What does UND hockey team have to do to get in NCAAs?
GRAND FORKS, N.D.—The University of North Dakota no longer controls its fate for home ice in the first round of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference play.
It will need help from Denver and Colorado College to pass St. Cloud State, which holds a two-point edge on UND for the final spot of home ice with four games to play.
Surely, there will be a lot of scoreboard-watching the next two weeks, especially from the NCHC league offices, which could stand to lose money if UND doesn't host a first-round series and draw 22,000-plus for a best-of-three playoff series.
But the big picture is more important.
UND's main goal has to be reaching the NCAA tournament for a 15th straight season. That will ultimately be the measuring stick for this team.
The Fighting Hawks currently sit at No. 14 in the Pairwise Rankings, which would likely be the last spot in the NCAA tournament as an at-large team, assuming there are no major upsets in the conference playoffs.
But if there's even one upset, UND would be out.
Seniors Gage Ausmus and Matt Hrynkiw were freshmen when UND's season came down to a Wisconsin-Ohio State game in the Big Ten playoffs.
Wisconsin erased a two-goal deficit in the final five minutes and won it in overtime to give UND a spot in the NCAA tournament. Ausmus and Hrynkiw can probably attest to not wanting it to come down to that again.
The final four regular-season games will be critical to UND's fate.
Two splits will almost surely put UND behind the eight-ball as the league playoffs begin. A 3-1 record will probably put their head above water, but not comfortably. And a 4-0 mark could vault UND high enough to be in position to grab a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs.
There could be as many as five NCHC playoff games that will also affect UND's spot in the Pairwise as well. The chase for the NCAAs won't be over after the next four games.
Although this season has been a rollercoaster, if UND can get into the NCAA tournament, it has potential to be disruptive for a couple of reasons.
For starters, it would automatically be placed in the Fargo regional, where it would play in front of a heavily partisan UND crowd. Two years ago, it reached the Frozen Four behind a raucous atmosphere at Scheels Arena.
And the other key is lengthy ESPN TV timeouts.
The breaks are longer than the regular season and it gives teams a chance to rest their top players a lot more. Fourth lines are almost taken out of some of those games.
In the past, this has often been a disadvantage for UND, which has relied on its depth to win games.
But during Saturday night's 3-2 loss to Western Michigan, we found out that the Fighting Hawks can be a pretty scary team when they roll out Shane Gersich, Tyson Jost, Brock Boeser and Tucker Poolman every other shift and have some heavy, shutdown lines to follow.
UND's big goals are still obtainable—but it can't slip any further in the national picture.