UND is off this week, but will put the time to good use.
Junior Matt Kiersted, the team's top-scoring defenseman, is expected to return to the lineup Feb. 14 for a showdown against Denver in Ralph Engelstad Arena. Kiersted missed last weekend's games against Colorado College with an undisclosed injury.
"If it were the playoffs, he probably would have played this past weekend," UND coach Brad Berry said. "For precautionary reasons, we looked at the longterm side of the season versus short term."
Junior defenseman Gabe Bast, who left Saturday's game in the second period, also is expected to be back for the Denver series.
"Bast is probably not as severe as what we thought it was," Berry said.
But there remains concern about UND sophomore forward Gavin Hain, who also left Saturday's game with an injury after a collision behind one of the nets.
"With Gavin, we're probably going to be a little bit more precautionary there," Berry said. "He's going to get an X-ray here today to try to get more conclusive information of where he's at and we'll go from there."
Hain has played a critical role on UND's shutdown line alongside center Mark Senden and right wing Cole Smith. They routinely draw the matchup of opponents' top lines and have done a masterful job of shutting them down this season.
With Hain unable to finish Saturday's 8-1 win over Colorado College, UND moved rookie forward Harrison Blaisdell to the left wing of that line.
"We have some very good players who can fit that role," Berry said. "I know Smitty and Sendo are big players on that line, obviously, and so is Hainer. But at the same time, we have some guys who have that mentality that can fill that if Gavin Hain cannot play. If he can, then back to status quo."
Blaisdell, a fifth-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets, started the season with Senden and Smith.
"He's got a little bit of that Senden, Smitty mentality," Berry said. "He was on that line earlier this year. He's bounced around on a few different lines. He's a guy who has a motor, and he takes away time and space."
After initially trying Hain at a top-six role to start the season, UND reverted back to what worked last season -- Hain, Senden and Smith together.
The Fighting Hawks have largely avoided major injuries this season. Bast missed 13 games in the first half with an upper-body injury and senior forward Zach Yon, who has returned to practice, missed 14 games due to two separate injuries.
UND's defensive group played well in Bast's absence, though, and the Fighting Hawks went 12-0-1 in those 13 games.
"I think the strength of our team, offensively and defensively, is the depth of our team," Berry said.
UND regains No. 1 poll ranking
The Fighting Hawks (21-3-3) reclaimed their spot atop the USCHO poll Monday, gaining 49 of 50 first-place votes. UND moved past Cornell, which lost to Quinnipiac on Friday. The Big Red (15-2-4) dropped to No. 2.
The other first-place belongs to No. 3 MSU-Mankato (24-4-2), which tied Alaska Anchorage on Saturday.
UND remains atop the Pairwise Rankings, which are used to choose and seed the 16-team NCAA tournament field.
Closing in on home ice
Although UND is off this weekend, it is possible for the Fighting Hawks to clinch home ice for the first round of the NCHC playoffs Saturday night.
UND sits 19 points ahead of fifth-place Omaha and St. Cloud State with 24 potential points remaining. If Minnesota Duluth sweeps Omaha in AmsOil Arena and Colorado College sweeps St. Cloud State in World Arena, then UND would mathematically clinch home ice.
Last season, UND had to go on the road for the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and got swept at Denver.