COLLEGE HOCKEY: North Dakota wins, but will miss tourney for first time since 2002

ST. PAUL-It was St. Patrick's Day on Saturday, March 17, so there was no doubt that the University of North Dakota men's hockey team would be wearing green.Anything for a little luck.Needing three results to break its way to reach the NCAA tourna...
North Dakota's Nick Jones fights for the puck in front of Minnesota Duluth goalie Hunter Shepherd during the third place game of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, Saturday, March 17, at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Russell Hons / Special To Forum News Service
  1. PAUL -- It was St. Patrick’s Day on Saturday, March 17, so there was no doubt that the University of North Dakota men’s hockey team would be wearing green.

Anything for a little luck.

Needing three results to break its way to reach the NCAA tournament for a 16th consecutive season, UND took care of its own business by beating Minnesota Duluth 4-1 in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Frozen Faceoff third-place game, but the guys in green didn’t get the help it needed elsewhere.

Boston University upset Providence in the Hockey East championship and seventh-seeded Princeton crashed the ECAC championship, taking away at-large spots that UND needed.

That means for the first time since 2002, UND will not be in the NCAA tournament.

The remarkable run will end at 15 years, the second-longest streak in college hockey history. It stands only behind Michigan’s streak of 22 years from 1991-2012.

UND’s run began in 2003 with the Fighting Hawks securing an NCAA berth with back-to-back overtime wins in Games 2 and 3 of a stirring best-of-three first round Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoff series against Denver.

The streak ended on a spring day in 2018 with the Fighting Hawks riding team on a bus, checking scores of other games on smartphones.

“It’s one of those things where it came right down to the end,” UND coach Brad Berry said. “We needed to get help and that’s not what you want it to come down to. Usually, you want to control your own destiny. There were some opportunities this year we could have controlled that better. It’s one of those things where we had to scratch and claw to get home ice and get to the Frozen Faceoff. The one box we didn’t check was to win a national title and get to the NCAA tournament. It doesn’t sit very well with us.

“We’re proud of the guys and the way they competed. But here at North Dakota, it’s our goal to win a national title and to make the NCAA tournament. We’re going to get to work shortly and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The difference between UND making the tournament and missing it was razor thin.

In most years, No. 14 in the Pairwise is good enough to make the tournament. But a rash of conference upsets, starting with MSU-Mankato losing in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs last season and ending with upsets in Hockey East and the ECAC on Saturday night, changed things.

This year will mark the first time since the tournament went to the 16-team format that all four No. 4 seeds will be autobids.

The Fighting Hawks will, no doubt, look at other results from earlier in the year, too.

Had UND held on to win the game it led last-place Miami 3-0, it would have been No. 11 in the Pairwise and in the tournament as a No. 3 seed.

But the Fighting Hawks lost in overtime on that night, a telling symbol of a season where UND was always close but just couldn’t get over the hump.

It went to overtime 15 times, winning two and losing three -- the last of those came Friday in the NCHC semifinals against St. Cloud State, which took UND’s fate out of its own hands and left it up to Clarkson and Providence in the ECAC and Hockey East tournaments.

“We’re sitting on a bus right now and it’s not sitting well with any of us,” Berry said. “When players are recruited here to UND, the expectation is to play in the postseason and compete for national titles on a yearly basis. It’s disappointing to fall short of that.

“There are a number of games to look back at. You can go back to the Duluth game that we led 2-0 and gave up three power plays in a row and they scored on them. Those are things for us next year to look back upon and say, ‘Hey, we don’t want to be in that situation at the end of the year.’ ”

The Fighting Hawks (17-13-10) did what they could on Saturday in the NCHC third-place game, beating Minnesota Duluth to keep hope alive.

UND snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Bulldogs dating back to the 2016 NCHC Frozen Faceoff with the victory.

Senior captain Austin Poganski scored at 7 minutes, 22 seconds of the opening period and the Fighting Hawks never trailed the rest of the way.

Junior Joel Janatuinen added an even-strength goal in the second period and Shane Gersich and Ludvig Hoff tacked on power-play goals in the third period for the final margin.

UND goalie Cam Johnson stopped 27 of 28 shots in net, knowing that it could be his final college game.

“That’s why I was so mad that I got scored on,” Johnson said. “If it was my last game, I wanted to go out with a goose egg.”

Upon learning that their season would not extend to next weekend, senior forward Trevor Olson posted a message on Twitter.

“Through ups and downs, injuries and success, I wouldn’t change my time here for anything else,” he wrote. “I made a lot of memories with lifelong friends that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Thank you to my teammates, coaches and training staff for pushing me to be the best, both on and off the ice. Thank you UND, for everything.”

UND will lose four seniors in Olson, Poganski, Johnson and Johnny Simonson, all of whom played in the 2016 NCAA national championship win over Quinnipiac.

The Fighting Hawks also is expected to have to sweat out NHL contract offers for Gersich, Rhett Gardner, Christian Wolanin and Colton Poolman.

“When you look at our season in a nutshell, nothing came easy,” Berry said. “We had to scratch and claw for everything. It’s like that all over the country. You see it in the conference tournaments. Now, you’re going to see it in the national tournament with a bunch of upsets. That’s what makes college a great game, but it makes you know how important each and every game is.”