UND HOCKEY: Mr. Johnson Goes to Washington in Third Round

Photo via Sioux Falls Stampede

GRAND FORKS, ND– As a wedding was set-up for Saturday afternoon on the floor of the Ralph Engelstad Arena, another marriage took place hours before, as incoming University of North Dakota defenseman Brent Johnson was selected by the Washington Capitals in the third round of the 2021 NHL Draft. Sitting in a suite with his family, Johnson actually didn’t initially notice his name on the board.

“Actually, I wasn’t even looking,” said Johnson. “I was looking at my phone and then I looked up and it was pretty exciting. My heart kind of dropped for a second. Just a lot of emotions all at once. Unreal experience. I’ve been working on this for a long time now– especially with my family here with me. It’s something that’ll never forget. They’ve all been pulling the same rope that I have, so they know hard I’ve worked and it was special to have them here.”

Coming from Frisco, Texas, Johnson will be the first player to wear a North Dakota uniform from the Lone Star state and should be play for the Capitals, he’ll be the second player of record to hail from Texas, the first being Chris Brown from 2013 until 2016. Developing in the Dallas Stars Elite youth program, Johnson sees a lot of talent coming from the area from his experiences.

“It’s been a lot better and it’s growing fast,” Johnson mentioned of hockey in Texas. The guys are growing up and becoming hockey players and there’s some guys ahead of me that have come up. I think it’s a developing market and I’m really excited to see what the future holds for Dallas hockey.”

With the Draft being virtual again this year, the pomp and circumstance wasn’t at an NHL arena. Luckily for Johnson, North Dakota and The Ralph pulled out all the accommodations as they did last year for the 2020 Draft class that were slated to play for UND.

“It was amazing. Thanks to the staff for helping me put this together and allowing me to have such a special day. It was an unreal experience to see the building I’ll be playing at for the next four years. I can’t wait to get started.”

Johnson looked to be very dedicated to staying at North Dakota for the long haul, saying he had no changes in plans after getting drafted and was focused on a National Championship in the next four years. When talking about his incoming defender, North Dakota head coach Brad Berry was very eager to have him in the line-up.

“Just getting to know Brent over the last few months, it was something he was very excited for an when he name was called, him and his family were very excited. And we’re excited, too. It’s a point in time where he’ll never forget this moment, but not the work begins for him to have a productive season for us at North Dakota,” Berry said.

Berry continued, “He’s a very, very smart player. When you talk about smart players, you always wants those players who anticipate the next play. Even before the puck is on his tape, he knows where it’s going. And to add, he’s also ultra-competitive. He’s a very competitive player with a lot of offensive ability. We have a great, great player; but an even better person in our group.”

Johnson is coming off a solid season on the blueline in the USHL with 21 assists and 32 points in 47 games in his first full year. His offensive side is matched by his ability to keep the play in front of him defensively and protect his blindside well. One thing some scouting reports looked at was his skating style leading needing some work, which should come with time. While Johnson will be in the line-up this season, there is still things that are needed to work on, which Berry honed in on.

“He has very good offensive ability and he defends real well, but you can tell he’s a person who needs to grow his body a little bit,” mentioned Berry. “Him coming from Sioux Falls and coming here to train, which has already with the group; you can tell he’s going to get bigger and stronger with our group. We’re going to let time take place and we know he has the work ethic to do it.”

NCAA Fargo Regional: Mylymok Stops Clock on Longest Game, Duluth Advances

FARGO, ND– For the first time since 1984, the University of North Dakota and University of Minnesota-Duluth faced off in the NCAA tournament, this time for a chance to reach the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh. This is also the first time these teams have met since the NCHC Pod in December. In those two Pod games, Duluth won in a shootout and North Dakota won in regulation. 

The first and second period did not yield any scoring, as many chances were stymied by the ice conditions. Pucks bouncing over sticks, pucks sticking to the ice, and overall inability to have the vulcanized rubber settle down for top scoring chances limited both Duluth and North Dakota solid chances to break through in the first 40 minutes. The few chances each side got were due to scrums in front and broken plays off of bad bounces. 

