Hennessy said that when Bernard-Docker left to join Canada's World Junior team, his teammates chanted "U-S-A!" at him.
Don't mistake the fun for a lack of competitiveness. UND has been as tenacious from start-to-finish of games as ever. But they're not forgetting to have fun while at it.