Last season, UND experienced life on the road in the playoffs.
It learned that it's not so glamorous.
The Fighting Hawks had their flight to Denver diverted to Albuquerque, N.M., because of a blizzard and had to make a seven-hour drive over two days on a jam-packed small bus to get to the Mile High City.
"Man, that bus was small," UND goalie Peter Thome said. "It was a van disguised as a bus. We had guys in the middle of the row, laying on equipment bags because there weren't enough seats. There wasn't enough space on the bus for bags."
UND got swept in a two-game series against the Pioneers.
But no such trip will be happening this season.
No. 1-ranked UND took care of that Friday night by clinching home ice for the first round of the NCHC playoffs with a 4-1 win over No. 6 Denver in Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Valentine's Day marked the earliest UND clinched home ice since the formation of the NCHC in 2013-14 and the earliest overall since the 2010-11 squad did it on Feb. 12 as a member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
That means the Fighting Hawks will get at least two more home games in a place where they're 15-1 this season.
"Thank God we're going to do it at home this year," Thome said.
It marks the 17th time in 18 years that UND has finished in the top half of the league and earned a home playoff series. But the Fighting Hawks (22-3-3 overall, 13-2-2 NCHC) are going to be aiming much higher than that.
With the win, they increased their lead atop the NCHC standings to five points over idle Minnesota Duluth, putting UND in the driver's seat as it aims for its third Penrose Cup in six years.
"The next thing is the Penrose. . . being the No. 1 seed," UND coach Brad Berry said. "We have a good chance to keep things going here. There are other teams playing well. There's Duluth, Western (Michigan), Denver's playing well. . . the whole league at this time of year, you're getting their best. We have to make sure we're right there and keep pushing every game. We can't get ahead of ourselves. We have to make sure we worry about tomorrow and after that, we'll worry about the next weekend."
Shane Pinto, Westin Michaud, Collin Adams and Jacob Bernard-Docker scored goals, while Hobey Baker Award candidate Jordan Kawaguchi tacked on two more assists to his league-leading point total of 43. No other forward in the NCHC has hit the 30-point mark yet.
Meanwhile, Peter Thome continued his roll in net by stopping 26 of 27 shots. Thome, who didn't play a minute in the first half of the season, is now 5-0-1 with a 1.30 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage. The junior from Minneapolis has played 370 minutes this season and has allowed just two goals at even strength. Denver's lone tally Friday was a one-timer on the power play by rookie Bobby Brink.
"He's just playing with confidence," Pinto said of Thome. "You can just tell by the way he's playing the puck, the way he's making saves and controlling rebounds. He has a lot of swagger to him right now, so that's good for us."
Power play stays hot
Special teams were key Friday night.
UND stayed hot on the power play, converting two of three chances. The first one came off of a Matt Kiersted point shot that grazed Michaud's jersey and beat Denver goalie Devin Cooley in the second period. The second one came when Collin Adams stole a pass by Denver defenseman Michael Davies and fed a wide-open Bernard-Docker in the slot.
The Fighting Hawks, who have power-play goals in seven of the last eight games, now lead the NCHC in power-play percentage in conference games at 29.9 percent. A year ago, UND finished dead last in that category at 12.4 percent.
"Continuity," Berry said of the key to the power play. "You can put (last year's struggles) on us coaches a little bit. When you're losing games, the first thing you always do is you go and try to find different units. What can give you the quick fix, right? I think what we did is we remained a little more patient this year of letting these guys feel it, letting these guys work together a little bit to get some chemistry. I think you're seeing chemistry right now with these guys.
"The sign of a good power play -- and both teams have it, they have a really good power play -- is moving the puck quick. When you're over-handling it and not moving the puck, you become stagnant. There are situations now, where guys know their spots and are moving the puck quick and they feel it. I think it's a good sign."
Although UND did allow Denver one power-play goal, it also held the Pioneers off the board on three others.
The Fighting Hawks led throughout.
Pinto gave them the early lead at 6:21 of the first period, re-directing a Bernard-Docker shot from just inside the blue line past Cooley, who made just his second Friday-night start of the season. Rookie Magnus Chrona, who started both games against UND in November, had been starting Friday nights.
Denver tied it at 3:17 of the second power on a power-play blast by Brink, but the game didn't stay tied for long.
UND grabbed the lead for good at 7:36 of the second, when Kiersted's shot grazed Michaud's back and beat Cooley. The Fighting Hawks made it 3-1 before the end of the frame on a misplay by the Denver goalie. Kawaguchi knocked a puck off of a Denver player's stick to the top of the crease, where Cooley was unable to cover it. Grant Mismash skated by and poked the puck away from Cooley to the top of the crease, where Adams buried his ninth of the season.
UND's second power-play unit provided the final score at 11:14 of the third period, when Adams stole the puck from Denver defenseman Michael Davies and fed it to a wide open Bernard-Docker in the slot.
"I thought it was a fast-paced game for two teams that had the week off and got after it right away," Berry said. "I thought both teams had a lot of jump, made some plays early on. I thought it was a pretty even game going back-and-forth. I think special teams were the difference tonight."
Denver had added concern after the game with injuries to two forwards. Linemates Brink and Jaakko Heikkinen left the game and did not return. Pioneers coach David Carle didn't have an update on their condition immediately after the game.
UND 4, Denver 1
First period -- 1. UND, Shane Pinto 14 (Jacob Bernard-Docker 15, Colton Poolman 11) 6:21
Second period -- 2. DU, Bobby Brink 11 (Ian Mitchell 17, Emilio Pettersen 18) 3:17 (pp); 3. UND, Westin Michaud 13 (Matt Kiersted 20, Jordan Kawaguchi 27) 7:36 (pp); 4. UND, Collin Adams 9 (Grant Mismash 11, Kawaguchi 28) 16:36
Third period -- 5. UND, Jacob Bernard-Docker 4 (Adams 16) 11:14 (pp)
Penalties -- Jonny Tychonick, UND, roughing, 9:26 first; Liam Finlay, DU, holding, 14:12 first; Harrison Blaisdell, UND, tripping, 17:03 first; Adams, UND, tripping, 1:50 second; Bench minor, DU, too many on ice, 6:49 second; Andrew Peski, UND, hooking, 12:09 second; Brett Edwards, DU, indirect contact to the head, 9:59 third
Goalie saves -- UND: Peter Thome 11-7-8 -- 26; DU: Devin Cooley 10-5-4 -- 19
Penalties-minutes -- UND 4-8, DU 3-6
Power plays -- UND 2-3, DU 1-4
Attendance -- 11,212
Referees -- Cameron Voss and Nathan Wieler
Linesmen -- Justin Hills and Mike Eslinger