Target Center again haunts UND hockey in NCHC semifinals loss

MINNEAPOLIS -- Take some solace, University of North Dakota fans.If UND is sent back to the Twin Cities next weekend for an NCAA regional, it will not be held at the Target Center.The new home of UND's conference tournament has become a place of ...

University of North Dakota goalie Cam Johnson, center, watches a shot by Minnesota Duluth’s Tony Cameranesi, left, bounce toward him at Target Center in Minneapolis. (Photo by Brett Groehler / University of Minnesota-Duluth)

MINNEAPOLIS - Take some solace, University of North Dakota fans.
If UND is sent back to the Twin Cities next weekend for an NCAA regional, it will not be held at the Target Center.
The new home of UND’s conference tournament has become a place of nightmares and the latest one came Friday afternoon in the form of a 4-2 loss to Minnesota Duluth in the National College Hockey Conference Frozen Faceoff.
UND allowed three goals in the span of 11 minutes, 56 seconds in the second period - more goals than the Fighting Hawks had allowed in the previous 260 minutes against the Bulldogs this season - as it got sent to the third-place game once again.
It’s a familiar story for the legion of fans who make the annual trek to the Twin Cities.
UND is now 1-4 in the Target Center since joining the NCHC three years ago. It has been knocked out in the semifinal game three years in a row. The fans who love to pregame party will get stuck watching an afternoon game today (2:30 p.m., for the fifth time in six Frozen Faceoff contests.
It’s a stark contrast from how UND dominated the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five in the Xcel Energy Center.
UND won four of its last eight Final Fives, played in five title games and went 8-1 in the last four years.
That success hasn’t carried over to Minneapolis.
“I can’t point to one thing why we’re losing here,” UND defenseman Troy Stecher said. “But it’s better to lose now than next weekend in my mind.”
Stecher and captain Gage Ausmus credited opponents with giving UND stiff challenges in the Target Center annually. Its four losses have come to Miami, St. Cloud State, Denver and Minnesota Duluth.
The Bulldogs, who needed at least one win in the Frozen Faceoff to have a shot at an at-large NCAA tournament berth, have won seven straight games and will play in the NCHC championship game tonight. They went 0-4 against the Fighting Hawks during the regular season, scoring just two goals in those games.
UND, which has sealed a No. 1 seed for next weekend’s NCAA tournament, will be playing for overall seeding and to try to get back on track before the national tournament. UND is likely to play at either St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center or Cincinnati’s U.S. Bank Arena for the regionals. The field will be revealed at 10 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU.
Berry said he heard the theory that UND didn’t have as much to play for as the Bulldogs.
“That was out there,” he said. “But not within our group. We want to win every game. We want to make sure we stay a No. 1 seed. We want to make sure we’re playing well.”
Although UND has stumbled in the Frozen Faceoff for three straight years, it has found a way to respond in the past. In 2014 and 2015, it came back the following weekend, won a regional and earned a trip to the NCAA Frozen Four.
UND coach Brad Berry said he still feels good about his team.
“Excellent,” he said. “I feel very good. We’re in a good spot. It’s one game. Obviously, you want to win that game. But we’re playing against a very good team every night in the NCHC. It has made our team battle tested and ready. I feel very confident in our group.”
Friday’s game started well for UND.
Just 49 seconds in, the potent top line for the Fighting Hawks got on the board. Senior Drake Caggiula led a rush into the zone, dropped a pass for Nick Schmaltz, who ripped a wrist shot past Minnesota Duluth goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo (22 saves).
But it came unraveled in the second period.
Bulldog forward Dominic Toninato started the run by sneaking a bad angle shot from the corner between UND goalie Cam Johnson’s shoulder and the post just 28 seconds into the frame.
A few shifts later, Alex Iafallo converted a backhand pass from Willie Raskob to give the Bulldogs a 2-1 lead. They extended it to 3-1 on a tip by Austin Farley.
Stecher cut the lead to 3-2 on a blast from the top of the right circle late in the second period, but UND couldn’t get the equalizer in the third.
Toninato iced the game when he was left alone in the slot and finished a pass from Adam Johnson.
“I thought we started the right way,” Berry said. “We got an early goal. We got the momentum right away. They had a good pushback there and I thought it was two good teams playing playoff hockey. It was a hard, heavy game. There wasn’t a lot of time and space out there. That’s the way it’s going to be from here on in.”
Notes: Brock Boeser had two assists in the game to hit the 50-point mark for his freshman season. . . UND had won five straight against the Bulldogs going back to last season.

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