UND takes command of Penrose Cup race by sweeping Denver
Goalie Peter Thome steps in for the injured Adam Scheel and helps the Fighting Hawks beat the Pioneers.
Peter Thome went to bed Friday night thinking that Adam Scheel would start the series finale against Denver.
Although Scheel had to be carried off the ice Friday due to a leg injury he sustained when Denver captain Kohen Olischefski skated into him during the final minute of the game, Scheel thought he would be all right.
"I thought I wasn't going to play," Thome said. "I talked to Scheeler last night after the game. He thought it was just kind of a charley horse, a dead-leg type of thing and he'd be good for today. But I knew there was a chance, so I just prepared like I was going to."
Thome knows, quite well, how to do that.
For the third season in a row, UND asked Thome to step in after a lengthy span between starts and play in the stretch run.
On Saturday, he helped the Fighting Hawks take command of the Penrose Cup race with a 5-2 win over the University of Denver.
UND used 18 saves from Thome, two goals and three points from Jasper Weatherby, an even-strength goal from the NCHC's leader Shane Pinto, a power-play goal from senior Collin Adams and an empty-netter from Judd Caulfield to finish off a two-game sweep of their rival.
The Fighting Hawks improved to 15-4-1 overall and grabbed a four-point lead over second-place St. Cloud State in the league's standings.
UND can win the Penrose Cup outright as NCHC regular-season champions for a second-straight season with two regulation wins in its final four games against Omaha.
"I'd be lying if I said that didn't cross all of our minds," Thome said. "That win tonight puts us in the driver's seat. It's a good spot to be in, but it doesn't mean we can take our foot off the gas or anything. We've got Omaha coming in. We split with them this year so far and we split with them both times last year. It's going to be another battle.
"We've got to get ready for that and take care of business to put ourselves in a good spot for the Penrose. . . I mean the Penne Rosa."
Berry said Scheel's injury is believed to be "very, very, very short term." UND also played without senior Grant Mismash (upper-body injury), who is day to day.
But the Fighting Hawks showed their depth in finishing off a sweep against Denver, which was picked to finish second but has struggled to get traction and fell to 7-12-1.
Thome made his first start since Dec. 12 in the NCHC Pod against St. Cloud State, marking the third-straight season he has been forced in during the second half of the season after not starting for more than two months.
In 2018-19, Scheel suffered a season-ending injury Feb. 16, and Thome became the starter after playing no games since November.
Last season, Scheel's second-half struggles opened the door for Thome, who had not played a minute of action before Christmas. Thome stepped in and went 7-1-1 with a .937 save percentage during nine starts, helping UND win the league title.
"This is the third year in a row where I've had to come in, in a big spot, after not playing for a while and deliver," Thome said. "It doesn't make it any easier. It's really tough to get rhythm and find your comfort zone and your game after two months off. There's no way to simulate (games).
"I thought, in the first two periods, maybe there were sequences where I felt good and sequences where I felt bad. The third period, I felt really good moving around and playing my game. It never gets easier, but that's part of the job. My job is to prepare like I'm playing every game, even if I'm not, and to stay ready because you never know when you're going to be needed."
Thome allowed just two goals -- a breakaway to Denver's Jake Durflinger and a two-on-one rush shot from leading goal-scorer Carter Savoie.
"I couldn't be happier for him," Berry said. "Peter is a guy that's a team guy. He works his tail off. His career hasn't been the easiest for him at North Dakota. When he's gotten an opportunity, he's usually made the most of it. Coming in after not playing for a while, I know our guys were fired up. When we knew he was going into the lineup, guys were very happy and just wanted to play hard for him. You could see it, especially in the last 40 minutes, guys were digging in for him."
An unpredictable NCHC weekend
UND held a 3-2 lead going into the third period, then smothered the Pioneers defensively.
Denver did not register an even-strength shot on goal in the final 23:46 of the game. The Pioneers only had two shots on goal in the third -- one came on a five-on-three power play, the other on a five-on-four power play.
"That's amazing," Thome said. "That just speaks to how hard they defended, especially in the third period, to grind out a win against a very dangerous Denver team that can score goals at any time."
The unpredictability of the NCHC was on display this weekend.
The league's worst defensive team, Western Michigan, held Minnesota Duluth to just a single goal in 120 minutes, earning its first shutout in 82 games, a three-year stretch, and grabbing a two-game sweep.
Miami, which entered the weekend with a 13-game winless streak against St. Cloud State and one win in the last 19 against the Huskies, swiped a game from St. Cloud State.
But UND took care of business -- improving to 24-1 in its last 25 home games -- to increase its NCHC lead.
"That was huge," Weatherby said. "Our goal was always to raise the banner. That starts with checking off the Penrose. To keep driving in the right direction was big for us. Now, we turn the page to the Mavs. That's our next focus is beating those guys here."