With his team trailing top-seeded and forever-loathed Minnesota 3-0 with less than eight minutes to play in the second period of its WCHA Final Five semifinal game last week, North Dakota goaltender Aaron Dell instigated a tide-turning sequence few, if any, had ever witnessed.
The echoes of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” had barely ceased to reverberate throughout St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center when Dell thwarted consecutive quality scoring efforts by Minnesota’s Mark Alt, Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau to maintain what, at the time, was still believed by most to be an insurmountable deficit.
But a timeout called by Fighting Sioux coach Dave Hakstol and a seeing-eye Derek Forbort shot through traffic a short time later, and the lead was cut to 3-1. North Dakota was on its way to scoring six unanswered goals to defeat its rival and earn its place in the conference title game the following night against Denver.
Dell, whose 3-0 record, 1.33 goals against average and .948 save percentage in the Final Five earned him tournament MVP honors, shut out the Pioneers on 22 saves in a 4-0 win that gave North Dakota the Broadmoor Trophy for a third straight year.
Hakstol said Dell carried his team in the tournament and that his role in the comeback could not be underestimated.
“He kept us in the hockey game … and gave us the opportunity to get through that game and, obviously, to get into the championship,” Hakstol said of his goaltender, who bore little, if any, culpability for North Dakota’s initial predicament.
“If we go from 3-1 to 4-1 late in the second, that takes away all of our momentum, but he didn’t let that happen.”
No, he didn’t, and a glance toward the calendar reveals why as North Dakota’s junior goalie has made a habit of guarding, if not providing, his team’s momentum, particularly in the month of March.
In 12 career March games overall in his college career, Dell is 12-0 with three shutouts, a .950 save percentage, and a 1.21 goals against average. Staggering numbers to say the least, but Dell is as adept at deflecting praise as he is pucks.
“I think as a team we just turn it up a notch,” Dell said of his late-season success. “Our season’s on the line, it could be done at any point, so it’s that level of desperation that we get when it comes down to it.
“It’s kind of everybody’s job to turn their game up as much as they can and it starts back with me and goes all the way through the ranks.”
“Aaron has been steady,” said Hakstol, whose team plays Western Michigan on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA tournament. “He’s made the odd big save when we’ve needed it, he’s made all of the saves that he’s supposed to and he’s done that on a very consistent basis. I think that’s good playoff goaltending.”
Dell seized the starting role from Brad Eidsness early in his sophomore year and proceeded to have a record-setting season. Not only did he capture the WCHA’s goaltending title by the largest margin since 2001-02, he led the nation in wins (30) and goals against average (1.79) and tied for the national lead in shutouts with six.
In addition, his 30 wins set a UND single-season record, eclipsing the previous record of 29 set by Ed Belfour in 1986-87.
Dell returned to Earth a bit this season, however, in posting a 13-9-2 record with a 2.87 goals against average and .893 save percentage.
“His season has been a work in progress,” Hakstol acknowledged. “He came off of a tremendous year last year and he struggled early with his consistency.”
But Hakstol said those numbers are not all on Dell’s shoulders.
“We couldn’t find consistency as a team and as individuals,” Hakstol said of his team’s early season struggles which landed the Sioux in a tie for 10th in the WCHA with a 4-7-1 mark in late November. “We couldn’t find consistency in putting Friday and Saturday night performances together.”
Dell was no exception to that rule as his statistics (6-6-1, 3.17, .885) in back-to-back starts this season clearly indicate. In fact, since being pulled from a Feb. 11 game in Duluth at 1:26 of the second period after allowing five goals on just 17 shots, Dell did not play in consecutive games until his outstanding back-to-back-to-back performance at the Final Five.
But Hakstol said his decision to enter into a rotation system with his goalies late in the year was not a knee-jerk reaction to Dell’s Duluth performance.
“The fact that we didn’t go back-to-back an awful lot with either goaltender in the second half was mostly a case of that Brad Eidsness was doing a great job and we had a real good tandem going,” said Hakstol.
A native of Airdrie, Alberta, a community located just north of Calgary which Dell said is, “actually a lot like Grand Forks, minus the college,” Dell epitomizes the calm, cool, collected goaltender in the Miikka Kiprusoff mold, which is ironic considering his boyhood idol was the dynamic and fiery Hall-of-Fame goalie Patrick Roy.
It is that even-keel approach that allowed Dell to turn a potential negative into a positive.
“I think it helped me to get a little rest as well as it helped me miss the game a little bit,” Dell said of his additional time off leading into the postseason. “It brought back a little extra desire that I didn’t know was there.”
Spend any time watching him play or interacting with Dell in any way and you are left to wonder if there is anything, be it on or off the ice, that might rattle him.
“It might take a lot, but I’m sure there’s something,” said Dell.