4 goal first cushions North Dakota to win over American International, faces Minnesota Duluth for Frozen Four spot

Jack Williams
Devils Lake Journal
North Dakota defeated American International, 5-1, in NCAA Midwest Regional semifinals on March 26 at Scheels Arena in Fargo.

It's been almost routine this season that North Dakota get a quick jump its opponents. Just as fans are taking their seats, they are back up on their feet cheering after the Fighting Hawks score less than five minutes into the game. 

On a bigger stage for the first time, North Dakota was still in the same routine of getting the quick first goal to go up 1-0, seeing junior forward Jasper Weatherby intercept a missed shot from junior defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker off the boards and bury past a blindsided senior goaltender Stefano Durante. However, with their season on the line, the multiplied that effort by four. 

A seven and a half minute stretch in the first period, seeing the North Dakota offense light up for four straight goal, would stun American International early and provide a cushion for the Fighting Hawks throughout the game, eventually resulting in a 5-1 win. The dominant finish sends North Dakota to the Midwest Regional championship against Minnesota Duluth, who received a BYE to the championship after their game against Michigan was cancelled due to a positive COVID-19 case on Michigan. 

"I liked our energy," Fighting Hawks head coach Brad Berry said. "A four lines and all six D were going and we did all the habits and details that we usually do that are to the identity of our team. I think it's one of those things where you have to sustain it early on to gain the momentum...I thought in the first period we did a pretty good job playing the game that we wanted to our identity." 

Weatherby was the player to go to in the first period as he would make up half of North Dakota's goal in that stretch. Breaking the ice on the first goal, off a bounce off the boards, he would score his second goal in a creative fashion again. After a AIC defenseman would spin out around his own blue line, coughing up the puck, Weatherby would swoop in and snap it past Durante for the score. 

"I saw he was fumbling it and I thought it would be a good time to jump in and overwhelm him. I was lucky enough to get a bounce there," Weatherby said. "They took Haner away and the shot was open. I just tried to hit my spot and it was lucky enough to go in." 

Senior forwards Grant Mishmash and Collin Adams would eventually round out the scoring effort in the first period, sending Durante to the bench for redshirt freshman Jake Kucharski, who would freeze North Dakota's scoring  brigade until the final minutes of the game. He would make 19 saves on 20 shots, with his only fault coming in the final two minutes of the game. 

However, on the other end,  junior goaltender Adam Scheel came up big when the AIC's defense began to tighten up in the second period. He would make 24 saves on 25 shots, with his shutout bid snapped in the final two minutes of the game off a wrist shot from Tobias Fladeby. One of his bigger moments came in shutting down Yellow Jacket scoring opportunity in the dying seconds of the second period, halting any momentum growth for AIC. 

"Anytime you give a late goal up, especially in the second period when they had a couple of power play opportunities, that's a momentum builder going into the third," Berry said. "We've seen that play a few times where Scheeler has made a couple of glove-hand saves in tight, perceiving that goal. That's something our penally kill does very well, but in some cases, your goaltender is your best penalty killer and in that case Scheeler was."

The second period flexed North Dakota's penalty killing muscles, opposite from the heavy scoring in the first period, seeing UND kill off two penalties. AIC did get the edge in their special teams as its only conversion would be on the power play and would limit North Dakota's power play unit, with the Fighting Hawks going 0-4. 

However, it all goes back to UND's hot start that would eventually give them level ground through the last two periods of the game. Outside of the first period, scoring between both squads was at 1-1. Weatherby said that when his team starts well, they play well throughout the entire game. 

"We focus on the start. It's huge for our team," Weatherby said. "We were just playing on our toes, attacking their D and trying to generate some shots and some offense. I thought we started really well."

The Fighting Hawks head into Saturday's championship game facing off against two time defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth for a chance to play in Boston for the national title. UND would eek out two close wins over the Bulldogs in the regular season, one coming in a shootout and the other in a narrow 2-1 regulation victory. 

There's some enjoyment in picking up the programs first regional victory since 2016, but they are also ready for a quick turnaround, facing a well rested team in the Bulldogs.

"They are a very good team," Berry said. "We haven't seen them since the pod, where we played them twice, but we watched them play in Grand Forks against Saint Cloud. It's one of those things where we'll get ready for tomorrow and dial in on what we have to do. Tonight, were going enjoy the night, get some rest, relax and get ready for tomorrow. We're looking forward to the opportunity to play." 

North Dakota faces Minnesota-Duluth Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at Scheels Arena in Fargo for the Midwest Regional championship. The game will be televised on ESPNU. 

Jack Williams covers Lake Region sports and general news for the Devils Lake Journal. Contact him via email at JGWilliams1@gannett.com, or on Twitter @jackgwilliams, or phone at 701-662-2127.