Unfamiliar territory


Stephane Pattyn has never been in this situation in his college career.

His North Dakota men’s hockey team has returned from Christmas break and there’s not a hill to climb.

Instead, UND will be the No. 1-ranked team in the country this weekend when it hosts Minnesota-Duluth in a two-game series in Ralph Engelstad Arena.

“In my three years here, we’ve been out of the [NCAA] tournament every year at this point, except maybe my sophomore year,” said Pattyn, the senior captain.

“It’s nice to have, but we’re also realistic. The second-half schedule is going to be a tough one. We look at what we have ahead here with our conference play and our league is very tight. So, we’re realistic that we have a lot of work to do still.”
Jan. 9 No. 7 Minnesota-Duluth
Jan. 10 No. 7 Minnesota-Duluth
Jan. 16 Niagara
Jan. 17 Niagara
Jan. 23 Colorado College
Jan. 24 Colorado College
Jan. 30 at No. 13 Nebraska-Omaha
Jan. 31 at No. 13 Nebraska-Omaha
Feb. 13 No. 10 Denver
Feb. 14 No. 10 Denver
Feb. 20 at Western Michigan
Feb. 21 at Western Michigan
Feb. 27 St. Cloud State
Feb. 28 St. Cloud State
March 6 at No. 5 Miami (Ohio)
March 7 at No. 5 Miami (Ohio)

UND has traditionally been a second-half team under coach Dave Hakstol.

During his first 10 seasons at the helm, UND posted a .583 winning percentage before Christmas and a .697 winning percentage after Christmas.

But this season, UND raced out to a 13-4-2 record, the best pre-Christmas mark under Hakstol. Why? For starters, UND is a veteran team and many players entered the season knowing their roles. The schedule also has been part of it. Non-conference foes Bemidji State (5-10-3), Air Force (5-13-3), Wisconsin (2-11-1) and Lake Superior State (4-17-1) all have bad records.

In the second half, UND only has one non-conference series. The rest is all league play, beginning with a Bulldog team that’s 9-2 in the past 11 games and ranked No. 7 nationally.

“Let’s get it going,” Hakstol said. “We’ve been back and we’ve practiced a lot. We played an exhibition game, yes, but we’ve had a lot of days of practice. I sense that this group wants to get going and wants to get into the second half.

“There are going to be huge challenges there. There’s a step that we need to take. There are no guarantees when or if that will happen. We’ve got a step that we need to make in our overall performance. This weekend’s going to push us awful hard to move toward taking that step forward.”

Ultimately, UND’s aim is to secure an NCAA tournament berth for a 13th consecutive year. If UND is able to do that, it would be able to play in its own backyard in the NCAA tournament. Fargo’s Scheels Arena is hosting the West Regional and UND would automatically be placed there.

A year ago, UND didn’t know whether it was going to make the NCAA tournament until the last game of the season, the Big Ten championship between Wisconsin and Ohio State. UND needed help from the Badgers to get in the NCAAs.

This year, UND hopes it doesn’t have to play such a waiting game.

“Obviously, it’s nice not being in a hole,” sophomore defenseman Keaton Thompson said. “We just want to put the first half behind us and keep moving forward.”

UND’s second-half record has topped its first-half record eight times in the past nine years. Although it will be tough to beat what it did before Christmas, UND will try.

“That’s the plan,” Pattyn said. “It’s not just going to come. We have to keep working at it and making sure we’re doing the right things every day.”