UND wins third-straight Penrose Cup on Tyler Kleven overtime goal
The Fighting Hawks celebrated the NCHC championship in Omaha's Baxter Arena.
OMAHA, Neb. — UND's equipment staff brought the Penrose Cup to Omaha this weekend on the team's charter flight Thursday.
They hid it in its plain-looking crate and locked it in a room in the basement of Baxter Arena.
On Friday night, the Fighting Hawks made sure the National Collegiate Hockey Conference championship trophy will be coming right back to Grand Forks, where it will reside for a third year in a row.
North Dakota native Tyler Kleven scored 1 minute, 28 seconds into overtime to give UND a 5-4 win over Omaha and an unprecedented third NCHC title in a row and fifth in the nine-year history of the program.
It marked just the second time in program history that UND has won three-straight regular-season conference titles — the other time was 1997, 1998 and 1999.
"It's pretty special," said fifth-year senior Connor Ford, who transferred from Bowling Green in the offseason. "This is my last go at it. Winning a regular season championship is something you don't even think of in the WCHA, because Mankato ran away with it every year. So, it's really special."
Denver still has a chance to share the Penrose Cup on Saturday night and grab the No. 1 seed for the league's postseason tournament. UND can deny the Pioneers that chance with one point in the series finale against the Mavericks (7:07 p.m.).
"That's what the goal is," Ford said. "It's a business-like mentality in that locker room right now. Obviously, guys are happy. Guys are celebrating. The trophy is in there. But at the same time, guys are dialing in for tomorrow. Nobody is taking their foot off the gas."
NCHC associate commissioner Michael Weisman presented the trophy to the team on the ice. After saying a few words to the group, he handed it to captain Mark Senden, who carried it over to his teammates.
They skated around Baxter Arena to show the UND fans who stayed after the buzzer to celebrate the league title.
"Obviously, I've been after it a long time," said UND goalie Zach Driscoll, who transferred from Bemidji State in the offseason. "I spent five years trying to get to the end of the regular season like this with a group. To be able to come in here and do it with a group like this is so special. I can't really describe it right now."
Of UND's five Penrose Cups, this was, by far, the most unlikely.
The Fighting Hawks were picked to finish fourth in the league after losing half of their roster from last season's team, including eight players on NHL contracts.
UND lost two Hobey Baker Award Hat Trick finalists — Jordan Kawaguchi and Shane Pinto. It lost its top defensive pairing — Matt Kiersted and Jacob Bernard-Docker. It lost both of its goaltenders — Adam Scheel and Peter Thome. It even lost its projected first-line center, Jasper Weatherby on the first day of school to the San Jose Sharks.
Fourteen of the 27 players on the roster were new this year — the program's largest group of newcomers in 48 years — but they quickly meshed together and got off to a solid start.
After losing four-straight games after Christmas break, they made a furious run toward the finish line, winning seven-straight games and taking points in 11-straight, despite being decimated by injuries.
Leading scorer Riese Gaber hasn't played in two weeks. Star defenseman and alternate captain Jake Sanderson hasn't played in over a month. Alternate captain Gavin Hain hasn't played in almost two. Alternate captain Ethan Frisch joined the injured list last week as well.
"I don't it matters who we have in our lineup on a nightly basis," Driscoll said. "I think everybody in our group is confident in each other here. We know whoever is in the lineup on a Friday or Saturday night, that's the group we have and that's who is going to win games. It's not who is out, it's who we have in. And we know we're going to be able to get it done."
It was a fitting way to win Friday as UND received contributions from around the lineup.
Jake Schmaltz, whose cousin, Jordan, nicknamed the trophy the "Penne Rosa" after a dish at Noodles and Company back when UND won it for the first time in 2015, scored two goals.
Sophomore defenseman Cooper Moore and sophomore forward Griffin Ness each scored their second goals of the season. Ashton Calder had two assists, including his 100th collegiate point. Ford also had two assists.
"At the beginning of the year on paper, nobody thought we were going to be winning this," Ford said. "It's a super resilient group. We've had guys step up — up and down the lineup, young guys, old guys, whatever it takes to win."
UND led 4-2 going into the third period Friday, but Omaha rallied with a power-play goal and an extra-attacker goal in the final minute.
Kleven won it in overtime, though.
Just before the winning goal, UND fifth-year senior Zach Driscoll made two brilliant saves to keep the puck out of the net. He made a leg save and followed it up with a desperation save on a shot that went off of his mask.
"A little bit lucky there," Driscoll said. "But I'll take those, for sure."
After Driscoll's save, UND went the other way. Rookie Matteo Costantini circled high in the zone and slipped a pass to Kleven, who had space in the right circle. The sophomore from Fargo wired one past Omaha goalie Austin Roden.
Half of the team mobbed Kleven in the corner, including the injured players, who wiggled open the door to race on the ice and celebrate. The other half went to Driscoll.
"I think in a situation like this, if you have key guys out of your lineup, it's a pretty easy excuse to say, 'Hey, you know what, we'll wait until they get back and then we'll be all right,'" Berry said. "To me, that's not what we do. That's been here since Gino (Gasparini) has been here with that next-man up mentality. Our guys are buying into it and believing it."