The Penrose Cup sat in Oxford, Ohio on Friday night, waiting to be hoisted by one of the top two teams in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference — Miami on its home ice, or North Dakota’s confident roster in a drought of hoisting a championship trophy since the 2010-11 season.
UND held it high after the game, outwardly celebrating unlike its predecessors in green and white, who chose to hold in their cheers four years ago until they were the last ones standing on the national stage. That team never prevailed, but laid out a path to the ultimate goal often traveled by North Dakota.
This year’s team is riding along one much the same. And the next stop will be back home in Grand Forks when UND will take on Colorado College in hopes of punching a ticket to the Frozen Faceoff tournament in Minneapolis.
Last weekend was a crucial stepping stone as the team captured its 16th conference championship, the most among all NCAA Division I men’s hockey teams.
“Really proud of this group,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “To win this regular season championship — it was a tough run. It’s a great league and our guys battled hard and stayed with it. Kind of indicative of tonight. We had great goaltending, we battled hard, and we had a gritty road win to clinch it.”
The top two teams in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference had already clinched a share of the title, but North Dakota etched a 2-1 win into its record books Friday night and sole possession of the Penrose Cup.
Saturday, though, the finale of the series produced an outcome North Dakota hasn’t been too familiar with. The Tigers came out hungry on their Senior Night, scoring two shorthanded goals and looking to end on a high note.
The 6-3 loss it dealt UND was the program’s first Saturday defeat in nearly a year, the last from Colorado College on March 15, 2014, that ended its 19-game unbeaten streak.
One year later, North Dakota is facing that same team, looking to end it a little differently.
Even with extra hardware on the journey home, the bitter sting of ending on a losing note couldn’t be ignored.
“We want to win every game we’re in,” sophomore defenseman Gage Ausmus said. “It doesn’t make it any easier that we won the league last night.”
The stage is set for the next battle, and this team knows how crucial it is to move forward with its next goal, despite leaving without everything it wanted.
“It is definitely tough to take right now,” sophomore forward Luke Johnson said. “We came into the weekend hoping for two wins, but we also came in looking to get that one win for the Penrose Cup, so we have to go back making the most of what we got.”
North Dakota ended its regular season as one of two teams in the conference to not get swept in a weekend series — a mark attained with its tenacity and the help of a goaltender who finished in the top of the NCHC as the only goalie to have a winning percentage about .700 percent at .708 in UND’s 16-2 record.
Yet Zane McIntyre knows it was all about the team.
“They played a heck of a game, throwing pucks to the net and getting a lot of traffic,” McIntyre said. “It was a really good job by our defensive corps making the simple plays and boxing out. It was a team effort for that trophy.”
UND also continued its trend of not being swept in a road series. The last time the team was sent home winless on the weekend was a trip back home from Minnesota when the Gophers defeated UND in November, 2011.
But the team won’t look that far behind or ahead. It’s set on accomplishing each task at hand.
The focus right now is building on the positives, learning from the negatives and defeating the Tigers at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
“Whether it was the two shorthanded goals or just bad bounces, we will learn from that and just move on,” forward Luke Johnson said.
But the team will be moving forward without senior forward Mark MacMillan, who suffered an injury when he blocked a shot a few weeks ago that took him out of the lineup indefinitely.
As the team held the trophy last Friday, it couldn’t help but feel like it was missing a crucial piece of its lineup.
“It’s a little emotional,” Connor Gaarder said. “We had our class picture out there (after the game) and he wasn’t in it. He texted all the guys and he’s real excited. He’s a great, character guy.”
This team is all too familiar with adversity, something it has continuously overcome and learned from. Something that brought it together and laid out a path to the end it’s planning to follow.
“I just want to see a continuation of what we’re doing,” Hakstol said. “This group works hard. This group prepares well. This group sticks together. They are going to battle for one another. I just want to see us continue what we’re doing.”
Elizabeth Erickson is the sports editor of The Dakota Student. She can be reached at [email protected]