MEN'S HOCKEY: UND downs University of Denver 4-2
DENVER — The last time Clarke Saunders stepped on the ice for UND, the team was three games under .500, wondering where this season was headed.
He was back on the ice Friday night, playing for a team that looks a bit different now.
UND extended its unbeaten streak to 10 games (9-0-1) with a convincing 4-2 win over the University of Denver in Magness Arena, and all of the sudden, UND sits atop the National Collegiate Hockey Association standings.
Michael Parks, Drake Caggiula, Dillon Simpson and Rocco Grimaldi all scored goals for a relentless UND team that’s playing its best hockey of the season.
UND improved to 13-7-3 overall and 8-5 in league play, where it sits one point ahead of St. Cloud State (the Huskies have played one fewer game). UND hasn’t lost since November and will go for its first sweep in Magness Arena in a decade when the teams meet at 8:07 p.m. tonight.
“I thought we were solid in all areas of the game,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “I don’t think one guy in our lineup was not contributing. In their own way, I thought everybody chipped in a little bit.
That included Saunders, who played for the first time since Nov. 29. Regular starter Zane Gothberg, who was in net for the first nine games of UND’s current unbeaten streak, wasn’t able to make the trip after sustaining a lower-body injury in practice on Tuesday.
But Saunders found out that UND is a different team right now.
“It’s incredible how much we’ve matured as a team and how good we are defensively now,” Saunders said. “We had our share of struggles and that definitely included me at the start of the year. Tonight is just another example of how strong we can be defensively. It was fun to play behind.”
It helped that UND came out and jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first period, igniting a crowd that was more than 50 percent UND fans.
UND got on the board at 7:31 when Parks buried a rebound of a Nick Mattson wrist shot. Then, at 14:29, UND added to its lead on the power play. Brendan O’Donnell held the puck in the left circle and appeared ready to fire a wrist shot. Instead, he hit Caggiula with a cross-slot pass and Caggiula buried a one-timer.
The Pioneers caught a break while skating on a five-minute major power play to cut UND’s lead to 2-1. Denver’s Gabe Levin rimmed the puck around the boards on a dump in, but it hit a crack in the boards behind the net and deflected the puck in front. Saunders and other UND players looked in the corner for the puck, but Ty Loney spotted it sitting in front. He skated in and tapped it in before Saunders realized where the puck was sitting.
It didn’t take long for UND to extend its lead back to two, though.
On a short power play, Mark MacMillan entered the zone on the left wing and spotted Simpson jumping in the play. MacMillan made a short pass to Simpson on the inside of the left circle and the UND captain snapped it by Brittain’s glove.
In the third period, UND extended its lead with a shorthanded goal. Colten St. Clair led a rush up the left wing and spotted Grimaldi cutting to the net on a two-on-two. St. Clair threaded a perfect saucer pass to Grimaldi, who tipped it past Brittain.
The Pioneers, who had only lost two of the last 15 games heading into the weekend, tacked on a late goal on a power play.
“Great team win,” St. Clair said. “I’m so proud of the team and the way we’ve been playing lately. We’re really starting to establish ourselves.”
Notes: The last time UND swept a series in Magness Arena was during 2003-04. . . UND used its normal Friday lineup with Gage Ausmus playing as the sixth defenseman and Keaton Thompson sitting out. Ausmus was originally committed to Denver, but de-committed after previous coach George Gwozdecky was fired. . . UND’s scratches on the trip were Thompson and Wade Murphy. . . Denver forward Matt VanVoohris grew up in Grand Forks and played on youth teams with Paul LaDue and Luke Johnson. . . Pioneer defenseman Nolan Zajac is the brother of former UND standouts Travis Zajac and Darcy Zajac.