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UND leans on veteran defensemen in finishing sweep of Bemidji State

GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota captain Gage Ausmus had a request for coach Brad Berry this week. As Berry split his seven defensemen into groups of three and four for practice, Ausmus asked to be in the group with three. "He wanted to get his heart ...

University of North Dakota forward Brock Boeser (16) takes a shot past Bemidji State goalie Michael Bitzer (1) , scoring his second goal of the night against Bemidji State at SaturdayÕs game at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D. . (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)
University of North Dakota forward Brock Boeser (16) takes a shot past Bemidji State goalie Michael Bitzer (1) , scoring his second goal of the night against Bemidji State at SaturdayÕs game at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D. . (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)

GRAND FORKS - North Dakota captain Gage Ausmus had a request for coach Brad Berry this week.

As Berry split his seven defensemen into groups of three and four for practice, Ausmus asked to be in the group with three.

"He wanted to get his heart rate up," Berry said.

The East Grand Forks Senior High defensemen - Ausmus and Tucker Poolman - won't have that problem this season.

The UND coaching staff double-shifted the veteran blue liners during UND's 5-4 victory over Bemidji State on Saturday night, asking them to play huge minutes and help steady the transitions of rookies Casey Johnson and Andrew Peski.

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Instead of rotating three pairs like usual, Berry and associate coach Dane Jackson, who manages the defensemen, paired Johnson with Poolman and Ausmus with Peski in addition to their shifts together on the top pairing.

The result of the experiment was success.

Johnson and Peski had better nights than the series opener Friday, and UND finish off its first two-game sweep of Bemidji State since the 2012 Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs, staying a perfect 5-0 this season.

Brock Boeser rifled in two more goals - he had five on the weekend - while linemates Shane Gersich had a goal and two assists and Tyson Jost had two assists. Rhett Gardner and Zach Yon also scored for UND, which led 5-1 in the third period before making things interesting.

With several major showdowns on the horizon for top-ranked UND - No. 2 Minnesota Duluth next weekend, followed by No. 7 Minnesota and No. 6 Denver - the coaching staff got its first look at how its three rookie defenders would handle a fast-paced, aggressive opponent like the Beavers.

After Friday's 3-2 win, the staff rarely put two rookie defensemen on the ice together, almost always pairing them with Poolman, Ausmus or Hayden Shaw - three key cogs in last year's NCAA national championship team.

"I think it's a big thing to try to get an experienced defenseman with a younger guy to help him out a bit and calm things down back there," Berry said. "The young guys are good defensemen in their own right, but I think going against heavy hard teams like Bemidji - and we'll see more of them down the line in the NCHC - we have to try to manage our guys to try to set them up for success. Our best chance is to try to get a veteran with a younger guy and help them throughout the season."

Poolman and Ausmus ate up the most minutes.

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They both say they prepared to play big roles this season, knowing that UND lost three defensemen early to NHL signings in Paul LaDue (Los Angeles Kings), Troy Stecher (Vancouver Canucks) and Keaton Thompson (Anaheim Ducks).

"Our conditioning is great right now," Ausmus said. "Obviously, coming into the year, I just wanted to be ready and prepared to play big minutes."

Poolman and Ausmus both finished in the top five in UND's annual Iron Man competition for off-ice fitness and strength training.

"I feel all right," said Poolman, who likely played in the neighborhood of 30 minutes in each game this weekend. "It's what I was preparing for going into it. I just tried to get ready for it."

UND's coaching staff frequently mixes and matches defensive pairings during the week of practice to get players used to working with others.

"I have to commend our coaching staff for preparing us for that," Ausmus said. "During the weeks, you don't only practice with one guy. You practice with everyone just in case. All of us are familiar with each other."

UND's win over the Beavers continued several impressive runs.

The Fighting Hawks are now 37-4-4 in their last 45 home games going back to the opener in 2014.

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They are still undefeated - 11-0-2 - under Berry, the second-year coach, in the month of October.

And they are 23-1-3 in regular-season nonconference games going back to October 2014.

Although UND surrendered the first goal of the game - for the fourth straight contest - the Fighting Hawks rallied for the win once again.

Boeser and Gersich scored in the first period to give UND a 2-1 lead after one. Yon, of Roseau, Minn., scored his first-career goal at :23 of the second period. Boeser followed with a rebound goal at 17:34 for a 4-1 lead.

Gardner scored a power-play goal at 3:44 of the third period to give the Fighting Hawks a 5-1 lead, but they took the foot off the gas and the Beavers battled back.

Jay Dickman and Brendan Harms scored power-play goals at 6:07 and 10:05 of the third period to draw Bemidji State within 5-3. Although Bemidji State was called for a penalty with 1:44 to go, coach Tom Serratore still pulled his goalie and Beaver forward Dillon Eichstadt scored again to make it 5-4 in the final minute.

But UND hung on.

"Obviously, you don't like to see yourself give up a lead like that," Ausmus said. "But when you beat Bemidji two nights in a row, that's a good accomplishment for this team."

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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