It was UND vs. St. Cloud State in the conference championship game. UND was wearing its home white jerseys and won the game 5-3.
And there was a UND player on the ice — one who should have been a high school senior but accelerated his education to come to college a year early — taking over the game.
In 2006, it was a guy named Jonathan Toews.
Toews was good all season for UND — he finished fourth on the team in scoring despite leaving briefly to win World Junior gold — but it was that night when you realized Toews’ talent was overwhelming and he could take over games. He drove UND on that night as much as, if not more than, any other high-end older player on UND’s roster, whether it was Travis Zajac or Chris Porter or T.J. Oshie or Rastislav Spirko.
Toews had a goal, two assists, three points and five shots on goal. When the game was tied 1-1, Toews scored the go-ahead goal. In the next period, he set up Ryan Duncan for back-to-back goals to put the game away.
He didn’t earn all-tournament team honors, but he kept growing. The next weekend, Toews was the Most Outstanding Player in a regional played in the state of North Dakota.
Toews came back to UND the following season, was dominant from the outset (he had a hat trick opening weekend), then jumped into the NHL, where he’s gone on to captain the Chicago Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups and win two Olympic golds. While Toews was always high-end, it was that night in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five against St. Cloud State where you realized he could be the go-to guy on a loaded team.
On Tuesday, that guy was Jake Sanderson.
Sanderson has been good all year — he also left for a bit to win World Junior gold — but like Toews, his talent is taking over at the end of the season and he’s showing he can dominate a game as much as, if not more than, any of the other players on the roster, whether it be 2020 Hobey Baker Award finalist Jordan Kawaguchi, 2021 Hobey Baker Award finalist Shane Pinto or seniors like Matt Kiersted and Collin Adams.
Sanderson, a defenseman, recorded seven shots on goal in the first 22 minutes of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Frozen Faceoff title game. While his stat line wasn’t overwhelming — he registered one assist and a plus-1 rating — he was the best player on the ice from start to finish Tuesday.
“He’s elite,” said UND forward Riese Gaber, the MVP of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff. “His skating and everything. . . he’s just. . . that’s why he’s the fifth overall pick. He was awesome for us. He’s an absolute horse. Sometimes, he might not be the flashiest player but he doesn’t make any mistakes out there and he’s really been turning it on lately.”
When asked for his thoughts on Sanderson’s play, Kawaguchi smiled and laughed before coming up with an answer.
“What can you say about that guy?” the UND captain said. “He’s by far one of the best players I’ve ever played with. Seeing him get that puck and do the things he does with it, it’s unbelievable. Sometimes, he gets the puck and starts skating around the zone and you catch yourself watching him. It’s just fun to watch. I’m really fortunate to be able to play with a guy like that.”
Sanderson’s numbers have spiked recently. In the last seven games, he has eight points and a plus-9 rating. He has 22 shots on goal, one shy of the team lead in that span.
“It was elite,” UND coach Brad Berry said of Sanderson’s play at the Frozen Faceoff. “It was high-end. He really didn’t look like a freshman on the ice. I think you can see he’s growing leaps and bounds in his confidence and his ability here in college hockey. I’ll tell you, the NCHC is a gauntlet league as far as being so tough, hard and heavy and fast. He’s become acclimated to it to the point where he’s become an influential player in our league here.”
His next step, like Toews in 2006, is a regional in North Dakota.
“His growth is going to continue to grow over his career here at North Dakota,” Berry said, “but he took it to another level (Tuesday) night.”