GRAND FORKS, N.D. — North Dakota defenseman Nick Fuher got an early birthday present Sunday night when his slapshot from the point gave the Fighting Sioux their second consecutive 3-2 overtime win against the visiting Denver Pioneers.
Grinning from ear to ear following his game-winning goal at the 18:56 mark of overtime, Fuher, a Grand Forks, N.D., native who turns 22 March 17, said, “It’s a little early birthday present for tomorrow, a little St. Patty’s Day luck.”
The win sends UND to the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul as the fourth seed. Falling to 19th in the PairWise Rankings (PWR), Denver was all but eliminated from the NCAA playoff picture. The Sioux, who moved up to ninth in the PWR, will play Minnesota-Duluth, the fifth seed, during the Thursday night play-in game.
“It was a terrific, terrific series,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky. “We knew from the series back in Denver that both teams matched up well. A bounce here or there or somebody bearing down on a play, that was going to be the difference.”
After losing the first game of the series 4-1 Friday night, a loss Saturday or Sunday would have kept UND out of the WCHA Final Five for the second year in a row. The Sioux played with desperation because they had to.
“The focus just has to be there,” goalie Jake Brandt said of UND’s two overtime victories. “It’s playoff time hockey and you know it’s do or die. We lose and we’re done. We laid it out on the line last night and tonight was the same way.”
In overtime, Sioux center David Lundbohm had the puck poke-checked off his stick. From just inside the blue line, Fuher picked it up and blasted a rocket past Denver goalie Adam Berkhoel.
“I was just sitting there right off the blue line and I stepped right into it,” he said. “I had a nice screen set up for me. The goalie just didn’t see it, I guess.”
“I picked it up at the last second,” Berkhoel said. “But I was too deep in my net. I needed to be out further.”
Fuher said that scoring the game-winner in overtime in front of his family was a dream come true. “It was always a dream to come play for UND. And now, to get a game-winning goal in a big situation like this, it’s just unreal.”
For Denver defenseman Aaron MacKenzie, the back-to-back overtime losses were hard to take, especially given the playoff implications.
“You put the puck on net and it can go in,” he said. “Both nights, it could have gone either way.
“We have an outside chance, I guess,” MacKenzie said of Denver’s playoff chances. “I’m a senior, so I’m hoping we’re not done.”
North Dakota led 1-0 after the first period on freshman center Zach Parise’s goal at the 7:31 mark. The Pioneers went ahead 2-1 in the second period on an even-strength goal by wing Lukas Dora at 5:05 and a power-play goal by wing Conner James at 13:41. At 19:19, the Sioux tied the game 2-2 on a power-play goal by freshman forward Mike Prpich.
In the third period, the Pioneers outshot the Sioux 9-6 and appeared to have momentum heading into overtime. However, North Dakota dominated in OT, outshooting the Pioneers 14-4, and netting Fuher’s game-winner at 18:56.
Some of home crowd’s biggest cheers were for saves made by Sioux goalie Jake Brandt, who stopped 25 of 27 shots he faced.
“It’s been a long time coming. I’ve wanted to hear it for a while,” Brandt said. “Not playing up to your capabilities, it’s frustrating at times. I’m just glad that I could play well in the playoffs.”
As if the game needed any more drama, UND coach Dean Blais, suffering from the flu, wasn’t on the Sioux bench for the first two periods. Although he coached the third period and overtime, Blais was unavailable for comment after the game.
“He’s still under the weather,” said assistant coach Brad Berry. “But you can tell when Dean’s back on the bench. He came back in the third period and I thought we had a lot more jump than we did in the first two periods. Just his presence back there made a big difference.”
Gwozdecky said that until the NCAA announces its playoff selections next Sunday, he won’t assume that the Pioneers done for the season.
“We’re going to reassemble in Denver and figure out where we’re at. We will practice,” he said. “Next Sunday, we’ll have a much better idea where we’re at. I think our chances aren’t real good, but you never know. If the right teams win and the right teams don’t win, there’s a slight chance.”