UND senior forward Austin Poganski (Photo Credit: Russ Hons)
I recently returned from my 90-day work deployment in Texas. Finally, this past weekend, I was able to watch the University of North Dakota hockey team play in person. My first impression; the 2017-18 Fighting Hawks hockey team has a lot of good, young, budding talent. Second, the mistakes they’re currently making are fixable.
While it’s a bold statement — I think the 2017-18 Fighting Hawks hockey team is significantly better than last year’s team. Last season, the younger, inexperienced players took their lumps and gained valuable experience. After 16 games, UND is 8-4-4, 3-2-1 NCHC.
Do they have the high-end talent of a Brock Boeser or Tyson Jost? No. However, I do believe that junior forward Nick Jones, freshmen forwards Colin Adams and Grant Mismash are very talented players that will make a big contribution on the score sheet before the season is over. All three players were held pointless last weekend by the Union Dutchmen.
At times, freshman forward Jordan Kawaguchi has shown flashes of greatness. Other times, he’s looked a bit lost. I think we’ll see him get better which each game. Eventually, those missed opportunities could start going in.
Except for the 20-minute power outage in the first period of Friday’s game, I thought UND played pretty well this past weekend. Checking the message boards and social media, you’d get the impression that this team is a bunch of untalented hacks.
I understand that UND doesn’t rebuild, they just reload. That said, this is still a relatively young hockey team. On the defensive side of the puck, you have three freshmen, three sophomores, and two juniors. Add a rookie goaltender to the mix, you’re bound to have a few hiccups.
While there’s room for improvement, I don’t think that UND is that far from being a very good team. They’re still “relatively” young. They’ve suffered a rash of injuries and still, they’re right there at the top of the standings.
Rash of Injuries
First, out of the lineup last weekend: All-American goaltender Cam Johnson (injured, missed eight games), senior forward Trevor Olson (injured, missed nine games), sophomore forward Dixon Bowen (injured, missed three games), junior forward Joel Janatuinen (illness, missed last weekend).
Moreover, the loss of Cam Johnson is probably a bigger issue than we think. Sure, Peter Thome has played well in the eight games that he’s played. Thome is 3-2-3, 2.56 GAA and .907 save percentage. Over the past two weekends, Thome’s numbers have fallen off, he’s 1-2-1, 3.21 GAA and a .885 save percentage.
Another thing I’ve noticed, with Olson and Bowen, hurt, UND has tailed off a bit on the penalty kill. Even missing those two key players UND has killed 52-of-59 of the opposition’s power plays and is ranked 7th nationally. On the other hand, the power play has struggled, going 13-of-65 on the man advantages and is ranked 25th nationally.
Key Players not Scoring: Senior Forward Austin Poganski
Senior captain, forward Austin Poganski, scored 22 goals and 50 points during the last two seasons. This season, Poganski has struggled to contribute offensively. The St. Cloud, Minnesota native was held scoreless for the first
seven games of the season. After 16 games, the senior forward has two goals and four points, he’s also a plus-three.
After last Friday’s game, Poganski took some of the responsibility for UND’s slow start in the first period.
“I will take a lot of responsibility for not getting the guys going,” Poganski said. “I don’t know what it is. That’s kind of what we’re looking for, to get going right away. Whether if it’s kind of grinding it out in the first few shifts of each game or getting a big hit, whatever it is, we’re kind of working through that process right now. It’s taking a little longer than we hoped, but I think we’ll find it in the next few games.”
Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to saddle Poganski with all of the blame. Hockey is a team game and all players need to buy in to be successful. You can’t have any passengers. Right now, there are still a few players doing their own thing. Also, with all of the injuries, the head coach can’t sit players that are struggling.
After Saturday’s game, coach Berry was asked if there could be a few more players returning to the line on Friday against Western Michigan.
“Oh yeah,” Berry said. “Oh yeah.
Berry continued, “This is an organization that doesn’t hang its hat on who’s in the lineup.”
Players need to take responsibility for their own performance. I think we need to give credit where credit is due. The Union Dutchmen are a decent hockey team that plays a heavy game. Losing a game to them in November won’t kill them. UND’s conference schedule is more than tough enough. I’ll be more worried if UND is swept by the Bemidji State Beavers in January.
Junior Forward Shane Gersich
Finally, during Saturday’s post-game press conference, junior forward Shane Gersich was complimentary of the Dutchmen.
“You have to give credit to them (Union),” Gersich said. “They’re a tight team, they play tight defensively and they’re heavy and they don’t give up much offensively. That’s something that we need to learn from this weekend and be ready to go next weekend against Western. Obviously, we know their game from last year and years past. They’re a big physical team as well and don’t give up much. We have to learn from this weekend and be ready to go next weekend.”
Speaking of Gersich, he’s another player that has struggled offensively early in the season. Last season, Gersich led the NCHC with 14 goals in 24 conference games. So far this season, in conference play, he’s tied for 20th overall with 2 goals. In 16 games he’s scored five goals and nine points, he’s also a plus-two. So far this season, Gersich has had two three-game stretches where he was held pointless.
Coming into the 2017-18 season, forwards Poganski and Gersich were expected to lead the Fighting Hawks offense. Through 16 games, they’ve yet to contribute on a consistent basis. I think both players will pick it up during the second half of the season. I don’t think it’s unfair to critically analyze their play either.