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NCHC PLAYOFF HOCKEY: Odds are against UND, but that might be just what it needs

UND senior forward Rhett Gardner (22) sends Omaha goalie Evan Weninger scrambling on a breakaway sprint to the Mavericks zone last Saturday night at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

Last weekend, there were 14 playoff series across four different college hockey conferences.

The home teams went a combined 26-5 in games and 13-1 in series.

The lone road team to win a series was 10th-seeded Army, which beat seventh-seeded Mercyhurst in a first-round Atlantic Hockey series.

That home dominance has been reflected in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, too.

Despite all of the talk about parity in the league, in the last three playoffs, home teams are a combined 24-3 in quarterfinal games and a perfect 12-0 in those series.

It has been four years since a road team won a best-of-three playoff series in the NCHC—sixth-seeded St. Cloud State beat third-seeded Omaha in 2015.

Those are the long odds that will be facing fifth-seeded UND this weekend as it takes on fourth-seeded Denver at Magness Arena, a place the Fighting Hawks haven't won any series since 2003.

But strangely enough, that might be just what this UND team needs.

The Fighting Hawks (18-15-2) have been at their best this season when the odds have looked the longest. They've consistently beaten the nation's top teams. They've often done it without key players in the lineup and they've often done it on the road.

"We're a pretty tight group," UND coach Brad Berry said. "I think it's one of those things where we've grown together since we came in here in June together. The leadership group is outstanding in the locker room. Things haven't come easy this year. Through thick and thin, our guys stuck together. We feel we're playing our best hockey right now and finally getting a few bounces here and there. But we're earning those bounces.

"And we feel the momentum in our room. We've had two unbelievably sharp practices this week. We're going with confidence this weekend to win two games."

While UND had more success this season in Ralph Engelstad Arena (12-6-1) than away from it (6-9-1), the Fighting Hawks have won big games both at home and on the road.

They beat No. 1 St. Cloud State by four goals without Grant Mismash and with a banged up captain Colton Poolman on the back end. It was one of just two losses for the Huskies in 28 league games this season.

UND beat No. 2 MSU-Mankato 4-3 in Ralph Engelstad Arena early this season, matching the highest number of goals anybody has scored on the Mavericks this season.

The Fighting Hawks beat No. 4 Minnesota Duluth twice without senior center Nick Jones. One of those wins ended the Bulldogs' nine-game home unbeaten streak dating back nine months to the previous season.

They beat No. 8 Denver in Grand Forks without defenseman Jonny Tychonick, and they beat No. 12 Western Michigan in Lawson Ice Arena, handing the Broncos their first home loss in more than three months.

"I think it's a little bit easier to get up for these kind of games," Poolman said. "You're kind of the underdog. Odds are kind of against us. It's easier to get up for those games. That's where we kind of went wrong sometimes, too, this season was not getting up for the other games. Now, we kind of find ourselves back in this little hole."

UND will need to win this series to extend its season. It is currently at No. 18 in the Pairwise Rankings, needing to climb, at a minimum, three spots to have a shot at making the NCAA tournament.

This is UND's second trip to Denver in a little over a month. In early February, the Fighting Hawks lost 2-1 and tied 1-1 in Magness Arena. Poolman missed that series, marking the only two games he's missed in his college career.

"I haven't been there since last year," he said. "I'm looking forward to it. I'll definitely try to do what I can to help the team win. I don't mind playing in that arena. It's always fun. It seems like we get some Sioux fans down there. It's always good to hear that."

NCHC quarterfinal series

• When: 8:08 p.m. Friday, 8:08 p.m. Saturday and 7:08 p.m. Sunday (if necessary).

• Where: Magness Arena, Denver.

• TV/radio: Midco Sports Network (GF Ch. 27/622 HD); The Fox (96.1 FM).

• Webcast: NCHC.tv.

• Records: UND 18-15-2 (No. 5 seed), Denver 19-10-5 (No. 4 seed).

• Of note: UND needs to win this series to keep its season alive.

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 14th 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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