In the third period, Duluth struck first, with Jackson Cates getting first blood off a Hunter Lellig shot from the point and the final bounce going off of Cates’ stick and over Adam Scheel’s shoulder. Minutes later, a broken stick by Grant Mismash at the UND blue line sprung Cole Koepke on a breakaway and beat Scheel blocker side for the two-goal lead. While Duluth locked it down defensively, North Dakota did all they could to get a goal. It wasn’t until under two minutes in the frame when Collin Adams banked a shot off of Zach Stejskal back to get North Dakota within one. After a missed empty-net chance led to an icing, North Dakota moved the puck around the perimeter and a blocked Shane Pinto shot landed on the stick of captain Jordan Kawaguchi to give the Fighting Hawks the equalizer. 

North Dakota used their momentum from the third in overtime and got plenty of chances. However, Duluth looked to have ended the game from a Kobe Ruth goal, but upon review Koby Bender was offside and the game continued onward. And on it did go, as the game went through four complete overtimes, making it the longest NCAA tournament game (142:13) in history. Not without its chances throughout, as North Dakota hit three posts over the overtime frames and Duluth had a couple of close calls from scrums in front of the net. One big moment happened as Stejskal had an injury to his left side and needed to be pulled towards the end of the 4th overtime, making way for Ryan Fanti. All good things come to an end, however, as on the last post shot by North Dakota, Duluth’s Luke Mylymok took the puck the other way and put a snapshot past Scheel to end it with the final 3-2. 

THEY SAID IT

“I thought we played well. Two great teams going at it. The score reflected it and the overall game reflected it. Those are my brothers in there. That’s my family.”– Jordan Kawaguchi about the game.

“It’s one of those things when you get into overtime games, you got to keep the games simple and keep the game in front of you. We used everybody. It’s very unfortunate. You look at our scoring chances and how many posts we hit, how many scoring opportunities we had. At the end of the day, we had enough to win the game and we didn’t close in on it and we didn’t get it done that way. Really, really proud of our guys. They left their hearts on the ice and everything that they did. They worked extremely hard in the room to get to where they needed to.”– North Dakota head coach Brad Berry

“It proves to what we are as far as a team that never gives up, a team that’s relentless, a team that fights to the very end. I told the guys after the game, this is life– this is what life is. It’s not fair. We could argue it all day about who could have won the game. But that’s what sports is, that’s what life is. You keep moving on. You have to learn from the past. Our young guys are going to put this in the back of their mind as far as having this experience.”– Berry on the talk post-game with the team.

“It certainly under adverse circumstances because Zach was cramping, which was a shame because I thought he played well. But it’s not an easy thing for Ryan (Fanti) to do. You’re sitting on the bench and you haven’t played. He made some three or four big stops for us, too. It’s a nice situation that we had all year with goalies that we felt could win games for us.”– Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin on his goaltending situation. 

“It was a game-time decision by the coaches. When I heard my name, I was just ecstatic as a freshman going into these games. Just really emotional and think about all the time and work put into it to get your name called and get to play in a huge game like this is unbelievable.”– Duluth forward Luke Mylymok on when he heard he was in the line-up. 

“You just try to be a good teammate on the bench and let the guys know you’re there for them. That’s the biggest part in the role like that, to let the boys know you’re there for them. You try to be a huge energy guy and get the boys going when you see that they’re tired and try to uplift them.”– Mylymok on his role when he wasn’t getting a lot of ice time.

“My legs were fresh and I knew I had to get some speed on that shot and use the defense on the shot. It just shot it and it went five-hole. You’re not looking for five-hole, but you can take what you can get.”– Mylymok on his game-winning goal.

NCAA Fargo Regional: North Dakota Moves On, Duluth Walks Through

FARGO, ND– The semifinals of the Fargo Regional of the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championship took place on Friday night at Scheels Arena. While the joy of the tournament was felt by most everyone, the day started out on a rough patch for one squad. 

On Friday afternoon, the NCAA had announced that the University of Michigan has a player who tested positive and the team has to withdraw from the tournament. That meant the University of Minnesota-Duluth advanced to the Regional Finals. They would take on the winner of the University of North Dakota and American International College. 

