Aiming for four-peat, North Dakota sees WCHA Final Five as ‘like a home game’

One of the only events North Dakota’s seniors haven’t experienced is defeat at the Final Five.

UND has won eight straight games at the Final Five and three championships going back to 2009, the year it fell to eventual champion Minnesota-Duluth in the semifinals. That was a season before any of the current players joined the team.

2013 WCHA Final Five

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Since then, UND won three straight to win the 2010 title, took down Denver in double overtime in 2011 and outscored its opponents 14-4 on its way to another title last year.

North Dakota goes into this year’s Final Five — the last WCHA event before eight of its teams scatter to the Big Ten and National Collegiate Hockey Conference next season — as the third seed and plays Colorado College on Thursday night.

“Our guys take a lot of pride in wanting to doing well in this tournament,” UND captain Corban Knight said. “It means everything to have our fan support. We go into a hostile environment and the amount of fans we have there just speaks volumes about our program. It makes it easy for us to get up for these games.”

UND has a tremendous amount of support each season at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., and at times, it feels like a game in Grand Forks when UND fans start their chants.

Between a rich hockey tradition and a proud fan base, UND has garnered a reputation for a strong following that’s willing to travel and has good alumni numbers in the Twin Cities.

“It’s always a great atmosphere and it’s a lot of fun,” said UND senior Danny Kristo. “It’s like a home game for us playing in front of 10,000 fans cheering for you.” — TB

Wisconsin stays hot heading into its final Final Five

Minnesota-Duluth had been playing better hockey down the home stretch of the season than the Bulldogs had in other patches of their 2012-13 campaign, but they ran into a red-hot Wisconsin team in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

Badgers fans’ spirits had been down somewhat following a 3-2 upset loss at the hand of Penn State in Madison, Wis., on Feb. 25, but UW bounced back to win three of its next four before sweeping UMD in the teams’ best-of-three series.

Wisconsin went behind 1-0 to the Bulldogs in Friday’s series-opener when Bulldogs forward Dan DeLisle found the net 7:38 into the game. The Badgers bounced back up quickly, though, and they benefited from a multi-point game for forwards Nic Kerdiles and Mark Zengerle as well as defenseman John Ramage in a 3-1 Game 1 win.

The hosts came back out the following night and jumped all over UMD from the beginning, scoring three goals in Game 2’s first eight minutes, rolling to a 4-1 win.

The Badgers, who are 18-5-5 since Nov. 30, face Minnesota State in Thursday’s opening game of the Final Five.

UW made quick work of the Bulldogs in the teams’ first-round series, but Badgers coach Mike Eaves stressed that no postseason win is easy, and that his team’s wins over UMD were no exceptions to that rule.

“It was playoff hockey,” Eaves said. “There was not a race for a puck that wasn’t contested.

“Being on the bench and watching the play on the ice, it was a battle, and I don’t think you can ever win a series and say you weren’t challenged. We had our hands full.” — MS

CC’s revived season continues

Colorado College’s Game 3 win against Denver put the Tigers back in the Final Five after a one-year absence from the tournament, but it also is the latest evidence of an impressive turnaround.

CC went 2-11-2 over a two-month stretch from mid-November into the second half of the season as its defense fell apart. The Tigers allowed three goals or more in 16 straight games.

“We needed to commit to a defense-first mentality and we weren’t doing that,” CC goalie Joe Howe said. “We needed to let off the gas pedal a little bit and just play consistent hockey.”

The Tigers finished the regular season 5-3-3 and, after losing Friday, came back to win two straight one-goal games at their rival Pioneers.

“We’ve gotten a lot better as a five-man unit and a lot stronger in the D-zone,” senior Andrew Hamburg said. “We played great defense against Denver and blocked a lot of shots.”

Added Howe: “[Playing Denver] was a little bit of added incentive to win. It was intense all the way to the buzzer. Getting to the Final Five was our focus and we’re not ready to be done yet.”

But CC’s season will end unless it beats North Dakota, a team with which it split four games during the regular season, and follows that with a win Friday against Minnesota, which took three points from the Tigers in December in Colorado Springs.

At 25th in the PairWise Rankings, Colorado College’s only hope of making the NCAA tournament is through the automatic bid for winning the Final Five title.

UND third-string senior goalie finally gets moment in the spotlight

Though North Dakota thrashed Michigan Tech 6-0 last Sunday in the teams’ third and deciding game of their first-round series, perhaps the loudest roar from the Ralph Engelstad Arena crowd came near the end of the game.

With four minutes left, UND coach Dave Hakstol pulled goaltender Clarke Saunders in favor of senior third-string goalie Tate Maris, giving Maris his first appearance in a non-exhibition contest for the school.

Maris stopped the only shot he faced through the final minutes of the game to lock up UND’s first combined shutout since Jake Brandt and Jordan Parise teamed up to blank Yale in 2003.

“I just thought to myself that the game was pretty much in hand, it was my last game at the Ralph,” Maris said in describing his thought process on the UND bench nearing the point where Hakstol put the senior into the fray. “And you always want to be ready and prepared in the role I play.

“I kind of had it in the back of my mind that it might come down to [me getting in], but I really had no idea ahead of time. But right at the four-minute mark, Hak came up to me and asked if I wanted to get a couple minutes out there, and I was definitely up for that.”

Maris, something of a cult hero with UND fans for his prolific and entertaining use of Twitter (@TAT3MARI5), said he appreciated the opportunity to finally show in a game what he could do.

“What it really comes down to is that I’d been preparing for a full four years, and then I got to talk to a few friends and say how it was,” Maris said. “There were moments in time where it was very difficult knowing I was going to practice and just working as hard as you can to push the other goalies in front of you because the chances of you playing are very slim, but when you get those opportunities, exhibition games or not, it’s exactly small moments like that that you’re working for.

“It was four years of work put into those last four minutes [of playing time], but I wouldn’t trade that for the world.” — MS

Watch for more

Keep an eye on the WCHA Blog for this week’s Final Five picks, with looks at the teams mentioned above as well as St. Cloud State and Minnesota, which have byes into Friday’s semifinals, and Minnesota State.

Quick hits

• Nebraska-Omaha experienced Monday the Mavericks’ first early departure of the offseason. Junior 6-foot-8 defenseman Andrej Sustr will forgo his final year of collegiate eligibility to sign with an NHL team, although, at the time of writing, Sustr has not announced which organization he will be joining.

• North Dakota failed to sweep a WCHA opponent at home in Grand Forks for the first time since the 1974-75 campaign. The only team UND picked up back-to-back wins against at Ralph Engelstad Arena this season was non-conference foe Holy Cross in the first weekend of January.