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UND, Denver set to battle in top-five showdown

Jan. 25—GRAND FORKS — The first matchup got a little spicy at times.

When UND played against Denver in Magness Arena in December, the teams went back and forth, trading goals on the ice and barbs near the benches.

It started with Denver skating by UND's bench with their sticks raised high over their heads as the Pioneers jumped to a big lead Friday. UND did it right back as it stormed from a three-goal deficit to beat the Pioneers 7-5 that night.

It continued in the series finale with UND's Hunter Johannes chirping Denver's bench after a go-ahead goal in the third period, only to have Denver's Zeev Buium chirp right back after tying it.

It's the mark of a high-stakes rivalry.

No. 4 Denver will play at No. 5 UND in Ralph Engelstad Arena this weekend (7:36 p.m. Friday, 6:07 p.m. Saturday) in a matchup between two programs who have combined for eight of 11 Penrose Cups awarded in National Collegiate Hockey Conference history.

"We love to beat them and they love to beat us," UND captain Riese Gaber said. "We're two very good programs, very storied. It goes back a long way. I think that rivalry has just grown over the years and it creates a lot of tension."

They're both in the mix to win it again this season.

UND is tied atop the NCHC standings with St. Cloud State, the team it faced a week ago. The Pioneers are lurking three points back.

Twelve league games are in the books. There's 12 more to go.

"It keeps you sharp," UND coach Brad Berry said of playing marquee series. "Iron sharpens iron. I firmly believe that's playoff hockey. What you saw in St. Cloud, and what you're going to see this weekend, that's what you're going to see in the NCHC playoffs and in the national tournament. They're a very good team. We're a very good team. They're coming into our barn and it should be an exciting weekend for hockey."

The Fighting Hawks are about to face the nation's highest-scoring offense.

Denver is averaging 5.25 goals per game.

To put that in perspective, the highest-scoring team in the nation last season was Michigan, which was more than a full goal behind that clip. The Wolverines averaged 4.17.

The highest-scoring Division-I men's team in the last two decades averaged 4.54. That was Penn State in 2018-19.

"They've got a lot of offensive power on that team," UND defenseman Abram Wiebe said. "That's something we've really got to focus on. . . it's important for us to just hone in on our details this weekend."

"It's going to be a battle this weekend. . . two great teams going at each other. It's important for us to come out strong and play a full 60 (minutes)."

Denver has the nation's leader in points (Massimo Rizzo, 42), goals (Jack Devine, 21) and defenseman scoring (Zeev Buium, 32).

Its lowest offensive output this season is three goals in a game. UND held the Pioneers to three in the series finale in Denver.

"It was a fast-paced series with a lot of skill on the ice," Berry said. "Things happened pretty quick. Friday night, there were a lot of goals scored. Saturday night, not as much. There's a lot of offense on both teams, a lot of playmaking and it will be another fast-paced series here this weekend."

Denver is coming into the weekend on a hot streak.

Since losing to Western Michigan 7-3 on Dec. 8, the Pioneers are unbeaten in the last seven games. Their offensive production in those games: 6, 5, 6, 5, 4, 6 and 6.

"They're a highly skilled, fast-paced team," Gaber said. "That's the way they've played for a long time. . . the whole time I've been here. We know that's their identity. The big keys for us are starting on time and matching that pace and setting our own pace."

UND also enters the weekend playing well.

The Fighting Hawks have gone 17 games without losing in regulation. That's happened only two other times in program history — both under coach Dave Hakstol, who is now with the Seattle Kraken.

The last regulation loss came Nov. 3 at Boston University. UND has not lost a regulation game in 12 conference games this season.

"We're coming down the stretch," Gaber said. "This type of hockey is a lot of fun. Every period, every game means a lot, so the stakes are high. You know guys are playing their best hockey. It's an exciting time of year. It's good for our group to get in those games early and try to make a run here."

And there may be some extra intensity this weekend — just like there was in Denver.

"I think it's just the rivalry and that's what happens," Wiebe said. "Emotions get high. It's just important for us to stay calm, stay focused, focus in on our game and not let it get to us."

When: 7:36 p.m. Friday, 6:07 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Ralph Engelstad Arena.

TV: CBS Sports Network (GF Ch. 314/635 HD) on Friday, Midco Sports (GF Ch. 27/622 HD) on Saturday.

Radio: The Fox (96.1 FM).

Stream: NCHChockey.com on Saturday only.