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Brad E. Schlossman / Forum News Service , Published February 27 2014

UND men's hockey enters key series in NCHC play

GRAND FORKS – The Penrose Cup has been making its way to each National Collegiate Hockey Conference site.

By predetermined plan, it ended up in St. Cloud this weekend – and there couldn’t be any better spot for the league’s regular-season champion trophy.

The University of North Dakota and St. Cloud State face off at 8:08 tonight to open a two-game series that could determine the inaugural champion of the NCHC.

With four games to go in the regular season, UND and the Huskies sit tied atop the league standings with 39 points. If either team sweeps the series, it would clinch at least a share of the title.

“You always know the reality of your situation,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “Then, you focus on short-term things. That’s what our team has done really well over the last few months, going back to the beginning or middle portions of the season.”

UND has surged into contention, going 14-2-1 in its last 17 games, sweeping four NCHC foes along the way – Western Michigan, Colorado College, Miami and Minnesota-Duluth.

St. Cloud State, meanwhile, has cooled off, allowing UND to get back into the race. The Huskies started the season 11-1-2, but they are just 7-6-3 since then.

“Them sweeping us at home at the beginning of the year is obviously still fresh in our minds,” UND forward Rocco Grimaldi said, referencing St. Cloud State’s pair of wins in Ralph Engelstad Arena in early November. “That’s something we haven’t had happen to us in like four years or whatever it was. So, obviously, this is an important series for us.”

Considering the recent history between these teams in the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center, it seems unlikely that either team will be celebrating a league title this weekend. In the last 11 years, neither team has earned a sweep against the other in St. Cloud.

The Huskies are 6-1-4 on Fridays and UND is 10-1 on Saturdays.

NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton will be in St. Cloud for both games.

“Overall, we’ve played pretty good hockey,” Hakstol said. “We’ve been consistent. We’ve worked hard. I don’t think there’s any real change. It’s been a matter of building, growing and developing over the last couple months.”

St. Cloud State’s Prochno out for series

St. Cloud State will play this weekend without one of its top defensemen.

Junior Andrew Prochno sustained a lower-body injury last weekend against Miami and will be held out for “a couple of weeks,” according to the St. Cloud Times.

St. Cloud State has rotated Jarrod Rabey into the lineup, and he will likely fill the void left by Prochno, who had three goals and 19 assists in 30 games for the 18-7-5 Huskies.

“Jarrod Rabey has played in a lot of big games and played in the Frozen Four last year,” St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko told the St. Cloud Times. “So, we’ve got some depth there. We’re going to have to use it.”

Ex-Force player finds critical role with UND

The first month of the season, Keaton Thompson didn’t make the travel roster for a trip to Oxford, Ohio.

As the stretch run hits, the freshman from Devils Lake has carved out a key role for UND. Thompson, who once played for the United States Hockey League’s Fargo Force, has been in the lineup for five straight games and is earning power-play time.

Hakstol said that Thompson handled the early-season adversity well.

“It’s never easy,” Hakstol said. “Guys aren’t used to not being in the lineup. The challenge to come in and adjust at this level is a big one. I think Keaton handled it extremely well. He was one of the hardest working guys at the rink every day. He did extra. He was always a great teammate throughout everything. I think he handled it extremely well.”

Schlossman writes for the Grand Forks Herald