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Over the last four weeks, facing the possibility of not getting a chance to defend its national championship, North Dakota shifted into playoff mode. That mentality served the Fighting Hawks well Friday night at the Target Center as North Dakota ensured its return to the NCAA Tournament by ending the 13-game win streak of No.1 Denver, 1-0. It was the second time all season a team shut out Denver. Saturday’s opponent, Western Michigan, was the first on Jan. 13.
“It was our first win at the Target Center in a long time, and again we’re very grateful for it,” said North Dakota coach Brad Berry. “Typical NCHC game that you saw tonight with two teams battling. We’re fighting for our lives and guys played like it. There was a focus there from the last month, and the biggest thing was the leaders in the locker room have taken charge at this time of year.”
Goaltender Cam Johnson made 21 saves and Austin Poganski scored the only goal North Dakota would need after Colton Poolman ripped a shot from the left point that went wide of DU goalie Tanner Jaillet and ricocheted off the boards behind the net and came out to Poganski in the right circle near the hashmarks. Poganski ripped the puck into the open net before Jaillet could slide back over. The goal came at 2:30 of the third, and Johnson made nine saves in the third to help North Dakota earn the win.
“I think he tried to put it on net there and it might have got deflected and hit the back and came off pretty lively and I was just driving the net to see if I could get a rebound and it just came right to me so I was able to put it away,” said Poganski.
Both teams played a smothering style. Through two periods, Denver only had 12 shots on net, and almost no good scoring chances. At the other end, North Dakota only had 16 shots through two periods.
“I thought it was a really good college hockey game; they made one more play than we did,” said Denver coach Jim Montgomery. “There wasn’t a lot of open ice out there. It was good for us to see that; we hadn’t seen that in a while, and North Dakota was great at it tonight. I thought they played with more desperation, and they deserved the victory. I thought both teams defensively were excellent. Scoring chances were probably in the single digits tonight.”
Denver’s best scoring opportunity came late in the second period when freshman phenom Henrik Borgrstrom made a move in the offensive zone to spring Dylan Gambrell alone on Johnson. However, Gambrell’s shot at the open net rang off the goal post.
“I think we were playing the right way, doing the little things, boxing out, blocking shots,” said Johnson. “Guys were buying in; we were doing the right things. I didn’t have to do too much for us tonight, I don’t think. I think my team made it a little bit easier on me, but when I needed to step up and make a save I was there. It was a group effort today and we played well and the results showed.”
With time winding down in the game, Denver pulled Jaillet to try to get some offense going. North Dakota almost capitalized on the open net, but senior captain Will Butcher made an outstanding play while on his back to knock the puck off the stick of the attacking player.
The win assures that North Dakota won’t have to scoreboard watch tomorrow to hope they make the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the Fighting Hawks can concentrate on winning their first Frozen Faceoff when they face Minnesota Duluth, against whom North Dakota went 0-4 this season. Of course, entering tonight’s game the Fighting Hawks only had a 1-4-1 record in the Frozen Faceoff.
“Tomorrow’s going to be another challenge; it’s another NCHC team that we’ve battled hard against and it should be a great matchup tomorrow,” said Berry. “We have a lot of respect for their program. We play similarly, we play hard, the right way, and we’re looking forward to tomorrow. They’ve had our number all year, and the year before was the other way around, so again, it’s a situation where our guys have flipped the page. We’re going to get ready for tomorrow, prepare and try to check another box.”
Denver will play Western Michigan in the consolation game tomorrow at the Target Center. Little is on the line for either team, as both have qualified for the NCAA Tournament, and Denver is assured of being a one seed. Western can be a one seed with a win. However, both teams want to be ready for the NCAA intensity.
“Just the pace and knowing how to play against a team that’s this good and tight checking,” said Montgomery when asked how the loss might help Denver. “It’s what we’re going to see in the NCAA Tournament. I thought for a while that our practices haven’t been at the pace that we need to be, but we’ve been successful, so it’s hard to really get mad at your players when you keep having success. I think this is the only benefit, silver lining.”