WDAY: The News Leader

Published March 28, 2013, 11:07 AM

UND takes different path to NCAA hockey tourney

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — Each year of their college hockey career, University of North Dakota senior forward Corban Knight and his classmates entered the NCAA tournament on a big winning streak.

By: BRAD ELLIOTT SCHLOSSMAN,Grand Forks Herald, Associated Press

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — Each year of their college hockey career, University of North Dakota senior forward Corban Knight and his classmates entered the NCAA tournament on a big winning streak.

That's why they aren't alarmed this week.

"The last three years, we haven't been able to get the job done," said Knight, an alternate captain. "We haven't reached our goal. Maybe, this year, there's a little change."

There's no doubt that UND has taken a different path to the NCAA tournament this year.

For the first time since 2004-05 — Dave Hakstol's first as head coach at UND — the team had a better record before Christmas than after the holiday.

A year ago, the team entered the regionals on a seven-game winning streak. Two years ago, it was a nine-game winning streak and a 12-game unbeaten streak. Three years ago, UND went 12-1 in a 13-game stretch before the NCAA tournament.

But that magical, late-season run that has become so routine under Hakstol hasn't surfaced yet this year. UND is 9-7-4 since sweeping Holy Cross to start January.

Last weekend, the team suffered its first loss at the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five in four years when Colorado College scored an overtime goal.

"Obviously, (that) loss was tough," Knight told the Grand Forks Herald ( "Nobody wanted to leave St. Paul like we did. But we were able to get some quality rest this weekend and we've had some great practices this week. We've really been able to tackle some tactical stuff that we needed to address. I think it has really benefited our team.

"Obviously, you don't want to go into the tournament with a loss, but we're making the best of it and I think it's going to help us."

UND will open the national tournament at 4:30 p.m. Friday against Niagara in Grand Rapids, Mich.

It's only the third time in nine years under Hakstol that UND has entered the tournament with a loss. In 2007, after falling in overtime in the Final Five title game, UND responded by winning the NCAA West Regional and earning a trip to the Frozen Four. In 2009, UND lost the third-place game at the Final Five, then lost in the first round of the NCAAs to New Hampshire.

"It's not fun losing," Knight said. "You play hockey to win, especially in a tournament like the Final Five. But it's nice to live another day and get that national tournament berth. Guys were able to switch their focus pretty fast and I think everyone's excited about the opportunity to be in the national tournament.

"Throughout the year, coming off of losses, our team has responded pretty well. I don't see it being any different this week."

Only once has UND lost back-to-back games this season. That occurred in November when it lost a series finale against Notre Dame on the road, then lost a series opener at Colorado College. UND did outshoot the Tigers by 21 on that night.

Oftentimes, UND's best games came after a loss.

In January, league champion St. Cloud State beat UND 3-1 in the opening game of the series. UND came back the next night and outshot the Huskies by 18 — the most that St. Cloud State has been outshot by this season.

In February, UND lost a close game against the University of Denver on Friday night, then came back to hand the Pioneers their worst home loss in more than five years.

In March, when Michigan Tech pushed a first-round playoff series to a decisive third game, UND responded by handing the Huskies their worst loss under second-year coach Mel Pearson.

"I think, overall, we've responded very well to any adversity we've come through," Hakstol said. "Losses are part of a season. Different losses bring different amounts of adversity. When I look back at two or three really tough losses we've had through the season, I think we've responded well."

UND senior forward Danny Kristo added: "I think if you look at the must-win games, games we have to have, we've done a good job, especially two weeks ago against Tech. That was probably our best effort all year. I think everyone's excited right now, trying to focus one day at a time and get ready for Niagara."

Hakstol said throughout the season, the team has kept the big picture in focus. That big picture will finally arrive Friday afternoon.

"We put a real focus, this team, building toward the national tournament," Hakstol said. "We haven't allowed ourselves, at any point in time, to look at any other goal. I think we've yet to play our best hockey. The challenge for us is to make sure our best game is in front of us Friday night."