UND's defensemen fill the net in victory over Minnesota Duluth
The Fighting Hawks clinched home ice for the first round of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference playoffs by beating the Bulldogs in AmsOil Arena.
DULUTH, Minn. — UND's star defenseman Jake Sanderson is in Beijing at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Without him, the team's other defensemen are showing they're pretty good, too.
UND used goals from four different blue liners — Tyler Kleven, Luke Bast, Cooper Moore and Ethan Frisch — to beat Minnesota Duluth 4-3 on Friday night in AmsOil Arena.
It was the first-career goal for Bast, the first of the season for Moore and the sixth in seven games for Frisch as the Fighting Hawks continue to find ways to win with an injury-plagued lineup.
"I think we're just coming together at the right time," Bast said. "Obviously, if you look at our line charts the last few weeks, they've kind of been depleted. But I think that's kind of brought us together as a group and obviously it's showing."
After starting the 2022 calendar year with four losses, UND has now nabbed points in seven-straight games — enough to solidify a top-half finish in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference standings and home ice for the playoff quarterfinals.
The team's sights are set on something bigger than that, though.
UND (18-11-1, 13-5-1 NCHC) is two points behind first-place Denver with five games to go in the chase for the Penrose Cup, a prize UND has won the last two years and in four of the league's eight seasons of existence.
"It's coming down to the wire," Moore said. "I think we realize these are huge games, huge points. The standings are really close. We're just trying to climb. We want that Penrose. We've gotten it the past couple of years and we want to keep that tradition."
UND's defensemen have been leading the way.
Although Sanderson is the team's NHL-bound star, the Fighting Hawks are now 7-1 in regulation, 0-1 in overtime without him in the lineup this season.
In the last six games, UND's defensemen have scored more goals (11) than the forwards (nine). Seven of the eight blue liners on the roster have scored during that span. The lone exception is Brady Ferner, who has not played in five of them.
Twice during that six-game stretch — a 3-3 home tie against St. Cloud State and Friday's 4-3 victory in Duluth — every UND goal came from a defenseman.
"It's funny, because we were talking before the game that all of our 'D' core was going to score tonight. . . and we ended up getting four," Moore said.
Special teams, as UND coach Brad Berry predicted before the series, were the difference.
The Fighting Hawks went 3-for-4 on the power play, receiving goals from Bast, Moore and Frisch with the advantage. UND also killed off Minnesota Duluth's lone power play — one that came just 32 seconds into the game.
"We talked about it before the game that special teams were probably going to be one of the top keys and it was," Berry said. "We got a few power-play goals. We killed their lone power play. I thought the specialty teams guys did a good job and that was a key."
UND has been forced to make constant adjustments to its power-play units since Sanderson left for the Olympics in late January. But in the five games he's missed, UND has scored a power-play goal in every one of them and is 7-for-17 (41.2 percent).
Everything power play coach Karl Goehring is trying seems to work right now. On Friday, Goehring moved Bast to the right flank on the power play for the first time this season. Bast responded with a power-play goal and a power-play assist.
"Over the last couple weeks when guys were getting dinged up with the flu and different things, Karl put guys into spots to get reps," Berry said. "Karl threw Bast on one of the flanks and he got confidence through practice, instead of just saying, 'Hey, jump out there.' So, he kind of knew what was going on and he made a great shot there."
As one UND player walked out of the locker room after Friday's game, he was asked if UND really needs Sanderson for the power play anymore.
"It. . . doesn't. . . look like it?" he said before laughing.
UND goaltender Zach Driscoll stayed hot in net, too. The fifth-year senior stopped a season-high 36 shots against the Bulldogs — 14 of them in the first period.
Since reclaiming the starting job from Jakob Hellsten on Jan. 29, Driscoll has a .945 save percentage.
"Through this stretch, he's been massive," Moore said. "He's been a brick wall back there for us. He's helped us really gain momentum, I think. He's been unreal."
The Fighting Hawks jumped to No. 9 in the Pairwise Rankings, which are used to select and seed the 16-team NCAA tournament field. Meanwhile, the athletic department was planning a release on ticket information for the quarterfinal best-of-three series, which will be held March 11-12 (and 13th if necessary) in Ralph Engelstad Arena.
"We always have those goals at the beginning of the year," Berry said. "We have home ice. We want to win the Penrose and we're right there. We want to do that again. And then Pairwise is a thing. We have all those things. But the biggest thing for us is letting those things happen and really just concentrating on a 60-minute game. If you can have all the habits and details in a 60-minute game to win, those other things will come."
Both teams played without key players Friday.
The U.S. Olympians — Sanderson for UND and Noah Cates for Minnesota Duluth — are expected back in the United States early next week.
The Fighting Hawks and Bulldogs also are dealing with key injuries.
UND captain Mark Senden (day-to-day) took part in warmups Friday but didn't play. Forward Gavin Hain (longterm) and Ferner (week-to-week) remained out. The Bulldogs played without their top defenseman Wyatt Kaiser (week-to-week).
"I thought a lot of guys stepped up," Moore said. "There were a lot of guys missing from our lineup, but a lot of guys played bigger minutes and I think everyone played pretty well."