With season on the line, UND aims to find its best game
GRAND FORKS — The University of North Dakota played No. 4-ranked Denver, the defending national champion, four times this season. The Fighting Hawks were dead-even with the Pioneers, splitting a series in Denver and tying twice in Grand Forks.
UND played No. 1-ranked St. Cloud State, the regular season champion in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, four times this season. Three of those games went to overtime.
Whether or not this UND team can consistently play toe-to-toe with the country’s top-ranked teams is not a question.
Instead, the question is whether the Fighting Hawks can bring that same level of consistency against everyone else.
And UND’s season is riding on the answer.
The Fighting Hawks will begin their best-of-three NCHC playoff series against Omaha at 7:38 Friday, March 9, in Ralph Engelstad Arena. UND needs to win the series to have a chance at advancing to the NCAA tournament for the 16th consecutive season — the second-longest stretch in college hockey history.
Although UND ended the regular season winning just two of the last 13 games (2-6-5), the Fighting Hawks hope last weekend’s showing against St. Cloud State can generate some momentum.
UND took the Huskies to overtime both nights, losing Friday in the extra session and winning a 3-on-3 session Saturday.
“We have to bring that same mentality,” sophomore defenseman Colton Poolman said. “We were fighting for our lives last weekend. We needed good results. We got the one Saturday. It’s live or die right now and we have to bring that same attitude for whoever we’re playing from here on out. Right now, it’s Omaha. So, we have to bring that attitude (tonight).”
Junior defenseman Hayden Shaw added: “The weekend we had against the No. 1 team — that’s something we can use as a confidence boost and carry into a weekend like this. Our starts were great. We stayed level-headed throughout the game. Now, with the playoffs, the margin for error is that much slimmer.”
There’s plenty of familiarity between UND and Omaha.
Not only are the two NCHC travel partners — which means they play four games every season — they’ve played four times in the last two months alone.
They split in Ralph Engelstad Arena in early January and the split in Omaha’s Baxter Arena just three weeks ago.
“We’re very familiar,” said UND coach Brad Berry, who added that having last line change and the ability to control line matchups at home may not be a huge deal because of Omaha’s depth. “I think one thing we’re seeing with their team is that they’re scoring by committee. Obviously, their power play with (David) Pope is a threat. But they have four lines that play extremely hard. We watched the video from Duluth (last weekend) and they played with conviction. They wanted home ice. They played hard. It’s going to be no different here. Both teams have their seasons on the line.”
Home ice could play a role, though.
Omaha has been much better at home (12-4-2) than on the road (5-11). Omaha’s power play, which ranks fifth in the nation and went 5-for-8 in the two wins over UND, is converting nearly 10 points higher at home than on the road.
UND also has been a slightly better home team (8-5-6) than road team (6-7-4).
The home-ice advantage has led UND to winning 15 consecutive first-round series and making 15-straight trips to the Twin Cities for the conference tournament.
This year’s first-round series winner will advance to St. Paul, the new home of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.
The first-round series winner also has a much-better chance at making the 16-team NCAA tournament field, which will be revealed in a little more than a week.
Both UND and Omaha are on the bubble.
“We need this one,” Poolman said. “If we lose this one, we probably don’t have much of a shot from here on out. It’s a must-win situation. This series is everything to us right now.”