GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Grand Forks Central product Johnny Simonson didn't score a goal Friday night in his University of North Dakota hockey team's grinding 4-3 National Collegiate Hockey Conference victory over league-leading Western Michigan at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
He didn't draw an assist on any goal or be named one of the game's three stars, either.
But one could make the case that the play of the game was made by Simonson, a senior center.
With 3.4 seconds left in regulation play, WMU's goalie on the bench and three UND players in the penalty box, giving the Broncos a 6-on-3 advantage, Simonson won a vital defensive faceoff, preventing the last scoring chance for WMU.
Had the Broncos managed to score and tie it, they would have had a 5-on-3 power play for two full minutes going into a 5-minute overtime session, thanks to a hat trick of UND minor penalties late in the game.
But with UND's top faceoff man in terms of faceoff wins (Nick Jones) out of the game with illness and second-best faceoff man (Rhett Gardner) in the penalty box Simonson drew the puck cleanly to the back wall, killing WMU's last hope.
"We look at our stats quite a bit and he leads our team in faceoff wins (in terms of percentage,.638),'' UND coach Brad Berry said of Simonson. "He's played a heckuva year so far. He's done everything we've asked him to. Kind of shows his leadership skills, willing a way to make sure we win the draw at the end.''
UND clamped down on the Broncos shortly after a Joel Janatuinen goal was disallowed for goalie interference at 16:43 of the closing period, which would have given the Fighting Hawks a 5-3 lead.
From that point on, Western Michigan managed just one shot on goal, despite playing with a 1, 2 or 3-man advantage over the final two minutes when UND's Hayden Shaw, Christian Wolanin and Gardner were handed minor penalties.
In a contest between two teams who love to play fast and physical, this one didn't disappoint.
"I thought that was a man's game out there,'' Berry said. "It was fast, it was heavy. Two teams that have unbelievable will. You can tell by the compete level. It went right down to the last play.''
And beyond, even. Scuffles broke out as the game ended, so the traditional handshake line between teams was canceled for this game.
North Dakota got a big game from senior wing Austin Poganski, who matched his career high with a two-goal game.
He scored UND's first two goals. His first came on a wrister from the center slot on a power play at 4:54 of the first period. His second came from in front on a 5-on-3 UND power play to put UND ahead to stay at 14:15 of the period.
That was the cushion UND needed, as it played over half the game without forward Ludvig Hoff and defenseman Andrew Peski, who went down with injuries. Hoff scored on a deflection of a Colton Poolman right point shot at 15:37 of the first period to make it 3-1, but Hoff then left the game for good early in the second period.
Western Michigan picked up goals from Dawson DiPietro and the first goal of his career for freshman Brett Van Os in the first period and on a power play by dangerous Wade Allison on a power play at 16:28 of the third period.
But the Broncos managed just one shot on goal over the final three minutes, 9 seconds as UND clamped down defensively to protect senior goalie Cam Johnson (18 saves), back from injury after missing the previous eight games.
Berry called it UND's most complete game of the season. "We've got to try to do it tomorrow again,'' he said.
"We started pretty well, and I think that was a big key to our success,'' Poganski said. "The last three games, we haven't started well and that led to a few losses where we had to play from behind.''
But in this black-and-blue battle, UND was the front-runner on the scoreboard most of the way, except for when DePietro's power-play goal at 9:26 of the first period tied it at 1-1. Poganski scored his second five minutes later to put the Hawks ahead to stay.
The win pulled UND to within one point of first place in the NCHC. St. Cloud State won its game at Omaha to pull even with WMU at the top of the standings.
UND outshot the Broncos 29-21 overall, including 20-10 over the last 40 minutes after WMU mustered a 11-9 shot edge in the first period.
Poganski had a team-best six shots on goal along with his two goals to earn the game's No. 1 star vote by the media.
"I thought I was moving pretty well and thought Rhett (Gardner) and Joel (Janatuinen) were moving the puck really well, helping me out a ton,'' Gardner said.
Johnson's experience was plus in goal after freshman Peter Thome replaced him the previous eight games when Johnson was out with injury.
"Great,'' Johnson said when how it felt to be back. "It feels unbelievable. It was a long month there, whatever it was, a long eight games. It felt good to be back . . . and it felt good to get a win here, at the Ralph.''
Game notes: Berry said he thinks Jones will be healthy enough to play in Saturday's rematch ... Both teams were 2-for-7 on the power play ... UND won the faceoffs 37-30, led by Gardner (21 of 38) and Simonson (9 of 16) ... UND scored on its first two power-play chances ... The game drew 11,156, several hundred under a sellout ... WMU fell to 5-2 in NCHC play and 9-6-1 overall while UND moved to 4-2-1-1 in league play and 9-4-4 overall ... Rookie Jordan Kawaguchi (2 assists) and Wolanin (assist, plus-4 rating) were named second and third stars.
Virg Foss is in his 13th season of reporting on UND home hockey games exclusively for UNDsports.com. He covered UND hockey for 35 seasons for the Grand Forks Herald until his retirement from newspapers.