DENVER -- UND’s seniors walked around the locker room, hugging every teammate. They walked into the hallway at Magness Arena and shared embraces with every member of the support staff.
It is a tradition to end each season this way.
It just rarely comes this early.
UND’s season came to an end Saturday night in a fitting way: The Fighting Hawks badly outshot their opponent, 42-18, yet wound up on the losing end of the game.
Denver beat UND 4-2 to finish off a two-game sweep of their first-round National Collegiate Hockey Conference quarterfinal playoff series.
It marks the first time since 2002 that UND lost a first-round league playoff series, and it will be the first time since the formation of the NCHC in 2013-14 that UND is not at the Frozen Faceoff when it begins Friday in St. Paul.
The loss also ended any hopes for the Fighting Hawks to reach the NCAA tournament, where they’ll be absent in back-to-back years for the first time since 1995 and 1996.
“First of all, congrats to Denver, they played a couple of really good games and they did what they had to do,” UND captain Colton Poolman said. “It’s a pretty well-coached team there. I wish them all the best going forward.
“For us, I wouldn’t want to play with another bunch of guys. We battled to the end. I don’t know what the shots were, but we had some good chances. It kind of looked a little reminiscent of our season. I’m so proud of this team. We were a really close group of guys. It was really tough to go out that way. You never want to see your season end short, but to work so hard and not get rewarded for it, it sucks.”
Senior Nick Jones, playing in his final college game, scored both of UND’s goals, but it wasn’t enough. The Fighting Hawks scored just two goals on 74 shots this weekend against Denver freshman goalie Filip Larsson.
On the other side, Denver scored four times on 18 shots Saturday. Cole Guttman scored on the power play in the first period, Colin Staub and Jarid Lukosevicius scored at even-strength in the second and Jaakko Heikkinen scored into an empty net in the third for the Pioneers (21-10-5).
It was reminiscent to how the season played out.
The Fighting Hawks (18-17-2) lost for the 11th time this season when outshooting an opponent by double digits.
“Dominate in every category except the scoreboard,” UND coach Brad Berry said. “I’m proud of the way our guys battled. They battled all year, but we didn’t get the result we wanted. We’re going to go through the summer and scrutinize everything we do and make sure that we get out to the start we want and make sure it’s the finish we want next year.
“There are no excuses. We didn’t get the job done. There are a number of things we will look at. We’re not throwing anyone under the bus, but we have to make sure we peel the layers back and we come out to a fast start next year and get to the place we want to go.”
Berry said the coaching staff will spend the next month evaluating every aspect of the team and will try to have that wrapped up by the time the players finish their academic semester.
The players, meanwhile, said their goodbyes to the seniors -- Jones, Rhett Gardner, Hayden Shaw, Joel Janatuinen and Ryan Anderson -- knowing that this group will soon split up with some of them signing pro contracts.
“It was tough,” Poolman said of the locker room after the game. “Guys are crying their eyes out and hugging one another. It’s hard because we cared so much about everyone in there, especially the seniors who finally brought that national championship a couple years ago. They’ve poured their hearts and souls into this program. I’m so proud of those guys. And for the young guys, we competed all the way.
“I don’t know what else to say. I’ve never seen a season quite like that one. We didn’t get rewarded for it. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Why was UND unable to turn its dominant puck possession game into offensive production and wins this season?
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Shaw said. “If we had the answer to that, we’d still be going.”
Instead, UND will head home Sunday with no more games on the schedule.
“It’s a really empty feeling,” Berry said. “It’s a feeling we don’t like and we don’t want to get used to. Guys who came in here four years ago experienced a national championship. They were on one end of the spectrum. Now, this is the other end of the spectrum, not making the national tournament. It’s one we’re going to remember. It’s something we’re going to keep in the back of our minds all summer here that we need to get to where we want to go. It’s making sure we’re good in every category of the game. At the end of the day, when you do that through your processes, the result will show on the scoreboard.”
DENVER 4, UND 2
First period -- 1. DU, Cole Guttman 12 (Les Lancaster 4, Ian Mitchell 18) 3:45 (pp); 2. UND, Nick Jones 8 (Grant Mismash 5, Jacob Bernard-Docker 12) 14:33
Second period -- 3. DU, Colin Staub 5 (Griffin Mendel 5, Mitchell 19) 1:02; 4. DU, Jarid Lukosevicius 17 (Cole Guttman 11, Emilio Pettersen 21) 14:38
Third period -- 5. UND, Jones 9 (Hayden Shaw 7) 5:42; 6. DU, Jaakko Heikkinen 5 18:27 (en)
Penalties -- Gavin Hain, UND, goaltender interference, 3:39 first; Jackson Keane, UND, boarding, 4:35 first; Lukosevicius, DU, tripping, 17:53 first; Slava Demin, DU, interference, 1:22 second; Brett Stapley, DU, high sticking, 9:03 second; Jonny Tychonick, UND, cross-checking, 10:53 second; Cole Smith, UND, boarding, 14:45 second; Stapley, DU, slashing, 17:12; Peter Thome, UND, tripping, 19:07 second; Pettersen, DU, hooking, 3:31 third
Goalie saves -- UND: Peter Thome 2-8-4 -- 14; DU: Filip Larsson 15-11-14 -- 40
Penalties-minutes -- UND 5-10, DU 5-10
Power plays -- UND 0-5, DU 1-5
Attendance -- 5,245
Referees -- Joe Sullivan and Cameron Voss