Team of the Week: North Dakota
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
It's just the beginning of another cold, unforgiving winter in Grand Forks, N.D., with early sunsets and dropping temperatures — and until this week, perhaps some worry in town that the sky was falling, too.
After all, the North Dakota Fighting Hawks — the reigning national champions — entered their weekend series at St. Cloud State with a six-game winless streak, a true rarity for a program that has consistently found itself in the win column for most of this century. It had been so long since UND's last six game winless streak, in fact, that there have been four different U.S. presidential elections in the interim.
But North Dakota responded emphatically, brushing all those worries aside, and swept the Huskies with dominant back-to-back shutouts. As a result, North Dakota is the CHN Team of the Week.
Last spring, then-sophomore goaltender Cam Johnson was a key component in the Fighting Hawks' national title run. And as is often the case for positions like goaltender, or quarterback, the praise for a team's success is often balanced with blame during a team's struggles.
Before the weekend sweep of St. Cloud, Johnson reflected on that.
"The few weekends beforehand, I was figuring I had to be a big part of our wins and our success," said Johnson. "I was kind of getting too caught up in that, the 'I'm going to have to win this game for us. I'm going to have to play top-notch.' That's what was shooting me in my foot. I think our team as a whole was probably not playing the best hockey we could, but I knew that I had better.
"I knew that I could play better."
And he did. Johnson stopped all 62 shots in the back-to-back shutouts, a 4-0 win on Friday, and a 3-0 win on Saturday — the first time the Huskies had suffered consecutive shutouts in a weekend in the 27-year history of the National Hockey Center. Johnson was named NCHC Goaltender of the Week.
It was also North Dakota's first sweep at St. Cloud since 1998.
"This weekend, I just sort of relaxed and focused on myself," Johnson said. "Got back to the basics. What worked for me last year won't necessarily work this year. It's a new year and a new team. I just focused on my own game and worried about stopping the puck, rather than trying to win the game for us."
Predictably — but certainly appropriately — Johnson credited his defensemen as well.
"It's just one of those weekends where I was really feeling it," said the Flint, Mich., native. "I was seeing the puck well. I thought our team played really well in front of me defensively, and that was something the past few weekends we had struggled with. I felt we were giving up too many 'grade A' quality chances. We did a good job this weekend limiting their quality chances, and the ones the had, I was able to stop."
In the short term for North Dakota, this weekend represented two wins — two opportunities to right the ship a bit, to move up the standings in an ultra-competitive NCHC. In the big picture, the weekend sweep meant an opportunity to build momentum for a team that features 19 underclassmen.
Said Johnson, "The past few weekends, we had our struggles, but we were continually figuring out a way to play better. We struggled to put together a full 60 minutes, and I think that's something that this weekend — we kept building on each weekend. We weren't getting the results that we wanted, but we were taking positives out of it. Leading into this weekend with St. Cloud, we were able to play the way we wanted to play. We were able to put together a full 60 minutes, which was huge for our group.
"It was a learning process for us. It was obviously tough. I know my class and the older guys — we had never been through anything like that. So it was our first time being on the other spectrum of things, because we've had a lot of success during our time this year."
Beyond Johnson's steady play in net, UND enjoyed strong performances from its newly arranged top line of sophomore Shane Gerisch (who registered a hat-trick on Friday night), junior Austin Poganski, and freshman Tyson Jost. Jost is a 2016 first-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche, while Gerisch and Poganski are used to dealing with the pressure that comes with playing in Grand Forks — in fact, they bookended the scoring in North Dakota's 5-1 national title win over Quinnipiac in April.
Gerisch, a 2014 draft pick of the Washington Capitals, leads the Fighting Hawks in scoring, with 10 goals in 13 games played — already surpassing his total from his freshman campaign and providing much-needed support to the expected offense from classmate Brock Boeser.
Now, North Dakota moves on to host Michigan State after Thanksgiving before facing Boston College at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Dec. 3.
As usual — and as they will every night this year — the Fighting Hawks will have a target on their backs.
And for now, at least, they're getting used to playing with it.
"The standard that's held here is that everyone wants to beat us, especially after winning it all last year," said Johnson. "We have the target on our back this year, and that was one of our messages early on in the season, that we're going to get every team's best. I think that's something that's really going to help our team mature fast. We have to play our best hockey every weekend. We can't have an off weekend because teams are going to want to beat us."