After Loss, North Dakota Has Work to Do
Miami Continues March Through NCHCs
by Phil Ervin/CHN Reporter
MINNEAPOLIS After becoming the latest top NCHC program to succumb to Miami's jaw-dropping postseason run, North Dakota's players didn't show much public, visual evidence.
You'd never know UND's NCAA tournament hopes had just taken a significant hit with a 3-0 loss to Miami by coach Dave Hakstol's stoic, rigid expression. Most of his players wore the same one.
They've been through this before. Just in the course of a season, not a matter of less than 24 hours.
North Dakota (22-13-3) can still sneak into its 29th NCAA tournament. It'll have to turn around and beat Western Michigan in Saturday afternoon's third-place game back at the Target Center and get some help from other conference playoffs.
The 3:38 p.m. (CT) faceoff will be anything but a consolation game.
"That's hockey, and that's playoff hockey," Hakstol said in his convincing, resolute tone. "This time of year, there's always an awful lot on the line, and there is that tomorrow. That being said, you focus on the things that we can control. That's exactly what we'll do."
He's got some evidence.
On Nov. 29, UND was 6-7-2. By Christmas, it had a 9-7-2 mark.
But since then, North Dakota had gone 13-5-1, losing just twice in regulation since Feb. 14 before Friday. Its scorers started scoring, sophomore goalie Zane Gothberg rounded back into form, and Grand Forks felt like Grand Forks again to a community that's as rabid for college pucks as any in the country.
"That kind of showed how we can face adversity," captain Dillon Simpson said. "We know that we can come out and turn the page."
Even if the 20-year-old defenseman and his comrades vindicate his words against a fifth-seeded Western Michigan team that lost by a goal in Friday's first semifinal affair, they'll rely on Wisconsin and Massachusetts-Lowell to claim Big Ten and Hockey East championships, respectively, on Saturday. Both are in the Pairwise's top seven spots; UND needs teams ranked ahead of it to also earn automatic NCAA bids in order to leave an at-large spot vacated for the green and black.
Six automatic berths come from conference champions. The rest of the 16-team field is determined by the Pairwise.
North Dakota entered Friday 12th on the list. By the end of the night, it had dropped to 15.
A win against Western Michigan — whom UND's defeated three out of four times this season — doesn't guarantee UND a spot. But a loss all but assures its streak of NCAA appearances ends at 12.
If it does, the thousands of North Dakotans that made the trek to Minneapolis this weekend will have Ryan McKay to partially blame for it.
The RedHawks' sophomore goalie turned away 32 shots for his fourth shutout of the season, robbing several prime chances and keeping rebounds away from hard-charging UND. An early goal by New Jersey Devils draft pick Blake Coleman took a dominantly pro-North Dakota crowd out of the picture before leading scorer Austin Czarnik launched a long wrister past Zane Gothberg (25 saves) with 26.6 seconds left in the second.
Coleman picked up the assists on Czarnik's marker, and Anthony Louis added an insurance goal 6:13 into the third.
The NCHC announced an attendance of 9,113 for its inaugural two-game postseason session. About 95 percent of them were dressed in green.
"There were people there? You think?" Miami coach Enrico Blasi cracked. "It was huge to get the first goal and then get the second goal. That's the name of the game. We were playing a road game, and that's kind of the approach we took."
It was a polar opposite from North Dakota's two-game sweep of the RedHawks in Grand Forks on Feb. 14 and 15 that included a 9-2 thrashing.
Then again, not much about Miami resembled the regular season during a topsy-turvy tournament.
The eighth-seeded RedHawks (15-19-3) swept top-seeded St. Cloud State in the quarterfinals to become the lowest of three lower seeds to advance to the Target Center. Then they became the first team to blank North Dakota since Denver on Jan. 25.
Miami meets that same Pioneers team — the tournament's No. 6 seed — at 7:38 p.m. (CT) Saturday.
"I think it continues to point out how close teams are," Hakstol said of the NCHC, formed in 2011 as part of college hockey's widespread realignment, "how little separation there are between a winning team and the losing teams in this conference."
Said Coleman, who now has nine goals and 10 assists in nine games since returning from injury Feb. 21: "It's been tough, but I think we've got a really mentally strong team. Something we've stressed on all year is having each other's backs, and when everybody doubts us, we don't doubt ourselves."
And Czarnik, NCAA Division I's No. 7 scorer: "We believed in one another."
But before the RedHawks attempt to complete the highly improbable, North Dakota will try to meet the bare-minimum expectations that come with having won seven national championships. Having a third-place game helps; without it, UND's players, coaches and followers would have to simply sit and wait to see how the national playoff picture shakes out.
It's not often the dubiousness of a consolation prize is trumped by the possibility of the ultimate one.