In the first five minutes, AIC was all over North Dakota. The plucky 16-seed wanted to revisit what they did in Fargo in 2019 when they took out the #1 overall seed St. Cloud State. At one point, AIC was outshooting North Dakota. After the first media timeout, however, North Dakota seemed to snap out of whatever jitters they had and went on the offensive. 

Jasper Weatherby started the scoring off just as the North Dakota power play expired, taking a Jacob Bernard-Docker shot off the backboards and putting it past Stefano Durante to make it 1-0. Two minutes later, Weatherby scored his second of the game, pickpocketing an AIC defender and going in to beat Durante and make it 2-0. North Dakota shored up their own zone, making sure AIC didn’t get past the red line. Three minutes after Weatherby’s second; Grant Mismash– playing his first game since late February– used Shane Pinto as a screen to make it 3-0. Collin Adams helped keep the puck alive when he lost an edge, but was still able to protect the puck and get it to Tyler Kleven so it stayed in the zone. Adams was rewarded after getting a chip pass from Riese Gaber, put it past Durante to make it 4-0, concluding four-goals in a 7:20 span. 

AIC started the second with Jake Kucharski in net. However, the offense wasn’t quite there in this frame. The ice was the biggest defenseman out there, with the puck bouncing to and fro for most of the frame, as well as creating a lot of havoc for skate blades to boot. At times it was hard to see if this was the hockey or basketball tournament. The third period was more of the same until a late North Dakota penalty gave away for AIC to score on the power play thanks to a Tobias Fladeby shot beating Adam Scheel. Twenty-nine seconds later, Adams got his second of the game off a centering pass Jordan Kawaguchi to make it 5-1. 

THEY SAID IT

“We heard it loud and clear. We talked about it right after the selection, through the week. It turned to us in terms of what we had to do. That’s a very good team over there. They’ve won a lot of games with very few losses. We just had to play our game. I thought for the most part we did. Hand it to them, they had some momentum shifts in the game and kept us in our zone a little. For the most part, we did a good job of managing the 60 minutes thanks to the leadership of our team.”– North Dakota head coach Brad Berry on being reminded of history of AIC upsetting St. Cloud two years ago.

“It was good for us to get a game in. Our last game was St. Cloud about a week and a half ago. There was a little rust there, but we knocked it off. It was beneficial to us to get that first game in and get our boots on the ground.”– Adams on either playing a game or having rest like Duluth.

“We thought calm would win the hockey game. We knew we’d have to ride the roller coaster a little bit. There’d be times where we’d have to weather some storms.”– AIC head coach Eric Lang about the plan for the game.

“I don’t personally think I was even thinking about it. But the noise in the building obviously makes a difference. I can’t really talk for other guys, but I think we rebounded from it by just calming down like coach said. And that’s really about it. We just kind of went back to our game rather than getting scrambling and making plays.”– AIC captain Brennen Kapcheck on playing in front of a live crowd.

“Our program is beyond the point of moral victories. But I can tell you, I’m as proud as this group, two years later sitting in the same room doing the same press conferences I was two years ago. It’s easy to pack it in there. And I couldn’t be prouder of what these guys have done in terms of commitment for the unknown. Since late August, we’ve been together. These guys have missed weddings, funerals, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and you’re all in all the time.” –Lang about the evolution of his program.

Is North Dakota Betting on Black a Little Too Much??

They say clothes make the man. If that’s the case, the University of North Dakota may want to invest in more black uniform sets because they have relied heavy on their “business” attire the past two weekends to help pull them through games. Whether it’s a mentality or some sorcery, the Fighting Hawks seem to play a bit different coming out in that all-black everything uniform set.

Yet, when does it become a crutch?? When does that mantra slowly fade and the ideal of a uniform changing everything not work anymore??

Maybe this is the season that gets put to the test, as UND does sport a solid 10-3-1 record to lead the NCHC standings, but still– the performances have left a bit to be desired after their exit from the bubble in Omaha. Granted, Adam Scheel’s nine wins and Jordan Kawaguchi’s 16 points lead the conference; something doesn’t seem quite right since the bubble and maybe clothing isn’t the best way to mask it.

