Outdoor hockey games have become more and more prevalent, from the NHL’s Winter Classic down through the juniors ranks.
But arguably, in the past dozen or so years since the outdoor trend has picked up steam, perhaps only a handful have had the kind of season-changing impact Saturday’s 4:07 p.m. matchup between Nos. 14 and 15 UNO and No. 7 North Dakota will have.
»There are only four weeks left in the regular season.
»Both teams are still in the running for the MacNaughton Cup as the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s regular-season champ.
»Both are trying to secure home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
»And UNO, in particular, desperately needs victories over quality opponents to build its résumé for an at-large spot in the NCAA tournament — and North Dakota is the best team left on its schedule.
“It’s too bad that you have to play for points,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “Because there’s a lot at stake, obviously. MacNaughton Cup. Home ice. Everything.”
In other words, the novelty of Saturday’s outdoor game at TD Ameritrade Park pales right now in comparison to the importance of Friday’s 6:37 p.m. series opener inside at the CenturyLink Center.
And the Saturday game — mostly cloudy skies, with highs in the upper 40s and a slight chance of rain are forecast — will be a once-in-a-lifetime event for most involved, but getting two points from a win or even one point from a tie is what the players are focused on.
“The stakes are real high, with them only two points behind us,” UNO forward Josh Archibald said. “You’ve got to take that Saturday game and put it in the back of your mind.
“We’re looking at Friday right now. We’re obviously looking forward to Saturday, but it’s not something we’re putting on the front burner.”
UNO (16-10-2 overall, 12-6-2 WCHA) is in second place in the league with 26 points, but is three points behind St. Cloud State. North Dakota (14-8-6, 9-5-6) is part of a three-way tie for third place with 24 points.
UNO is only No. 21 in the PairWise rankings, the system that attempts to mimic the method used by the selection committee to determine which teams qualify as at-large entrants for the 16-team NCAA tournament. North Dakota is tied for ninth in the PairWise.
“To stay in the hunt for the NCAA bid you’ve got to stay in the top 16, and if you beat a team like North Dakota you’re going to get more power points,” Blais said. “Home ice (for the WCHA playoffs) has been the goal since we started rolling and we figured out we were a pretty good team (during a 7-0 November).
“Until the loss last Saturday (in overtime to Michigan Tech) we were strongly thinking that we might have a shot at the MacNaughton Cup. That loss gave St. Cloud a three-point cushion, and that’s huge with only eight games to go. Did the overtime goal cost us? Yes. Did it cost us everything? No.”
A rough weekend against more than capable North Dakota could put a serious crimp in UNO’s postseason plans.
North Dakota features some of the most dynamic players in the country in Hobey Baker Award candidate Corban Knight (12 goals, 24 assists), tied for second in the WCHA in assists and third with 36 points; former Omaha Lancer Danny Kristo (16-19-35), tied for the WCHA lead in goals; and freshman Rocco Grimaldi (9-13-22).
And even though former Alabama-Huntsville goalie Clarke Saunders, well-known as a UNO nemesis, is 10-5-4 with a 2.34 goals-against average since transferring, it’s freshman Zane Gothberg (4-3-2, 2.62 GAA) who has been in net more often recently, including both games last weekend when North Dakota took three of four points against red-hot Wisconsin.
North Dakota has 14 NHL draft picks on its roster, twice the amount still with the UNO program — though Hobey Baker Award candidate Ryan Walters (16-24-40) and defenseman Andrej Sustr are among the significant, yet undrafted, Mavericks.
The Blais blueprint — he was the head coach at North Dakota for 10 seasons — of speedy skaters and big, mobile defensemen is in evidence on both rosters.
“They’re a really skilled team up front,” Archibald said. “They’ve got some strong goaltenders. It’s going to be one of those battles where it’s going to be low-scoring games.”
Said Blais: “North Dakota will be the fastest team we’ve played all season.”
There are plenty of North Dakota ties at UNO, making for plenty of compelling storylines this weekend.
The outdoor game will be nice, too.
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