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UND knocks off another ranked team in Minnesota Duluth

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North Dakota's Peter Thome deflects the puck off his stick after being tripped by Minnesota Duluth's Riley Tufte (27) in the second period of Friday's hockey game at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service2 / 2

GRAND FORKS -- The University of North Dakota hockey team played the defending national champions and the No. 3-ranked team in the country Friday night, Feb. 22, without starting goaltender Adam Scheel, without senior center Nick Jones, without second-round draft pick Grant Mismash, and with a netminder who hadn’t played a regular-season game since November.

In other words, everything was all right.

For whatever reason, this Fighting Hawks team plays its best against top-ranked opponents and when the odds seem stacked against them.

They did it again Friday, beating Minnesota Duluth 4-1 in the series opener in front of 11,605 fans in Ralph Engelstad Arena.

Freshman Mark Senden scored on the first shift of the game for the second time in eight days, UND built a 3-1 lead in the first period and goaltender Peter Thome stopped 21 of 22 shots in his first start since Nov. 30.

The Fighting Hawks also used a shorthanded goal from Hayden Shaw on a terrific setup by Rhett Gardner, an even-strength goal on a fortunate bounce off of Casey Johnson’s leg and an empty-net goal from Cole Smith to secure the win.

“We went out there with the same mindset as the first game against Western,” Senden said, referring to last Friday’s road win. “You know, just going out there, playing our hardest every single shift and doing it for the guy next to you.”

UND (15-13-2, 9-9-1 National Collegiate Hockey Conference) now has six victories over teams ranked in the top eight of this week’s USCHO national poll: two against the Bulldogs and one against St. Cloud State, Denver, Minnesota State-Mankato and Western Michigan.

Despite all of the ups and downs of this season, a top-four finish in the NCHC standings and a berth in the NCAA tournament are both still within reach for this team thanks to all of those big wins.

The Fighting Hawks have more quality win bonus points in the Pairwise Rankings (.0084) than any team in the country, helping them rise to No. 19 after Friday’s win. They also pulled even with Denver for the fourth and final spot of home ice in the first round of the league playoffs.

Friday marked UND’s first game since Scheel, the standout rookie netminder, went down with a knee injury. He hasn’t been ruled out for the season yet, but he’s not close to a return.

Thome hadn’t played a regular-season game since Nov. 30 and hadn’t even dressed in a game since Jan. 5 at Canisius because of a hand injury. But he stepped in and earned his second win of the season.

“My last start was against these guys back in November,” said Thome, who was pulled in the second period of that 5-0 loss. “I think we all remember how that one went. So it’s nice to get in there against the same team, get a little redemption. The guys played great tonight.”

Thome allowed a goal to Minnesota Duluth forward Nick Swaney just 1:25 into the game but settled in after that -- with some help from his defensemen.

Shaw saved a goal in the first period, covering for Thome on a wraparound and stopping Noah Cates. Captain Colton Poolman saved a goal in the second period, blocking a Cates backdoor attempt from the right circle.

Thome hugged Shaw after stopping the wraparound attempt.

“I said that I owe him dinner,” Thome said. “Same thing to Colton when he had that big block in the second. Those were two goals that were erased because of how great we played defensively.”

After the win, the first player waiting in the tunnel to congratulate Thome was Scheel.

“It’s great when you have a good relationship like that,” Thome said. “You know you’re competitors, but at the same time, you’re truly happy for one another when they have success.”

For the first time this season, UND coach Brad Berry listed the Senden, Smith and Gavin Hain unit as the top forward line on the linechart. The team’s most consistent line delivered yet another clutch performance.

Senden finished with a goal and an assist. He now has six points in the last six games. Smith snapped a 25-game goal drought with his empty netter.

“Their body of work proves it,” Berry said about listing the Senden line as the top one on the linechart.

The game featured the top two possession teams in college hockey. They finished even in the shot totals. Shot attempts were 41-41, shots on goal were 22-22. UND dominated in the faceoff circle, going 40-18, led by Gardner (20-10), Senden (9-2) and Jasper Weatherby (7-4).

UND will go for the series sweep at 7:07 Saturday in Ralph Engelstad Arena.