Or maybe it is, as UND has worn the black uniform twice in the 2021 calendar year and won both games. In the bubble, they had a win and a tie in the all-black– putting their record this season to 3-0-1. Last season, they went 5-1-0 in the business attire, There is a method to the madness, but at the same time– there has to be something more there for the Hawks to get them motivated outside of a jersey color, right?? Why not just wear the black uniform the rest of the season and go on a run if the success is proven and there.

Personally, it does seem a bit alarming that it takes a jersey change as the carrot on a stick to get these players going. Especially after the solid bubble performance, especially since a lot of these players had last season taken away from them due to the pandemic. You’d think that there would been a little more hunger with the lack of games this season and they wouldn’t need a jersey gimmick to wake them up after a subpar performance.

I understand, this is a helluva thing to throw out there for a top-five ranked school, but it’s also something that shouldn’t be ignored. Though Scheel has nine wins, there has been holes to his game and he hasn’t really gotten the clean-up around his net from the team in front of him, leaving him out in the open after making the first save, while a tailing player comes to pick up the garbage in a wide open net. While it is a small sample size outside to bubble, going from 4.0 goals-per-game in the bubble to 2.75 outside of it is quite the drop and a little bit of an eyebrow raising circumstance when you see that the five-goal output month accounted for almost half of the goals combined in the last four games.

As I stated, if the black jerseys work as a carrot on the stick to get the guys hungry, wear them until they’re tattered if it gets results. However, there’s times it’s not always going to work and the underlying issue will need to be addressed when it comes to how a team adapts and how they persevere from that adaptation.

UND HOCKEY: What Could Have Been

Ralph Engelstad Arena, 03/12/20; Photo by Scotty Wazz

After I drop Jen off at work, I usually go for a ride around the city to decompress before going to bed. On a night like Thursday March 12th, it was probably much needed. Sports stopped on that day. Rightfully so, but still a bummer that the thing many used to distract themselves from the issues around them is not there. In any case, I decided to drive to Ralph Engelstad Arena and just zone out.

As I pulled up, no lights were on in the building or outside. Light adorn the plaza area with the statue of Sitting Bull, but not much else. It was a fitting scene for the night, as the NCHC cancelled their tournament, as did the NCAA. Again, rightfully so– still a bummer.

Mostly a bummer for the student-athletes on the University of North Dakota squad who had come back to life this season following two years of missing the big tournament. They were on pace to be one of the all-time great teams in North Dakota hockey history, as they were ranked 1st in the Pairwise and were odds-on favorites to win the National Championship.

Now, it’s a case of what could have been.

With the cancellations, all anyone can do is wonder if this team would have won the NCHC playoff title to go with the Penrose Cup, if they could have dominated the NCAA and have won the school’s ninth National Championship, and if there’d be another Hobey Baker Award winner from this team. It was a season to remember for the right reasons and for the reasons that could have been.

You hate it for the team, of course, but you really hate it for the seniors of this team. Colton Poolman, who came back because he had unfinished business; Cole Smith, the heart and soul of this team; Andrew Peski, who bookended his tenure with two solid seasons; Casey Johnson, who became a valued utility option for this club in any spot; Zach Yon, who fought through injuries his last season and was a bit of an energy guy; Dixon Bowen, who carried on the UND tradition his father started, as well as being an energy guy; Westin Michaud, who came to UND as a graduate transfer and made people wish this team had him for a full four years. Those are the guys who may not get much closure on this season.

Then you look at guys outside of the seniors that may think about leaving, but could reconsider given the way this year ended. This is going on nothing at all, but you’d have to think the Ottawa Senators were heavily invested in what Jacob Bernard-Docker did this year and may have even taken a look at him moving forward. Jordan Kawaguchi’s Hobey Baker-esque season could have gotten him looks by NHL teams, but he might stay to finish this fight off. Then there’s Shane Pinto, who was looked at by the Senators heavily in the World Juniors– like JBD– but assured everyone that he would be staying at UND; but time can changes things.

Those are the stories to look at now– who stays, who goes, who comes in. There is no pomp and circumstance, no banner, no one-last-hurrah for the seniors. It’s just over. And now UND fans and players alike will have a chip on their shoulder with how this season ended and what could have been.

Rightfully so.

