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UND men's hockey ready for action in NCAA Tournament

CINCINNATI -- It didn't take long for this University of North Dakota men's hockey team to start talking about the big picture. Early in the season, when it went undefeated in the first month of play, the end goal was set at reaching the top of c...

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Hayden Shaw and the rest of the team take a water break during practice Thursday afternoon at the U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati. (Jesse Trelstad / Forum News Service)

CINCINNATI -- It didn’t take long for this University of North Dakota men’s hockey team to start talking about the big picture.

Early in the season, when it went undefeated in the first month of play, the end goal was set at reaching the top of college hockey’s mountain.

Whenever this team had questionably injured players, first-year coach Brad Berry always erred toward the side of caution. He wanted to keep everyone as healthy as possible.

Whenever this team hit adversity -- which was almost never in this six-loss season -- it tried to learn and improve for the end of the season.

All of those decisions were made with today in mind.

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UND will take on Northeastern in a first-round NCAA tournament game at noon today in U.S. Bank Arena on the shores of the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati.

It’s not an easy draw for the Fighting Hawks -- Northeastern is 20-1-2 since mid-December, the best record in college hockey during that span -- but they hope each step this season has prepared them for the NCAA Midwest Regional.

“It’s do or die now,” UND senior Drake Caggiula said. “I think that’s what everyone lives for in this locker room. We have high expectations for ourselves to make sure we come out on top.

“We’ve got to approach it like any other game. We can’t over-psyche ourselves. We have to make sure we play the way we normally do. We’re coming off of a tough weekend last weekend. But it felt like we had a great week of practice to prepare ourselves.”

UND, which won the Penrose Cup as the National Collegiate Hockey Conference regular-season champion, comes to Cincinnati with a 30-6-4 record -- one of the best in program history.

Northeastern, which won its first Hockey East playoff title last weekend in 28 years, comes to its first NCAA tournament since 2009.

“It’s definitely an impressive record they’ve had lately,” UND senior Bryn Chyzyk said. “Come this time of year, every team that’s playing hockey has a heck of a hockey team. It takes a lot to still be playing this time of year, so every game from here on out is going to be tough. We know they’re red-hot. But we’re feeling pretty good, too.”

While UND is led offensively by its potent top line of Caggiula, Nick Schmaltz and Brock Boeser, the Huskies are more balanced in their scoring, though senior Kevin Roy has been one of college hockey’s best players since his rookie season.

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Northeastern’s power play has been exceptionally potent. It has the No. 7-ranked power play in the nation at 23.5 percent.

And goaltender Ryan Ruck, who started his college career 0-9-2, has only lost once in his last 23 starts.

“They’re playing with a lot of momentum, getting good goaltending and their forwards are creating good scoring chances,” Berry said. “They had a turnaround in their season around Christmastime and, from then on, they’ve been red-hot. I think it’s a tribute to Jim and his staff.

“We are similar. We’ve got a good season, too, and a lot of momentum going through our season. Like I said, it should be a great matchup with two good teams going after it.”

While Northeastern is trying to win its first NCAA tournament game since 1988, UND is trying to get back to the Frozen Four for a third straight season. It lost in the last two national semifinal games -- something that has stuck in the mind of the players.

“Since last year in Boston, you just work to get back to this moment and try to make the most of it,” UND defenseman Tucker Poolman said.

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