GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Although the WCHA designated St. Cloud State as North Dakota’s conference rival for scheduling purposes, Fighting Sioux fans don’t buy it.
And Friday, the 6-4 shootout in Grand Forks won by the Minnesota Golden Gophers was typical of the exciting finishes North Dakota fans expect when the Gophers come to town.
Until Minnesota senior forward John Pohl scored an unassisted, shorthanded, empty-net goal with 28 seconds left in the game, the outcome was in doubt. After falling behind 5-2 in the third period, the Sioux pulled to within one goal and were on a 6-on-4 power play when Pohl put the game out of reach.
The Sioux missed scoring first when junior forward Kevin Spiewak’s shot hit the crossbar. The Gophers quickly brought the puck back into the North Dakota zone and scored at 2:13 when the puck took a crazy bounce that left Minnesota senior forward Pat O’Leary alone in front of the net. He beat Sioux freshman goalie Jake Brandt with a quick wrister.
Both teams had excellent scoring opportunities in the first period, but neither could capitalize. Gopher freshman goalie Justin Johnson, starting his third game of the season, kept North Dakota off the board until junior forward Jason Notermann bagged his sixth goal of the year with 26 seconds left in the period.
Minnesota owned the second period and, seemingly, the game, scoring three consecutive goals — two on the power play — to take a 4-1 lead into the final period. Gopher junior forward Jeff Taffe scored his 25th goal of the season off a feed from Pohl at the 1:59 mark. Brandt stopped the first shot from point-blank range, but Taffe jammed in the rebound for Minnesota’s first power-play goal.
The Gopher power play struck again at 5:10 when sophomore forward Matt Koalska fed freshman forward Barry Tallackson a beautiful pass that he pounded into the open net. Gopher sophomore forward Dan Welch scored with 1:41 left in the second period to give Minnesota a commanding three-goal lead.
“We were talking between the second and third period,” Spiewak said. “We just had to come out hard and we did. We got a couple good bounces that scored goals and got the fans into it. It just seems like UND is always going to pull it out again. It just didn’t happen tonight.”
The Sioux built momentum in the final period when sophomore forward Ryan Hale feathered a pass to freshman defenseman Matt Jones, who tipped it through Johnson’s five hole. With just under 12 minutes left to play, North Dakota had closed to within two goals. But that didn’t last long. Tallackson scored his second goal of the game at 14:20 when Brandt missed a poke-check attempt, leaving the Gopher forward with a wide-open net.
Just 39 seconds later, the Sioux scored their first power-play goal of the game to close the gap again. Junior forward Ryan Bayda drove hard to the net and was denied by Johnson, but junior forward Tim Skarperud came up with the puck and shot in the rebound.
When the Sioux went on the power play again with 1:33 left, North Dakota coach Dean Blais pulled Brandt for an extra attacker. It took only five seconds for that move to pay off as senior defenseman Aaron Schneekloth tipped in Bayda’s blast from the point. Then, with 43 seconds left, the Sioux got another 6-on-4 power play and just missed tipping another shot past Johnson before Pohl iced it with his empty-netter.
Blais credited Johnson with preserving the win for Minnesota. “He made a great save with about 45 seconds left. It was a fantastic save,” he said. “We had two guys right in front of the net and he got his foot on it (the tipped shot).”
The Gophers ended their trend of playing poorly the first game of a series. Since Jan. 5, they had been 0-5-1 in series openers.
Tallackson said that this Friday, Johnson’s performance in goal was the difference. “He gave us confidence. Maybe he’ll play almost ever Friday. He’ll be our good-luck charm on Fridays,” he joked.
For his part, Johnson felt it was a team victory. “I could tell in the locker room today that everyone was ready to play. It was just a total team effort.”
The Sioux continue to look for a formula to take advantage of home ice. North Dakota is now 4-7-1 at home and hasn’t won at Engelstad Arena since Oct. 26 when it beat Wisconsin 3-2.
“It was a good game overall,” Blais said. “The crowd was great and we gave them a lot to cheer about in the third period.”