Maybe Liberty University Can Make the Jump to NCAA D1 Hockey

Photo via Liberty.edu

When I had time this weekend, I was able to check out some ACHA hockey between Stevenson University and Liberty University at Liberty’s rink in Lynchburg, Virginia. The rink they had, the production they had, and the support the teams have are amazing. It makes you think that if their close to 4,000-seat arena would be suited to make a jump to the NCAA level– most likely on the D1 stage.

A bit of history on Liberty’s club team– they started in 1985 and actually house five club teams, the only school in the ACHA to do so. They have a D1, D2, and D3 men’s team, while they also have D1 and D2 teams for the women’s side. All five teams have winning records this season, with the D1 and D2 men being ranked in the top-six, while both women’s teams are ranked 1st in the nation, with the D1 side being back-to-back National Champions. While it is club hockey, those numbers shouldn’t be one to scoff at regardless of the level of play.

The school is very well funded. With an endowment of $1.43B– which ranks in the top 100 of universities in North America, there’s plenty of money to be able bring their men’s D1 and women’s D1 to the big stage of the NCAA hockey and be somewhat successful. One of the big hiccups would be trying to get top recruits to get accepted to the school, as well as having them be able to adhere to the code that the school has for its students, much akin to what Brigham Young University has.

Of course, the biggest question is where they would play at, as Lynchburg isn’t all that close to many places that already play. Robert Morris and Penn State would probably be the closest rivals. You’d have to think that with the Alaska teams in trouble and the WCHA apparently falling apart in slow motion, it’d be perfect for Atlantic Hockey to pick up Liberty and maybe even Alabama-Huntsville. That’s if they want to take that risk and move their footprint down the coast and over to the South. That said, friggin’ Air Force is in Atlantic Hockey, so why wouldn’t they want to take the chance?? Not only that, but Liberty would fit right in, as nine of the 11 teams in the conference are private schools.

On the women’s side, they’d probably be able to slide into College Hockey America, with Penn State and Robert Morris being the closest rivals, as well as having Lindenwood University in Missouri being a little outlier for them. Since it is a women’s only conference– it would be a good fit for the Lady Flames to side into should they want to make the jump.

It would be another step for club teams to move up to D1, with Penn State and Arizona State making those jumps in the last decade. It’s a school that would draw a lot of eyes from an area that NCAA hockey doesn’t have a foothold in already, while also maybe counteracting things that could happen should teams have to fold into itself due to budget cuts.

The money is there, the groundwork for success is there, the arena is there– all it needs is to actually make the jump and move forward with it. Might it be an odd choice to take a team from Southwest Central Virginia into the D1 fold?? Sure, as purist would call it a non-traditional market. Yet, at the same time– the exposure top-tier college hockey to that area could create more youth hockey players in the area who want to aspire to play that level, thus helping the future crop grow for the rest of the NCAA.

When There’s No Fan Advantage on Home Ice

Student sections in college hockey are a treat. Plenty of passion from the student-body, representing their school and doing all they can to hype them up for the game going on below them. On Saturday at The Ralph, that was very much on display…by the visiting fan base’s student section. And the picture from the Michigan Tech Twitter tells it all. Tech fans up and yelling, while University of North Dakota fans were sitting there taking it.

Even when the North Dakota student body and other fans in the building tried to drown them out, it was only for a fleeting moment before they got worn out and the Michigan Tech’s Mitch’s Misfits took over the building with their chanting and support. Big props to them for not only travelling all that way to come into North Dakota, but for also supporting as loudly as they did and for as long as they did. That’s dedication.

But it also shows a big problem I’ve seen with The Ralph when it comes to crowd noise– which is that there’s very little of it for very long periods of time. Aside from the Minnesota game a few years ago, the atmosphere hasn’t been anything too special for home game at The Ralph, there’s nothing that makes it special for North Dakota. Sure, the arena is one of the biggest, sure it sells a lot of tickets and gets the attendance numbers, but there’s times that a library would be considered louder than during game play at a Fighting Hawks game. It’s even more noticeable when the students are on a semester or holiday break and they aren’t at the games– things are even more sterile in terms of cheering outside of momentary occurrences of goals, hits, or saves.

