When one team has 14 NHL Draft picks and its opponent has none, it should be relatively easy to figure out which team should have the advantage on game day.
Of course, hockey is a unique sport in which the most talented team doesn’t always emerge victorious. That’s why it would be a mistake to say Niagara is in over its head this afternoon when it plays vaunted North Dakota, which features two Hobey Baker Award finalists in Corban Knight and Danny Kristo.
A good-team defensive game, a red-hot goalie and timely scoring are all an underdog needs to pull off an upset over a talented foe in a one-game playoff. That’s a formula for success in this sport that will never go out of style.
The Purple Eagles, who are making their fourth NCAA tourney appearance, do have a Hobey Baker finalist of their own and game changer in junior goalie Carsen Chubak. The Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year leads the nation in shutouts (six), ranks fourth in save percentage (.938) and eighth in goals-against average (1.91). He’s shown the ability to steal games throughout the season and is itching at a chance to redeem himself on the national stage after last week’s Atlantic Hockey semifinal loss in which he gave up a season-high five goals.
North Dakota’s top-scoring line of Kristo, Knight and freshman sensation Rocco Grimaldi has combined for 53 goals and 134 points. The trio is among the reasons UND boasts the nation’s fifth-best offense (3.3 goals per game). Kristo leads in goals (25) and points (51) and is college hockey’s active leader in goals (67) and points (160). Knight’s 145 career points are sixth most among active players.
Grimaldi (13 goals, 35 points) may be only a freshman, but he’s as dynamic a player as there is in the country. He’s strong on the puck, creates lots of scoring chances and loves playing in big games. (He scored twice and earned player of the game honors for Team USA in its gold-medal game triumph over Canada in the world junior championships in Russia in January.)
The talent isn’t only relegated to the front line as UND’s starting defense features six NHL draft picks in Dillon Simpson (5-19-24), Joe Gleason, Derek Forbort, Nick Mattson, Jordan Schmaltz and Andrew MacWilliam. MacWilliam is a prototypical big-hitting, stay-at-home type, but the rest of them are great skaters, deft passers and gifted offensively. UND’s defense corps’ 97 points rank second nationally to Denver’s 121. Niagara blue-liners rank 29th with 68 points.
UND’s power play has slumped the past six games (2 for 22) but still clicks at a 20.5 percent rate, good for 15th in the country.
Chubak has received plenty of attention (and deservedly so), but as the top line of Giancarlo Iuorio, Marc Zanette and Ryan Murphy goes, so goes Niagara. The trio has combined for 98 points and 46 of Niagara’s 115 total goals.
Iuorio has sizzled since his return from an upper body injury, recording nine goals and 14 points in eight games. He leads NU in goals (21) even though he missed 11 games, while trailing Murphy (36 points) for the team scoring lead by just two points.
The only good thing about Iuorio’s absence was that Niagara found some secondary scoring with Patrick Divjak (8-14-22) and Chris Lochner (8-9-17) each recording 10 points over the 11-game stretch.
The Purple Eagles’ defense yields 2.51 goals per game but sprang a leak in the conference semifinal loss to fellow NCAA-qualifier Canisius. Coach Dave Burkholder says the team’s inability to transition from offense to defense and its failure to back-check or play with urgency vital for success played more of a role in the defensive lapses than the absence of senior captain and No. 1 defenseman Dan Weiss (lower body injury), who remains day-to-day/doubtful. He hasn’t practiced since suffering the injury during the RIT playoff series. NU’s defense needs to make tape-to-tape passes on the breakout. If it does that, Niagara has forwards who know how to play with the puck, which will be key against a starting defense that features five players 6-foot-1 and taller.
No. 7 North Dakota (21-12-7) is beatable but historically, Niagara hasn’t fared well against Western Collegiate Hockey Association teams. It has an 0-4 mark versus UND, which plays in a conference which has six NCAA participants.
The Purple Eagles need to stay out of the penalty box against the nation’s 15th best power-play unit (20.5 percent). They need to be thorough on back-checks and alert in their own zone. They need their secondary scorers to step up and their defense to chip into the offense by making crisp breakout passes from their own zone and creating rebound scrums in the offensive end that could lead to goals. Most importantly, they need Chubak, who recorded four of his shutouts over a five-game stretch in the fall and who was sensational in the quarterfinal series-clinching win over RIT, to save the day at Van Andel Arena.
If all of that happens, and that’s a lot of ifs, No. 14 Niagara (23-9-5) has a chance to play in the regional final Saturday against Minnesota or Yale.