Fate in tournament decided by old rival

UND men's hockey team awarded NCAA run thanks to Wisconsin, will play Badgers this weekend

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Keisuke Yoshimura

Luke Johnson, Stephane Pattyn and other UND skaters celebrate during a previous meeting with Western Michigan at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Photo by Keisuke Yoshimura/The Dakota Student.

The looks on the four seniors’ faces gleamed with relief and determination as each realized they would have at least one more week.

Wisconsin had scored in overtime over Ohio State. North Dakota fans erupted in hotel lobbies, and in the midst of hockey games that didn’t even feature their own team.

They all knew what that single goal meant.

After clinching a win over Western Michigan in the third place game of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, the UND men’s hockey team skated off the ice at Target Center knowing it did all it could to secure a chance at making the NCAA tournament.

But for a matter of hours, its fate fell into the hands of a familiar rival.

If Wisconsin won its game over Ohio State that evening, it would be enough to arrange the PairWise rankings in a fashion that would secure North Dakota a spot in the national tournament. If not, North Dakota’s season would be halted after a five-goal shutout over the Broncos that afternoon.

“When we were watching the game on Saturday night to see if we were going to get in or not, there were a lot of nerves,” junior Mark MacMillan said. “There was a lot of relief and a lot of excitement when Wisconsin scored in overtime there and I think it’s carried through the week and into practice this week, and all the guys are excited to get going Friday.”

This weekend, North Dakota will travel to Cincinnati, Ohio, for the Midwest Regional Tournament. Ironically, the team on the opposite bench Friday night will be the same team UND spent Saturday night cheering for.

“I think some of the guys were laughing that Wisconsin was the reason we were getting in, and now we’re going to play them and try to end their season, so it’s kind of funny,” MacMillan said. “But it kind of adds to the excitement.”

Ferris State and Colgate will join the former WCHA rivals with hopes of jumping to a spot in the Frozen Four in a matter of weeks.

While the way North Dakota punched its ticket demonstrated the degree of competitiveness within leagues around the country, it was enough.

“It really feels no different for me,” junior Nick Mattson said. “At this time of the year, you really just want to get into the tournament. It’s a one-game shot at this point. We’re coming in ready to go. I really could care less of how we got in. We’re there and we’re confident and ready to go.”

The success the team found in Saturday’s third-place game featured a boost from a loyal fan base.

Green and white jerseys filled Target Center. Not just when UND played — with each team that took the ice.

“It’s hard to describe what that brings — the energy to our players,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “The Friday night game was amazing, how much green and white there was up in the stands. But to me, even more meaningful was Saturday afternoon. In a third place game, Saturday afternoon, I know there was a lot of meaning in it for our team. But I think our fans also recognize it gives a great boost with the numbers there were at the Target center.”

This weekend, though, U.S. Bank Arena may resemble a similar situation found in last year’s regional site in Grand Rapids, Mich.

A mere 1,918 fans watched last year’s regional championship game featuring UND and Yale, far from the expected 11,000 people on an average night at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

“I think everybody has an understanding in our locker room of what it’ll be like,” Hakstol said. “Every building is different and every building has a different feel and obviously we’re going to play in a big building and it’s going to be a quiet atmosphere. The biggest thing you have to fall back on is being ready for that.

“The experience of last year will help a little bit. At the end of the day, it’s the same for both teams. It’s unfortunate that what I think will be a great game to be played — Wisconsin and North Dakota, two old rivals — played in front of probably very few people in person. That’s a shame.”

Whatever the case, North Dakota knows its capabilities.

“We’re still alive here and we have a chance to do big things,” MacMillan said.

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