It didn’t used to be that way, as the old Winter Sports Center was a rucousy place for UND fans. Like many old college arenas, it had it’s own special feel to it with the fans right on top of the action…hanging over the boards, even. That seemed to change with the more corporate feel that The Ralph has. Not to say it isn’t a lovely building and all that, but it seems like it’s too clean for college sports. The student-athletes get plenty out of it with the facilities being akin (or in some cases better) to professional venues, but the other atmosphere seems to be lacking with this arena despite the North Dakota paraphernalia around the concourse and up in the rafters.

Now, this isn’t a knock on the student section per se– they can only do so much with what they’re allowed to do in the environment and according to NCAA bylaws and such; but it seems they don’t carry on as much as they could or should be able to. There are some outside of the student section that tries to get some people going, but it’s few and far between. People are content on just watching the game rather than trying to feel like they’re a part of it. The games seem more like a place to be seen than a place to be hear among the masses. It’s a shame, especially in a building as big as The Ralph, you’d think that the sound would be even bigger; really making it hard for opposing schools who may already be caught off-guard by the size of the arena to begin with. Without a distinct noise-level or other distractions– once they get over the size of the arena, they settle in and don’t get as rattled as they could get.

One of the biggest thing is the fact that while The Ralph has a big attendance number for tickets sold, there’s noticeable empty seats through the arena as of late. While the team has had a few off years and many in the area can’t deal with not being one of the top-dogs every year (which is noble, but also a bit headstrong), that’s no reason to not show up after you’ve bought the tickets for the game. It’s bad optics for an event and bad for an atmosphere that’s already lacking in vocal support for the team.

Maybe these heel tactics– while true in some cases– will actually get people’s attention to the lack of home-ice advantage in the stands in Grand Forks. It really showed this weekend when Mitch’s Misfits were far-and-away the loudest bunch in the rink and the North Dakota faithful couldn’t drown them out or even keep up with them.

Prove me wrong, UND faithful– prove me wrong.

UND HOCKEY: Scheel Solid in UND Victory

Photo: Kelsey Lee/ Violet Turtle Photography

GRAND FORKS, ND– On a night that honored the Teddy Roosevelt Medora Foundation– with a Teddy Roosevelt cosplayer to boot– the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks gave Bemidji State a rough-ride as they went on to sweep the weekend with a 4-1 victory. It marked the four-straight regular season win for the Hawks, marking the first time since the 2016-17 that the team started out undefeated at home to start the season. 

“This is our home, this is our house,” said head coach Brad Berry. “We have pride in that. I know a lot of teams come in here and see the amenities we have at The Ralph. We’re very lucky to have the Ralph Engelstad Arena and they like to have motivation to bring it down a little bit. But this is a place where we wanted to establish consistency and play a heavy game with a lot of patient pressure and establish our identity at home.” 

“We have a very resilient group,” mentioned goalie Adam Scheel. “No matter what the score is, we believe in each other in the room and know we’re just gonna get it done.There’s nothing like it in the world, a home game at The Ralph.”

It only took 36 seconds for the Fighting Hawks to strike, as Jordan Kawaguchi causes a turnover behind the net and passed it out to Grant Mismash, who had a wide open net to tap it in to opening the scoring. UND kept Bemidji to the perimeter, but one big chance happened when Ethan Somoza put a shot on a seemingly open cage, but Adam Scheel slide across to get his right pad on it to keep it out. With just over three minutes remaining in the first, Cole Smith drove through the zone hard, tried a wraparound, but Mark Senden was there to bang home the rebound for his second of the season. 

The Hawks did have some chances in the second, but it wasn’t until 13 minutes in when they struck again, with Jonny Tychonick having his first career goal come off a tasty pass from Mismash to make it 3-0. UND controlled the pace of play throughout the period and seemed to hold all the cards against the very defensive Beavers’ team. 

The action was pretty stagnant in the third, not many chances on either side until 1:17 remaining when Aaron Miller batted home a Tyler Kirkup rebound to break the shutout for Scheel on the Beavers’ 18th shot of the game. Nineteen seconds later, however, Colton Poolman put it in the empty net to make it 4-1. 

