UND sweeps Denver to extend NCHC lead
Playing without captain Colton Poolman, UND limits Pioneers to one goal.
GRAND FORKS -- It seems like a long time ago now.
But it was just 22 days earlier when the University of North Dakota left Amsoil Arena in Duluth after giving up seven goals in 41 minutes to cap the program's worst five-game stretch of team defense since 2005.
There were questions galore about defense, goaltending and whether UND's stunningly torrid first half of the season was an aberration.
It's safe to say now: It most certainly was not.
UND finished off a two-game sweep of Denver with a 3-1 victory Saturday night in front of 11,812 in Ralph Engelstad Arena, improving to 23-3-3 overall and 14-2-2 in National Collegiate Hockey Conference play.
It marked the fifth-straight win for UND, which has allowed just five goals in that span.
On Saturday night, the Fighting Hawks proved they could do it against one of the country's best teams and without their best defenseman and team captain, Colton Poolman, who missed the game with an illness.
Even so, UND allowed just one goal.
"It's just an overall commitment," UND coach Brad Berry said of his team's improved defensive play. "We're not getting spread out. This is a very good team off the rush. They've got very good offensive players up front. It's one of those things where our D-men can't get caught on an island. Our forwards have to help out through the rush with our D-zone coverage.
"We always call it five in the picture. We want to make sure that anywhere you see on video, our five guys are together coming up and down the ice."
Goalie Peter Thome, who didn't play a single minute in the first half as backup to sophomore Adam Scheel, delivered once again for the Fighting Hawks. He stopped 25 of 26 shots in the game, finishing the weekend with 51 of 53 saves (.962).
Thome's numbers for the season: 6-0-1 with a .940 save percentage and a 1.26 goals-against average.
The Fighting Hawks tightened their grip on first place in the NCHC standings, moving eight points ahead of second-place Minnesota Duluth with six regular-season games to go.
They also flipped the tables on a Denver team that went 4-1-1 against UND a year ago and ended the Fighting Hawks' season in the first round of the playoffs.
UND completed the regular season going 3-0-1 against the Pioneers -- the program's best regular season against Denver since 2003-04, when it also went 3-0-1.
"It obviously feels good," UND junior forward Collin Adams said. "They ended our season last year, so we had a little extra edge to us. I think it showed. In Denver, it did. We just wanted to bring that same intensity here."
One day after clinching home ice for the first round of the league playoffs, UND took another step toward winning its third Penrose Cup in six years. It can do so by getting 11 of its final 18 available points.
UND's final three regular-season series are at St. Cloud State next week, home against Western Michigan and at Omaha.
Minnesota Duluth, searching for its first league title since 1993, closes at Western Michigan, at Colorado College and home against St. Cloud State.
Six players hit double digits
The Fighting Hawks received a power-play goal from Matt Kiersted, an even-strength tally from Adams and an empty-net goal from Jasper Weatherby to finish off Saturday's win.
It was the 10th goal of the season for both Adams and Weatherby. UND's goal-scoring leader a year ago, Jordan Kawaguchi, had 10 goals. Right now, the Fighting Hawks have six players in double digits in goals.
Denver played without forwards Bobby Brink and Jaakko Heikkinen, who were both injured during Friday's series opener. Head coach David Carle said both players are week to week and questionable for next weekend's series against Miami.
The Pioneers dropped to 17-8-5 overall and 7-7-4 in league play, where they sit in fourth place -- three points up on fifth-place St. Cloud State for the final home-ice spot.
"I really liked our last 50 minutes," Carle said. "The first 10, they were really good. They won a lot of races. But then I felt the last 50, we gave ourselves a chance. Thome comes up with some big saves, as did our guy. Our guy held us in it. I thought we were fortunate to be down 1-0 after one. He gave us a chance and I thought our effort gave us a chance tonight."
For the second-straight night, UND played with the lead.
UND's top power-play unit stayed hot, scoring at 9:31 of the opening frame when Kiersted launched a point shot that hit Denver defenseman Justin Lee's hand and re-directed past goalie Magnus Chrona (21 saves).
The Fighting Hawks extended their lead at 11:25 of the second period on a three-on-two rush. Hobey Baker Award candidate Jordan Kawaguchi entered the zone on the left side, while defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker drove the center lane to open space. Kawaguchi threaded a pass to Adams, who hammered a one-timer past Chrona.
Denver got one back at the end of the second on a bad-angle goal from fourth-line forward Brett Edwards, but couldn't get another one past Thome.
"They defended, they blocked shots, they found a way to get it done," Berry said. "When you get to the postseason, you need to close those games out when you have a one-goal lead. I think we grew a little bit as a team. We won two games in two different ways and we have to move on to St. Cloud now."
UND 3, Denver 1
First period -- 1. UND, Matt Kiersted 5 (Shane Pinto 10, Jasper Weatherby 7) 9:31 (pp)
Second period -- 2. UND, Collin Adams 10 (Jordan Kawaguchi 19, Jacob Bernard-Docker 16) 11:25; 3. DU, Brett Edwards 4 (Jake Durflinger 4, Erich Fear 2) 16:17
Third period -- 4. UND, Jasper Weatherby 10 19:49 (en)
Penalties -- Bench minor, DU, too many on ice, 1:16 first; Liam Finlay, DU, holding, 9:01 first; Brett Stapley, DU, cross-checking, 17:35 first; Pinto, UND, interference, 17:48 first
Goalie saves -- UND: Peter Thome 8-7-10 -- 25; DU: Magnus Chrona 12-3-6 -- 21
Penalties-minutes -- UND 1-2, DU 3-6
Power plays -- UND 1-3, DU 0-1
Attendance -- 11,812
Referees -- Cameron Voss and Nathan Wieler
Linesmen -- Justin Hills and Mike Eslinger