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Brad E. Schlossman / Forum News Service , Published February 07 2014

Saunders comes up big for UND in men's hockey win

GRAND FORKS – University of North Dakota goalie Zane Gothberg sustained an injury a couple weeks ago, and it became clear that he wasn’t going to play this weekend against Nebraska-Omaha.

Surely, the Mavericks weren’t celebrating.

They got Clarke Saunders again on Friday night.

They lost to Clarke Saunders again on Friday night.

The UND senior goalie put forth his latest strong effort against the Mavericks during a 4-2 win in the series opener, stopping 31 of 33 shots, including 17 in the second period alone.

On the other end, Mark MacMillan, Michael Parks, Brendan O’Donnell and Rocco Grimaldi scored goals for a UND team that is all of the sudden tied for first place in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference standings.

Since losing to St. Lawrence at home on Nov. 29, UND is 10-1-1 and has won seven consecutive home games, pushing its record to 14-8-3 overall and 9-6 in NCHC play (27 points). St. Cloud State also has 27 points and Denver is one back with 26.

Omaha, meanwhile, fell from second to fifth place, which would put the Mavericks on the road in the first round of the league playoffs if the season ended today.

“That’s what good teams do – they find a way to win,” Saunders said. “It probably wasn’t our overall best effort here. We had some lulls in the second period as a team. But like I said, good teams find a way to get a ‘W’ and that’s what we did tonight.”

Saunders was a big reason for that.

In the three games since Gothberg’s injury, Saunders has a .933 save percentage and a 2.03 goals-against average. He now has a .925 save percentage in league play.

It was more of the same against the Mavericks.

When Saunders was at Alabama-Huntsville, he had a 58-save performance in a 2-1 upset victory over the Mavericks in 2010-11. His sophomore season, Saunders had a 44-save performance in a 3-1 Chargers’ victory over the Mavericks.

His first start against Omaha as a UND player was in November, and he stopped 36 of 38 shots to help UND steal a victory.

“I don’t know what it is,” Saunders said. “I have just played well. I try not to dwell on that too much to be honest. I just prepare the same way that I always do.”

Saunders also got a little help from his teammates. Moments after Parks put UND in front 2-1 just 35 seconds into the third period, Omaha’s Dominic Zombo had the puck on top of the crease with an open net to look at, but UND defenseman Paul LaDue deflected it with the shaft of his stick.

“That was probably the save of the year,” Saunders said. “Kind of funny that a goalie didn’t do it.”

At 8:48 of the third, O’Donnell gave UND a 3-1 lead, lifting the stick of Omaha defenseman Jaycob Megna and sweeping a loose puck past goaltender Reed Peters to snap a 14-game goal drought.

The Mavericks made it a one-goal game when Ryan Walters’ attempt to jam a puck in the side of the net lifted 10 feet in the air, hit Saunders’ back and rolled in.

But Grimaldi iced it with an empty-netter.

FIRST PERIOD: No scoring.

SECOND PERIOD: 1, O, Cooper (Zombo, Guentzel), 8:15. 2, UND, MacMillan (Caggiula, Parks), 11:04.

THIRD PERIOD: 3, UND, Parks (MacMillan, Schmaltz), 0:35. 4, UND, O’Donnell (Simpson), 8:48. 5, O, Walters (Ortega, Montpetit), 17:29. 6, UND, Grimaldi (Simpson), 19:32 (en).

SAVES: UND, Saunders 6-17-8—31. O, Peters 9-4-5—18.

Schlossman writes for the Grand Forks Herald