MINNEAPOLIS — Not too bad an initial NCAA offering for Chris Kunitz and the Ferris State Bulldogs.
Kunitz, one of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, scored three points in the Bulldogs’ 5-2 victory over North Dakota in an NCAA first-round game at Mariucci Arena on Friday.
Ferris State, which made its first appearance in the national tournament on the strength of the CCHA regular-season championship, extended its program-best total for wins to 31, which is also the most wins in the nation this season.
Kunitz, the CCHA player of the year, had assists on the first three Ferris State goals, giving him 77 points for the season, second nationally only to Colorado College’s Peter Sejna’s 79.
“Chris Kunitz, Jeff Legue and Derek Nesbitt, it seemed like they were almost unstoppable out there today,” Bulldogs defenseman Troy Milam said.
Kunitz, in fact, was only stopped after the game, when he was unavailable to speak with the media because he was getting stitches for what FSU coach Bob Daniels called a compression cut on an elbow. It shouldn’t affect his availability for Saturday’s regional final against the winner of Friday night’s Minnesota-Mercyhurst game, Daniels said.
Bulldogs goalie Mike Brown withstood a strong charge from the Sioux in the opening minutes of the third period, when Ferris State held a 3-0 lead. Brown made saves on three close chances in the first 1:50, three of 44 he had for the game.
And second-line winger Greg Rallo added the finishing touch, restoring the Bulldogs’ three-goal lead less than two minutes after North Dakota’s David Lundbohm gave the Sioux a chance at a comeback.
Brown’s cool under the weight of 46 North Dakota shots “won the game for them,” North Dakota sniper Brandon Bochenski said.
North Dakota had the majority of the chances — FSU had only 27 shots. The issue of contention, however, centered around the quality of those opportunities.
“I didn’t feel like a lot of the shots that we gave up were really in the grade-A area,” Daniels said.
Bochenski countered: “Grade-A shots, we probably had 20 of them. I don’t know what his definition of grade-A is.”
Kunitz’s contribution to the Bulldogs’ victory was indisputable. Teammates tipped in Kunitz power-play blasts from the middle of the zone to give Ferris State a 2-0 lead. Nesbitt got his stick on the first, at 14:01 of the first period; Simon Mangos redirected the second, at 15:42 of the second.
Kunitz, who registered his 12th game this season with three or more points and his third in the last four games, has been something of a wanderer on the power-play unit, moving from day to day at times to keep opponents guessing.
North Dakota coach Dean Blais indeed was unaware the senior left wing was at the top of the Bulldogs’ power-play formation.
Blais, however, probably didn’t notice because he was seething at Sioux right winger Brian Canady for taking the roughing penalty that gave Ferris State the power play on which it took a 2-0 lead.
He also was upset at the lack of a big-time performance by any of his forwards in the big-game situation.
“Our forwards didn’t produce anything, an outstanding play here or there,” Blais said. “You need this at this time of the year. You need one player or two players to step up and do something outstanding, and it didn’t happen.”
Kunitz also had a pass out of his own zone that helped set up Jeff Legue for a drive up the right wing that gave the Bulldogs a 3-0 lead with 1:56 left in the second period. Legue eluded Sioux defenseman Matt Greene and wrapped the puck around UND goalie Jake Brandt.
After Ryan Hale gave the Sioux some life by scoring with 4:26 left, Trevor Large took it away with an empty-net goal with 17.2 seconds left.
That made the Bulldogs 1-for-1 in the NCAA tournament. They did it without jitters, they said, and continued a run they said they believe can end with a national championship.
“I don’t think our team had jitters, because I think our team knows we have a really good team,” FSU left wing Phil Lewandowski said. “We have a team that we think can win the whole thing. We set our minds for four games. This was the first one, it had to get done. Everybody knew what they had to do.”