THEY SAID IT

“On the first shift, you always want to do something impactful to get yourself and your team into the game. It was kind of a broken play and Gooch (Kawaguchi) was on the forecheck there and he made a good pass and I just had to tap it in. It was a good first shift to get our line going, as well as the rest of the team.” — Grant Mismash on his goal in the opening minute. 

Adam Scheel/ Photo: Jen Conway @NHLHistoryGirl

“No matter who you’re playing, Saturday night– especially after a win– is a tough one. They came out hard. Sometimes the shots on the scoreboard don’t really reflect it.” — Adam Scheel

“A couple of guys last night struggled a little bit and that was an opportunity for other guys to come in. They do all the right things on and off the ice– they work hard in practice, in workouts, in the classroom– and they’re older and experience guys. The second game is the toughest to win. You want to have guys who have been in those battles before.” — Brad Berry on line-up changes made for Saturday night. 

UND is back home for a one-off against Michigan Tech in the US Hockey Hall of Fame Game at The Ralph next Saturday.

UND HOCKEY: Late Heroics Fuel Hawks OT Victory

GRAND FORKS, ND– While it wasn’t the prettiest game played, the University of North Dakota came back home to start a five-game homestand on the right foot with an overtime win against the Bemidji State Beavers. However, it wasn’t until late in the third and early in overtime when the Fighting Hawks turned it on, something that coach Brad Berry was looking to do from the start, including calling his timeout midway through the first period.

“You try to find out early in the game who’s going, who has momentum,” said Berry postgame. “I thought there were probably two guys on each line going and we tried to piece three lines together at the end.” 

“I think we were a little rattled, that would be the correct term,” mentioned Westin Michaud after the game. “(Coach) just said, ‘Calm down, execute our system, play our game,’ and it was a really good time-out by him because I think that was a momentum changer, for sure.”

The first period of the game wasn’t what many people would crisp. A lot of sloppy play on both ends of the ice lead to a scoreless first and the wonder was if the game would get the first goal on an own goal. UND has held without a shot for around 11 minutes of game play, after attacking Zach Driscoll’s net in the first shift. Many missed chances by Grant Mismash handling a one-time attempt too much and a couple of ill-advised passes when there could have been shots.

After an Ethan Fritsch boarding call, Bemidji struck first, as Owen Sillinger deflected home his second of the season and made it 1-0 Beavers. The Hawks were getting shots on Driscoll, but they weren’t necessarily the most high-quality chances when it came to trying to beat the Beavers’ netminder. It seemed after getting the lead, the Beavers build a defensive dam in the neutral zone to clog up the speed of UND.

The third was mostly the Beavers clogging up the ice, keeping the Hawks to the perimeter and making a lot of their shots from low percentage areas and thrown into defenders. That was until late in the frame, when Jordan Kawaguchi redirected a pass from Jacob Bernard-Docker in past Driscoll to tie the game. No goals happened past that so we were headed to overtime. 

Less than a minute into overtime, Shane Pinto won a draw in the Bemidji zone and Westin Michaud ripped one past Driscoll to win the game in overtime 2-1. The faceoff win was one of 41 for UND, who dominated in the circle, led by Jasper Weatherby’s 13 wins in the game.

THEY SAID IT

Westin Michaud/Photo Jen Conway, @NHLHistoryGirl

“Shane Pinto won that first draw straight back to Matt Kierstad. I kind of missed it, but Kiers had a great shot tipped. I went out and said, ‘Pinto, let’s go, do it again.’ And he did. I move half an inch left and fortunate enough, I saw the defender in the back there and pulled it, dragged it, and hope for it to go in.” — Westin Michaud on his game-winning goal. 

“Obviously wasn’t pretty. We found a way to get it done. It kind of shows the team we have, just to stick with it even when things aren’t going our way and we aren’t playing our best. When a good hockey team goes into a trap and takes away some options, you’re going to have some…some…discombobulation, I guess. That’s a big word for me.” — Jordan Kawaguchi on the style of game being played.

Yellow Jackets Earn Some Stripes With NCAA Appearance

American International College entered Division One hockey in the 1998-99 season. Prior to this season, the Yellow Jackets were 160-461-68 in Division One. With a 23-17-1 season this year, it was the programs first winning season as a D1 team in history. It was also the first time the team won Atlantic Hockey in the regular season, the post-season, and locked in a spot for the National Tournament. Not only that, but it yielded the team’s first tournament win on Friday, as they beat St. Cloud State.

