Rhett Gardner to return to lineup for difficult assignment against Colorado College
Rhett Gardner zipped up and down the ice Wednesday at practice, getting ready to play his first game in nearly a month.
"He's all in," UND coach Brad Berry said.
And he's about to be put right to work.
Gardner, UND's first-line center, is expected to draw the assignment of playing against Colorado College's dominant top line of Mason Bergh, Nick Halloran and Trey Bradley when the teams play a two-game series this weekend in Ralph Engelstad Arena (7:37 p.m. Friday, 7:07 p.m. Saturday).
Halloran started this week as the country's leading scorer with 39 points in 26 games. Bergh, a former Eden Prairie, Minn., star and Colorado College's captain, has 34 points. Bradley, who missed most of last season with an injury, has 25 points. In the last three games, that trio has combined for 20 points.
They are a big reason with the Tigers already have more wins this season (11) than any other since joining the National Collegiate Hockey Conference in 2013.
That line had seven points in a split against UND in late October, but Colorado College was able to dictate line matchups as the home team with last line change.
This weekend, it will be Berry and his staff trying to dictate matchups, which likely means Gardner will be on the ice a lot against Colorado College's top line.
"I thought the (Trevor) Gooch line was always against our top line," Berry said of the first series between the teams. "I think they did a good job of matching up on that side of it—and also their D-pairings, too.
"It's one one of those things where they're coming into our building now—and their forward group is very skilled, very fast and their top line especially—we're going to have to make sure whoever is playing against them knows when they're on the ice and we're going to try to inhibit them from getting into our zone. "
Berry thinks Gardner will be able to handle a big role, despite the fact that the alternate captain hasn't played since suffering a lower-body injury at Bemidji State on Jan. 12.
"He went through practice here and didn't miss a drill," Berry said. "Any time you come from an extended break, sometimes you look like you're out of shape or haven't played in a while. He looks like he hasn't missed a beat since he left. He has maintained his body in great shape and he looks like he's going to start where he left off."
In the five games that Gardner missed, UND tied three times and lost twice.
"He impacts our group on the ice, off the ice, in the locker room," Berry said. "Everywhere he impacts our group. I'm not saying we haven't won because he hasn't been in the lineup, but I tell you what, he impacts the game in a lot of ways. It's good to have him back in our lineup again."
It's especially important because UND will be down either one or two other centermen for this weekend's series.
Sophomore center Ludvig Hoff left for South Korea and the 2018 Olympic Games over the weekend and will miss the series. Hoff is playing for Norway.
Junior center Nick Jones, who has missed the last two games with an undisclosed injury, is still in question for this weekend and defenseman Gabe Bast, who has missed the last three games, is doubtful.
If Jones and Bast are both out, UND won't have any healthy scratches for the Colorado College series. It would also likely force sophomore defenseman Casey Johnson or freshman defenseman Josh Rieger to play forward. Johnson played forward for the first time in UND's last game against Denver. Rieger played forward earlier this season.
"You have that in your back pocket," Berry said, "if you need him in that role."
Wilkie, Maris returning to GF
Former UND players Chris Wilkie and Tate Maris will return to campus this weekend as members of the Colorado College Tigers.
Wilkie, a winger, transferred in the offseason to Colorado College in search of more playing time and to suit up alongside his brother, Coltan, who has committed there. Although he's not eligible to play this season, Wilkie is making the road trip. Wilkie will be a junior next fall.
Maris, the first-year volunteer goalie coach, also is making the road trip back to Grand Forks. Maris doesn't always travel with the team, but he is this weekend.
The Tigers are expected to arrive in Grand Forks this afternoon.
• An indoor blimp will make its return to The Ralph this weekend. Blimps were frequently used during intermissions in the early years of The Ralph, but have gone away in recent years.