Troy Stecher drew the first power play in each of North Dakota’s 2016 NCAA Midwest Regional games.
With the first, he had an indirect, uncredited hand in setting up the eventual clincher in Friday’s 6-2 lashing of Northeastern. Barely five minutes after the second, he would charge up the lone helper on Drake Caggiula’s icebreaker versus Michigan on Saturday.
The symbolism in each sequence could not be starker. On each outing, the Fighting Hawks’ blue-line anchor took the initiative to steam the ship through the artificial pond within Cincinnati’s U.S. Bank Arena.
In both instances, he would leave a current in the opponent’s wake. And try as those adversaries would, they could never quite overcome UND’s assertive start.
The Fighting Hawks owed that continued repression of the Huskies and eventual 5-2 breakaway from the tougher Wolverines, in no small part, to their defensemen.
Even before Stecher drew the first penalty of the weekend, a member of the second and third unit had already brushed Friday’s scoresheet. Their tireless puck movement and precision point shooting parented and polished the bulk of UND’s chances.
A mere three minutes after NU drew first blood, depth defender Keaton Thompson collected the primary assist on Johnny Simonson’s 1-1 equalizer. Second-tier rearguard Tucker Poolman subsequently spooted UND its first lead.
That was the lead Stecher was keen on augmenting when he ventured away from his point perch. Cutting through the Broadway lane, he outmuscled Huskies blueliner Matt Benning, impelling the latter to take a hooking minor.
Thompson’s second point of the day was the secondary assist on the subsequent power-play conversion.
It would be the first and last man advantage for the Fighting Hawks on Friday afternoon. And it would be the third and final point by any member of the blue-line brigade.
But the collective impact explained itself by the time the 3-1 differential had doubled by day’s end.
The defensive sextet amplified its presence Saturday night, accounting for four of UND’s individual points. And sandwiched around two short-lived scares in the form of Michigan equalizers, Stecher and company catalyzed a vocal start and finish.
The Fighting Hawk defense’s structured, regimented system on the day job helped to explain why it took 13 minutes and 37 seconds for any scoresheet entries. The only other explanation was the chin-standing Wolverines netminder, Steve Racine.
But with his trademark transitional prowess, Stecher finally broke Michigan’s discipline at that 13:37 mark. Collecting the puck behind his own cage, he motored on a NASCAR-worthy right turn up the alley. And he was primed to single-handedly move the puck through his own zone’s egress.
He would have reached that point, and maybe gone beyond that, if not for opposing forward Dexter Dancs desperately tugging the back of his garb. But the Hawks got their justice, and ran their first power play in 24-plus hours.
With barely one minute remaining in the opening frame, Stecher sparked another turnaround and burned the Wolverines more directly. He would feed Caggiula on a crisp diagonal feed into neutral territory, then watch the senior first-liner deposit another one of his elite-looking goals.
Thompson matched one of Stecher’s intangible marks shortly after the intermission, drawing a boarding minor on Dancs at 2:58 of the middle frame.
Granted, he would soon negate the bulk of that power play by incurring his own penalty for interference. The Wolverines would draw a 1-1 knot within 11 uninterrupted seconds of his release. And Poolman’s partner, Paul LaDue, would later commit an infraction that precipitated a 2-2 draw through a JT Compher power-play conversion.
But fittingly enough, LaDue made good on a mulligan nearly five minutes after his blunder. His soapy slapper from the far point chipped off a screening Rhett Gardner’s twig, then eluded Racine’s trapper for UND’s third go-ahead goal.
Michigan would have no retort this time. In a similar setup 64 seconds later, Poolman unleashed a bid from his attacking post and watched Coltyn Sanderson guide it home.
None other than LaDue’s unassisted empty-net conversion cemented the 5-2 final. That chalked up to three shots and three points by a blueliner on as many unanswered goals to spell the difference.
And it spelled two consecutive days of direct, as well as plenty of indirect, contributions from all three defensive units.
For the Fighting Hawk faithful, this is a welcome contrast from the team whose depth in each layer of the line chart went virtually mute a week prior in Minneapolis. Only one forward line (Caggiula’s) and one defensive unit (Stecher’s) managed any points amidst the Hawks’ 0-1-1 showing at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.
More recently, UND has thawed out across its depth chart and doused the two hottest teams in the nation. The Huskies and Wolverines had been riding 12- and five-game unbeaten streaks into their respective showdowns with the Hawks. They constituted two of the four conference tournament champions that realistically could have earned an at-large bid to the NCAA bracket.
But neither of those teams had faced a defensive guild quite like the one at Brad Berry’s disposal. Not one with this borderline Frankenstein formula of physicality, flow, flair and finish.
Stecher underscored that reality with his hustle, and everyone else punctuated it with their shots.
And who said that defense only begins offense? The all-around aptitude of this Stecher-led squadron is an asset capable of outright tipping the scale at next month’s Frozen Four.
It has done half of that job already.