UND aims to end losing skid against Bulldogs this weekend

GRAND FORKS — University of North Dakota goalie Cam Johnson had a good feeling before every game against Minnesota Duluth last season.
Although his Fighting Hawks team got swept in the first month of the season at AmsOil Arena, he always thought it was going to turn around.
“We felt every game … they can’t beat us three games in a row; they can’t beat us four games in a row; there’s no way they beat us five games in a row,” Johnson said. “And they just kept beating us. They were a pesky team last year. We couldn’t figure them out.”
UND lost all five matchups against Minnesota Duluth last season — two in Duluth’s AmsOil Arena, two in Ralph Engelstad Arena and one in the Target Center in Minneapolis.
Including a league playoff game in 2015-16, UND will enter this weekend’s series against the Bulldogs (8:08 p.m. Friday, Jan. 19, 7:07 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 20) on a six-game losing streak against its U.S. Highway 2 rival.
“It’s going to be a big weekend for us,” Johnson said. “They’re a good team and they’re playing really well right now, as is our team. I think it will be a good test for us to see where we’re at, what we need to improve on and how we need to get better going forward.
“I know we definitely have some bad blood with them, so it will be nice to get down there.”
Heading into last season, UND had dominated the Bulldogs, going 4-0 during the 2015-16 regular season and winning seven of eight.
But that swiftly changed a year ago with a veteran Minnesota Duluth team that made a run to the NCAA Frozen Four.
UND struggled to generate offense, managing just eight goals in five games against the Bulldogs. Only two of those goals came at even-strength (both by Shane Gersich).
Many of the players who held UND in check are gone, though.
Freshman goalie Hunter Miska, who blanked UND twice, turned pro in the offseason, signing with the Arizona Coyotes. This weekend, UND will likely see sophomore goalie Hunter Shepard in net (.909 save percentage).
The Bulldogs lost five defensemen from last year’s team — four seniors and sophomore Neal Pionk, who signed with the New York Rangers. This weekend, UND will see a new-look blue line that features three standout freshmen who made the U.S. World Junior Championship team in Mikey Anderson, Scott Perunovich and Dylan Samberg.
“They had our number last year,” UND coach Brad Berry said. “We had their number the year before. It all went to how old their team was last year and how old our team was two years ago. Both teams are vastly different this year.
“Both programs mirror each other with the way they play and try to develop players and try to have success from year to year. I know one thing: Our guys know in the backs of their minds that we’re going to be ready this weekend. Last year wasn’t the results we wanted from our group here.”
This will be the only meeting between the teams during the regular season.
The 24-game NCHC schedule means there’s one opponent UND misses on the road and one at home each year. This year, the Bulldogs don’t come to The Ralph and the Fighting Hawks don’t go to Western Michigan.
“It’s going to be a good weekend knowing it’s going to be the only weekend we play them until the postseason,” Berry said.
UND could be without Gardner
The Fighting Hawks are preparing for the possibility of playing without center Rhett Gardner, who sustained a lower-body injury blocking a shot Friday night against Bemidji State.
Gardner didn’t play Saturday and attended the game in a walking boot.
“We’re going to have to pick up the slack for Rhett if he’s out,” said Berry, who will make the determination on his availability Thursday.
Berry has several options at center. Nick Jones, Ludvig Hoff, Johnny Simonson and Dixon Bowen played center Saturday. Rookie Collin Adams also has played a couple of games at center this season.
“Faceoffs are a big thing,” said Berry, whose team ranks No. 1 nationally in faceoff percentage at 56.2 percent. “(If Gardner is out), it will put added pressure on other guys to win their fair share of faceoffs.”
UND senior winger Trevor Olson will be back for the series in his hometown. Olson, a Duluth East graduate, was injured Friday blocking shots against Bemidji State and missed Saturday night’s series finale.
“Trevor’s all in,” Berry said.
UND also may get sophomore defenseman Andrew Peski back in the lineup. Peski missed last weekend’s series after sustaining an undisclosed injury in practice.
Minnesota Duluth forward Nick Swaney is listed as day-to-day according to the Duluth News Tribune. Swaney, a touted rookie from Lakeville, Minn., has 12 points in 15 games.