GRAND FORKS, N.D. — In a test of two teams that have been playing better in recent weeks — both hoping for home-ice in the playoffs — the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves defeated the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, 2-1, on Friday.
For the Seawolves, the win was not only a confidence builder, but it also broke their string of 16 consecutive losses to UND in Grand Forks and 13 straight losses overall. UAA had never beaten the Sioux in their building dating back to 1984 when the two teams first met. More importantly, the victory gave UAA a three-point lead over UND in the WCHA standings.
First-year coach John Hill used the Seawolf losing streak to motivate his players.
“I read the press release and realized that North Dakota had won the last 13 games. That stuck in my mind and it was something I talked about with our guys,” he said. “It was time to plant our feet and make a stand. The guys answered the challenge.”
Seawolf sophomore center Vladimir Novak didn’t have his feet planted when he scored the unassisted game-winning goal with 2:12 left in the third period. With three Sioux players tied up in front of their goal, Novak scooped up the loose puck behind the net, skated out front and waited for goalie Josh Siembida to go down before roofing a wrist shot over him.
“Vladimir has great patience with the puck,” Hill said. “Sometimes he’s too patient. But we had talked about the fact that sometimes you could get Siembida to commit if you made a move. We thought we might get him lunging. I think Vlady knew that as he came around the net. He was very poised with the puck.”
The teams skated to a 0-0 tie in the first period that saw the Sioux outshoot the Seawolves, 9-7. UAA senior wing Mike Scott got his team on the scoreboard first at 4:19 of the second period. Teammate Greg Zaporzan’s bad-angle shot rebounded off Siembida directly into the slot and onto Scott’s stick, who slammed it home.
Although the Seawolves outshot UND, 6-3, in the second period, Sioux freshman forward Ryan Connelly tied the game 1-1 at 17:38 with his first goal of the season. Defenseman Nick Fuher intercepted an outlet pass in UAA’s zone and tipped the puck to Connelly, who blasted a low slapper from the top of the right circle past Seawolf goalie Kevin Reiter.
UND’s power play continued to struggle. With a 5-on-3 advantage for more than a minute in the second period, UND could only muster one shot on goal. In a game with few penalties, the Seawolves were 0-for-3 on the power play while the Sioux were 0-for-2.
Hill felt the win was an important step forward in his players learning the offense-oriented system he implemented after taking over from former UAA coach Dean Talafous.
“We tell our guys that every time you step on the ice, you want to score a goal. In the past, it was every time they stepped on the ice, they were trying to prevent a goal,” he noted. “Winning on the road, especially in an environment like this, is big for your confidence.”
The Sioux have lost three straight at home and are now 4-6 in the new $100-million Engelstad Arena. Junior forward and assistant captain Ryan Bayda admits that the team hasn’t given UND fans much to cheer about.
“Tonight, we really didn’t deserve it,” Bayda said. “We didn’t have that jump. We didn’t have that fire in our eyes. We were a little loose between periods and it showed. When you’re getting beat in the battles and you’re getting outworked, you’re going to lose the game.”
Teams that once dreaded playing at UND are now finding that wins come much easier, and nobody in a Sioux uniform seems to know why.
“To win national championships, to win games in the WCHA, you have to play with heart, and we didn’t play with any heart tonight,” said freshman wing Brian Canady. “I don’t really know what the problem is. We’re trying to take our game to another level and, right now, we just haven’t been doing it.”
Bayda said the Sioux must now regroup and play much better in the second game Saturday night.
“If we want any hope of getting home ice for the playoffs, tomorrow is a must win. Otherwise, we might as well kiss that goodbye,” he said.