For the second year in a row, a goal in sudden-death overtime in the NCAA Tournament put an end to North Dakota Hockey’s national championship dreams.
Ethan Frisch: It hasn’t really sunk in that it’s done. Like, we’ll never skate with this group again. Right when it happens, it’s just shocking…You don’t prepare for it. You always expect to win and keep going.
But while this season finished in similar fashion to last year, UND’s journey in 2022 couldn’t have been more different than the path taken in the previous campaign. In 2021, North Dakota entered the year as the nation’s top-ranked team, and they lived up to that billing, dominating opponents en route to a 22-6-1 record, a second straight NCHC regular season title, a conference tournament title, and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That team was loaded with draft picks and veterans, and to no one’s surprise, many moved on to the next level after the season.
Brad Schlossman: What happens when you have really, really good teams like that is a lot of those guys are going to the NHL. And they did…Coming into this season, you lost your entire top line from the previous year. Jordan Kawaguchi, Grant Mismash, Collin Adams, all three seniors…The only unanimous MVP in NCHC history in Shane Pinto…Jasper Weatherby, he goes to the San Jose Sharks…Your top defensive pairing is gone. Jacob Bernard-Docker and Matt Kiersted both sign…You lose both of your goalies…It’s as big of a rebuilding project as I’ve seen in the last 17 years.
Frisch: A year ago today, when it was this week, it was even more strange. You were like, ‘Wow, I don’t even know what this group is going to look like next year.’
In total, 10 players who had been part of the 2021 team signed pro contracts, while three others transferred to other programs, leaving Brad Berry and his staff the tall task of replacing half the roster in one offseason. But instead of bringing in 13 or 14 freshmen – double the usual amount – the team added nine first-year players and also utilized the transfer portal to sign five others with extensive college hockey experience.
Frisch: You’re hearing. ‘Oh, who’s this Connor Ford guy? I hear he’s good in the faceoff circle. I heard he’s coming in.’ You get out your phone and are looking at his Elite Prospects, and you’re like, ‘What’s this guy all about?’
With 14 newcomers and just 13 returners, there were question marks over what this team would look like once the season began in October.
Frisch: There’s obviously some doubt around our fan base, around the league on how we were gonna be.
Schlossman: I thought they had a chance to be pretty good by the end of the season. I thought at the start of the season, there were going to be a lot of bumps. Because you just can’t lose that many guys and guys of that caliber and keep going. It just doesn’t happen.
But for this year’s North Dakota team, it did happen. The new-look squad came out of the gates strong, winning 8 of their first 10 league games to pace the NCHC at the holiday break.
Frisch: I think right from the start of the season, we kinda knew this group’s special. We can do something here.
Schlossman: The team seemed to gel a little bit more than expected right away.
Brad Berry: Just some of the ways our guys were close to each other. With guys not knowing each other coming in here and the way they reacted to each other, I think you get an instant notification in your mind on what that looks like. I thought our guys did a really good job. I go back to our leadership, guys like Mark Senden and Ethan Frisch and Jake Sanderson and Gavin Hain, those guys did an outstanding job of bringing our group together.
The second half of the season wasn’t all smooth sailing. UND endured a four-game losing streak to open January and lost a different key player to injury or to international duty almost every weekend. But despite all the hardships, the team continued to succeed, no matter who was in the lineup.
Schlossman: They just found ways to win every night. Different guys were contributing. You went to the rink not knowing who was going to score the game-winning goal every night.
Berry: Whoever was in our lineup came in an did their job and did it very well to win games. The standard was the standard, and our guys kept to those high standards.
Against all odds, North Dakota would go 9-1-1 down the stretch against some of the best teams in college hockey, and on the final Friday of the regular season – in overtime in Omaha – they’d clinch a share of a third-consecutive Penrose Cup as league champions.
Frisch: Actually, lifting the Cup in Omaha, I think was one of the most proud moments I’ve had, and I wasn’t even on the ice. Watching our team with that next-man up mentality, it was absolutely incredible. So happy for our group and so proud of what we’ve done.
Schlossman: This is the most unexpected Penrose that I’ve seen them win. When you lose that many guys in a league that had so much coming back to it, it almost felt when they were in first place throughout, you were kind of waiting for them to fall back to where we expected them to, which is maybe in the 3rd or 4th range. And they just kept going and going, and as they had more adversity, they just kept rising.
In the end, North Dakota would finish a few victories shy of the ultimate goal in 2022, but to quote Brad Berry, “One game doesn’t define a season”. What does define this group is their character, their passion for the game, and their drive to play for each other and for the program, something this team has in common with the version that came before and all those who’ll wear green and white to follow.
Frisch: Look around. So many banners, so many things around…and you just want to add to that. That drive from everyone and the leadership explaining that to the new guys gets everyone on the same page in the summer. And if everyone’s on the same page all working towards one goal as a unit, great things can happen.