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University of Denver Pioneers weekend preview: #3 North Dakota

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Which DU team will we see this weekend?

2016 NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Championships - Semifinals Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The #1 Denver Pioneers have retaken their top ranking in the national polls but will have a target on their backs this weekend against another NCHC rival vying to take the spot away. On the other hand, the Pioneers are out for revenge against #3 North Dakota after the Fighting Hawks bounced them from the NCHC tournament last season.

It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster for the Pioneers in the month of November. After laying an egg at Western Michigan, DU spoiled St. Cloud State’s undefeated start with a dominant weekend sweep at Magness Arena. North Dakota’s start to conference play has been more steady at 2-1-1 and a shootout win over Miami last weekend.

After an evenly matched series between the teams last last year, in which DU went 1-1-1, they are set for four games this season — two at Magness Arena this weekend and a weekend in Grand Forks in late January.

North Dakota has found its success to start the year playing lockdown defensive hockey. The team ranks third in Division I in team defense, averaging just 1.75 goals per game. Something will have to give between the Fighting Hawks and Denver’s high-powered offense, which ranks third in the nation in scoring (4.20 G/gm) and put up nine combined goals against St. Cloud State last weekend.

A primary reason for ND’s strong defensive numbers is star senior goaltender Cam Johnson. The Pioneers are all too familiar with Johnson after he shut them out in a 1-0 defeat in the NCHC tournament. In eight starts this year, his numbers have only improved from his junior campaign — ranking 14th nationally in save percentage (.925) and fourth in GAA (1.63).

It’s hardly surprising that with allowing fewer than two goals per game, North Dakota has been stellar on the penalty kill, killing 45 of 48 chances (95.8 percent). The team has avoided racking up many penalties, averaging 11.58 minutes per game (38th in the nation). Denver’s highly-ranked power play will need to take advantage of the limited opportunities they are likely to receive.

After going 5-for-5 on the penalty kill and snapping a five-game streak of allowing a power play goal in Saturday’s game against St. Cloud State, DU’s penalty kill sits at 42nd in the nation at 77.8 percent. North Dakota has 12 power play goals on the season (21.82 percent), including a pair from Christian Wolanin, Nick Jones, Rhett Gardner and Collin Adams each.

Puck drop for each game is scheduled for 7:05 MT and both can be seen on Altitude 2 or heard on 104.3 The Fan.