Tough ending for UND seniors

Men’s hockey team splits series, four seniors honored after four years.

Seniors Mitch MacMillan, Dillon Simpson, Clarke Saunders and Derek Rodwell watch a tribute to them on the video board after Saturday’s senior night game. Photo by Jennifer Friese/The Dakota Student.

As the UND men’s hockey team prepared for last Saturday’s senior night game, the added pressure of sending the veterans off on a high note rang loud throughout the team.

But the sound wasn’t anything unfamiliar.

“We can deal with pressure,” junior Nick Mattson said. “We play for 12,000 people a night. We’ve got the whole town on our backs. We can deal with pressure, but there’s definitely a little more motivation.”

Instead of hoisting the Penrose Cup, the four seniors lifted their sticks at center ice after a disappointing 2-1 loss to Western Michigan, to salute the loyal fans that watched them skate for four years.

“It’s a tough one to take,” senior captain Dillon Simpson said. “Credit to (Western Michigan), they did a great job building the momentum and especially in that third period … At the end of the day, that one stings. There’s a lot on the line, it being senior night for me and my classmates. It’s one that we definitely wanted.”

While UND remained tied atop National Collegiate Hockey Conference standings with St. Cloud State until the last day of the regular season, Saturday’s game became the determining factor in crowning the league’s first champion in its inaugural year.

The points fell in favor of the Huskies, and UND’s senior class closed out its regular season short of a victory.

“It’s tough for those guys,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “Obviously, you want to have a different ending for them. At the same time, you really have to with this group. I’m looking at the big picture, at how good of a job the guys in that locker room have done. (They’re) coming together, pushing hard to become a real good team. We are a good team.”

Success was found Friday night late in the second period as Stephane Pattyn and Luke Johnson tallied goals just 18 seconds apart to send North Dakota up and claim the 2-0 victory.

Saturday, though, a hungry Western Michigan team fought back for points. A pair of goals from WMU’s Colton Hargrove overshadowed UND’s lone goal from Pattyn en route to a 2-1 win for the Broncos.

The vibe in the locker room was anything but what the team wanted for its seniors — or the players who wanted nothing more than to win it for them.

“It’s pretty emotional,” Mattson said. “My class has spent three years with these guys, and I’d consider them almost my brothers, the things we’ve been through. It’s tough, but again, you want to win so bad for them and it really sucks seeing those guys with their heads down in there, and knowing we didn’t get the job done for them.”

With bitter memories of mid-November’s chances at moving into the winning column, the team knows it accomplished a great feat with a 16-3-1 run in its last 20 games, prior to Saturday.

“I’m extremely proud,” Simpson said. “We kind of dug ourselves out of a hole, and we’ve handled ourselves here over our stretch run. To give ourselves the opportunity, first and foremost, was a goal we had and achieved. It was kind of the light at the end of the tunnel to try and get this win tonight, and it didn’t happen.”

Despite the loss, UND still already had clinched home ice for playoffs this weekend against Colorado College to determine which team will skate in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff in Minneapolis on March 21-22.

A quick turnaround will be crucial in punching a ticket to the tournament.

“Tonight stings, and it’s going to sting,” Hakstol said. “But at this time of the year, you have to have a very short memory and turn your focus forward now to the first round playoff series next week, which we’ve worked very hard to be here at home. It’s going to be a tough series. We’re going to push our focus directly to that right away.”

Frozen Faceoff and NCAA tournament hopes remain strong, and moving on becomes the next step.

“It’s tough, and we care so much about each other,” Mattson said. “Especially on senior night, you just want to win it for them. It sucks, but it’s something that can really throw you off your season — throw your confidence away if you let it get to us. It’s tough, it’s awful, but we’ve got to move on.

“We’ve got big things ahead of us and we have the potential to do some big things.”

Elizabeth Erickson is the sports editor for The Dakota Student. She can be reached at [email protected].