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Brad E. Schlossman / Forum News Service , Published March 26 2013

UND takes a quieter path to the NCAA men's hockey tournament

GRAND FORKS – Each year of their college career, Corban Knight and his classmates entered the NCAA tournament on a big winning streak.

That’s why they aren’t alarmed this week.

“The last three years, we haven’t been able to get the job done,” said Knight, an alternate captain. “We haven’t reached our goal. Maybe, this year, there’s a little change.”

There’s no doubt that the University of North Dakota has taken a different path to the NCAA tournament this year.

For the first time since 2004-05 – Dave Hakstol’s first as head coach at UND – the team had a better record before Christmas than after the holiday.

A year ago, the team entered the regionals on a seven-game winning streak. Two years ago, it was a nine-game winning streak and a 12-game unbeaten streak. Three years ago, UND went 12-1 in a

13-game stretch before the NCAA tournament.

But that magical, late-season run that has become so routine under Hakstol hasn’t surfaced yet this year. UND is 9-7-4 since sweeping Holy Cross to start January.

Last weekend, it suffered its first loss at the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five in exactly four years when Colorado College scored an overtime goal Thursday night.

“Obviously, Thursday’s loss was tough,” Knight said. “Nobody wanted to leave St. Paul like we did. But we were able to get some quality rest this weekend and we’ve had some great practices this week. We’ve really been able to tackle some tactical stuff that we needed to address. I think it has really benefitted our team.”

UND will open the national tournament at 4:30 p.m. Friday against Niagara in Grand Rapids, Mich.

It’s only the third time in nine years under Hakstol that UND has entered the tournament with a loss. In 2007, after falling in overtime in the Final Five title game, UND responded by winning the NCAA West Regional and earning a trip to the Frozen Four. In 2009, UND lost the third-place game at the Final Five, then lost in the first round of the NCAAs to New Hampshire.

“It’s not fun losing,” Knight said. “You play hockey to win, especially in a tournament like the Final Five. But it’s nice to live another day and get that national tournament berth. Guys were able to switch their focus pretty fast and I think everyone’s excited about the opportunity to be in the national tournament.”

Only once has UND lost back-to-back games this season. That occurred in November when it lost a series finale against Notre Dame on the road, then lost a series opener at Colorado College. UND did outshoot the Tigers by 21 on that night.

Often times, UND’s best games came after a loss.

In January, league champion St. Cloud State beat UND 3-1 in the opening game of the series. UND came back the next night and outshot the Huskies by 18 – the most that St. Cloud State has been outshot by this season.

In February, UND lost a close game against the University of Denver on Friday night, then came back to hand the Pioneers their worst home loss in more than five years.

In March, when Michigan Tech pushed a first-round playoff series to a decisive third game, UND responded by handing the Huskies their worst loss under second-year coach Mel Pearson.

“I think, overall, we’ve responded very well to any adversity we’ve come through,” Hakstol said. “Losses are part of a season. Different losses bring different amounts of adversity. When I look back at two or three really tough losses we’ve had through the season, I think we’ve responded well.”

Schlossman writes for the Grand Forks Herald