The University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks are once again Penrose Cup champions. Cruising to a 7-1 victory over the Omaha Mavericks on Saturday night, UND earned its second-straight National Collegiate Hockey Conference title and fourth in the past eight seasons’ worth of attempts. North Dakota owns 19 total conference titles in the program’s history.
Helping lead the way for UND was freshman Riese Gaber. The Gilbert Plains, Manitoba product is currently sitting at eight goals and 16 points through the first 22 games of his career.
“It’s definitely not been a normal season, and there are some challenges with that, but we just have to keep playing our game,” the first-year forward said. “For me, it was just sticking to what I know works and that’s important for me. I think it’s been a successful start for me, but there is obviously going to always be room for improvement. Looking back as we went through our first 22 games, it’s been pretty good and I’ve been quite happy with the way we’ve played.”
Beginning with 10 games in 19 days at the Omaha, Nebraska-based NCHC bubble site, the Fighting Hawks basically held a wire-to-wire reign atop the divisional standings, seeing a well-rounded offence from all four lines.
“It’s definitely been quite different, nothing like what we expected,” Gaber added. “But just looking back at everything that has happened, we have definitely made the most of every opportunity that we’ve had, and we’ve been ready for everything that has been thrown at us. It doesn’t matter the circumstances, we know we are a good team and have confidence in ourselves. So we have stuck to our game and played no matter the circumstances and we did a really good job of that.”
Currently sitting at 17-4-1, UND will travel to Omaha for one game this weekend, before hosting the Mavericks again to close out the season on March 5. The crew will then welcome its competition to for the Frozen Faceoff, beginning on March 12-16 in Grand Forks.
“It’s definitely huge,” Gaber said of earning the NCHC title. “I think all the guys from last year, and even us newer guys know we have unfinished business. So checking this box off is a a big step in achieving our next goal of the hopeful end result of winning a national championship.”
The Ralph was filled to the brim with a COVID-19 protocol crowd of 2,500 on Saturday, and that, according to Gaber, was enough to be felt by the players on the ice.
“It was really nice,” he said of the fan support. “Obviously having those fans there is not the same as the normal 12,000, but just having that life in the building is pretty special and definitely something that we were pretty excited about. Having them there definitely goes a long way as far as energy and definitely gives us an added burst when we’re out on the ice.”
Through all the goals, assists, travels and league championships, the former MJHL standout-turned-USHL star remains grounded in capitalizing on the opportunity that he has been given.
“It means everything,” Gaber said of the chance to suit up for his dream school. “This is obviously something that I’m extremely grateful for. To be a part of North Dakota here is pretty special; it’s something that it don’t take for granted. Just being able to go to the rink every day and put on that jersey and play is super special. I am just looking to keep going and make the very most of it.”