It’s a path that AIC head coach Eric Lang has paved in his three years behind the bench. It’s a path that he saw last season in the team as they seemed to have turned a corner within the conference.

“I think three years ago, we were hoping to win hockey games,” Lang mentioned before the tournament began. “I think last year we thought we can win some hockey games and I think our belief this year is every time we get on the ice, we have an expectation we’re going to win. It’s been really nice to witness the transformation from thinking and hoping to expecting.”

Of course, in a smaller school in a smaller conference, the pickings are a bit slim when it comes to wanting to be a Yellow Jacket. Prior to the year, AIC was 23-40-12, which didn’t really make the school desirable to some prospective student-athletes.

“Three years ago when I was making phone calls from a four, five, six-win team, it’s hard to get guys to call you back,” Lang mentioned after AIC’s loss Saturday. “It’s a little easier when you’re regular season conference champs, when you win your playoffs, and you’re making recruiting calls from first place. We’re squeezing in as many phone calls as we can in 24 hours from yesterday into today. You have to ride that momentum and recruiting. I think our program has a lot to offer.”

Lang continued, “It’s really important that we stay with an ‘A’ mindset player and we’re not tempted in recruiting anything else but the ‘A’ mindset. That supersedes everything. It actually supersedes our talent. If they’ve got an ‘A’ mindset, we know they’re going to develop, we know they’re going to be great human beings, and we know they’re going to get better.”

This AIC group will be losing three seniors: defenseman Ryan Polin, forward Shawn McBride, and graduate transfer player/mentor Ryan Papa. While all three were leaving after the loss on Saturday, all three had glowing reviews of the school.

“It was an awesome ride going from four years ago to where the program is today it’s unbelievable,” said McBride. “I was just fortunate enough to get a place to play college hockey and to be given lot of opportunity and I’ve met some many great people along the way. Tons of great memories and I feel very, very fortunate.”

“I was fortunate enough to extend my college career to six years,” mentioned Papa who came to AIC from St. Cloud State and had his career finish last season due to concussions. “This program shaped my life and I can’t thank the core staff enough for giving me a second chance here. I couldn’t think of a better group of guys to end my hockey career with.”

“We won seven games our freshman year and to see the program evolve, it’s been amazing to be a part of,” Polin added. “All the guys were buying into what coach Lang has put in our head.”

“I want to thank the athletic administration and coach Lang for revitalizing our program and made coming to the rink so much fun and helped us win games, which is so much fun,” McBride added.

With all these firsts out of the way and all of the national attention, it may be hard to replicate that for AIC if they don’t have the right mindset that coach Lang has put forth. However, he knows that the biggest thing for his team is to not be satisfied for just being there.

“You can’t be satisfied if you don’t win the last game of the year. You constantly have to have that carrot in front of you,” mentioned Lang. “We went from here (conference champions) to here (playoff champions) to here (NCAA tournament). Hopefully, I’m back in this seat next year and we’re moving on because that’s the progression of this program. We return a whole bunch of players next year, these guys will go in and like the taste of this and want to advance this thing another step. That’s really important that these guys stay hungry.”

The core of returned players like goalie Zackarias Skog, forward Joel Kocur, and defenseman Brennan Kapcheck, who all played amazing in the West Regional, the AIC Yellow Jackets have started a solid resume for their future. If nothing else, they won the hearts of the people at the Fargo regional. While it started as a foil for the St. Cloud State fans, the AIC bandwagon grew after the win, as their shirts were sold out before the end of the game Saturday night.

While their season didn’t end the way they wanted to Saturday night, it’s one that they won’t soon forget.

“I’m proud of this group, I think they’ve changed the landscape of AIC hockey. And I told them as you get a little older in life, life’s about making memories and these guys made a bunch of memories this season for each other,” Lang mentioned. “They made a bunch of memories for me and my family, and I’ll be forever grateful to them. The tough part about this group is that I don’t get to be with them for another couple of weeks. So, selfishly I want to be with these guys. I have been with them since August 30. I haven’t had a bad day since August 30. I love these guys and just very proud of them.”