UND looking to win first road playoff series since 1995
The Fighting Hawks have advanced past the first round of their league playoffs in 23 of the last 25 years. They will take on Omaha in Baxter Arena in the NCHC quarterfinals.
GRAND FORKS — One of Dane Jackson's children was confused this week.
The UND associate coach explained the significance of the upcoming National Collegiate Hockey Conference best-of-three playoff series against Omaha.
If the Fighting Hawks win the series, they advance to the NCHC Frozen Faceoff in St. Paul. If not, they don't.
"One of my kiddos asked me, 'What do you mean? You don't automatically get to go to St. Paul?'" Jackson said, recalling the conversation. "'No, you have to earn the right to go there.'
"They get used to just going to St. Paul. Obviously, we've had a lot of success there over the years. Kids take it for granted. We never do."
UND has moved beyond the first round in 23 of its last 25 conference tournaments. That stretch has spanned two different leagues, three head coaches and four tournament sites.
It started in 1997, when the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five was played in Milwaukee's Bradley Center. After that, it was the Target Center in Minneapolis, the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, back to the Target Center, back to the Xcel Energy Center and even Ralph Engelstad Arena during the pandemic-altered 2020-21 season.
"Dave Hakstol said it's always one of the toughest weekends," Jackson said. "It was just more of a relief when you won that series, because everybody kind of expected you to make it out. Obviously, we should be expected to go on, but we know what a huge battle it is to go and try to win two games in someone else's rink. It's never easy."
A closer look at those 25 years shows that.
UND has been at home for the first round 23 times. It advanced all 23 times.
It has been on the road twice. It was swept both times — 2002 and 2019.
In 2002, UND was swept at Minnesota.
In 2019, the Fighting Hawks were swept at Denver in a memorable series. Due to a blizzard in Denver, UND's flight was diverted to Albuquerque, N.M., and the team bused seven hours from there. Despite outshooting the Pioneers 32-17 and 42-18, it lost 2-0 and 4-2.
"When we went into Denver, we thought we played really well," Jackson said. "Obviously, we outshot them both times. We just didn't quite have enough offense there."
This weekend, UND will try to accomplish something it has not done since 1995 — win a conference playoff game and series on the road.
The Fighting Hawks will play Omaha in Baxter Arena at 7:07 p.m. Friday and 7:07 p.m. Saturday. If the teams split the first two games, a decisive third game will be played at 6:07 p.m. Sunday.
"We're playing a good level of hockey now," Jackson said. "We've fixed some of the issues we had giving up too many goals. We take a lot more pride in how we're playing away from the puck, so we like our team now. We have some good things going on, but we understand what a big challenge it is to win two out of three in another person's rink."
UND had a rocky start to the season, but is playing its best down the stretch.
The Fighting Hawks (16-13-6) haven't lost a game in almost a month. They're unbeaten in six.
"For us, it's the mindset that it's playoffs now," UND captain Mark Senden said. "It's a new season. Your record doesn't matter anymore. It doesn't matter where we finished in the NCHC. It's a new season. It's a brand new start going into playoffs. We just have to have the same mentality we've had these past few weeks and play our game."
While UND has become accustomed to going to St. Paul, it's a destination that has eluded Omaha.
The Mavericks (18-13-3) are the only NCHC team that has never gotten out of the first round and reached the Frozen Faceoff. But this is one of their best opportunities. Their third-place regular-season finish is tied for their program's highest since the NCHC started 10 years ago.
"Any time you get to play against Omaha, you know it's going to be a battle," UND defenseman Tyler Kleven said. "They play very similar to us — hard-nosed and fast."
Back to Baxter
UND is no stranger to Baxter Arena.
It was the site of the NCHC Pod in December 2020 — a bubble-like setup to play during the pandemic. There are nine players on UND's roster who participated in the Pod.
"We've played there a lot of times," Kleven said. "It's a very familiar building."
Senden has played 21 collegiate games in Baxter Arena.
"It was a fun place to be during the Pod," Senden said.
UND went 3-0-1 against Omaha during the regular season.
It earned a 4-1 win and a 3-3 tie in the November series in Baxter Arena. Last weekend, the teams played in Grand Forks. UND won 5-4 in overtime and 2-1.
"You have to respect how hard these guys play and their level of preparation," Jackson said. "Their special teams are good. They're a strong, solid team. There's a reason they had so many wins this year."
UND at No. 17 Omaha
When: 7:07 p.m. Friday, 7:07 p.m. Saturday, 6:07 p.m. Sunday (if necessary).
Where: Baxter Arena, Omaha.
TV: Midco Sports (GF Ch. 27/622 HD).
Radio: The Fox (96.1 FM).