UND hockey team's season ends with a bow but no opportunity for a curtain call
The final buzzer sounded on a Saturday night in Omaha.
The scoreboard read: UND 5, Omaha 0.
Goaltender Peter Thome turned around and faced the Omaha student section. He clasped his palms together in front of his body.
Then, he took a bow.
UND’s season was over.
Nobody knew it at that point. Nobody knew that in just five days, the entire college hockey season would be called off due to the coronavirus outbreak.
But for a team that seemed to do everything right, it even unwittingly nailed its exit.
The whole team could have taken a bow right alongside Thome after finishing one of the best seasons in program history. At 26-5-4 and with an .800 winning percentage, only three teams in the 74-year history of UND hockey finished with better marks: the 1987 Hrkac Circus squad, the 1998-99 team and the 2015-16 team.
Two of those three went on to win NCAA national championships. This team never got an opportunity for its curtain call.
So, we’re left to wonder.
What would this team have done in the playoffs?
What would this team -- which seemed to create some sort of history with every passing day, every passing month -- have done for an encore?
What would a team that conjured up so many unforgettable moments during the regular season have done in a month where memories get etched into minds forever?
Would they have won the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Frozen Faceoff for the first time in program history? Would they have won a ninth NCAA national championship, tying Michigan for the all-time record like Vegas odds predicted?
We will never know.
For this team, that’s the hard part.
“I’m going to think about it,” UND captain Colton Poolman said. “It won’t be every day, but when I think back to this time, that will always be on my mind: What could have been this last year?
“I think I can speak for all the seniors that it’s going to be something we always talk about. Coulda, shoulda, woulda. We’ll take what we can from all the awesome memories we had here. Truly rebuilding something we lost the last two years will be a lasting memory.”
Poolman and his class will have plenty to take from this year's team alone.
It was the best home team in program history. UND went 18-1 (.947) in Ralph Engelstad Arena, surpassing the previous best of .929, which was set by the famed Hrkac Circus team in 1986-87.
Prior to this season, only three UND teams finished with a winning percentage better than .900 at home. All of them -- 1987, 1963 and 1980 -- won the NCAA national championship.
This team had a knack for scoring timely goals.
It tied the program record for most overtime wins in a season with four: Westin Michaud against Bemidji State, Jordan Kawaguchi against St. Cloud State, Gavin Hain at Western Michigan and Shane Pinto against Western Michigan on Senior Night. It had been 36 years since UND had four overtime wins in a season.
It had a knack for playing from beginning to end, no matter the score.
When it jumped to big leads, it kept the throttle down. The Fighting Hawks hit the seven-goal mark five times this season and the eight-goal mark four times, the most since 2003-04.
It had a knack for finishing opponents.
When the Fighting Hawks took a lead into the third period, they were 19-0-1.
“This team had it all,” Michaud said. “Tenacity, grit, hard skill, heart and more importantly Sioux culture.
"If we came and played our game, nobody was going to beat us in the country."
Setting the tone
After narrowly missing NCAA tournaments in 2018 and 2019, UND vowed that 2019-20 would be different.
The Fighting Hawks set the tone for this season in Game 1 by taking the ice in their black jerseys, which are usually only reserved for big games on the road. They proceeded to rout Canisius, the team that kept them out of the NCAA tournament a year earlier, 5-0 and 8-1.
UND finished October at 4-1-1, then proceeded to accomplish some rare feats every single month.
In November, UND won its first series at Denver's Magness Arena since 2003. Then, it ended the month by destroying rival Minnesota 9-3 on Thanksgiving Day, scoring more goals than any opponent in the history of Mariucci Arena, which opened in 1993. UND swept that series, marking only its second sweep in Minneapolis in 40 years.
In December, goalie Adam Scheel posted a 41-save shutout at Western Michigan, marking the most saves by a UND goalie in a shutout since Jon Casey in 1984. UND needed all of them, winning 1-0 in overtime.
In January, the Fighting Hawks kicked off the month by setting the record for the most consecutive home victories (13) in the history of Ralph Engelstad Arena, which opened up in 2001. They closed the month by rallying from a third-period deficit to beat defending champ Minnesota Duluth in AmsOil Arena. The Bulldogs had only lost one of their previous 104 games when leading in the third period.
In February, UND won the Penrose Cup on Senior Night when Pinto scored an overtime winner to tie the school record for most overtime wins in a single season. That ended up being the final time UND's seven seniors played in Ralph Engelstad Arena. They left the ice carrying the Penrose Cup.
"Of all the memories, that will be the one that sticks with me the longest," Poolman said. "That night, the way it ended, was an incredible moment that I'm never going to forget."
In March, Peter Thome recorded his second shutout of the season in what would be the final game. Thome and Scheel became just the third goalie duo in school history to each have multiple shutouts in the same season. The others occurred in 2002-03 and 2015-16.
