GRAND FORKS, N.D. — 8.7 seconds separated the North Dakota Fighting Sioux from a tie with the number-one team in the nation. 8.7 seconds separated the Denver Pioneers from clinching their first WCHA regular-season title since 1986.
In the end, the Pioneers laid claim to the MacNaughton Cup while the Sioux endured yet another heartbreaking, last-second defeat, 4-3 in front of their fans at Engelstad Arena.
He didn’t know it at the time, but when Denver junior forward Kevin Doell put the puck in the net with 8.7 seconds left in overtime, Denver became the 2002 WCHA champion because of St. Cloud’s 5-4 loss to Minnesota.
“I’m pretty pumped right now. Winning like that is pretty incredible,” Doell said.
The win didn’t come easy for the Pioneers. They fell behind 2-0 and 3-1 in the first period before battling back to tie the game 3-3 early in the third.
“We got to running around a little bit in the first period,” Doell said. “We calmed her down, played our game and things worked out.”
In overtime, neither team generated any quality scoring chances until, with time about to run out, Doell scored the game-winner.
The play was set up when Pioneer senior defenseman Jesse Cook faked a shot from the point and carried the puck behind the net. He passed out front to sophomore forward Connor James who sent the puck through the crease, causing a scramble.
“I saw it and couldn’t quite get to it,” Doell said. “Then it went off a skate or something, came right to me and I just put it in the net.”
Sioux coach Dean Blais expressed frustration with goalies Josh Siembida and Andy Kollar, who at times seemed to be playing musical chairs on ice. Siembida started the game, but was pulled after the first period in favor of Kollar. Just 28 seconds into the third period, Kollar gave up a goal that enabled Denver to tie it up 3-3. Out came Siembida, who finished the game.
“They were three weak goals,” Blais said. “You can’t have weak goaltending or average goaltending to be competitive in the league. You need great goaltending and Denver’s got that. We haven’t had it all year.”
The Sioux got off to a fast start with a goal by junior forward Ryan Bayda 5:35 into the first period. Forward Tim Skarperud hit Bayda with a cross-ice pass to send him in alone on Denver goalie Wade Dubielewicz. A goalmouth deke froze the goalie, enabling Bayda to slide the puck in behind him.
North Dakota went up 2-0 at 7:11 of the first period. Bayda’s centering pass somehow found its way through a tangle of skates and sticks and onto the stick of freshman defenseman Nick Fuher, who rifled a high wrister from the left circle past Dubielewicz.
The Pioneers scored their first goal at the 10:21 mark of the first period. Senior center Chris Paradise picked up a drop pass from linemate Kevin Ulanski and put a wrist shot from the left faceoff dot past Siembida.
Perhaps Denver’s most important goal came with 1:07 left in the first period. With the Sioux on the power play with a 3-1 lead, Denver junior forward Gregg Barber fired a slapshot from the top of the right faceoff circle that beat Siembida.
In the second period, the Pioneers generated some excellent scoring chances, but Kollar came up with big saves to preserve North Dakota’s one-goal lead. However, a drop pass victimized the Sioux again. This time, James left the puck for defenseman Bryan Vines, who blasted a low slapshot from the top of the right circle that cleanly beat Kollar.
The game-tying goal set the stage for Doell’s last-second heroics in overtime and Denver’s first WCHA title in 16 years.
“We knew we had to take care of our own business here,” Doell said. “If we did that, there’s no way they (St. Cloud) could have caught us. It’s a good feeling.”