UND heads to Omaha with Penrose Cup in hand, but plenty of motivation

Mar. 7—GRAND FORKS — UND is heading to Omaha for the final regular-season weekend with the Penrose Cup already in hand.

UND has won the National Collegiate Hockey Conference for the fourth time in five years and sixth time in a decade with Saturday's 3-0 victory over Western Michigan.

UND has locked up a spot in the NCAA tournament, a strong possibility of being one of the four No. 1 seeds.

So, what's there to play for this weekend when UND takes on Omaha in Baxter Arena at 7:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the regular-season finale?

"The motivations for us is to continue with the momentum of what we've done over the last couple weeks," UND coach Brad Berry said. "The other part is the Pairwise. We're a No. 1 seed right now. We want to stay there. We want to elevate. I think staying sharp as far as what we're doing, and not deviating from the plan, and not getting ahead of ourselves with the playoffs (is important)."

UND (24-8-2) is No. 3 in the Pairwise Rankings which are used to select and seed the 16-team NCAA tournament.

One reason UND wants to elevate is because the higher seeds are considered home teams in NCAA tournament games. Home teams have last line change, which means after whistles, the visiting team has to put its lines on the ice first. The home team then can match.

"There's a lot at stake for us," UND forward Owen McLaughlin said. "We want to get as high of a seed as possible in the (NCAA) tournament to set us up."

Berry has used last line change to get favorable matchups throughout the season.

Specifically, he has used Dylan James, Jake Schmaltz and Louis Jamernik V to play against other teams' best players.

Last weekend in Grand Forks, UND became the first team all season to hold Western Michigan's leading scorer Luke Grainger without a point on the weekend.

A week earlier, UND kept Minnesota Duluth's leading goal-scorer, Ben Steeves, off the scoreboard.

In its home series before that, UND held Denver star Massimo Rizzo without a point in two games. The Fighting Hawks are the only team to do that this season.

UND would like to have last line change for as many games as possible in the NCAA tournament considering it is 17-4-1 with last line change this season — only one of those four losses coming in regulation.

The other big importance to UND this weekend is the battle to get to Sioux Falls for the NCAA regional.

UND would prefer to play there.

It's the closest regional to home. It would likely be filled with a lot of UND fans.

But Omaha is the host of the regional. So, if Omaha makes the NCAA tournament, it would automatically be placed in Sioux Falls. Because Omaha would be a No. 4 seed and UND likely a No. 1, they would match up first round. The NCAA tries to avoid conference matchups in the first round, which would likely mean UND gets sent elsewhere.

"If Omaha makes the (NCAA) tournament, they're in Sioux Falls," McLaughlin said. "We would like to play there. So, they have a lot on the line, and that's kind of motivating us."

Omaha (18-10-4) is currently No. 17 in the Pairwise Rankings. It needs to rise to at least No. 14 to get into the NCAA tournament.

The Mavericks also are trying to grab a top-four finish in the NCHC to get home-ice advantage for the league quarterfinals. Omaha is currently in fifth place, four points back of Colorado College.

"They're kind of battling for their lives, so they're going to throw everything at us," UND forward Cameron Berg said. "For us, we're still battling, too. We're still battling for the Pairwise. We still want to advance to No. 2, maybe up to No. 1. So, we still have a lot to play for, too.

"We want to go to Sioux Falls. For us to go to Sioux Falls, they can't make it."

UND defenseman Bennett Zmolek, who is the No. 2 minute-logger on the team behind Garrett Pyke, will not play this weekend.

Zmolek suffered an injury blocking one of five shots Friday against Western Michigan. He did not play Saturday.

Zmolek joined the team on the ice for the Penrose Cup celebration on crutches.

Berry indicated he did not believe it to be a longterm injury.

UND will have a decision to make on its starting goaltender.

Will it try to keep Ludvig Persson rolling? Persson is 4-0 with a .957 save percentage and two shutouts in his last four starts.

Or will it try to get Persson some rest and give backup Hobie Hedquist a start?

"Everything's on the table," Berry said. "We're trying to win games. We're trying to stay with consistency. In saying that, guys have gotten opportunities throughout the year at different times. (Defenseman) Nate Benoit played (last) weekend. There could be an opportunity with Hobie as well. He's worked extremely hard. He's won all his games."

Berry said he talked with Hedquist this week with a short message.

"If the opportunity presents itself, be ready for it," Berry told him.

Hedquist is 3-0 with a 2.65 goals-against average and an .890 save percentage. His last start came against Omaha on Jan. 13. He stopped 22 of 23 shots in a 3-1 UND victory.

UND forward Jackson Blake has some individual motivation this weekend.

The UND sophomore forward is chasing an NCHC record.

Blake is currently tied with UND's Brock Boeser (2015-16) and Denver's Bobby Brink (2021-22) for the most conference points ever in an NCHC season with 35. He'll get two chances to break that.

When: 7:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Where: Baxter Arena, Omaha.

TV: Midco Sports (GF Ch. 27/622 HD).

Radio: The Fox (96.1 FM).