UND ties up home ice for 16th straight season
The UND men's hockey team made its fan base sweat out another blown lead in the third period, another overtime game and wait until the final second of the regular season ticked off the clock.
But when it finally did Saturday night, the streak of top-half finishes in the league and home-ice series for the first round of the playoffs was still in tact.
Thanks to a 2-2 tie with No. 1-ranked St. Cloud State in Ralph Engelstad Arena, UND will be right back at home again next weekend to host Omaha in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference playoffs.
Mark down a 16th straight year for UND being at home in the playoffs. It's a stretch that spans two decades, three head coaches and two different conferences.
Perhaps none had this much tension and uncertainty, though.
UND needed, at a minimum, a tie in Saturday's game. It got exactly that.
It also needed Minnesota Duluth to beat Omaha. It got that.
And it needed Colorado College to get the same number of points or fewer than UND. It got that.
"Never a doubt," junior defenseman Christian Wolanin joked after the game. "My biggest fear coming into the University of North Dakota was to be on a bad team, to be on a team that fails. You don't want to be a part of that, whether it's you individually or the team as a whole. We don't want to be the ones who ruin that (streak). Obviously, it has to end at some point, but we don't plan on being that group."
UND received power-play goals from Grant Mismash and Rhett Gardner and two assists from Wolanin to get the tie.
The Fighting Hawks will now turn their attention to extending other 15-year long streaks.
The first will be making it back to the Twin Cities for the conference semifinals. UND has made it to the Twin Cities each of the last 15 years. It will need to beat Omaha in a best-of-three series in The Ralph next weekend to keep that one alive.
The next streak will be reaching the NCAA tournament. After Saturday's tie, UND remained in perilous position at No. 15 in the Pairwise Rankings, which are used to determine the 16-team field.
UND will need to win its series against Omaha to have a shot at being in Sioux Falls, S.D., for the West Regional in late March.
"Every time we talk at the beginning of the season in our introductory meetings, we have a list of goals in front of us," UND coach Brad Berry said. "The very first one is home ice. It took us until the last regular-season game to get home ice. We did. Now, everybody starts at zero again. The standings are at zero. It's a clean slate.
"We're not off the hook yet. We still have to win games here to get into the national tournament and that's the next box. Getting to the Frozen Faceoff is another box. We have a list of them in front of us. We got the first one. Now, we keep moving."
UND (14-12-10, 8-10-6 NCHC) clinched home ice in fitting fashion.
The Fighting Hawks blew a 2-0 lead for the fifth time in the last 11 games, went to overtime for a school-record 13th time in a season, and managed to do just enough to guarantee two more games in The Ralph.
"Nothing has come easy this year," Berry said. "I think our group is the first to admit it. Things haven't come easy. But you know what? We're going to work our way and grind it out until the end."
It appeared that luck would not be on UND's side early Saturday.
The Fighting Hawks hit three posts in the first period alone and had a goal disallowed because of a quick whistle for the second night in a row. It hit a fourth post later in the game.
But a pair of power-play goals by Mismash and Gardner helped UND build a two-goal lead.
St. Cloud State's Ryan Poehling scored his third goal of the weekend early in the third on the power play and Grand Forks Red River's Jacob Benson tied it with 10:38 to go, burying a wrist shot just after a Husky power play expired.
UND had chances to win it on the power play late in the third and with 37.7 seconds left in overtime, but St. Cloud State held.
Fighting Hawks coaches and players said they were aware of what happened in other games and knew what it would take to get home ice.
"We were aware of what was going on and scores from around the league," Berry said. "It didn't change the way we played. We were out to win. We wanted to win the game. Giving up a two-goal lead, you don't want to do that."