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UND MEN’S HOCKEY: Gaarder earns his spot in exhibition game

Connor Gaarder was not in the lineup for nine of the first 10 games. But the freshman from Edina, Minn., has turned into a valuable forward that the UND men’s hockey team can plug anywhere in the lineup.

Connor Gaarder was not in the lineup for nine of the first 10 games.

But the freshman from Edina, Minn., has turned into a valuable forward that the UND men’s hockey team can plug anywhere in the lineup.

In the last four games, he’s played on every line — first, second, third and fourth – and at every position (left wing, right wing and center).

During UND’s 5-1 win over the Russian Red Stars in an exhibition game on Saturday night, Gaarder earned the ultimate promotion, playing with Brock Nelson and Danny Kristo. He responded by scoring a goal and adding an assist.

Gaarder may not stay on that top line for long — he’s there because of an injury to Corban Knight — but he helped make sure he’ll be somewhere in the lineup.

“Connor is a guy who can play with anybody,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “He works hard. He’s tenacious on pucks and he can make plays. He did have a bit of chemistry with those guys, but we’ve kind of found out that wherever we put Connor, he goes out and does the job.

“He’s a guy who has earned (ice time). We wanted to get a lot of guys more ice time tonight — some guys who maybe hadn’t had that opportunity in the first half of the season. He was one of them. I thought he went out and did a good job.”

Gaarder scored a goal on his first shift, banging home a rebound of a Nelson wraparound attempt at the 49-second mark. He also sent a short backhand pass to Brendan O’Donnell (goal, two assists) for a power-play goal in the second period.

Gaarder finished third on the team with four shots on goal, registered a plus-one rating and earned power-play time.

“I think his conditioning has come so far,” Hakstol said. “That’s the first thing. Obviously, he’s getting more and more comfortable at this level. Where he fits in the lineup right now, I’m not willing to put that in black and white. But I know he’s earned his way into our lineup. If he continues to show up and do the job he’s done this far, he’s going to stay in our lineup.”

Gaarder said he enjoyed playing with his two outstanding linemates during the exhibition.

“Those are two great players — B-Nels and Kristo,” Gaarder said. “It’s a great honor to play with those guys.”

The Red Stars, an all-star team from the Russian junior league, is a squad of players that range from ages 19 to 21. Saturday’s game was their first as a team and they struggled to gain chemistry. Their coach, Alexander Sokolov, said the Russians aren’t used to playing against teams that are as “active and aggressive” as UND.

It only took 3:31 for UND to build a 2-0 lead on goals by Gaarder and Derek Rodwell. O’Donnell tacked on a goal late in the second. In the third, Nelson and Michael Parks added goals.

In net, Brad Eidsness stopped all 14 shots he faced during the opening 40 minutes. Third-string goalie Tate Maris played in the third period, stopping six of seven shots. He also earned a loud ovation for a nice glove save midway through the frame.

“I was happy with the professionalism we played with tonight,” Hakstol said. “Our intensity wasn’t through the roof, but we did a lot of good, solid things. We played a solid 60 minutes. The team we were playing against, they’ve traveled across the ocean and are playing their first game together as a group. Hopefully, as a team we were better in most areas. We should be.”

-Notes: Former UND forward Brian Canady attended Saturday’s game. Canady coaches a youth hockey team in Colorado Springs, Colo., and his team played in East Grand Forks during the weekend. . . The Red Stars have seven more games in North American — five against Division I colleges, two against North American Hockey League teams. . . UND’s next game is Dec. 30 against Harvard. The players will have a week off for Christmas break.