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Brad E. Schlossman / Forum News Service , Published December 13 2013

UND men's hockey team extends winning streak to four

GRAND FORKS – Two weeks earlier, the University of North Dakota men’s hockey team sat in the home locker room, stewing over a lackluster loss against St. Lawrence University. The captains opened the floor and players aired out some issues.

Apparently, that was a step in the right direction.

Since that closed-door team meeting, UND has won four games in a row. The latest, a 4-1 win over Northern Michigan on Friday in Ralph Engelstad Arena, has lifted the team over .500 for the first time since October.

Mark MacMillan, Luke Johnson, Dillon Simpson and Paul LaDue all scored goals, while netminder Zane Gothberg (24 saves) was once again solid in leading UND to its most lopsided victory of the season.

“Our energy level is much better,” said UND’s Luke Johnson, who has five points and three goals in the last three games. “Guys are executing and doing the job. Everyone has joined in and bought into the system. We’re really trying to make a push before the break.”

UND reached the four-goal mark for the first time since Oct. 18 at Miami – a span of 14 games. It also held an opponent under two goals for the first time this season.

“I think we’re just all-in,” LaDue said. “All week of practice, we’re going hard – Monday through Friday. When it comes to weekends, it makes it a little easier.

“We know these games are must-win. We’re playing like it’s the playoffs.”

UND dug itself a big hole early this season, but is starting to work its way out. It is now at 8-7-2 overall and 3-2-2 in nonconference play. After tonight’s series finale (7:07 p.m., Ralph Engelstad Arena), UND will only have two nonconference games left. So, the team knows it needs to make the most out of them.

“It’s critical,” said UND coach Dave Hakstol, whose team needs to climb several spots in the Pairwise Rankings to make its 12th consecutive NCAA tournament. “Every game is critical for us right now. We know that. We’ve tried to push hard here at the end of the first half. We have a critical game tomorrow night. I’m not counting the standings or anything like that. All you’ve got to know is how important of a game it is in the midst of our season.”

One key to UND’s turnaround has been its special teams. It once again won that battle Friday, scoring twice on the power play (the power-play goals came :10 and :08 into the advantages), while holding the Wildcats scoreless on three power-play chances.

Another key has been Gothberg, who is in the midst of the first four-game winning streak of his career. The sophomore from Thief River Falls, Minn., is 4-0 with a 1.75 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage during UND’s streak.

Offensively, Rocco Grimaldi and Jordan Schmaltz continue to lead the charge. Both had a pair of assists Friday. Grimaldi has registered at least a point in nine of the last 11 games. Schmaltz, a sophomore defenseman, has five points in the last three games.

UND caught a nice break early in the game when Northern Michigan goalie Mathias Dahlstrom thought he stopped a puck and held it underneath him. Instead, it had kicked out to the right circle, where MacMillan had an open net to give UND a 1-0 lead.

UND expanded on that lead with a Johnson power-play snipe from the end line at 9:57 of the second and a Simpson point shot at 16:23.

The Wildcats cut the lead when Darren Nowick threw a puck from behind the goal off of UND defenseman Troy Stecher and in at 7:46 of the third. The Wildcats thought they made it 3-2 on a power-play tally by Mitch Jones with 9:30 to go, but the goal was disallowed because of a player in the crease screening the goalie.

“I haven’t seen it, but the officials can see the overhead,” Wildcats coach Walt Kyle said. “I’m sure (the officials’ call) is legit.”

FIRST PERIOD: 1, UND, MacMillan (Parks, Stecher), 4:10.

SECOND PERIOD: 2, UND, Jonson (Grimaldi, Schmaltz), 9:57 (pp). 3, UND, Simpson (Grimaldi, Schmaltz), 16:23 (pp).

THIRD PERIOD: 4, NMU, Nowick, 7:46. 5, UND, LaDue (Gaarder), 12:36.

SAVES: UND, Gothberg 5-11-8—24. NMU, Dahlstrom 9-6-1—26.

Schlossman writes for the Grand Forks Herald