OMAHA, Neb. – Following North Dakota’s 4-2 win over host Omaha on Friday night, a UND player noted to a teammate, “We are undefeated without ‘Stech’ in the lineup."
‘Stech’ would be junior assistant captain Troy Stecher, who was serving a 1-game NCHC suspension.
The comment was said in jest, but the achievement was notable nonetheless.
Playing without one of the top defensemen in college hockey, the Fighting Hawks limited the Mavericks to just 22 shots on goal – 11 in the final 40 minutes – and took over sole possession of the first place in the NCHC with three games remaining.
The difficulty level tonight was upped when forward Luke Johnson was assessed a 5-minute major and game misconduct for contact to the head late in the second period.
Now forced to kill the major without the PK specialist Stecher and a 2-1 lead, Stecher’s regular defense partner, captain Gage Ausmus, steeled himself for the task at hand.
“I looked at Paul (LaDue) after they called that penalty – we were skating out there – and I said, ‘Gonna be tired after this one.’"
"That was a huge momentum boost for us to get that kill.”
Indeed, UND limited Omaha to just one shot on goal during the 5-minute power play and managed to out-chance the Mavericks while short-handed. The penalty sent the visiting Fighting Hawks into the second intermission with an extra lift and the 1-goal lead still intact.
“Five-minute majors can go one way or another as far as momentum,” said UND coach Brad Berry.
Berry added that the coaching staff altered the approach of the penalty killers against the UNO power play.
“We wanted to be a little bit more aggressive,” said Berry. “That’s a Catch-22. You get aggressive, and then (their) good players can make plays being ultra-aggressive. We want to make sure, when there are triggers to be aggressive, all four guys are being aggressive at once. It has to be in sync.”
It was most definitely in sync, as it has been for the better part of three months. UND has allowed just three power-play goals in 64 chances since Dec. 1, leading the nation in penalty killing during that time (95.3 percent).
“It was weird (being without Stecher),” laughed Ausmus. “I had to work a little more. I was more tired.”
For the fourth straight game, though, UND allowed the game’s first goal.
NCHC scoring leader Jake Guentzel took advantage of a line change and a bit of a broken play, depositing a perfect shot of the blocker shoulder of Cam Johnson from the bottom of the circle.
“After the 10-minute mark, I thought we got ourselves into the game and finished well,” said Berry. “It was a tough game. I thought our young defensemen did a pretty good job in a tough environment.”
Junior defenseman Tucker Poolman knotted the game at 1-1 just 91 seconds into the second period, trailing on a rush and taking advantage of a UNO clearing attempt in the middle of the Maverick zone. Poolman beat freshman netminder Alex Blankenburg clean from the slot for his fourth goal of the year and first in 11 games.
Luke Johnson put UND on top at 11:52 of the first period with a shot from the top of the circle that was aided greatly by an Austin Poganski screen. Johnson, whose goal was his first in eight games, had his night come to an end just three minutes after his goal.
Senior Drake Caggiula extended the lead to 3-1 only 53 seconds into the final frame, wiring a shot off the post and in. Fredrik Olofsson drew the Mavericks to within a goal five minutes later, but Brock Boeser sealed the win with an empty-netter with 53 seconds remaining.
It was Boeser’s NCHC-leading 21st goal of the season.
“We just got to our roots, getting pucks deep and pucks to the net,” said Poganski when asked how UND weathered the early first-period storm. “It’s tough when those guys (Stecher, Johnson) go down, but our team is so deep that if a few guys go down, we have guys who can come up and know what to do.”
“It was different, but guys stepped up into new roles and I’m proud of that.”
UND can clinch at least a share of its second straight Penrose Cup on Saturday night with a win over UNO and a Minnesota Duluth sweep at St. Cloud State. Saturday’s game begins at 7:07 p.m. Central.
Notes: Poolman, Guentzel and Luke Johnson were named the game’s three stars … Cam Johnson stopped 20 of 22 shots while Blankenburg stopped 20 of 23 … Caggiula’s game-winning goal was the 14th of his career, third-most among active Division I men’s players and sixth-most in UND history … Poganski collected a pair of assists and now has three goals and eight assists in his last 11 games.