GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- It was perhaps fitting it came down to this.
In a season where UND has won 18 of its 22 games (22-12-3) by two goals or less, No. 2 seed North Dakota squeezed by No. 7 seed Colorado College 4-3 to win the deciding game of the best-of-three National Collegiate Hockey Conference playoff series.
The victory sends North Dakota to the NCHC Frozen Faceoff in Minneapolis next weekend as the only one of the top four finishers in the regular season standings to make it to the Target Center. There, UND will face No. 8 seed Miami next Friday in the semifinals. Miami, the preseason pick to win the league, dropped three of four regular-season meetings against UND, picked for second in the preason polls.
The victory moved UND from 15th to a tie for 12th with Minnesota State in the Pairwise rankings, which mimic the formula used to select the field for the 16-team NCAA tournament.
UND coach Dave Hakstol shuffled personnel on three of his four lines tonight, including reuniting an old combination of Connor Gaarder centering Stephane Pattyn and Derek Rodwell. Pattyn had a goal and one assist and missed on two breakaways, while Rodwell assisted on two goals and Gaarder on one as that line led the way to victory.
Unlike the first two games of the series, North Dakota scored first this time when defenseman Nick Mattson pounded in a rebound off a Pattyn shot 3:41 into the game to make it 1-0.
UND never trailed and was tied just once at 1-1 on Alexander Krushelnyski's wrist shot rocket at 6:41.
Rookie defenseman Troy Stecher scored on a right point slapper at 10:06 to put UND ahead to stay at 2-1. It was his first goal in the last 31 games, his second of the season.
Pattyn made it 3-1 at 12:22, using a defenseman as a screen to bury a long wrist shot on a 3-on-1 rush.
CC sandwiched a goal by Michael Morin late in the second period with an extra attacker deflection goal with the goalie pulled by Alex Roos at 18:31 of the third period to pull within one. Those came wrapped around Brendan O'Donnell's tip-in of a Rocco Grimadi pass at 2:29 of the third period that had given UND a 4-2 lead.
But in a game where shots were dead even at 30-30 and a season for UND where most every win has been a struggle, this one came down to a hectic finish, too.
"A big character win for us,'' UND captain Dillon Simpson said. "They're (CC) a team that doesn't go away. We had to play a full 60 minutes to get the win tonight. Nothing comes easy for us this year -- that's the way we like it.''
Hakstol agreed with that.
"We've had to scratch and claw for everything from the start of the year,'' he said. "But we have scratched and clawed for everything. We stuck with it. Tonight's game is a good indicator of that.''
UND, coming off a 3-2 overtime loss to the Tigers Saturday night that forced Game 3, scratched this one out in typical fashion. Defensemen scored two goals, O'Donnell added his second in three games and the Pattyn, Gaarder and Rodwell line led the way in the grinding game played by UND.
This marks UND's 13th consecutive berth in a conference tournament, the longest active streak in the nation. It's also the 17th straight playoff series win on home ice. The bottom line is that the win sends UND on to the Frozen Faceoff to face Miami.
"Proud to be able to go there and play in front of a lot of our fans,'' Hakstol said.
Pattyn was asked what the feeling was after the game, relief or excitement or what.
"Tired,'' he quipped. "Three (games) in three (days) is a tough weekend. We did what we had to do to win. That's all that matters.''
Pattyn said he found out Sunday morning that he was going back on a line with Gaarder and Rodwell, a combination that as proved effective before.
"We heard this morning we were going back together, we kind of had a smile on our faces,'' Pattyn said. "I think you saw from the drop of the puck, we were really tenacious on pucks. We had a good jump -- and we played hard.''
Colorado College closes its season at 7-24-6, but with the respect from UND players, coaches and fans who saw the Tigers battle hard all weekend.
Game notes: Rookie defenseman Keaton Thompson and forward Michael Parks led UND in shots with 4 apiece ... Krushelnyski led CC in shots with 6 ... Both teams were 0-2 on the power play ... UND had a 45-26 edge in faceoff wins, led by Grimaldi (15 of 22) and Mark MacMillan (11 of 15) ... Pattyn, Rodwell and Grimaldi were named the three stars by the media, in that order ... There was a paid admission of 10,054 to the game ... Grimaldi joined Pattyn and Rodwell with two-point games with his pair of assists.
Virg Foss covered UND hockey for 35 seasons for the Grand Forks Herald until his retirement in 2005. He now reports on UND home games exclusively for UNDsports.com.