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UND advances to Twin Cities for 16th straight season

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UND is headed to the Twin Cities.

Again.

Despite all of the ups and downs this season, the remarkable streak of first-round playoff series wins is still alive and now at 16 years.

Junior center Nick Jones scored 53 seconds into overtime, banking a shot off of the leg of Omaha goalie Evan Weninger from below the goal line to give the Fighting Hawks a 4-3 win over the Mavericks and a two-game sweep in the best-of-three series.

UND (16-12-10) will play in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference semifinals Friday in St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, the new home of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.

Its opponent won’t be determined until tonight and game times are expected Monday.

Its run of first-round wins started in 2003 against Denver and has marched on through a change of conferences from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and two changes of venue -- from the Xcel Energy Center to the Target Center and back to the Xcel Center.

Not even a seemingly down year by UND’s standards -- which still involved a top-half finish in college hockey’s most difficult league -- meant the end of the streak.

UND had to go to a Game 3 in six of those years, and this appeared headed that way, too.

But trailing 3-2 midway through the third, Jones scored the game-tying goal on a power play and then won it in overtime.

On the second shift of the extra session, defenseman Colton Poolman hit rookie forward Jordan Kawaguchi at the offensive blue line with a stretch pass. Kawaguchi zig-zagged in the right circle to try to create room for a shot and snapped one off of Weninger’s shoulder.

The rebound carried behind the end line, where Jones fired it off of the back of Weninger’s left leg and in the net.

“You see goals like that all the time, throwing it off of a goalie,” Jones said. “You see (Sidney) Crosby score five goals a year like that. I’ve probably tried it 15 to 20 times, but I’ve never scored on it. I was fortunate to get a bounce this time.

“He was pretty far out of his net. I saw him out there and was just hoping to get a bounce. I was lucky enough to get one.”

UND players piled on Jones in the corner to celebrate the goal.

The Kawaguchi-to-Jones connect on the game-winner may have caught the attention of those in the British Columbia Hockey League, where Kawaguchi and Jones were the top-two playoff scorers last season, going head-to-head in a seven-game series in the final.

“They probably didn't have much love for each other last year,” UND coach Brad Berry said. “But they have a lot of love for each other now.”

It was a critical one for the Fighting Hawks, who swept a series for the first time since Dec. 1-2 against Western Michigan and won a one-goal game for the first time since Dec. 1.

“I think we’re going in the right direction,” said forward Dixon Bowen, who snapped a 15-game goal drought with a first-period tally. “Obviously, our confidence is up. You can tell by our play right now. We have to keep that going and do anything we can to win.”

The victory allowed UND to stay at No. 14 in the Pairwise Rankings, which are used to select the 16-team NCAA tournament field. Had the series gone to a decisive third game, UND probably would have needed to win the NCHC Frozen Faceoff to get in the NCAA tournament.

Now, there are more options.

“You cherish every game at The Ralph,” Grand Forks native and senior Johnny Simonson said. “But I didn’t need any more.”

For Omaha, it was more playoff frustration.

The Mavericks haven’t won a first-round series since leaving the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association in 2010.

They’ve lost eight first-round series in a row -- three in the WCHA and now all five in the NCHC.

While the Mavericks aren’t officially eliminated from NCAA tournament contention -- according to College Hockey News’ Probability Matrix, there’s a 0.1 percent chance -- it likely means their season has ended on an overtime goal for the third year in a row.

UND advanced to the Frozen Faceoff on a Game 2 overtime goal for the second year in a row. Trevor Olson scored the winner last season to send UND to the Target Center in Minneapolis.

After winning the series opener 4-0, the Fighting Hawks jumped to a 2-0 lead again Saturday. It marked the ninth time in the span of 13 game that UND has led 2-0. But for the sixth time in that span, it also saw that lead erased.

Defenseman Matt Kiersted started the scoring on a point shot that hit the post, hit off of Weninger’s back and trickled across the line before he could pull it out to make it 1-0 at 10:13 of the opening period.

Less than four minutes later, Olson sent Bowen on a breakaway and the East Grand Forks Senior High graduated scored on his backhand, his first goal since Nov. 11.

“It’s been a while,” Bowen said. “That one felt nice to kind of get the monkey off the back. It’s playoff hockey. Anything can happen. We just have to keep rolling here.”

Omaha used back-to-back goals from Teemu Pulkkinen, one at the end of the first and one at the start of the second to tie it up.

The Mavericks took their only lead of the series at 5:41 of the third period when Jake Randolph scored on a scramble.

But UND had an answer.

Jones re-directed a Poolman point shot at 10:14 of the third to tie it. It was UND’s second third-period rally in five games.

Then, he scored his team-leading 14th of the season to win it in overtime.

“Throughout the year, it’s a fine line between winning and losing games,” Berry said. “We’re finally now getting to the point where we’re closing out a couple of games. We have to continue to do that. There were stretches during the season where we were playing good hockey, but for whatever the reason, the details weren’t there to finish a game. The details are getting more complete.

“I’m proud of the way our guys are doing things. I’m proud of the way our guys have. . . I don’t want to say survived. . . but grown as a team this year. Our lives are still on the line. We have to make sure we’re alive next weekend.”

Notes: Poolman had four points on the weekend. . . Johnson made his 100th-career start in net for UND. He’s the sixth goalie in program history to reach 100 games. . . UND defenseman Andrew Peski left the game in the second period with an injury and didn’t return. Berry didn’t have any immediate updates on his condition.

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 13th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016 and 2018, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He also was the NCHC's inaugural Media Excellence Award winner in 2018. Schlossman 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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