GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Maybe if North Dakota goalie Andy Kollar took acting lessons, he’d have a shutout against the number-one ranked Denver Pioneers instead of a 4-1 win.
Denver’s lone goal came at 5:40 of the first period when Pioneer wingers Connor James and Greg Barber broke into the Sioux zone on a 2-on-1 rush. James hit Barber with a pass that he roofed over Kollar’s shoulder from the left faceoff dot. However, the puck apparently hit the padding on the rear bar and bounced out so quickly that neither the goal judge nor referee Mike Schmitt saw it go in.
Play continued until the next whistle. The officials then conferred and awarded the goal to Denver, giving the Pioneers a 1-0 lead. Replays appeared to be inconclusive, but Denver coach George Gwozdecky had no doubt that the goal was good.
“Oh yeah, no question. Everyone on the ice saw it,” he said. “Barber put it right up, hit the back bar and it came right back out.”
Gwozdecky got no argument from Kollar.
“He beat me with a pretty good shot. I know the noise it makes when it hits the crossbar or the back of the net,” Kollar said.
“I knew it was in, but I tried to play it off. Maybe I’d get a break this season for once,” he laughed. “I got away with it for about a minute and a half, and that was it.”
The Sioux answered Denver’s score with a power-play goal at the 11:45 mark of the first period. Sioux junior forward Ryan Bayda spotted Tim Skarperud alone at the side of the net and slid a pass to him that he pounded past Denver netminder Wade Dubielewicz for his 20th goal of the season. The opening period ended tied 1-1.
North Dakota took the lead for good with 15:38 gone in the second period. Freshmen forwards Brian Canaday and Rory McMahon came into the Denver zone on a 2-on-1 break. McMahon took Canaday’s feed and blasted in a slapshot from the left faceoff dot that beat Dubielewicz.
Junior forward Ryan Bayda scored the insurance marker at 12:25 of the third period. On a 3-on-2 rush, McMahon’s centering attempt was blocked, but the puck came right back to him. His weak backhand attempt fell into the crease where Bayda was camped out to bang it in.
All season long, the Sioux have had difficulty holding on to third-period leads, but North Dakota’s defense played tough down the stretch while also keeping the Pioneers 0-5 on the power play.
“The D played solid tonight,” Kollar said. “The shots I didn’t see, they were blocking in front of me. And when the puck went back to the point, they were moving guys out and making the right plays in our own zone. This time of the year, that’s what you want to see.”
When Dubielewicz was pulled with two minutes left, the Sioux quickly took advantage. Just 11 seconds later, junior forward Jason Notermann raced under David Lundbohm’s high flip pass to the neutral zone, gathered in the puck and skated in alone to tuck in the empty netter.
The long, frustrating season that saw the Sioux go 7-9-1 at home in their first season at the new Engelstad Arena ended on a positive note.
“We lost the first game in this arena and we wanted to win the last game we had here this year,” Bayda said.
Gwozdecky said that the Pioneer coaching staff knew their team might let down after capturing the WCHA title Friday night.
“The win last night and maybe the satisfaction of winning the league took an awful lot away from the way we played tonight,” he said. “We were very disappointed with our effort tonight.”
North Dakota coach Dean Blais, whose teams have won four WCHA championships since 1997, has been in Gwozdecky’s shoes before.
“We know that from the past that when you’ve clinched the title, you don’t have a burning desire to win,” he noted.
“I think we got caught looking too far ahead,” said Denver captain Bryan Vines. “The WCHA is such a good league that — as was proven tonight — any team can beat any other team. We’re learning what it’s like to have every team come out gunning for us.”
Although the game’s outcome has no bearing on the final WCHA standings or the playoff picture, both teams learned lessons they can take into the playoffs. For the Sioux, it’s that they’re capable beating the top-ranked team in the nation.
“Maybe we’re coming on,” Blais said. “Maybe the guys are stepping forward at the right time of year.”
For the Pioneers, it’s that they can’t afford to take the night off, even against a lower-tier WCHA team.
“Obviously, in this league, no matter who you’re playing, you’re setting yourself up for failure if you show up and aren’t ready to play with the kind of intensity and work habits that you need,” Gwozdecky said.