FROZEN FOUR | North Dakota knows there’s a title on the line

A 32-win team with a chip on its shoulder.

That’s North Dakota heading into Thursday’s Frozen Four semifinal against NCHC rival Denver.

Never mind that the Fighting Hawks won the Penrose Cup, given to the regular-season conference champion, or that they’re making their third consecutive Frozen Four appearance and eighth in 12 years.

At 32-6-4, they are guaranteed to finish with fewer losses than the school’s famed 1987 NCAA title team that went 40-8-0 and set an NCAA record for wins.

All of that is on the backburner.

They want more.

Fueling UND’s fire is the fact that the juniors on this team, who’ve never missed a Frozen Four, have never won a national semifinal game. UND is 0-6 in its last six Frozen Four semifinals and hasn’t won a national title since 2000.

The last two times North Dakota was in the title tilt it lost to Denver, 4-1 in 2005 and Boston College, 3-2 in overtime in 2001.

The capper for UND’s angst came prior to last weekend’s Midwest Regional when the trendy pick was Northeastern, then the hottest team in the country riding a 14-game winning streak, and Michigan’s vaunted CCM Line of three Hobey Baker Award finalists that led the nation in scoring and made the Wolverines the highest-scoring team in the country.

“You could say we were pretty fired up to play them,” UND junior defenseman Troy Stecher said. “We had a pretty good season too with 30 wins, which is pretty impressive under a first-year coach and a new goalie and it seemed like everyone forgot about us.”

Not anymore.

After steamrolling both Northeastern and Michigan with smothering defense, UND enters Thursday’s game knowing it will need the same type of effort to beat a Pioneers squad they went 2-2-1 against this season.

“It’s going to be a war,” Stecher said. “At this point there’s nothing either team can change. It’s going to be about the little things that make the difference in this one.”

Stecher knows the burden of containing Denver’s offense will fall to UND’s defensive corps that has been the team’s backbone.

The blue line ranks fourth in points overall (117), third in assists (91), seventh in goals (26) and second in shots on goal (452). Stecher is a plus-20, third best on the team behind Paul LaDue (+27) and Keaton Thompson (+22). Tucker Poolman (+18), Matt Shaw (+16), Christian Solanin (+16) and Gage Ausmus (+12) combine to form arguably the top blue line in the country.

They are also the team leaders, particularly Stecher and Ausmus, the team captain.
 “I hate to lose and love to win,” Stecher said. “I like to think I’m the guy who speaks up and speaks my mind. When you lose or face adversity you have to check yourself in the mirror. I’m pretty competitive and the expectations are held high for what this institution represents. I don’t like to sugar-coat anything.

“Being paired with Gage, I get to be more offensive. We’ve been paired together since my freshman season and we’ve also been roommates. It’s a good pairing.”

While UND's blue line trails Boston College (123) and Quinnipiac (120) in points, they’ve also led UND to the nation's fourth-ranked overall defense (1.82 goals per game). Quinnipiac (1.86) is the only other Frozen Four team ranked in the top five.

Denver is No. 11 and Stecher, a communications major whose blog Etch-A-Stech details life on the road as a hockey player, tosses out more stats for this rivalry.

“Denver is built a lot like us,” he said. “They’ve got a great goalie (Tanner Jaillet, 2.25 goals per game, .923 save percentage) and we’ve got Cam (Johnson, 1.67 goals against, .934%) ... they get a lot of their offense through a great line (Pacific Rim — Danton Heinen, Dylan Gambrell and Trevor Moore) like we do (CBS — Drake Caggiula, Brock Boeser, Nick Schmaltz), but I think our defensive corps drives the bus.

“If we do well, we win,” Stecher said. “If we struggle, it’s tough on the team.”

Injuries, illness and suspensions have forced players to miss a combined 88 games. First-year coach Brad Berry has used 30 different lineups in 40 games, which underscores just how good UND’s blue line play has been. Just three games into the season, Cam Johnson was lost to injury for 12 games and joined highly touted recruited Matej Tomek, a third-round pick of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, on the sidelines.

That left goalie duties to junior Matt Hrynkiw, a non-scholarship walk-on. Hrynkiw, buoyed by the defense, went 9-1-2 with a .910 save percentage and 2.13 goals-against average. Tomek is healthy again but hasn’t been able to get back onto the ice because of Johnson and Hrynkiw.

Still, Berry has maintained an even keel since replacing Dave Hakstol, who left to coach the Flyers. Stecher said UND’s consistency and continuity is one reason he decommitted from Nebraska Omaha prior to his freshman season and joined UND.

Stecher calls it the best decision he’s made.

“I felt comfortable with the program’s stability,” he said. “(Berry) is more of a father figure than a coach. He’s really big on relationships amongst the guys. You walk in or see him in the hallway and he asks how you’re doing, how’s school, how’d the test go. You want to play for him.”
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