GRAND FORKS, N.D. – With NCHC-leading St. Cloud State playing out of conference this weekend, second-place North Dakota had a golden opportunity to take hold of the league standings this weekend with eighth-place Omaha in town.
However, the Mavericks stunned the Fighting Hawks with a 4-1 win on Friday night, sending UND back to the drawing board for Saturday’s series finale. UND head coach Brad Berry sketched out a new lineup and gave freshman Peter Thome his first start in goal since Thanksgiving weekend and the result was a 7-0 thumping of Omaha, a resounding victory that pulled the Fighting Hawks even with St. Cloud State atop the conference standings.
Senior captain Austin Poganski scored twice to lead an attack that generated goals from six different players, while Thome turned aside all 15 shots he faced for his first collegiate shutout.
The new-look lineup, with sophomore forwards Zach Yon and Dixon Bowen in for freshmen Collin Adams and Grant Mismash, paid dividends, but so did a different approach by the home team. UND responded to a lethargic Friday night effort by dictating the pace from the drop of the puck on Saturday, led by the top line of Poganski (2 goals, 1 assist), Rhett Gardner (1 goal, 2 assists) and Shane Gersich (2 assists).
“Vastly different from last night,” said Berry of his squad’s effort. “We’ve got to remember both games and what it takes to win a game in a tough league.”
Although UND carried the play for the first period, scoring chances were few and far between that saw just 11 combined shots on goal between the two teams. The dam didn’t break until two minutes remained in the first period, when Gardner followed his own initial blocked shot and beat Kris Oldham from the high slot to open the scoring. UND went into the first intermission with momentum and energy.
“Scoring that goal late in the first period was a big deal,” said Berry. “Getting that first goal of the game something we haven’t done a whole lot this year.”
From that point on, it was all Fighting Hawks.
Gardner, who enjoyed his first collegiate 3-pointt game, said UND brought a completely different mindset into Saturday’s game.
“We were first to loose pucks, we didn’t lose many battles and we took care of the neutral zone. Last night, those were things that hurt us,” said Gardner.
Gardner added that the lineup changes provided an additional boost.
“That’s the one thing about North Dakota is guys who are healthy scratches are really good players, so there’s always internal competition and it showed tonight,” said Gardner.
UND poured it on in the third period, getting a pair of goals from Poganski and one from sophomore defenseman Andrew Peski. It was Peski’s first collegiate goal in his 49th career game. His long range shot ricocheted off Oldham and then a UNO defender, but the Orleans, Ontario, native was in no mood to be choosy.
“I’ve been waiting for that for a long, long time,” said Peski. “I’ve probably gone through every scenario in my head of how I was gonna get it. It finally went in and the boys were pretty happy.”
Peski’s teammates were possibly more excited for the milestone goal than Peski himself.
“To see him get that first one, that’s awesome because he’s an unbelievable guy and no one works harder,” said Thome.
Added Berry: “Absolutely love it. He’s an ultimate team guy. He’ll do whatever you tell him to do, he’s a great person. For him to get his first collegiate goal, it’s one he’ll remember for a long time and I told him it’ll be the first of many.”
The offensive outburst from Peski and friends was just what the doctor ordered for the Fighting Hawks, although Berry said the performance of his defensive corps was an underrated key tonight.
“I think they were better because they simplified the game,” said Berry. “They moved pucks more efficiently and they weren’t as high-risk. They played a patient, hard, physical game and they played an efficient game.”
Peski (+3) and partner Hayden Shaw (+4) were particularly efficient, combining for a plus-7.
“We kind of determined our work ethic wasn’t there [on Friday],” said Peski. “They were working us on puck battles and puck races. That was a major key, just our work ethic and our mentality was a lot stronger.”
The players inserted into the lineup by Berry – Yon and Bowen – did not necessarily have prolific games. Neither one of them hit the scoresheet and they combined for two shots on goal (both by Yon), but both provided a much-needed jolt of energy after Friday night’s clunker.
“We wanted to make changes tonight to give guys opportunities,” said Berry. “Guys responded. It goes to the leadership group in the locker room that they got the ship going in the right direction again.”
UND will now turn its attention to former WCHA rival Bemidji State, the final non-conference opponent on the regular-season slate for the Fighting Hawks. The two teams will square off in a home-and-home series next weekend, first in Bemidji on Friday with a return date Saturday in Grand Forks.
Notes: Gardner, Janatuinen (1 goal, 1 assist) and Thome were the game’s three stars … Thome became the first UND freshman to register a shutout since Aaron Dell did it in Oct. 2009 at Alaska Anchorage … UND outshot the Mavericks 32-15, including a 19-1 margin in the second period. The last time UND held an opponent to one shot on goal in a single period was Jan. 12, 2013 against Colorado College … UND, the top faceoff team in the country, went 42-29 on draws tonight, led by Gardner (17-10), Jones (10-4) and Johnny Simonson (10-5).