ST. PAUL-Rhett Gardner walked up to the front of a banquet room in the Science Museum of Minnesota on Thursday night and was handed an award for being the National Collegiate Hockey Conference's best defensive forward.
"It's really exciting," the UND center said. "It's a game I play, so it's my kind of award. Going into this season, I kind of had it in the back of my mind that this could be something I could win, because of the style I play. I thought I had a good year defensively playing against top lines and it worked out."
During the regular season, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound center proved he had the ability to shut down opposing teams' top players.
Now, with the season on the line, Gardner and his teammates will have to be at their best doing exactly that.
When UND and St. Cloud State meet in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff semifinals at 4:08 p.m. this afternoon in St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, Gardner and the Fighting Hawks will be charged with slowing down the nation's No. 2 scoring offense.
The top-ranked Huskies are averaging 3.76 goals per game, second only to MSU-Mankato's 3.87. It's the biggest strength of a St. Cloud State (24-7-6) team that won the Penrose Cup as NCHC regular-season champions and has its sights set on coming back to the Xcel Energy Center in April for the NCAA Frozen Four.
Although the Huskies don't rely on one big line for scoring, Gardner has been effective in slowing down their forwards this season.
In the four regular-season matchups between the teams, St. Cloud State scored just once at even strength with Gardner on the ice.
"It's kind of been my role all year," Gardner said. "We've played against good teams all year. We played Cloud two or three weeks ago and we had a good series. I thought if I could just shut down their top guys and get them disinterested, that would be good for us."
Gardner's defensive role starts in the faceoff circle, where he's winning 57.9 percent of his draws this season-one of the best marks in the league. He'll likely be the NCHC's leader in faceoff wins by the end of the week, an impressive feat considering he missed seven games this season with an injury.
Perhaps the most telling stat about his importance to the UND men's hockey team this season is that UND didn't win a single game without Gardner this season (0-3-4). When he's in the lineup, UND is 16-9-6.
Gardner's role as a defensive center came into focus during his freshman season.
With a potent top line of Brock Boeser, Nick Schmaltz and Drake Caggiula providing the scoring, Gardner's line with Luke Johnson and Austin Poganski was expected to shut down opponents.
"Growing up, I was always one of the top players on my teams, but as I got into junior and here, I had to expand my game and build off of that," Gardner said. "Definitely, freshman year, it was a role I played on the Heavy Line with Luke and Pogo, and I kind of ran with it. I tried to add some offense to my game this year, but I'm still a defense-first center."
Today's NCHC semifinal game is one that it must win if it wants to keep its NCAA tournament hopes in its own hands.
If the Fighting Hawks lose, they will rely on favorite outcomes in other games across the country-as well as their Saturday game at the Frozen Faceoff-to have a shot at extending its NCAA-tournament streak to 16 years.
"It seems our guys like the challenge of knowing that our feet are to the fire, so to say," UND coach Brad Berry said. "In order to keep our season alive, we're going to have to have success."
The Fighting Hawks (16-12-10) are hoping to continue a trend at the Frozen Faceoff: Every runner-up has gone on to win the tournament the following year. UND finished second last season.
St. Cloud State (24-7-6) is hoping to buck a trend. In the five-year history of the NCHC, no team has ever won both the regular-season title and the postseason title in the same year.
"Over my time, we've found ourselves with North Dakota a lot of times at the end of the year," St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said. "If you're going to win a championship, we're going to find each other. It's the landscape. The rivalry is strong. We know exactly what kind of game we're going to get from them. They know exactly what kind of game they're going to get from us. Intensity might be a word you want to put in there."
NCHC Frozen Faceoff
• Semifinals: UND vs. St. Cloud State, 4:08 p.m. today; Minnesota Duluth vs. Denver, 7:38 p.m. tonight.
• Where: Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul.
• TV: CBS Sports Network.
• Radio: The Fox (96.1 FM).
• Live blog: undhockey.areavoices.com.