“I just think everyone was so selfless this year,” Thome said. “Guys who weren’t playing high minutes -- or guys who were in and out of the lineup -- when they got in there, they still did their job. Casey Johnson was in and out. When he was in, he was doing his job. Same with Keaner (Jackson Keane), Frischy (Ethan Frisch), Jonny (Tychonick). . . they were selfless. They weren’t dwelling on the fact that they were in and out.
“And I think we were just so sure of ourselves. When we got into one-goal games, like we did against Bemidji and Tech, at no point was there any panic. Trust me, the last two years, there was panic on the bench. This year, I can remember a bunch of times where guys were like, ‘We’re all over them, we’re going to get one.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re probably right.’ Last year, someone would say that and I’d be like, ‘God, I hope so.’ This year, it was like, ‘No, we’re good. We’ve got one.’ Every time we needed one, we got one. And when we would get the lead, we’d hold it.”
Why UND was primed for a run
This team brought UND back to the forefront of college hockey and set plenty of records, but there will always be that lingering question about what would have happened in the NCAA tournament.
The Fighting Hawks set themselves up to be in the best possible position to make a run to the Frozen Four, which was scheduled to be played in Detroit. That's the same place the Hrkac Circus team won its national title in 1987.
Had this year's team run out its schedule with wins, it would have surpassed the Hrkac Circus as the greatest team in program history in the same city the 1987 squad cemented its legacy.
UND was a virtual lock to be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. It had controlled the No. 1 spot in the Pairwise Rankings for weeks leading up to the playoffs and was unlikely to get bumped from that position.
That had two major implications.
No. 1: It meant the Fighting Hawks would have been matched up against the lowest-seeded team in the first round of the tournament.
No. 2: More important, it meant UND was going to be designated the home team and it would have last line change after whistles. So, UND coach Brad Berry would have been able to dictate line matchups throughout the NCAAs and stick the Gavin Hain, Mark Senden and Cole Smith line on every opponent's top unit.
UND had last line change in 19 games during the season. It won 18 of them.
This team also played its best in big games.
The Fighting Hawks went 8-1-1 against the top half of the NCHC (Minnesota Duluth, Denver and Western Michigan) and swept its big rivalry series against Minnesota in impressive fashion.
“I was confident in our chances going forward,” Poolman said. “I really liked our team as a whole and where our mindset was at. We still had a lot left in the tank. We were set to go on all cylinders.”
Looking back on the season, Berry remarked that this team accomplished every goal they had attempted. They got back at Canisius, they swept their biggest rival, they clinched home ice earlier than any UND team in the NCHC era and they won the Penrose Cup.
They just never got a shot at the final goal.
“I’m so proud of each one of them individually and collectively as a team,” Berry said. “Here at North Dakota, we use the word ‘culture’ so strong. It’s a team-first culture. They checked their egos at the door. Everything you ask them to do, they do it 100 percent. And to see that end without determining a champion, that’s tough to see.”
Digesting the end
The NCAA sent out a tweet at 3:16 p.m. on March 12 announcing that it had canceled all of its postseason tournaments for winter and spring sports.
That tweet was dropped into the UND hockey team's group chat, notifying all team members that the season had shockingly ended in an unimaginable way.
"To finally get that hammer down was unspeakable to me," Poolman said. "It was one of the more depressing days, 24 hours, I've had at UND."
Within a half hour, the players gathered in the lounge area of the locker room.
"I remember being in shock," Thome said. "I wasn't sad, just shocked. Then, I walked in the lounge and I saw Cole Smith and Colton hugging and in tears and all of the emotions hit me. It was so heartbreaking to see those guys. I'm like, 'Oh my God, that's how it ends?'"
Once the entire team arrived, they moved in to the locker room and had a team meeting.
Berry thanked all of the seniors and the team for an incredible year. Assistant coaches Karl Goehring and Dane Jackson also spoke.
"Jax was so emotional with his speech," Thome said.
Poolman, who had an opportunity to turn pro the prior year, thanked his teammates for giving it their all in every game.
"I couldn't have come back to a better group," he told them.
Smith told his teammates how much he loves them and that they'll forever be considered family members.
"It was so tough to listen to," Thome said. "There wasn't a dry eye in the room."
The season had ended and school was closed. Berry told the team they had at least three weeks off. The players all planned to return home. But first, they got together that evening.
They wanted to spend one final night together as a team.
At some point during the night, Thome got a text from his family advisor, who asked Thome how he was holding up after the shocking news.
"I remember texting him a picture of all of us holding up the Penrose," Thome said. "You could see my jersey and there was a pretty cool light shining on it. That picture is forever, no matter what. You can't take that away from us. That's something I don't think anyone on this team will ever forget. Winning the Penrose on Senior Night in overtime? That was incredible. You can't have a better final game at The Ralph for the seniors.
"Does it make up for everything? No. Our heart is broken as a team, especially for those seniors. They went through some hard times the last few years. They get one last chance this year. We're the No. 1 team in the country. We're rolling. We're playing so well. And then that. But at least we have that moment. That was amazing."