SCHENECTADY, N.Y. – Prior to departing for their Christmas break, North Dakota’s players and coaches spoke unilaterally of needing to find consistency in their effort and performance and to find it soon.
After a 9-6-3 first half, the Fighting Hawks found that 60-minute game on Saturday afternoon in their first game out of the break, a crisp, convincing 3-1 victory over powerhouse Union College in the difficult environs of Frank L. Messa Rink.
Junior forward Austin Poganski opened the scoring 11 seconds into the game, sealed the win with an empty-net goal in the final minute and also set up a Shane Gersich goal to offset the absences of scoring aces Tyson Jost (World Junior Championship) and Brock Boeser (injury).
It was a vital win in the final non-conference game of North Dakota’s schedule and it lifted the Fighting Hawks from No. 11 to No. 9 in the PairWise Rankings, while the Dutchmen dropped from fourth to eighth.
The win, which gave UND a sparkling 7-2-2 non-conference record, was the result of solid, three-zone hockey and a lay-it-on-the line mentality.
“To win games like this against great teams…your best players have to be your best players, but I thought all of our team chipped in,” said UND head coach Brad Berry. “Whether it was our first, second, third or fourth line, they all played hard. They gave a total team effort tonight.”
Never was that team effort more evident than when sophomore forward Chris Wilkie dropped to block a shot off his kneecap in the game’s final minutes while UND was protecting its lead.
Wilkie labored to get to the bench in immense pain, but his teammates were able to clear the zone at a critical juncture.
“That doesn’t go unnoticed,” said Berry. “Chris is a guy that’s mostly an offensive player. When he puts his body in front of it, that goes noticed by the whole team and it’s contagious. When you’re giving up your body, that’s a big deal, especially in the second half of the year.”
The courageous shot block also typified what was a frustrating night for the high-flying Dutchmen, who boast one of the most prolific scoring attacks in the country.
National scoring leader Mike Vecchione was held without a shot on goal and he and linemates Spencer Foo and Sebastian Vidmar were a combined minus-6. The only goal for any of them came in the final minutes while Union goalie Alex Sakellaropoulos was pulled for an extra attacker. Foo deflected a point shot to cut UND’s lead to 2-1 with 2:41 remaining in regulation.
“That line’s a tremendous line. They generate offense, they play the right way, the play physical, they play north and they play fast,” said Berry. “We told our guys today, ‘It doesn’t matter who’s on the ice – the four lines or the six defensemen – whoever’s on the ice, be aware of them.’”
For much of the night, that assignment belonged primarily to UND’s top line of Poganski, center Rhett Gardner and left winger Shane Gersich. The trio produced 11 shots on goal and all three goals for the Fighting Hawks while also neutralizing the Vecchione line.
“That’s a line you can’t give a lot of time and space to, or a lot of time through the neutral zone,” said Berry of the Vecchione unit. “We tried to disrupt them up ice with F1 pressure and try to make them dump pucks in.”
Poganski’s goal 11 seconds into the game came off a set faceoff play, resulting in a Gardner centering a pass in front to a wide-open Poganski.
“It’s huge,” Poganski said of scoring an early goal in a hostile environment. “It’s always our game plan to get after them right away and especially get a goal and kind of quiet the crowd.”
A similar play resulted in Gersich’s second-period goal that made it 2-0.
Poganski chased down defenseman Vas Kolias on the end boards and threw a hit to separate him from the puck, and immediately centered to Gersich. All alone in front, Gersich one-time the puck past Sakellaropoulos for his NCHC-leading 14th goal of the season.
UND netminder Cam Johnson and his penalty-kill cohorts did much of the heavy lifting the rest of the way. The All-American turned aside 32 of 33 shots – the lone Blemish the late Foo power-play goal – and helped the Fighting Hawks go a perfect 5-for-5 on the kill.
Johnson’s best save was a terrific stop on a Ryan Walker one-timer on the doorstep just moments after Foo had gotten the Dutchmen on the board and the home crowd back into the game. Johnson, though, credited his teammates with minimizing the danger all night.
“That’s something we pride ourselves on is our play away from the puck and our defensive play,” said Johnson. “I thought we did a great job of that tonight. We limited their chances and the guys made my job easy.
“It was an awesome environment,” continued Johnson. “These are teams that we don’t see very often so when we get a chance to come out here and play a team like Union, and a good team at that, it was a lot of fun.”
A lot of fun and a victory that sets UND up for the second half of conference play and a run at a possible 15th straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
“For us, it’s huge,” said Berry. “It’s our last non-conference game, it’s on the road against a top-four team in the country. For the Pairwise, it’s huge. Now we’ve got a lot of work in the NCHC to do to keep up in the pairwise.
“It’s just the start of the second half, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Notes: UND returns to the road next weekend at Omaha to resume NCHC play … Johnson made his 49th straight start, six shy of tying Jean-Philippe Lamoureux’s school record for consecutive starts … Gersich led the team with six shots on goal … UND was scoreless on its lone power-play opportunity … Union held a 41-31 edge in faceoffs. Gardner was 13-11 to lead the Fighting Hawks … Poganski had his second 3-point outing in his last three games after previously having just one 3-point night in his first 98 collegiate games.