ST. CLOUD, Minn. – Surging North Dakota has put itself within one win of clinching the first-ever Penrose Cup as National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) regular season champions.
Tenth-ranked UND blitzed host St. Cloud State with five straight goals in the second period – two by junior forward Connor Gaarder – to turn a 1-0 deficit into an eventual 5-2 victory.
The win moved UND (19-9-3, 14-7-0) ahead of the Huskies and into sole possession of first place in the NCHC.
A win Saturday night and UND would clinch a share of the Penrose Cup and the No. 1 seed for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.
An evenly-played, but largely uneventful, first period saw the Huskies open the scoring on Joey Benik’s power-play goal midway through the frame.
It was all North Dakota after that.
Gaarder tied the game 5:10 into the second period with his first of two on the night, ripping a wrist shot over the glove of Husky goalie Ryan Faragher that rang off the back cross bar.
UND piled on three more goals in the next 8:44. Just over four minutes after the Gaarder goal, Luke Johnson banged home a Rocco Grimaldi rebound, and Mark MacMillan made it 3-1 on an identical play 50 seconds later. Gaarder potted his second of the night at 13:54, one-time a Nick Mattson centering pass in the slot, and sophomore Drake Caggiula made it a 5-1 game after knocking in his own rebound at the edge of the crease with 44 seconds left in the period.
“We had a pretty good first period,” said MacMillan, whose goal was his ninth of the year. “Maybe not as good as we wanted to, but our mindset was getting going in the second and we went out and did exactly what we needed to do. We got pucks and bodies to their ‘tender and some pucks went in for us.”
UND outshot the stunned Huskies 17-3 in the second period.
“We didn’t get pushed off our game or anything, we just came back strong in the second,” said Mattson. “We were relentless. We scored one and we didn’t get satisfied.”
Gaarder, who ignited the scoring outburst, agreed.
“We had to come out and set a tone in the second period and play a good 20 minutes and that’s all we were worried about,” said Gaarder.
Said UND head coach Dave Hakstol: “It was a good solid period. There was nothing special to it. We had some good fortune around the net. You’ve got to put pucks there, you’ve got to go to those areas. We’re playing the way we have to play to be successful. I think we’re just doing the same things we’ve been doing for the last couple of months.”
Defenseman Kevin Gravel got one back for St. Cloud State with 4:35 remaining in the third period, the only blemish over the final 40 minutes for Zane Gothberg, who ran his personal unbeaten streak to 14 games (12-0-2).
UND finished the game with a 34-24 edge in shots on goal.
If UND, 15-2-1 in its last 18 games, is to clinch the Penrose Cup on Saturday, it must find a way to pick up its first sweep in the National Hockey Center since Nov. 1998.
“It’s exciting but we can’t really let overshadow the game,” said Mattson of the chance to clinch the Penrose Cup. “Just have a one-game focus and just play the way we can and hopefully things work out well.”
Hakstol said the stakes won’t alter his team’s approach.
“We’re going to come back and prepare to play a hockey game tomorrow night and play as hard as we possibly can,” said Hakstol. “That’s what we’ve done and that’s what’s brought us some success over the past couple of months.”
Notes: UND improved to No. 9 in the PairWise rankings following the game … Gaarder, Brendan O’Donnell and Mark MacMillan were named the game’s three stars … O’Donnell racked up a career-high three assists … UND went 0-2 on the power play and St. Cloud Staet was 1-3 … Gothberg ran his personal unbeaten streak to 14 games (12-0-2). He has a 1.77 goals against average and .930 save percentage during that stretch.