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The streaks are on the line this weekend for UND

GRAND FORKS—Johnny Simonson grew up in Grand Forks following the University of North Dakota men's hockey program and all of its feats.

Nobody needs to tell him that the program has reached the NCAA tournament 15 years in a row—the second-longest stretch in college hockey history. Nobody needs to tell him that UND has been at home for the first round of the playoffs every season since he was eight years old.

Simonson already knows all about that.

He also knows those streaks are at risk of being snapped as UND has skidded through the second half of the season.

"It weighs on me, for sure," Simonson said.

This weekend's series against No. 1-ranked St. Cloud State University in Ralph Engelstad Arena (7:37 p.m. Friday, March 2; 7:07 p.m. Saturday, March 3) will determine whether UND keeps its streak of home-ice playoff series.

The Fighting Hawks must get at least one point against the Penrose Cup champion Huskies to have any hope of finishing in the top four of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference standings and earn more home games next weekend.

Colorado College, Colorado Springs; Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Mich.; and University of Nebraska Omaha are all tied three points behind UND in the standings. Colorado College and Western Michigan play against each other, guaranteeing that one team will end up with at least three points. Omaha plays at third-place University of Minnesota Duluth.

UND loses tiebreakers against Western Michigan and Omaha.

The series also will determine just how dangerously close UND will be to missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.

If the Fighting Hawks get swept, they may need to win the NCHC Frozen Faceoff to get into the 16-team NCAA field. If they sweep and win a first-round playoff series, they'll likely be in the NCAA West Regional in Sioux Falls, S.D.

If they split, the Fighting Hawks will be right back on the bubble of the Pairwise Rankings, which are used to pick the field. UND is currently No. 14 in the Pairwise.

"It almost feels like this is our chance," Simonson said. "I know there are back doors into the tournament with the Frozen Faceoff and stuff, but it almost feels like this weekend could decide our fate."

The last thing Simonson and fellow seniors Cam Johnson, Austin Poganski and Trevor Olson want is for their senior tribute Saturday night to come after one of those streaks is broken.

"We have it in the back of our mind that we control our own destiny if we win two games," Poganski said. "This past week, we've talked about how many years we've made the tournament in a row. That stands out and gives guys some extra motivation to get there.

"Here at North Dakota, we're expected to do a lot. We have a lot of pressure on ourselves to succeed every year and make the tournament every year. That's just expected. We want to make it there. That's why we play here. We expect to make the tournament."

UND coach Brad Berry said the team has been dialed in on Friday night's series opener, but he said, the team talks about their home-ice and NCAA-tournament streaks every year.

"We have a tradition and history here," Berry said. "You want to make sure you rise up to the occasion every single time and keep adding to the tradition. It's one of those things we keep bringing up. We have a long, successful past, and we want to have a long, successful future."

Simonson knows all about it and wants to make sure it doesn't slip this weekend.

"We're lucky because it's still in our hands," Simonson said. "We don't have to rely on outcomes of other games. We still have the power to decide our fate. That's where we want to be. We're still in this, and we can still make it happen for ourselves."

Gardner, Bast may play

Berry is optimistic that top-line center Rhett Gardner and rookie defenseman Gabe Bast will be able to play this weekend.

Gardner has missed seven games in the second half of the season, and UND hasn't won any of them (three losses, four ties). He traveled to Oxford, Ohio, last weekend but was unable to play.

Gardner's presence will be important for a number of reasons, including in the faceoff circle, where the Moose Jaw, Sask., native is winning 57.8 percent of his draws.

UND and St. Cloud State rank 1-2 nationally in faceoff percentage by a wide margin.

Bast has missed nine-straight games and hasn't played since Jan. 19 at Minnesota Duluth. He's missed 13 games total this season with injury.

UND is likely to be without Joel Janatuinen, who suffered an upper-body injury against Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, early in the second period last Friday, Feb. 23.

St. Cloud State is expected to be without forward Patrick Newell, according to the St. Cloud Times. Newell, who has 24 points in 28 games, missed last Saturday's game against Denver University, as well.

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 13th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016 and 2018, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He also was the NCHC's inaugural Media Excellence Award winner in 2018. Schlossman has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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