ST. CLOUD, Minn. – North Dakota players used words like “dynamic” and “lethal” to describe St. Cloud State’s power play following Friday night’s battle of the top two teams in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
With the Huskies clicking at over 27 percent with the man advantage this season – and nearly 33 percent on home ice – the Fighting Hawks flirted with danger by taking six minor penalties before the game was 30 minutes old, four straight during the second period.
UND responded with a bit of special teams magic of its own, however, going a perfect 6-6 on the penalty kill en route to a 2-2 overtime tie with the second-ranked and league-leading Huskies. Junior defenseman Christian Wolanin scored in the shootout to provide UND with the extra NCHC point and vault the Fighting Hawks into a first-place tie with the Huskies.
Wolanin also set up both Fighting Hawk goals during regulation time, a second-period tally by Rhett Gardner and Cole Smith’s tying goal in the third period, but UND’s NCHC-leading penalty kill was the story in this one.
“We looked at their power play a lot. We know what they do. They’re a lethal power play,” said UND junior forward Nick Jones. “They like to hit the seams and we’re just trying to take those away and let Cam [Johnson] see shots.”
And see shots Johnson did. The senior netminder saw 31 over the first three periods and overtime, then denied Jake Wahlin on St. Cloud’s first shootout attempt. Johnson was the best player on the ice during a 10-save first period, made eight saves when UND ran into penalty trouble in the middle frame, and stopped 12 more shots in the third period.
“Fortunately enough our penalty kill was dialed (in) tonight. Guys were doing the small things and we were able to kill off all those penalties,” said Johnson.
UND appeared to have dodged a bullet in staving off its second-period penalty troubles, including a pair of abbreviated 5-on-3 kills. But soon after the teams returned to five aside, SCSU’s Patrick Newell banked a right circle shot off of teammate Easton Brodzinski for a 1-0 lead.
The Fighting Hawks responded just under four minutes later when Gardner sniped a top-corner shot past Jeff Smith from the left circle, knotting the game 1-1 at 15:16 of the second period.
Ryan Poehling put the Huskies back on top at 6:15 of the third, intercepting an errant Christian Wolanin pass in the St. Cloud zone and going end to end before beating Johnson on the breakway.
Cole Smith, who scored the game-winner in the third period last Saturday against Western Michigan, supplied yet another clutch goal for UND three minutes later when he poked home a Johnny Simonson rebound on top of the crease.
Nothing was decided in either the 5-on-5 or 3-on-3 overtimes, setting the stage for Wolanin to atone for his earlier defensive miscue. Wolanin zig-zagged in on Smith and got him moving left to right before sliding the puck between his legs for that critical NCHC point.
“He’s kind of a wild card so I didn’t really know what was coming,” Johnson said of Wolanin, his fellow Michigander. “He’s creative. He’s scored a lot of goals in our little shootouts that we do on Thursdays. We knew it was going to be a battle. They’ve got a really good team over there. It was a really good test for us and it was nice for us to get that extra point for the NCHC.”
Smith said even when the penalty kill is effective, having to utilize it so frequently can still have a negative cumulative effect.
“When you’re killing all the time, it’s hard to get everybody into the game,” explained Smith. “They’ve got a really good power play, it’s one of the best in the nation, especially in this barn. Tomorrow it’s going to be a big emphasis, limiting our penalties.”
Berry agreed and said it required a top-to-bottom effort for UND to survive.
“Team first. Blocking shots. Making sure you’re playing hard against the five guys that are on the other side. We found a way to get it done tonight and Cam was outstanding,” said Berry, whose team is the first in nine games this season to escape the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center without a loss.
“I thought we did a good job of handling the adversity the right way – adversity meaning the penalties – but we can’t take that many tomorrow, that’s for sure. It taxes too many guys and doesn’t let guys get into the flow of the game, but I thought our guys battled through. There was a response tonight and that was a big deal.”
UND enters Saturday’s finale, the final game of the first half, with a 5-2-2-2 league record and a chance to go into the Christmas break atop the NCHC standings.
“I didn’t think our legs were there tonight as far as our quickness, being on our toes, and having our jump,” said Berry. “We were okay but we weren’t great and I think we can be a lot better tomorrow.”
The puck drops at 7:07 p.m. Central on Saturday.
Notes: St. Cloud State held the edge in shots on goal (33-32) and faceoffs (33-27) … Wolanin, Brodzinski and Poehling were named the game’s three stars … Freshman defenseman Gabe Bast blocked a game-high five shots for the Fighting Hawks, who had 14 as a team … Senior forward Trevor Olson returned to the lineup for UND after missing 10 games with an upper body injury.