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UND shuts down Union 3-1 in important nonconference game

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. -- Union fans crammed in Messa Rink on Saturday afternoon. The bleachers were overflowing. Fans sat in the aisles. Others found spots to stand -- behind the glass, against a wall, up against poles -- anywhere to see the rare sho...

Union's Sebastian Vidmar is tripped up by Rhett Gardner of North Dakota at Messa Rink during Saturday's game. Photo by Peter R. Barber/Daily Gazette.
Union's Sebastian Vidmar is tripped up by Rhett Gardner of North Dakota at Messa Rink during the game on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016. Photo by Peter R. Barber/Schenectady (N.Y.) Daily Gazette.

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. - Union fans crammed in Messa Rink on Saturday afternoon.

The bleachers were overflowing. Fans sat in the aisles.

Others found spots to stand - behind the glass, against a wall, up against poles - anywhere to see the rare showdown between two of the past three NCAA national champions.

"This is the most people I've seen in here," one fan said as he tried to find enough room on a bleacher to sit.

But the 2,354 people who packed into the old barn were left silent most of the night.

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Austin Poganski scored 11 seconds into the game, Cam Johnson didn't allow a goal until late and the University of North Dakota left upstate New York with a 3-1 victory over Union College.

"It was awesome," said Johnson, who stopped 32 of 33 shots. "It was an awesome environment. I like how they have the old barn here. There's probably a lot of history. It's really cool coming out here. These are teams we don't see very often. When we get a chance to play a really good team like Union, it was a great experience for us."

The win helped, too.

UND played without star forwards and NHL first-round draft picks Brock Boeser (wrist injury) and Tyson Jost (World Juniors), but got fantastic performances from Poganski, Shane Gersich and Rhett Gardner on the top line.

Poganski finished with two goals and one assist. Gersich had a goal. Gardner had an assist and limited Union's usually dominant faceoff numbers.

And that trio played a large role in neutralizing Union's prolific top line.

Union senior Mike Vecchione, the nation's leader in goals and points, didn't register a shot on goal, didn't tally a point and was a minus-2.

It was the first time this season that Vecchione didn't have a shot on goal and the first time he had a minus rating since Oct. 8 against Michigan - Union's second game of the season.

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"To win games like this against Rick Bennett's team, your best players have to be your best players," Berry said. "Not only were those guys our best players, I thought all of our team chipped in, whether it was first, second, third or fourth line. They gave a total team effort tonight."

Union coach Rick Bennett was less pleased.

"It was men vs. pee wees," Bennett said.

Johnson was sharp in net, shutting down the Dutchmen whenever they did get scoring chances. He made 32 saves. The only goal he allowed came with 2:41 left - and Union had an extra attacker.

"He was pretty good side to side," Vecchione said of Johnson. "He was quick. He saw a lot of pucks."

The win could be pivotal come the end of the season and NCAA tournament selection time. Bonus points are available for quality road wins in the Pairwise Rankings, which determine the 16-team national tournament field.

UND moved up three spots from No. 11 to No. 8 with the win.

"For us, it's huge," UND coach Brad Berry said. "It was a nonconference game against a top-four team in the country in Union... for Pairwise, it's huge. I think we ended off 7-2-2 in nonconference, which is respectable. We have a lot of work to do ahead in conference play now."

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The game couldn't have started any better for UND.

Although the Union crowd was revved up for the New Year's Eve showdown - Union even made special jerseys for the contest - Gardner and Poganski connected just seconds after the opening drop of the puck.

Gardner made a feed from behind the net that Poganski knocked past Union goalie Alex Sakellaropoulos.

"It was huge," Poganski said. "It's always our game plan to get after it right away. It definitely brings momentum to our side and get the guys going."

And it silenced the crowd.

"It's starting the game the right way," Berry said.

The game stayed 1-0 heading into the third period, when Poganski connected with Gersich for a goal. Poganski bumped Union defenseman Vas Kolias off the puck behind the net and fed Gersich for his team-leading 14th goal of the season.

Union snapped Johnson's shutout bid when Spencer Foo tipped a point shot with 2:41 to go, but Poganski iced it with an empty-net goal.

"I thought our 'D' play was unbelievable," Johnson said. "Our 'D-men' were boxing out guys in front. Guys were grabbing sticks so they couldn't get loose change. That's what we pride ourselves on."

Although the venue was a stark contrast from UND's previous trip to New York - when it played in the World's Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden - the result was the same.

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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