Former foes meet again in rivalry matchup

Nick Mattson skates at Ralph Engelstad Arena last weekend against Air Force. Photo by Jennifer Friese/The Dakota Student.

Nick Mattson remembers his first road series with his UND teammates.

He scored North Dakota’s second goal in the team’s 2011-12 WCHA conference opener during his freshman season, but a roaring crowd at Kohl Center in Madison, Wis., cheered the Badgers to a 5-3 victory en route to 5-4 win the following night to sweep the series.

“I loved it,” Mattson said. “That’s one of the coolest campuses in the country, so any time you get to experience something like that, it’s pretty special. So it’s always a good time. Unbelievable fans. Bragging rights on the line with the rivalry, so it’s a blast — we love playing them.”

Three years later, Mattson is making that same trip this weekend with the UND men’s hockey team that has been unbeaten in its past six games.

During the 2013-14 season, the WCHA rivals split into separate leagues — North Dakota joining a newly formed NCHC league and Wisconsin becoming part of the Big Ten Conference.

But the former conference foe is still familiar as the teams most recently met in the 2014 NCAA West Regional semifinal in Cincinnati, Ohio., UND edging a 5-2 victory on its way to clinching a spot in the Frozen Four tournament.

A week before that game, UND had just notched a third place win over Michigan State in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff in Minneapolis. North Dakota spent the remainder of the evening in a hotel lobby eagerly watching Wisconsin and Ohio State skate in overtime in a game that would determine its chances at making the NCAA tournament — hoping for a goal from a team that would end up being its next opponent.

That’s what happened. But a slow start to the season ended in heartbreak once again.

This season, North Dakota has suffered just one loss that came in its home opener against Bemidji, and is riding a unbeaten streak that has garnered it the No. 2 spot in the country. Yet that number gives no indication of how opponents might see a team that has made 10 NCAA appearances in its past 10 season and remained one of the top-four teams in the country on six of those occasions.

“I think people always come after us as hard as they can, regardless of the ranking,” Mattson said. “We feel we have a pretty good team. We still have a lot to prove, but if I was another team, it wouldn’t take a No. 2 ranking to get fired up to play us.

“Teams are always going to want to come after us. I know how that’s how I feel playing any other team regardless of the ranking. I think that ranking may give a little extra juice, but they’re going to want to beat us just as bad.”

This season isn’t much different than any other.

“We’ve had a target on our back for about 30 years,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “There’s no difference.”

Last Saturday, UND entered the third period fighting against an Air Force team that had left the home team in a 2-0 deficit. Tucker Poolman set the teams apart by one before Drake Caggiula added another to send the teams to overtime.

The non-conference battle left North Dakota victorious thanks to a overtime shorthanded Bryn Chyzyk goal with 6.4 seconds left on the clock.

Wisconsin hasn’t found as much success — beginning its season with four straight losses.

The Badgers will host North Dakota in their home opener this weekend after remaining idle since their last series against Northern Michigan on Oct. 17-18.

While Wisconsin has had weeks of preparation to face a No. 2 team, North Dakota has been successful in home and road battles this season after claiming wins over Bemidji State and Colorado College in their own buildings.

“We’ve found ways to win,” Hakstol said. “We’ve found ways to win here at home when we’ve been at our best. We’ve found ways to win at home when maybe everything hasn’t quite been clicking for us. We’ve gone on the road, and I thought we’ve done a good job there.”

North Dakota also has been preparing in hopes of reversing a recent slow start last weekend.

“I think the mentality of this team is something that is starting to grow and build in the locker room,” Hakstol said. “Coming out of Saturday night, I would say that’s a big positive is that after being in a hole for two periods, and not being able to generate a whole lot, there was a mental decision that was made in that locker room to come out and get after it. I like the guys mentality and I like their belief in themselves.”

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