ALBANY, N.Y. — Jake Sanderson and Gavin Hain picked out seats in the top of the lower bowl at MVP Arena on Wednesday afternoon.
They sat together and watched the UND men’s hockey team go through an hour-long practice the day before the Fighting Hawks take on Notre Dame in an NCAA regional game (5 p.m. Central, ESPNU) in Albany, N.Y.
There was no miraculous recovery for the UND alternate captains and they’ve been ruled out of the Albany Regional.
But that’s nothing new for this Fighting Hawks team.
UND navigated its way through the departure of more than half of its roster from last season (including two Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalists, its entire top line, top defensive pairing and both goalies), the NHL signing of its first-line center on the first day of school and 84 lost man games due to injuries, illnesses and suspensions this season to win the Penrose Cup and reach the NCAA tournament.
Some of its highest points of the season came when it was the most shorthanded in February.
UND swept Minnesota Duluth, the No. 5 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, on the road without Sanderson, Hain and leading-scorer Riese Gaber. The Fighting Hawks swept Western Michigan, the No. 3 overall seed, without Sanderson, Hain, Gaber and top-pair defenseman Ethan Frisch the following weekend.
“Our guys didn’t miss a beat,” UND coach Brad Berry said. “Our guys worked extremely hard. Our guys won games without (them) in our lineup. It’s the same as right now. We’ve got that business-like mentality and we have really good players in our lineup. We play as a team. We feel like we have an excellent chance to keep moving forward here tomorrow with the group we’ve got.”
Now, UND will take aim at doing it on the biggest stage, just two wins shy of the NCAA Frozen Four in Boston and four wins shy of a record ninth NCAA national championship.
“Coming in, as a group, and getting to know each other early in the summer, all the workouts and tough practices, the ups and downs of a season, this is what we look forward to,” said Frisch, an alternate captain. “We’re excited to play.”
UND (24-13-1) will take on the Fighting Irish (27-11), who were the best defensive team in the Big Ten this season, allowing just 2.11 goals per game.
“They play the right way,” Berry said. “They play a hard, heavy game. There’s not a lot of time and space out there. Perennially, every year, they’re a tough team to play against. We haven’t played them in a long time — it’s been 10-plus years. We’re excited about the matchup and we’re looking forward to the game tomorrow because that’s going to be an ultimate college hockey game with two hard, heavy teams.”
Special teams could be a key to the matchup.
UND’s power play was a critical component of its end-of-the-season run. It went 12-for-40 (30 percent) during the final 10 games of the regular season. UND won eight of them.
But the Fighting Hawks went without a power-play goal in their National Collegiate Hockey Conference Frozen Faceoff semifinal loss to Western Michigan last weekend.
It won’t be easy against the Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame has the nation’s second-best penalty kill at 90.4 percent, and the Fighting Irish often look to break the other way. They’ve scored seven shorthanded goals this season — also second nationally.
“They’re fast, but they’re patient, too,” Berry said. “They’re very responsible. They block a lot of shots. They don’t give up a lot of seam plays or passes across the ice. And they’re very opportunistic. Once a puck turns over, there’s triggers that they jump to the offensive side. We’re going to have to make sure we’re sharp on the power play. But also, when the puck turns over, we have to make sure we have those five-on-five principles away from the puck on making sure we have numbers back.”
UND hasn’t gotten on a plane to play in an NCAA tournament game since the 2016 NCAA Frozen Four in Tampa.
It hasn’t played a regional outside of North Dakota since 2016 in Cincinnati, and it hasn’t played a regional outside of North Dakota or Cincinnati since Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2013.
That Grand Rapids regional brought small crowds with no local teams — a risk at this regional considering only one school is within driving distance (Harvard).
Gaber said that shouldn’t change the way UND plays.
“I think the stage we’re on says everything,” Gaber said. “That gives me, personally, and I think everyone a little bit extra juice. Come puck drop, I think we’ll be ready to fly.”
The regionals usually begin on Friday and Saturday, but two of them were moved up to Thursday to accommodate a day off between the regional semifinals and regional championship.
That meant a quick turnaround from last weekend in St. Paul to this week in Albany.
UND’s coaching staff gave the players Saturday off. Then, they began skating Sunday — a day earlier than normal.
“We got a good skate in on Sunday,” Frisch said. “Guys were hungry. Everyone got on the ice. Usually, it’s kind of a situation where, if you need a day (off), you take a day or whatever you need to get your body ready. But everyone wanted to be on the ice. Everyone’s excited to go. Bodies are feeling good.”
UND forward Dane Montgomery will remain out of the lineup.
Montgomery missed the NCHC semifinals against Western Michigan last Saturday and was the only player who didn’t travel to Albany in order to help his recovery.
Montgomery, who has a goal and three points in 16 games, joins Hain and Sanderson as injury scratches.
Sanderson was the subject of the most questions at Wednesday’s press conference in Albany.
“Obviously, Sandy is an elite player and we love him,” UND goalie Zach Driscoll said. “He’s nice to have in the lineup, but it’s about the guys we do have in the room at the time. Obviously, we would take him back, but we have to go to battle with the guys we do have in the lineup and we’re confident in them.”
Who: UND vs. Notre Dame
When: 5 p.m. Central, Thursday.
Where: MVP Arena, Albany, N.Y.
Radio: The Fox (96.1 FM).
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