Consistent focus drives men’s hockey team

North Dakota prepares for NCHC opponent Western Michigan series on the road this weekend

UND sophomore defenseman Troy Stecher skates against Denver last weekend at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Photo by Jennifer Friese/The Dakota Student.

One day at a time.

That’s the cliche that’s taken the UND men’s hockey team into the latter portion of its season without worries of making the NCAA tournament, or a steep climb out of a hole it started digging in October.

There’s only one thing on the mind of each member of the team.

“We’ll worry about one win on Friday — nothing else,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “I know that sounds boring and playing things down, but it’s not. You’ve got to take care of your business one day at a time … If you have that every day approach, you don’t have to be too concerned about the future. You know what you’re going to get.”

This year was different. A single non-conference loss — the home opener that instigated a steady focus on consistency. Tight conference battles strung each team into a close race to the top.

The year prior, North Dakota’s fate depended on the success of a former conference opponent.

“Every game last year was life or death,” senior defenseman Nick Mattson said. “It was pretty stressful. I think we gained a lot of character out of that, and that’s carried over to this year, but it’s nice not having to go through that right now.”

Instead, UND spent this week preparing to travel to Western Michigan in an NCHC conference battle that could potentially weigh heavily into the outcome of how it will finish in the league. North Dakota currently sits in a three-way tie for first place, with four teams close behind.

The Broncos hold a 12-12-4 overall record and sit 5-9-4-3 in the NCHC, though that’s no indication of their tenacity and ability to win hockey games.

“Early in the year, I think they struggled; their record showed that,” senior Mark MacMillan said. “They’ve been a good team the second half and at sometimes one of the better teams in the country. You’ve seen it over and over again this year that our league has incredible parity. Just because we’re there in the standings and what their record is doesn’t mean anything. Obviously, they’re a great hockey team … That’s going to be a great test for us going into Western this weekend.”

That test will be elevated when UND goes up against the top power play in the league at 23.1 percent, and a Bronco team with just as big of a desire to raise the Penrose trophy in the coming weeks.

The crowd makes it even better. With a student section filled with eager fans deemed the “Lawson Lunatics,” the atmosphere is elevated.

But that doesn’t intimidate North Dakota.

“It’s fun,” Mattson said. “You grow up wanting to play college hockey, and those are the kinds of atmospheres that you want to play in. It’s an absolute circus there and students are crazy. We love those places. We’re going to have a fun time.”

It’s not just the fans or the place the team skates, it’s the time of the year. Points are at high stakes, and the race for the conference title or a spot in the NCAA tournament is fast approaching each team, whether they’re cruising close to the top or fighting from the bottom for another chance.

A feeling of excitement resonates in nearly every locker room.

“Obviously it’s fun to be a part of,” MacMillan said. “This is the time of the year that everybody always loves. It’s always the best time of the year. Games always get even more intense. Some teams already are playing for their playoffs lives and their Pairwise lives, so it’s always fun to be a part of. Every weekend from the start of the year, college hockey is always a battle, and this time of the year it’s even more — so it’s a lot of fun for sure.”

North Dakota may not be fighting for its life, but its mentality is much the same as it was in prior years — controlling its own fate in hopes of achieving the goals it set out to accomplish from the start.

“We can’t really win the league on Friday night, and I think this team more than any other team did a really good job not getting ahead of themselves,” Mattson said. “We know we just have to win a game Friday. That’s what we’re focused on now. It sounds cliche, but I think we truly believe that’s how we’re approaching it.”

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