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MEN'S HOCKEY: Penrose Cup is on the line for UND this weekend

A senior tribute will occur at the conclusion of this weekend’s UND men’s hockey series.

If things go well, there might be a special visitor joining the celebration.

There’s one Penrose Cup in Grand Forks. There’s another one in Colorado Springs. And at least one of them will be presented to the inaugural champion of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference this weekend.

UND and St. Cloud State are tied atop the standings with 42 points. UND hosts Western Michigan in a two-game series (7:37 Friday, 7:07 p.m. Saturday). St. Cloud State is at seventh-place Colorado College (8:07 Friday, 8:07 p.m. Saturday).

If there’s a tie, both teams will be awarded the Penrose Cup, but UND will win the tiebreaker and be declared the top seed for the NCHC tournament.

“We’re focused on the task at hand,” UND captain and senior Dillon Simpson said. “But it would be pretty cool to do something special this weekend.”

Hare and tortoise

UND and the Huskies have taken opposite paths to the top.

St. Cloud State flew out of the gates to a 12-2-3 overall record and a 7-1-1 mark in conference play. But since then, the Huskies are 7-6-2 and 6-5-2 in league play, allowing other contenders to join the race.

Nobody has taken that opportunity like UND.

UND struggled to a 4-7-2 overall and a 3-5 NCHC record to start the year. But since then, it has gone 15-3-1 and 11-3 in league play to close the gap with the Huskies.

Players say they will do their best to push out the distractions that come along with playing for the league championship, but admit that it will be in the back of their minds.

“We’re human, so obviously, we’re going to be thinking about it,” junior defenseman Nick Mattson said. “We’re not robots, so it’s not like you can just push it out of your mind. But at the same time, the more you think about it, the tougher it is to play. We need to win Friday, then we will worry about Saturday. It’s cliché, but if you get all wrapped in the playoff chase and the Cup run, it’s easy to get distracted.”

UND isn’t the only team with something to play for this weekend.

Western Michigan enters the weekend tied with Minnesota Duluth for the final home ice spot for the first round of the playoffs.

“It’s a tough task,” said Western Michigan coach Andy Murray, whose son, Brady, played for UND from 2003-05. “North Dakota is a tremendous team. There will be a lot of energy in the building. It will be a physical series, for sure. We’re excited about the challenge. North Dakota has a great coaching staff that will have their guys ready to go. It’s our responsibility to make sure our guys will be ready.”

Two in the ’zoo

UND swept Western Michigan when these teams met in Kalamazoo in December. The Broncos outshot UND by a comfortable margin both nights, but Zane Gothberg was outstanding between the pipes in helping UND steal a pair of wins.

“We were not pleased with the end result, but in reality, that’s when our team started to turn the corner,” Murray said. “I really liked how our team played over that two-game segment.

“(UND) has a lot of star players, but we match up well with them. I really believe that.”

At the end of the weekend, there will be a special presentation for Simpson, Derek Rodwell, Mitch MacMillan and Clarke Saunders — four members of a class that also included, at one time, Brock Nelson and Derek Forbort.

But after losing one chance to win the league title last Saturday night, UND hopes the focus this weekend will end up being on the Penrose Cup as much as senior weekend.

“Players are aware of the legacy of the program,” Mattson said. “We want to leave our mark while we are here. We take a lot of pride in that. It’s a really exciting opportunity. It’s easy to get nervous about it, but we’re really excited and we’re confident. We’re going to throw everything we’ve got at it.

“Not often are you given a second chance at something so special, so we feel fortunate. Our destiny is in our hands.”

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 13th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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