By Brad Elliott Schlossman
Adam Scheel stood at the top of the crease, waiting for Denver’s Brett Stapley to attempt a penalty shot late in Friday’s game.
The UND freshman goalie tracked the Montreal Canadiens draft pick as he got close, was in good position for his wrist shot, made a save with his glove and helped preserve a two-goal lead.
Moments later, Scheel was credited with an assist on Colton Poolman’s empty-net goal, which finished off UND’s 4-1 win over Denver in Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Perhaps it should be no surprise anymore when Scheel stands tall in big moments.
He’s made a habit of it during the first half of this season.
Scheel has started three games against teams ranked in the top six of this week’s USCHO national poll — MSU-Mankato, Minnesota Duluth and now Denver.
He is now 3-0 in those games with a .932 save percentage.
On top of that, he has a sweep in a rivalry series against Wisconsin and a win against rival Minnesota in front of a wild crowd in Las Vegas.
So far, not much has fazed the rookie from Lakewood, Ohio.
On Friday night, Scheel stopped 21 of 22 shots against No. 6 Denver for his second marquee win in the span of seven days.
He had some help from his classmates, too.
Rookie Gavin Hain scored his first-career goal 7 minutes, 46 seconds into the first period, while freshman Mark Senden had a goal and an assist in the first period to build a 2-0 lead.
Sophomore defenseman Matt Kiersted scored on a one-timer in the third — UND’s only shot on goal in a 29-minute span — and Poolman finished it off.
UND now sits at 9-6-1 overall and 3-4 in National Collegiate Hockey Conference play.
The Fighting Hawks have won four of the past five games.
“I think everybody’s doing their job,” UND coach Brad Berry said. “We’re getting off to a good start in games. Starts are key, making sure we don’t chase games. But the biggest thing is that there are ebbs and flows in games and we’ve done a better job of battling adversity through the games and making sure that we get on the right end of it.”
The Fighting Hawks also won the past six games that senior center Nick Jones has played.
Jones returned to the lineup Friday after a seven-game absence due to a lower-body injury. He had an assist in the game.
“We played good, but we’ve got better,” Jones said. “We won 4-1, but the scary part is that we’ve got better than that. They had their chances, definitely. When they had their chances, we found a way to keep the puck out of the net.
“Scheel played great. We had guys blocking shots, collapsing around the net. But we can’t be sitting back tomorrow night. They’re going to be coming. They’re going to be hungry.”
UND will look to finish off the first half of the season at 7:07 tonight on a high note.
Although the Fighting Hawks have been up and down at times, they’ve won back-to-back big games with an injury-filled lineup.
On Friday, UND played without forward Dixon Bowen (upper body), forward Collin Adams (lower body), forward Joel Janatuinen (illness) and defenseman Jonny Tychonick (undisclosed injury).
Every healthy player was in the lineup.
“I think we’ve had a mentality, a mindset,” Hain said. “We’ve got it in our heads that they’re big rivals. We need wins in the NCHC and we had it in our head that we were winning no matter what and we did whatever it takes.”
Senden added: “We know what we’ve got to do. We know our jobs. I just think we’ve been bearing down more and defensively, we’ve been more sound, boxing out and what not. Today, Scheeler, he was great back there. We’ve been playing as a five-man unit, locking it down and working teams down low.”
The key for UND has been getting off to quick starts.
Just as the Fighting Hawks did last Saturday against Minnesota Duluth, they quickly built a two-goal lead that was enough to stand up.
UND got on the board first at 7:46 of the first period off of the faceoff.
Senden took the draw and was battling for a puck with a Denver centerman, when Hain swooped in, picked up the puck, skated it across the crease and put a backhand under the crossbar.
“It was a huge relief,” Hain said. “It was awesome scoring in that building and scoring the first goal.”
At 12:56 of the first, Cole Smith fought off a check from Denver defenseman Sean Comrie to make a centering feed from behind the net that Senden finished off for his second goal of the season.
Kiersted added to the lead at 2:47 of the third, hammering a one-timer on a setup by Jones. It was the only shot on goal for UND from the 12:00 mark of the second period until there were just three minutes left in the third.
Denver’s Colin Staub broke Scheel’s shutout bid at 9:29, making it a 3-1 game.
But Scheel stopped Stapley’s penalty shot with 2:02 left in the third. Poolman followed Scheel’s big save with an unconventional empty-netter. The East Grand Forks product rimmed a puck around the boards from behind the net. It hit a spot in the boards, bounced out to the center of the ice and went into the net.
“Both teams have very good speed and a good skill level,” Berry said. “It’s one of those things where you don’t want to give an inch to the other team. And I know they’re the same way. That’s what happens when two good teams are getting together. Time and space is a big deal and we want to make sure we eliminate a lot of that from the other side.”