Look at the North Dakota hockey team’s record — 14-12-10 — and one number sticks out: 10, the times the Fighting Hawks have tied this season.
In a big way, those ties tell the story of North Dakota’s season. The Fighting Hawks so far haven’t lived up to their lofty standards of eight NCAA championships, but the latest of those ties, a 2-2 deadlock against No. 1 St. Cloud State on Saturday, had a positive result.
It secured UND a best-of-three home series in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference quarterfinals against Nebraska Omaha.
At stake Friday, Saturday and (if necessary) Sunday at Ralph Engelstad Arena will be a trip to the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Xcel Energy Center next weekend. More important, though, both the Fighting Hawks and Mavericks (17-15-2) are playing for their NCAA tournament lives.
“It’s a do-or-die series for us, being on the bubble with the PairWise,’’ North Dakota coach Brad Berry acknowledged.
In the PairWise Ratings, which mimic the formula that the NCAA uses to select its 16-team tournament field, Omaha was No. 14 and North Dakota No. 15 entering this weekend’s conference tournaments. The loser of the series most likely will fall out of NCAA contention, while the winner will greatly improve its chances of earning a berth. And there will be no ties this weekend.
“We have 10 ties, so you can look at that and see that we’re not an easy team to beat,’’ said North Dakota captain Austin Poganski, a senior forward from St. Cloud. “In the playoffs, there’s no such thing as a tie, so it’s going to come down to our leadership and the older guys helping out, maybe popping in an extra goal or two. For the most part, if we play North Dakota hockey, we’ll be just fine.”
Reaching that “North Dakota hockey’’ level hasn’t been easy for the Fighting Hawks, who won the NCAA title two years ago. They finished fourth in the NCHC with an 8-10-6-3 record, are averaging 2.86 goals per game (29th in the nation) and are 2-6-5 since Jan. 13. Not exactly Hrkac Circus numbers.
Forward Shane Gersich, the team’s second-leading scorer with 27 points on 11 goals and 16 assists, sees UND close to breaking through.
“It’s just getting that extra bounce and getting over that hump,’’ the junior from Chaska said. “The margin is so small between a win and a tie. We’ve been working and building all year to this point.’’
Against Omaha, UND faces a team that ranks sixth nationally at 3.47 goals per game and has a power play operating at a 25.66 percent clip, fifth best in the country. Staying out of the penalty box will be key for North Dakota.
“If calls are being called, we might have to tone it down a bit,’’ Poganski said. “But here at North Dakota, we play a pretty physical, hard-nosed game.”
Berry and his players believe that playing in the NCHC has prepared the Fighting Hawks for tournament time. The conference has the past two NCAA champions — North Dakota in 2016 and Denver last year — and the league has seven teams among the top 23 in the PairWise.
“This league makes you battle-tested and ready,’’ Berry said, “and you just have to survive and get out of this league and get into the national tournament, and then you have an opportunity.’’
North Dakota enters tournament play with some unfinished business. Last year, the Fighting Hawks were host to the NCAA West Regional in Fargo. They appeared to win a first-round game against Boston University when Dixon Bowen scored in overtime. But a lengthy video review wiped out the goal on an offsides, and the Terriers went on to end UND’s season in double overtime.
The Fighting Hawks are the West Regional hosts again this year, this time in Sioux Falls, but they must win this series against Omaha to even have a chance to make the trip down I-29.
“That’s one of the things our fans look forward to, first in Fargo and now in Sioux Falls,’’ Berry said, “and we’ve got to make sure we remember that.’’
Frozen Four tracker
With the NCAA Frozen Four at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center set for April 5 and 7, college hockey is heating up. Here’s a look at four teams on the rise and four teams sinking:
1. Ohio State: Buckeyes have won four straight and are up to No. 4 in the PairWise Ratings. They could give the Big Ten two No. 1 seeds (with Notre Dame).
2. Michigan: Wolverines have won seven straight and face Buckeyes in Big Ten semifinals.
3. Northeastern: Huskies have won five in a row, solidifying their NCAA tournament hopes.
4. Bowling Green: Falcons have won five of six and are No. 16 in PairWise entering WCHA semis vs. Northern Michigan.
1. Gophers: They were outscored 21-11 in four consecutive losses at Penn State and fell to No. 13 in the PairWise.
2. Harvard: Losses to Brown and Yale mean Crimson must win ECAC tourney for NCAA bid.
3. North Dakota: Fighting Hawks tied St. Cloud State to earn home ice in NCHC playoffs but are winless in four and No. 15 in the PairWise.
4. Denver: Defending NCAA champ is 1-2-2 in past five.
In our weekly Frozen Focus, college sports reporter Randy Johnson will profile a team each week tracking toward the 2018 Frozen Four in St. Paul. Follow Randy on Twitter: @rjstrib.