DENVER — The University of North Dakota men’s hockey team’s impressive start to the season always had questions attached to it.

Is it because of the strength of schedule? Is it because UND is beating up on weaker opponents? What will happen when the Fighting Hawks face the best teams in the nation?

For those left with doubts, a big statement was made Saturday night: UND is back.

Decked out in their black jerseys, the No. 9-ranked Fighting Hawks beat No. 2-ranked Denver 4-1 in Magness Arena to take five of six National Collegiate Hockey Conference points on the weekend.

Cole Smith

“It’s a huge weekend for us,” said UND forward Cole Smith, who scored two goals. “Coming in, Denver is pretty highly ranked, highly touted. We knew it was going to be a battle. And it’s kind of a statement to the nation for us. We’re here and we’re here for good.”

UND, which missed the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, improved to 8-1-2 overall extended its unbeaten streak to an NCAA-best seven games.

More impressively, the Fighting Hawks won a series in Magness Arena.

That’s something that teams with Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie and Ryan Duncan; Matt Frattin, Brad Malone and Evan Trupp; Brock Nelson, Corban Knight and Danny Kristo; Brock Boeser, Nick Schmaltz and Drake Caggiula never accomplished.

The last time UND won a series in Magness Arena was November 2003.

“I think there’s just a belief inside of us,” Smith said. “It started all the way back in the summer when we were all together. We came in and had a defined focus. We knew what we wanted to do. We knew what we could do. We knew it was going to be a special team. I think the bonds we’ve made together — we’re all good friends in there, best friends — and we just go out there and play for each other.”

UND coach Brad Berry stopped before exiting the ice Saturday night and pointed at the massive gathering of UND fans on one end of Magness Arena. He then held up a fist and repeated that two more times. The fans, who spent much of the game chanting, roared in approval.

“Every year, they’re down here cheering for us,” Berry said. “That’s a big thing. That’s the least we can do is get five of six for them. Any time they come on the road and support us, it’s such a big deal.

“It’s a special place at North Dakota. They don’t have any fans in college hockey like it. It’s something very special that has remained strong over the years and we have to make sure we acknowledge them.”

Smith led the way offensively with his pair of goals — one on the power play and one shorthanded. Josh Rieger, a late start due to an illness to Jonny Tychonick, scored his first-career goal in the first period. And Westin Michaud, who spent his first three college seasons at Denver’s biggest rival Colorado College, iced it with an empty-netter.

Sophomore goalie Adam Scheel was again fantastic in net for UND, stopping 27 of 28 shots, including a whopping 13 while Denver was on the power play.

“It’s really going to build up our confidence going forward,” UND forward Mark Senden said.

The Fighting Hawks, who had scored just five goals in their last five games combined in Magness Arena, scored two in the first period alone Saturday.

UND converted its first power-play chance of the night to take an early lead.

With just six seconds left on the advantage, Collin Adams sent a pass back to Jacob Bernard-Docker at the point. The sophomore defenseman hammered it toward the net, where Smith re-directed it past Denver goalie Magnus Chrona.

On the next shift, UND added to its lead.

Freshman forward Judd Caulfield, a Grand Forks, N.D., native, made a no-look pass from the left circle across the ice to hit Rieger in space in the right circle. Rieger sent a snap shot past Chrona’s glove for his first-career goal.

“This team has a next-man up mentality,” Smith said. “We had Reggie (Josh Rieger) come into the game late tonight and he comes up with a huge goal. I think that’s just a staple of this team.”

At the end of the first period, UND defenseman Ethan Frisch was called for a major for boarding, giving the Pioneers a five-minute power play and a chance to get back in the game. But UND allowed Denver just two shots on goal during that advantage and killed it off.

Then, UND extended the lead with its first shorthanded goal of the season when Smith stripped the puck off of Denver forward Cole Guttman’s stick, skated it in on a breakaway and slipped it five-hole on Chrona.

The Pioneers spent much of the third period on the power play, highlighted by a five-minute major on Smith.

Within that major, Denver had a pair 5-on-3s. One was for 56 seconds. The other was for a full two minutes. UND killed all of that, but Denver’s Emilio Pettersen scored just after the power play expired for their lone goal of the game.

“I was disappointed,” Smith said of his penalty. “It was a tough call to get. But the way the boys responded was awesome. I wasn’t out there. I would have loved to be on the PK with them. But they stood up and they made plays. That was a huge impact on the game. I can’t thank them enough for picking me up.”

UND 4, DENVER 1

First period — 1. UND, Cole Smith 3 (Jacob Bernard-Docker 8, Collin Adams 5) 12:59; 2. UND, Josh Rieger 1 (Judd Caulfield 2, Adam Scheel 1) 13:47

Second period — 3. UND, Smith 4 8:37 (sh)

Third period — 4. DU, Emilio Pettersen 2 (Slava Demin 3, Magnus Chrona 1) 11:43; 5. UND, Westin Michaud 6 19:36

Penalties — Griffin Mendel, DU, interference, 11:05 first; Ethan Frisch, UND, boarding major, 17:45 first; Tyson McLellan, DU, interference, 4:25 second; Matt Kiersted, UND, holding, 7:48 second; Bench minor, DU, too many on ice, 11:29 second; Rieger, UND, interference, 14:26 second; Mark Senden, UND, holding, 5:31 third; Smith, UND, checking from behind, 6:35 third; Smith, UND, game misconduct, 6:35 third; Bernard-Docker, UND, hooking, 8:06 third

Goalie saves — UND: Adam Scheel 4-11-12 — 27; DU: Magnus Chrona 7-6-5 — 18

Penalties-minutes — UND 7-28, DU 3-6

Power plays — UND 1-3, DU 0-3

Referees — Geno Binda and Brian Aaron

Linesmen — Bob Keltie and Chase McGee

Brad Schlossman (@SchlossmanGF) can be reached at BSchlossman@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1129.