GRAND FORKS -- Last season, the University of North Dakota 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, Matt Kiersted, 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 on the power play.
"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."
Special teams were key Friday night.
UND stayed hot on the power play, converting two of three chances. The Fighting Hawks 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.
UND took an early lead at 6:21 of the first period, when Pinto fought off a check by Denver defenseman Ian Mitchell to re-direct a Bernard-Docker point shot past Pioneer goalie Devin Cooley (19).
Denver evened it up at 3:17 of the second period on the power play when freshman Bobby Brink blasted a one-timer past Thome.
UND regained the lead on its second power-play chance of the game at 7:36 of the second. Kawaguchi grabbed the puck in the right circle, drew a defender to him and slipped a pass to Kiersted at the point. The defenseman blasted a point shot through a Westin Michaud screen to make it 2-1.
The Fighting Hawks took advantage of a misplay by Cooley at the end of the second to extend their lead to 3-1. 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 and to the top of the crease, where Adams buried it for 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.
Denver had added concern after the game with injuries to two forwards. Linemates Brink and Jaakko Heikkinen left the game and did not return.
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, Matt Kiersted 5 (Jordan Kawaguchi 27, Pinto 10) 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