Helped by Badgers, UND must face them
The University of Wisconsin helped put the University of North Dakota in the NCAA hockey tournament with an overtime victory over Ohio State late Saturday night.
Now fourth-seeded UND and top-seeded Wisconsin will play in the first round of the NCAA tournament at 7 p.m. Friday (ESPNU) in the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati. The other game in the Midwest Regional is Ferris State against Colgate.
“It’s always exciting to see not only where you’re going but to know you’re in the tournament,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “It’s the same old as the past. Every bracket is a good bracket. This year is no different. I think we’ve got a huge challenge in front of us. We have a team that’s very deserving of the No. 1 seed. They are playing well and coming off a win in their conference championship.
“It’s a pretty big challenge, but our team hasn’t backed away from any challenges throughout the year.”
UND (23-13-3) extended its streak of consecutive NCAA appearances to 12 years — the longest active run in the nation. Denver is second at seven years, followed by Boston College with five.
This time, it barely made it.
It was the final at-large team to receive a bid to the tournament, and that almost didn’t come. If Ohio State would have topped Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, the Buckeyes would have received an automatic bid and knocked UND out.
This is the first time that UND has ever been a No. 4 seed in the tournament since the NCAA started using its current format in 2003.
UND’s opponent will be a red-hot Wisconsin team that is 8-1 in its last nine games — the only loss coming in overtime — including Saturday night’s Big Ten playoff title.
The 24-10-2 Badgers, who reached the national championship game in 2006 and 2010 on the strength of seniors, are again on pace to have a great team on the four-year cycle.
It’s a veteran squad, led by senior forwards Mark Zengerle, Tyler Barnes and Michael Mersch. Defensively, standout Jake McCabe is the leader. And in goal, junior Joel Rumpel is a Hobey Baker Award finalist.
In past years, UND wouldn’t have been allowed to play the Badgers in the first round of the NCAAs because they were in the same conference. But the breakup of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association has led to this intriguing first round against longtime rivals.
“A good portion of our roster is familiar with theirs and vice versa,” Hakstol said. “They are veteran at every position — in goal, on ‘D’ and up front. There’s a reason why they are in as a No. 1 seed. They’ve earned it. Their performance over the season has earned that for them. We’ve got to concentrate on what we do well.”
UND started the season 4-7-2, but went on a 19-6-1 charge down the stretch to reach the NCAAs, including Saturday afternoon’s win over Western Michigan in the third place game at the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Frozen Faceoff.
Later in the evening, Denver earned its seventh-straight bid to the NCAAs with a win over Miami in the NCHC title game, making it three NCHC teams in the NCAA tournament. St. Cloud State is the other.
“The competitiveness of the league actually led us to getting the three teams in,” Hakstol said. “Through the year, as a league, we stumbled a little bit in nonconference play. Maybe rightfully so, it’s the competitiveness that allows us to get three in with all the upsets and parity through the league playoffs with Denver winning Saturday night and us getting our 23rd win.”
In the St. Paul Regional, Minnesota takes on Robert Morris and St. Cloud State plays Notre Dame.
In the Worcester, Mass., Regional, Boston College takes on NCHC postseason champion Denver and UMass-Lowell plays Minnesota State-Mankato.
In the Bridgeport, Conn., Regional, Union and Vermont will play in one game and Quinnipiac and Providence play in the other game.