The Penrose Cup has been making its way around to each National Collegiate Hockey Conference site.
By predetermined plan, it ended up in St. Cloud this weekend — and there couldn’t be any better spot for the league’s regular season champion trophy.
UND and St. Cloud State face off at 8:07 p.m. Friday (CBS Sports) to open a two-game series that could determine the inaugural champion of the NCHC.
With four games to go in the regular season, UND and the Huskies sit tied atop the league standings with 39 points. If either team sweeps the series, they would clinch at least a share of the title.
“You always know the reality of your situation,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “Then, you focus on short term things. That’s what our team has done really well over the last few months, going back to the beginning or middle portions of the season.”
UND has surged into contention, going 14-2-1 in its last 17 games, sweeping four NCHC foes along the way — Western Michigan, Colorado College, Miami and Minnesota Duluth.
St. Cloud State, meanwhile, has cooled off, allowing UND to get back into the race. The Huskies started the season 11-1-2, but they are just 7-6-3 since then.
“Them sweeping us at home at the beginning of the year is obviously still fresh in our minds,” UND forward Rocco Grimaldi said, referencing St. Cloud State’s pair of wins in Ralph Engelstad Arena in early November. “That’s something we haven’t had happen to us in like four years or whatever it was. So, obviously, this is an important series for us.”
Considering the recent history between these teams in the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center, it seems unlikely that either team will be celebrating a league title this weekend. In the last 11 years, neither team has earned a sweep against each other in St. Cloud.
The Huskies are 6-1-4 on Fridays and UND is 10-1 on Saturdays.
Commissioner Josh Fenton will be in St. Cloud for both games.
“Overall, we’ve played pretty good hockey,” Hakstol said. “We’ve been consistent. We’ve worked hard. I don’t think there’s any real change. It’s been a matter of building, growing and developing over the last couple months.”
St. Cloud State will play this weekend without one of its top defensemen.
Junior Andrew Prochno sustained a lower-body injury last weekend against Miami and will be held out for “a couple of weeks,” according to the St. Cloud Times.
St. Cloud State has been rotated Jarrod Rabey into the lineup and he will likely fill the void left by Prochno, who had three goals and 19 assists in 30 games for the 18-7-5 Huskies.
“Jarrod Rabey has played in a lot of big games and played in the Frozen Four last year,” St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko told the Times. “So, we’ve got some depth there. We’re going to have to use it.”
This weekend’s series will be UND’s first on the larger Olympic ice sheet, which is 100 feet wide. NHL sheets like Ralph Engelstad Arena are 85 feet wide.
It is abnormal for UND not to play on a big sheet until this late in the season, but there aren’t as many Olympic sheets in the NCHC as there were in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Former UND conference members Minnesota, Wisconsin, Minnesota State-Mankato and Alaska Anchorage all played on a big sheet. The only NCHC teams that play on the Olympic sheet are St. Cloud State and Colorado College. UND does not play at Colorado College this season.
In order to prepare for this weekend’s series, UND practiced on the Olympic sheet connected to Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Thompson finds role
The first month of the season, Keaton Thompson didn’t make the travel roster for a trip to Oxford, Ohio.
As the stretch run hits, the freshman from Devils Lake has carved out a key role for UND. Thompson has been in the lineup for five straight games and is earning power-play time.
Hakstol said that Thompson handled the early-season adversity well.
“It’s never easy,” Hakstol said. “Guys aren’t used to not being in the lineup. The challenge to come in and adjust at this level is a big one. I think Keaton handled it extremely well. He was one of the hardest working guys at the rink every day. He did extra. He was always a great teammate throughout everything. I think he handled it extremely well.”
UND goaltender Zane Gothberg is 11-0-2 in his last 13 games, posting a 1.75 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. St. Cloud State goaltender Ryan Faragher is 6-3-1 with a 1.79 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage in his career against UND.