This week, as much as it ever has, Westin Michaud suiting up in the green, white and black of North Dakota makes a lot of sense.
Wearing such garb wasn’t a foreign concept to him growing up, as he owned a UND Fighting Sioux jersey bought while attending a youth hockey tournament at Ralph Engelstad Arena. It wasn’t until this season that he played for the school, though, having transferred there after finishing his undergraduate studies at Colorado College.
It was at CC that he became well accustomed to playing against Denver, the currently sixth-ranked team that visits No. 1 UND this weekend for an important late-season series. UND and CC share similar feelings for the Pioneers from Colorado’s capital city, and Michaud’s three goals against DU as a CC Tiger put him in line to be a fan favorite once he landed at UND.
On Nov. 16, Michaud made it four goals against DU from 18 games after he capped the scoring in a 4-1 UND road win. To date, all of his goals against the Pioneers, including his sixth for UND this season, came at DU’s Magness Arena.
Finding the back of the net for UND in that November victory gave Michaud his first goal against the Pios since he opened the scoring in Game 1 of a 2018 NCHC playoff series in Denver. CC won 2-0 that night, but Denver advanced in three games after keeping Michaud off the score sheet in Games 2 and 3.
He didn’t have much luck against Denver last season either, earning just one assist from five games. When he and his UND mates earned a win and a 1-1 tie at Magness earlier this season, though, Michaud came into that series knowing what he was in for.
This week’s series with the Pios won’t be much different.
“It’s tight checking and very detail-oriented,” Michaud said. “There’s not a lot of time and space, and it’s more north-south hockey and everyone plays positionally and plays defense first. It’s relying heavily upon your structure and your system and who’s going to get those puck-luck bounces and (success on) special teams.
“It’s two very detail-oriented teams playing this weekend. It’s two programs with a lot of history when it comes to winning games and winning national championships. It’s a rivalry for us for sure because both teams want to be that dominant program and the best of the best every single year. You’ve got a lot of good players on both teams, and it’s a heavy series.”
Expect Michaud to be a factor, as usual. He was held scoreless in UND’s 8-1 win last time out, on Feb. 1, at home against CC, but the night before, he assisted on the only goal in the Fighting Hawks’ 1-0 win over the Tigers. Setting up Shane Pinto’s goal midway through the third period saw Michaud top out his point streak at six games (four goals, three assists).
Through 27 games this season, Michaud is UND’s second-leading scorer with 12 goals and 11 assists, his 23 points only surpassed by Hobey Baker candidate Jordan Kawaguchi’s 41.
This isn’t the same team that UND fans came to bear over the last two seasons, with the Fighting Hawks missing the NCAA tournament in consecutive years for the first time since UND was stuck in the relative wilderness between 1991 and 1996.
Although Michaud doesn’t have a direct frame of reference on what toll the last two seasons took inside UND’s dressing room, he is happy with what he’s seen so far this winter. It’d be hard not to, with the Fighting Hawks sitting at 21-3-3, including just one loss in their last seven games.
“We talk about it all the time as a senior group,” Michaud said of the Fighting Hawks’ level of focus. “We’re led by our upperclassmen and it’s a different vibe, a different feeling, and it starts with practice. Everyone holds each other accountable to be our best and improve every single day, and that has been the most key thing because once you get to the games, we’ve already been doing similar situations in practice.
“It’s been a great thing, and we don’t get too worried about being down two goals or being up two goals. It’s just sticking with our structure and our system.”
Michaud will want to bump his own figures higher this Friday and Saturday against DU, and he possesses the how-to for that. First with Colorado College and now with North Dakota, he knows what facing Denver entails.
“It’s not a much different feeling now just because of the big rivalry we had with the Gold Pan (traveling trophy) in my last four years at CC,” Michaud said.
“That was huge, hyped up, and now playing with North Dakota, I can see that these two programs (UND and Denver) aren’t very friendly with each other, but we also have a lot of respect for each other, so coming down to the nitty-gritty and doing the little things is going to be the most important thing.
“I would honestly not be surprised to see Denver again down the road, whether that would be in the NCHC playoffs or the NCAA tournament,” Michaud continued. “They’re a great team to play against when it comes to getting you ready for that national tournament just because of the way they play defensively and how many great players they have.”