NCAA tournament still within reach for UND hockey team
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- For all of the ups and downs this season -- from the six wins over top-10 teams to the Pairwise-crushing losses at Canisius, the University of North Dakota is about to play the last four games of the regular season with one big goal still in play.
The Fighting Hawks can still reach the NCAA tournament without winning the National Collegiate Hockey Conference postseason tournament.
The path is narrow, but it is possible.
UND (15-14-2 overall, 9-10-1 NCHC) takes on Colorado College at 9:07 p.m. Friday, March 1, and 7:07 p.m. Saturday night, March 2, in World Arena. Then, it comes home to take on Omaha in a regular-season series finale.
After that, the Fighting Hawks, currently ranked No. 18 in the Pairwise Rankings, will more than likely be going on the road for the first round of the NCHC playoffs for the first time since 2002. The opponent will be either Denver, Western Michigan or potentially Minnesota Duluth.
If UND wins five of those six games, it would likely at least have a shot at grabbing an at-large bid, depending on results from other leagues.
“This team is a resilient group,” UND coach Brad Berry said. “They just keep fighting on. That’s the beauty of this team. We’re not where we want to be as far as the standings or the Pairwise, but this team will continue to battle.”
UND players say they’ve been checking the Pairwise Rankings.
“Almost every day,” defenseman Gabe Bast said.
UND swept Colorado College in Grand Forks in January thanks to back-to-back overtime wins. But this weekend they go to World Arena, which may feel strange for the Fighting Hawks.
It will mark the first time this season that they’ve played on an Olympic-sized ice sheet (100 feet wide rather than the traditional NHL sheet of 85 feet).
Since 1990 -- about the time Olympic-sized ice sheets began booming in college hockey -- this matches the longest that UND has gone to start a season without playing on an Olympic ice. In 2013-14 -- the first year of the NCHC -- UND’s first Olympic-ice game also was on the second-to-last weekend of the regular season.
You have to go back to the first half of last season for the last time that UND has played on Olympic ice, when it visited St. Cloud State on Dec. 8-9, 2017.
“It doesn’t change the way we play,” Berry said. “I know it’s a bigger ice surface, but we play as a five-man unit on the ice and gaps are right. We practiced on it all week.”
UND skated upstairs on the Olympic ice sheet in Ralph Engelstad Arena on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. It flew to Colorado Springs on Wednesday night and skated Thursday afternoon at World Arena.
Jones makes trip to CC
UND senior center Nick Jones, who sustained a lower-body injury late last week and missed the series against Minnesota Duluth, made the trip to Colorado Springs. He’s still questionable for the weekend series, though.
Jones has missed nine games due to two separate injuries this season.
Rookie Harrison Feeney, who was added to the team roster in January, made the trip to Colorado Springs as the backup to starter Peter Thome. Injured freshman goalie Adam Scheel and senior Ryan Anderson did not travel.
Grant Mismash (knee) and Joel Janatuinen (undisclosed) also did not make the trip.
UND working on discipline
The Fighting Hawks are looking to stay more disciplined this weekend against Colorado College.
Last Saturday night, UND gave Minnesota Duluth a pair of five-on-three power plays that lasted more than 90 seconds. The Bulldogs scored on both and that was the difference in the game.
Berry praised the way senior center Rhett Gardner has handled bigger minutes this season but said Gardner, who was in the box for both five-on-threes, needs to try to stay out of the box.
That’s especially key when Gardner is UND’s best faceoff guy and the Fighting Hawks could be without their second-best faceoff guy in Jones.
“If there’s one thing with Rhett that we have to keep working on, it’s the discipline side,” Berry said. “He plays with his heart. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s an ultimate warrior when it comes to battling every shift. Sometimes, he gets caught up in the game. That’s where I think some composure has to come in. That’s a work in progress and I think he’d be the first to admit it. That comes from a guy who cares and a guy who wants to lead the team in the right way.”