Hey all you college hockey fans, March Madness is over, which means it’s time to take out your bathing suits, grab your flip flops, and head to Tampa for this year’s NCAA Frozen Four. Then again, you can also just watch on ESPN2 and afterwards be sure to check out Mile High Sports for all your Denver Pioneer coverage.

Thursday’s second semi-final matchup brings together two familiar foes — the North Dakota Fighting Hawks (2) versus Denver’s own Pioneers (6).

Now these two schools have arguably the most heated rivalry in all of college hockey. Forget Boston University versus Boston College; forget Michigan versus Michigan State, or Michigan versus Notre Dame. UND and DU, at least in this reporter’s mind, is the fiercest rivalry in the college game today.

Don’t just take my word for it though — let’s start with some numbers:

  • Started playing each other in 1949
    • 259 total games played  (UND leads series 140-119-10)
  • 6 meetings in the NCAA Tournament (DU leads 4-2)
    • Last meeting: 2011 Regional Final (UND won 6-1)
  • 4 meetings in NCAA Championship game (DU leads 3-1)
  • 7 National Championships each (Tied 2nd overall)
  • 15 consecutive 20-win seasons (Denver – 1st Overall)
  • 14 consecutive 20-win seasons (North Dakota – 2nd Overall)
  • Season series: 2-2-1
    • Home team has won each game – w/ tie on neutral ice.

When asked to describe the historic rivalry, Denver head-coach Jim Montgomery emphasized, “…the intensity, the physicality, and the passion…” that must be brought to the ice when these two teams meet.

Similarly, senior defenseman, Nolan Zajac described the rivalry as “huge,” pointing out that Denver and North Dakota are “two big powerhouses in college hockey, with a lot of tradition of winning.”

For Zajac, an assistant captain on this DU squad, the rivalry hits a little closer to home than for most others. Nolan is the youngest son of Tom Zajac (DU, ’73-’76), and the younger brother of former UND standouts Travis and Darcy, who both appeared in a Frozen Four while playing for the former Fighting Sioux. There’s a fourth brother (Kelly) who went to Union College, where he also made a Frozen Four appearance. Nolan has worked to “learn from [his brothers’] experience[s]” in order to be the first to break through and win the coveted National Championship — and in doing so, earning substantial bragging rights in his sibling rivalry.

What to watch out for:

Denver’s ‘Pacific Rim’ line (Heinen, Gambrell, Moore – 139pts) versus North Dakota’s ‘CBS’ line (Caggiula. Boesser, Schmaltz – 144 pts) — all six players are averaging more than a point-per-game

Montgomery describes his Pacific Rim line as “incredibly cerebral and skilled,” but if there is one line in all of college hockey that can match the speed and skill of Denver’s ‘Pacific Rim’ line, it’s UND’s ‘CBS’ trio.


pastedGraphic.pngTHE EDGE:

ForwardsEven – North Dakota is physically bigger, with more depth from top-to-bottom, but Denver seems to have a slight advantage on the 2nd and 3rd lines.

Defense North Dakota – older, deeper, more experienced D-corps, but don’t count out Denver’s 2nd and 3rd pairings — Blake Hillman suffered from walking pneumonia during the team’s 1st semester, and has been playing as well anyone the last couple weeks, earning MVP honors in Denver’s West Regional victory. 

GoaltendingNorth Dakota – statistically Cam Johnson is a top-3 goalie in the country, but Tanner Jaillet has been big when needed this season and should not be over-looked.

Special TeamsEven – Despite the apparent edge for North Dakota in PK percentage, the additional penalty minutes per game, assuming the trend continues, will give Denver added PP opportunities.

ExperienceEven – North Dakota (despite 12 draft picks) has 15 Freshman/Sophomores. Denver (despite only four Seniors) has only five Freshman that see significant ice-time.

Coaching Denver – Montgomery has won an NCAA National Championship as a player, two USHL championships as a coach prior to Denver, and an NCHC Championship at Denver. Brad Berry of North Dakota is in his first-year as a head coach.

Montgomery, who previously won a National Championship as a player will be telling his team that they “can’t let the event [Frozen Four] become bigger than the moment.”  The Pioneers will be focused primarily on themselves and their process, because “when [they] play Denver hockey, [they’re] hard to handle.” — something that has served them well since the start of the New Year, as supported by the team’s 18-2-4 record in 2016.

Look for Denver to play a puck possession game, while capitalizing on strong neutral zone play, and quick transitions. North Dakota will look to continue their hard-nosed style of play by controlling the puck in Denver’s defensive zone in order to wear down the physically smaller Pioneer D-corp — something Denver has shown to struggle with during stretches at times this season.

Tune in to ESPN2 at 6:30pm MST on Thursday, April 7th to see #6 Denver take on #2 North Dakota.