The University of North Dakota men's hockey team stood on the blue line in Ralph Engelstad Arena before the start of Saturday's game, peering straight up at the center-hung scoreboard.

Messages played from all seven seniors on last year's team, urging this year's squad to finish what they didn't have an opportunity to do.

"Finish what we started," echoed Colton Poolman, Casey Johnson, Andrew Peski, Zach Yon, Dixon Bowen, Westin Michaud and Cole Smith, one after another.

That team's hopes to win an NCAA national championship ended one day before the expected start of a National Collegiate Hockey Conference playoff series against Colorado College because of the coronavirus pandemic. They were 26-5-4, the odds-on favorite to win the national title in Vegas, but never got its chance to play for a title.

Perhaps, it was fitting that Colorado College was the team in the building Saturday night when UND finally played in Ralph Engelstad Arena for the first time in 329 days.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

And this team -- much like last year's -- looked like one on a mission.

UND overwhelmed Colorado College from start to finish, beating the Tigers 4-1 in the series opener. The shots on goal, 40-19, showed the lopsided nature of the game.

Having not played in front of fans yet this season, the 2,008 fans spread throughout the 11,643-seat Ralph Engelstad Arena felt like triple that number as they cheered everything from the pregame welcome announcement to the goals by Cooper Moore, Shane Pinto, Jordan Kawaguchi and Gavin Hain.

"When you're away from this place, game-wise, as long as we have been, it just gives you more of an appreciation and being grateful for what you have here," UND coach Brad Berry said. "I know there wasn't the maximum capacity fans, but the ones that were here were loud. It adds to the environment here. It was good to see our young guys get a taste of it right now. We have six more regular-season games here and we want to make the most of it."

The setting was a bit different with the limited number of fans, the fact that they were wearing face coverings, that students were spaced out and the band was in the corner of the upper bowl.

But the Fighting Hawks were every bit as dominant as they were pre-pandemic. They're now 21-1 in their last 22 games in the building, a run that goes back to the final home series in 2018-19.

"It was unbelievable," Kawaguchi said of playing at home for the first time since Feb. 29. "Obviously we didn't have full capacity tonight, but it kind of felt like it, just to be back in front of fans. It was exciting. Obviously, it brought a little more energy to the game. It's nice to be back to some sort of normalcy. It was good to hear the fans."

Pinto, who has lost just once in The Ralph during his college career, said: "It was special. We've been waiting for 11 months to finally just have The Ralph buzzing again. The 3,000 fans that were here brought a lot of energy. It was awesome. We really enjoyed it. It was good we got the win for them."

UND (11-3-1) looked much more convincing at home than it did two weeks ago, when the Fighting Hawks swept Colorado College in Colorado Springs with 3-0 and 2-1 wins.

In that series, UND registered 18 shots on goal in the opener. On Saturday, UND surpassed that total with four minutes to go in the first period.

In that series, goalie Adam Scheel had to be outstanding. On Saturday, he only faced 19 shots and stopped 18.

In the Colorado Springs series finale, Kawaguchi was held without a point for the first time this season. On Saturday, playing in a building where he tallied 30 of his 45 points a year ago, Kawaguchi had a goal and an assist to move into a tie for the NCHC's scoring lead.

"We were just playing better," Kawaguchi said. "We kept things simple. We were pushing pucks north. We were just playing hard. We were just playing better. I don't know what to tell you much more than that. We had a good start and carried it throughout the game."

On a night that UND recognized its 2020 NCHC Penrose Cup championship team with the new banner hanging from the rafters in Ralph Engelstad Arena, this team took another step toward winning the league a second-straight year.

The Fighting Hawks now have 32 points in the league standings, one behind St. Cloud State. UND has played two fewer games than the Huskies and will have a chance to move into first during tonight's series finale at 6:07 p.m.

Six of UND's final nine regular-season games will be played in The Ralph -- one against Colorado College, two against Denver and three against Omaha.

"We're obviously so excited," Pinto said. "I think having our fans is obviously a huge advantage momentum-wise and just having them behind us. This stretch run, to have them with us, we're extremely excited and hopefully we can keep bringing them some wins."