OMAHA, Neb. -- Everything was going great.
The University of North Dakota was 3-0 to start the season. It beat Miami in the opener, had an impressive win over rival Denver and hammered Western Michigan 8-2. The Fighting Hawks looked every bit like the NCAA's No. 1 team and the favorite to win the National Collegiate Hockey Conference a second-straight year.
But last Sunday, two key players left for the World Junior Championships, and by the week's end, the Fighting Hawks were staring at a nightmare scenario.
Not only did they lose 5-3 to St. Cloud State on Saturday afternoon at Baxter Arena to go to 0-2-1 since the World Junior players left, they also finished the game without enough healthy bodies to fill out a full lineup.
Oh, and they play again Sunday afternoon.
On, and they have four games scheduled in the next eight days.
UND coach Brad Berry didn't know immediately after the game who would be available to play at 4:05 p.m. Sunday against Western Michigan, but he ended Saturday night without several key players: first-round NHL draft pick Jake Sanderson (World Juniors), second-round pick Tyler Kleven (World Juniors), fifth-round pick Judd Caulfield (undisclosed injury), fifth-round pick Harrison Blaisdell (undisclosed injury) and steady sophomore Ethan Frisch (undisclosed injury).
"We've got to stick with it here," Berry said. "We're kind of undermanned a little bit. We have to make sure we have the mindset of playing a simple game, knowing that there are some situations where guys are getting a little more ice."
Sanderson, Kleven and Frisch are all defensemen, leaving UND with just five: Matt Kiersted, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Gabe Bast, Josh Rieger and Cooper Moore.
Kiersted and Bernard-Docker played huge minutes to end Saturday's game, but Berry said he isn't stressing over their energy levels for the Western Michigan game.
"It is what it is," Berry said. "You're playing back-to-back here now. You dial in and get ready for tomorrow and try to prepare your best on how to handle that. Going back to the hotel, getting rest, nutrition and hydration is going to be key. Then you turn to tomorrow. You've got a full 24 hours to do that. Our guys are well-conditioned athletes here and I don't expect anything less than their 100 percent tomorrow."
Berry said the coaching staff will discuss the possibility of moving a forward back to defense if needed.
"There are a couple of guys that played 'D' in youth hockey and junior hockey a little bit," Berry said. "We'll take a look at that. One of the things here we'll try to utilize if we have to go five (defensemen), we can utilize the (TV) timeouts every five minutes and regroup from there. Our biggest thing is putting everything we have into tomorrow's game and making sure we play a risk-less game as far as taking chances and giving the other team momentum in the game."
Despite being shorthanded on defense, Berry said he is not second-guessing allowing Sanderson and Kleven to play in the World Juniors, the international tournament featuring the top under-20 players in the world. Both have made the final U.S. roster and are expected to miss a total of nine of UND's 26 regular-season games, just over a third of the season.
Usually players only miss two nonconference games if they make a World Junior roster, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NCHC is stacking up games in the Pod in December. Also, the World Junior players left earlier than usual because they have to quarantine when entering Canada. The tournament is being held in Edmonton.
"They went because they earned their time to go to the World Juniors," Berry said. "They worked hard their whole life to do that. We never hold back the opportunity for players to do that. Yeah, it's unfortunate we don't have them in our group right now. But we don't use that as an excuse, whether it's an injury or guys at the World Juniors. We have very good players here to try to do the job. . . and they will."
UND will be facing a Western Michigan team that's finding its stride. After an 0-3 start, the Broncos are 2-0-1 in their last three, including a win over St. Cloud State.
Playing from behind
The Fighting Hawks, on the other hand, are winless in three and have had a difficult time building and maintaining leads. They've led for 4 minutes, 11 seconds in the last 185 minutes of game time.
UND was chasing Saturday's game from the start.
The Fighting Hawks allowed a goal on the opening shift as Husky defender Nick Perbix intercepted an errant Moore pass and fired the puck to the slot area, where Sam Hentges re-directed it past UND goalie Peter Thome, who made his second start of the season.
The Fighting Hawks evened it on a Matt Kiersted point shot just 40 seconds later, but quickly fell behind again. With Rieger in the penalty box for hooking, Easton Brodzinski scored a power-play goal to make it 2-1.
UND again tied it on Brendan Budy's first-career goal at 3:27 of the second period, but things fell off the rails after that. In the final 15 minutes of the second period, St. Cloud State scored twice to take a 4-2 lead, UND lost Caulfield and Frisch to injuries and Berry pulled Thome (15 saves on 19 shots) for Adam Scheel (11 saves on 12 shots).
The Huskies opened up a 5-2 in the third before UND senior Grant Mismash rounded out the scoring by burying a penalty shot on St. Cloud State goalie David Hrenak (33 saves on 36 shots).
"We've just got to find a way to battle through and win a hockey game," said UND captain Jordan Kawaguchi, who had an assist to increase his point streak to six games. "Yeah, obviously, we have guys out at the World Junior camp and everything, but it's next-man up mentality. We have to do what we can to win hockey games. We're not doing that right now. We've got to figure that out within our group and get back at it."