GRAND FORKS, N.D. – For a team that hadn't played a game in 21 days, time was a friend Saturday night for the University of North Dakota hockey team, allowing a much-needed Christmas break and for a rash of injured players to return to health.
Time has started ticking on the second half of the season for the Fighting Hawks and the prognosis looks bright following a 5-2 exhibition game victory over the U.S. Under-18 team in front of 10,113 fans at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
The game sets UND up nicely for a possible title run in the second half of the National Collegiate Hockey Confererence season. That begins next weekend at The Ralph against Omaha. UND enters the second half just one point behind league-leading St. Cloud State.
UND coach Brad Berry said the game, though an exhibition, counted in other ways.
"It means a lot,'' he said. "When you've had a 9-10 day break and coming back after the Christmas holidays, there's always a little rust. You can tell tonight. I thought we competed hard. The execution was a little bit off. For the most part, I thought we played a sound game.''
Making the most noise in the sound department was the line of senior center Johnny Simonson working with senior Trevor Olson and sophomore Cole Smith on his wings. Smith tipped in a right point, one-time slap shot from defenseman Colton Poolman just 2:23 into the game to give UND a lead it never relinquished.
"Over Christmas, we kind of looked at a few analytical things, and offensive zone play, it seems that line plays in the other team's end a lot,'' Berry said. "It's because they do the right things. They get pucks deep, they protect pucks, and they get pucks to the net.''
That's the recipe for success for any line, at any level, and it's working effectively for the Simonson line.
"We're happy with that line, and they have to continue to play that way,'' Berry said.
With the win, UND now is 8-0-1 all-time against the Under-18 team, based out of Ann Arbor, Mich., and featuring 18 players who already have college commitments.
UND ran to a 3-0 lead in the first period with winger Austin Poganski and defenseman Matt Kiersted adding goals, before Ryan Savage put the Under-18 team on the board on a rebound late in the opening period.
Olson, who missed 10 games from Nov. 3 to Dec. 8 with injury, is a solid part of the Simonson line now.
"We're just keeping it simple,'' Olson said.
Smith set the tone both for the team and himself with his opening goal. This was the fourth straight game in which he has scored a goal, though officially this one will not count.
"It kind of feels good to stay a little hot out there,'' Smith admitted. "It helps the confidence, coming off break, and getting a bounce like that. We had a good game. Kind of knocked the rust off here.''
The top line of Rhett Gardner centering Austin Poganski and Gersich scored two goals. Poganski broke in alone on right wing to deke the goalie for his tally, with Gersich having no goalie to beat on his empty-net score.
Game notes: UND was 1-for-4 on the power play with 7 shots, Under-18 0-for-3 with 2 shots ... Named the three stars by the media were defenseman Christian Wolanin (2 assists), Poganski (goal) and Kiersted (goal), in that order ... Ludvig Hoff and Gardner led UND with 5 shots on goal ... UND won the faceoff battle 33-27, led by Hoff (9 of 13) ... The temperature was -18 at game time and dropped to -21 as fans left the arena.
Virg Foss is in his 13th season of reporting on UND home games exclusively for UNDsports.com. He covered UND hockey for 35 seasons for the Grand Forks Herald until his retirement from newspapers.