This Week in NCHC Hockey: After nearly a year away, Fighting Hawks ‘grateful to be back’ at Ralph Engelstad Arena

Adam Scheel is 9-2-1 this season for North Dakota with a 1.98 GAA, a .923 save percentage and two shutouts (photo: Mark Kuhlmann).

The venue seats 11,634 fans, and it’s known widely among college hockey circles as one of the toughest places for a visiting team to play.

A year ago, North Dakota was atop college hockey and one of the favorites to succeed in the postseason tournament. The Fighting Hawks were readying to host an NCHC first-round series when the college hockey season was abruptly ended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even as the team’s dreams of playing for the NCAA college hockey championship died, those players who knew they were coming back could not have even imagined that it would be nearly a year before they would be back in the friendly confines of Ralph Engelstad Arena, but as the pandemic made the possibility of playing this season seem dim, that’s what happened.

00and both coach Brad Berry and the players are clearly excited to be back home after first succeeding in pod play in Omaha and then taking three of four games in two weekends in Colorado.

“We’re grateful to be back here,” said Berry. “You know, we haven’t played here in a long time. We played our first 14 games, 10 in the pod and then four in the state of Colorado here over the last couple of weeks, and now finally to be home, you can’t rest on that. You have to make sure that you’re prepared and playing the right way against very good NCHC competition. Our guys are excited about finally be playing at home, especially our young guys that have never played here before. I think we obviously have limited fans as far as coming into the building, but at least there will be some excitement there.”

Unlike many teams, North Dakota has decided to allow fans in the building, something enabled by the massive capacity in the venue. Up to 1,000 fans will be allowed inside the venue. Masks will be required.

Sophomore Judd Caufield acknowledged that playing in front of actual fans will add a different dimension.

“It’s a little weird playing for the fake crowd noises and stuff. It’ll be fun to have actual cheers and stuff when there are goals and big hits, or something like that. When you’re like up in the stands watching games, it does get a little annoying. It’s nice that they are trying to do something to kind of replace the fans, but it’s definitely nice having the real fans.”

North Dakota is coming off a split with Denver in Denver, after sweeping Colorado College in Colorado Springs the weekend before. Against Denver, the Fighting Hawks came out flat in the first game, a 4-1 loss, but they then regrouped for an impressive 5-1 win on Monday night.

“I think you hit it on the head; I think we were a little bit flat on that first night,” said Berry. “What we alluded to, too, I think you can prepare all you want, coming off of a six-game winning streak going into Denver, there was some urgency in their game. You could tell; they came out hard, and they were sharp execution-wise. If you don’t have everybody playing their best game, or close to their best game, then you don’t really have a chance to win in the NCHC. You probably can get away with it in nonconference series at the beginning of the year, but you have to have everybody going. We brought that up the next day in our meeting before we played that second game that, you know, everybody’s got to be accountable to each other and bring your A-game, and I thought our guys did.

“If you look at it the other way, I thought we did that the second night, and I don’t think Denver did. I don’t think they brought their A game. It was probably a 180 for both teams each and every night. So that’s what the NCHC is, and again, that’s how close it is.”

A big part of North Dakota’s success Monday in the 5-1 win was the play of junior forward Mark Senden, who got four assists in the game. His play earned him NCHC co-forward of week honors and tied the record for assists in an NCHC conference game.

“That goes to leadership to, right,” said Berry. “He’s one of our assistant captains. He was a captain in junior that won a championship in Fargo. He won a championship in high school as a captain and that’s what leaders do; they help try to steer the team in the right direction through their play on the ice and through their, I guess, their verbal communication in the locker room, and he did. He’s a big part of our team. He has done it for the last couple of years here, and those are guys that sometimes don’t get all the accolades. When you talk about players of the week or guys that analytically score all the points, he’s a guy that keeps showing up every day that pushes the bar in your group. That’s what you have to have in order to have success, is players like that in your group.”

In the first game, goaltender Adam Scheel took the loss, giving up all four goals, but Berry went with him the next night and Scheel responded with 32 saves, coming up big in the third period as Denver attempted to rally from a 3-1 deficit.

“Adam Sheel’s body of work this year has been outstanding,” said Berry. “He came in here with a mindset. Last year he had a very good start of the season and then the second half, it wasn’t his expectations or ours, and then Peter Thome came in and did a really good job in the second half. I think he goes back to he doesn’t want to let that happen again. That goes back to the mental maturity of his game on his preparation and his habits. We’ll need him down the stretch here to play those games like he did the last game against Denver.”

This weekend, North Dakota will host Colorado College, a team that played the Fighting Hawks very tough in a two-game set two weeks ago in Colorado Springs.

“I think we just have to dictate the pace, just play our style of a game, just play hard and physical with them,” said Caufield. “We have a pretty big team, and we like to play physical. That’s our style of game. So, if we can just dictate the pace and play our style of hockey, I think we should have a good weekend.”

Western Michigan gets hot

The start of the season certainly wasn’t what Western Michigan expected.

The Broncos started 2-8-2, but in the last two weekends they have shown signs of life, sweeping St. Cloud State last weekend after coming off a win and shootout win against Miami. The defense in particular was strong last weekend, holding an offensive-minded St. Cloud team to a total of three goals.

Goaltender Alex Aslanidis was outstanding, posting a 1.50 goals-against average in the series and a .942 save percentage, making 49 saves on 52 shots, a performance that netted him NCHC goaltender of the week honors.