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UND's series at Western Michigan key for home ice for playoffs, tourney chances

UND practices on Thursday in preparation for weekend series against Western Michigan at Lawson Arena in Michigan. Forum News Service photo

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Hayden Shaw was the first player to step on the ice at practice Thursday afternoon at Lawson Ice Arena.

The University of North Dakota sophomore defenseman took two strides, then threw a hard shoulder into the boards.

Just had to get a little reminder of what it's like to play a game in Lawson Ice Arena.

"It's tough," junior forward Trevor Olson said. "They are a hard, physical team. Their fans are right on top of you. And you're going to get their best game. Their boards are hard. Every time you take a hit, you kind of feel it. So our guys have to be tough this weekend, but I think we'll be all right."

UND has been here each of the last three years and all six games have followed the same pattern—very fast, extremely physical, intense and down to the wire.

This weekend, it's even more significant.

Western Michigan and UND are both fighting to finish in the top four of the jam-packed National Collegiate Hockey Conference standings to earn home ice for the first round of the league playoffs.

The Broncos are currently in third with 29 points. St. Cloud State is fourth with 28, followed by UND and Omaha with 26 each.

They are also battling to stay in the top 14 of the Pairwise Rankings, which would give them a chance at reaching the NCAA tournament. The Fighting Hawks have made it 14 years in a row—the second-longest streak in college hockey history.

UND is currently 10th in the Pairwise. Western Michigan is seventh.

This weekend's series may provide UND its best opportunity to move up in the Pairwise, because the Broncos are rated much higher than UND's final two regular-season opponents, Omaha (17th) and Miami (25th), which can bump up UND's quality-win bonus. Road bonus points also are available.

A sweep would likely land UND around sixth in the Pairwise. Two losses would likely put UND around 13th and firmly on the NCAA bubble.

"It's vital," said UND coach Brad Berry, who played pro hockey in Kalamazoo for seven years. "One of our goals is home ice. We have to go into Western Michigan with a mentality of winning some hockey games. This time of year, every game is so important. It starts with Friday night. I can't say it enough as far as the urgency and importance of this weekend."

They players discussed the importance of the weekend in the locker room early this week.

"It's going to be huge," Olson said. "Especially if we want to play on our home ice in the first part of the NCHC playoffs. These are huge games. We're going to have to come out with points in each of the, whether it's a couple of wins or at least a win and a tie. We need those points. They are huge coming at the end of the year.

"Overall, really, this is our last chance to take a leap up in the Pairwise. They are 7. We're 10. A couple big wins in their rink will surely help us boost our rankings."

There are a couple of good signs for UND heading into the weekend.

For starters, it is getting healthier.

While forward Zach Yon is out this weekend (undisclosed), UND will get freshman Tyson Jost back in the lineup for the first time in nearly a month. Joel Janatuinen, who has been in-and-out of the lineup, also practiced Thursday.

Another positive is that the game is being played in Michigan, the home state of goalie Cam Johnson. He has started four games in his home state, allowing just three goals. He stopped 59 of 60 shots in Lawson last season with his family, from Troy, Mich., on hand to watch.

And this may be a place to spark UND sophomore forward Brock Boeser, who is on a career-long, seven-game goal drought. Last season, Boeser scored three of UND's four goals on the weekend in Lawson, despite not having linemates Nick Schmaltz and Drake Caggiula in the lineup.

It would be a good time for things to start clicking for the 15-11-3 Fighting Hawks, who are 3-5 in the last eight games.

"At this time of year, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel as far as the playoffs go," Berry said. "You have to make sure you're sharp and ready to step on the ice and play that way."

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 13th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016 and 2018, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He also was the NCHC's inaugural Media Excellence Award winner in 2018. Schlossman has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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