GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Having now played in a school-record 14 overtime games this season, it appears the University of North Dakota hockey team has learned how to thrive in those pressure situations.
For the second straight Saturday, the Fighting Hawks came through under pressure in must-win games.
Tonight, junior center Nick Jones banked his second goal of the game off the back of the left leg of Omaha goalie Evan Weninger 53 seconds into the 20-minute, sudden-death session.
It gave UND a 4-3 win and sends the Fighting Hawks on to St. Paul next Friday and Saturday for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference's four-team Frozen Faceoff.
A week earlier, UND forced a second overtime against league-champion St. Cloud State to gain the point needed to give UND home ice for the first round of the NCHC playoffs.
It proved to be vital. After beating the Mavericks 4-0 on Friday, the Hawks completed the rare sweep tonight in front of 10,351 fans at Ralph Engelstad Arena. It was UND's first sweep of an opponent since Dec. 1-2 against Western Michigan, a span of three months, 8 days.
So it's on to the Xcel Energy Center.
"Our guys have earned right to go back there,'' UND coach Brad Berry said. "We know our (playoff) lives are still on the line. We're right on the bubble there in the Pairwise.''
In the Pairwise system used to determine the 16-team NCAA field in eight days, UND sits at No. 14, a precarious position indeed. UND is shooting for its 16th straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, but that is riding on what happens in St. Paul.
"That's how our guys play good hockey, against great competition, knowing we have to scratch and claw to stay alive,'' Berry said.
Omaha, with its season on the line as well Saturday, used a strong forechecking game and physical play to rally from a 2-0 deficit and take a 3-2 lead in the third period.
But halfway through the third period, Jones got a stick on a right point blast by defenseman Colton Poolman. Jones tipped the shot past Weninger at 10:14 of the period to tie it at 3-3 for his 14th goal of the season and fifth in the last five games. He leads UND in goals.
Jones intentionally tried to bank his shot off of Weninger's leg. It's a play, he said, he's seen Sidney Crosby score on five or so times a year.
He also said he had tried that play about 15-20 times in the past, including a couple of times this season -- and never scored. But this time, from behind the end line, he found magic mesh.
"He (Weninger) was playing pretty far out of his net. I was just hoping for a bounce, and was fortunate to get one,'' Jones said.
UND had taken a 2-0 lead a point shot by defenseman Matt Kiersted at 10:21 of the first period and on a breakaway by forward Dixon Bowen at 14:05. It was Bowen's first goal since Nov. 11 and just his second of the season.
Omaha struck back with goals by Finland product Teemu Pulkkinen at 15:28 of the first period and at 5:25 of the second, the latter two seconds after UND had killed a minor penalty.
The Mavericks then took the lead on Jake Randolph's rebound goal at 5:41 of the third period, setting the stage for some late-game heroics from Jones to punch UND's ticket to the Frozen Faceoff.
"We knew it was going to be a tough game,'' Berry said. "Probably the hardest game is trying to end another team's season. And it was.''
And how about Jones? "He brings instant experience to your lineup,'' Berry said of the former Ohio State player, who came to UND from Penticton of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League. "He's a seasoned vet, and he does all the little things.''
And on this night, the little thing was banking in an improbable goal from behind the end line to send Hawks, now 16-12-10, to St. Paul, where they will await their still-to-be-determined opponent for next Friday.
Game notes: Jones led UND in shots on goal with 4, while Bowen, Grant Mismash, Shane Gersich, Rhett Gardner and Jordan Kawaguchi all had 3 ... Omaha's leading scorer, David Pope, led the Mavs with 4, but UND held the 20-goal scorer to a single assist on the weekend ... UND won the faceoffs 41-29, led by Gardner with 18 of 28 and Johnny Simonson with 8 of 12 ... UND was 1-for-2 on the power play, Omaha 0-for-3 ... Cam Johnson finished with 18 saves for UND in his 100th career game. He now has an 11-3-1 record in post-season play and his 55 career wins ties him with Jordan Parise for fourth all-tie at UND ... The Hawks lost defenseman Andrew Peski halfway through the game with an upper body injury. His status for the Frozen Faceoff is unknown at this time, Berry said.
Virg Foss covered UND for the Grand Forks Herald for 35 seasons, including national championship teams in 1980, 1982, 1987, 1997 and 2000. Since his retirement in 2005, he's covered UND games exclusively for undsports.com for 13 seasons, including a national championship in 2016.