ST. CLOUD, Minn. — North Dakota sent a little message to the rest of the WCHA this weekend.
Matt Jones scored late in the game and Jake Brandt made 17 saves to outduel Adam Coole and put a stamp on an envelope that read pretty much like this:
Here we come.
Playing without three of their top four scorers, the Fighting Sioux headed into St. Cloud, and with a 3-1 Saturday night win before 6,685 fans at the National Hockey Center, wrestled away three of four points from the WCHA’s first-place team.
The result pulled North Dakota within a point of the Huskies, tied atop the WCHA standings with Wisconsin, which took three of four points from Minnesota State. The Sioux have six games in hand on St. Cloud State and four on the Badgers, but after hovering just below the leaders for the first month and a half, UND seems poised to put a strangle hold on that top spot.
“[St. Cloud] only has [two points] on us now,” said Jones, whose game-winner was his fifth goal of the season. “If we could have swept them, we’d be tied, but we got it within [two] and that alone was a huge step for us.”
The Fighting Sioux took a step back early in the first as St. Cloud scored on its first shot for the second consecutive night.
This time it came on a shorthanded effort off the stick of Peter Szabo 3:09 into the game. Szabo broke out of the SCSU end and made a move to get around Jones, creating a 2-on-1 with Mike Doyle. He then fed Doyle, who fanned on the shot, but Brandt bit on the play and Doyle held control of the puck. He gave it right back to Szabo who dumped it into the vacant net.
Brandt shut the door after that. The Huskies had outstanding scoring chances close in, but the Roseau, Minn., native was spectacular. Dave Iannazzo cut across the crease a minute after Szabo’s goal and flipped a backhand that Brandt got with his blocker. Then Nate Raduns took a pass just after coming out of the penalty box midway through the first, raced in on Brandt and tried to go five-hole, but that wasn’t there either.
By then, though, North Dakota had tied it when Robbie Bina’s shot from the point hit Brandon Bochenski and went right to Nick Fuher, who slid the puck past Coole with 14:05 to play in the first.
That was about the time that the teams started to tighten up defensively. There wasn’t much room to be had until Gary Houseman picked up a puck midway through the second at the top of the right circle and skated in on Brandt. Houseman deked right, pulled it back left and had Brandt turned around.
He flipped a backhand for a for-sure goal — but out of nowhere Brandt spun and caught the puck with his glove with his back to the play.
“A spectacular save like that is a goalie out of position,” said Brandt, who improved to 6-2-0 with the win.
“I was just shaking my head, that’s NHL Cool Shots right there,” said Coole. “We should have scored three or four goals tonight, but Jake Brandt came up absolutely huge.”
His team rewarded Brandt with just over eight minutes to play. Colby Genoway’s shot from just inside the blue line hit Coole in the pads, but Jones came in hard, swatted at the rebound and put it between Coole’s legs an instant before taking the goaltender out himself.
“Give him credit; he went to the net hard,” said Coole. “That’s how you score goals in this league — you go to the net hard.”
The Huskies pulled Coole with 1:24 to play, but Rory McMahon picked up Matt Greene’s clearing pass at center ice and deposited into the empty net to seal the win for North Dakota and make the four-hour trek back up Interstate 94 a pleasant one.
“We’ve got a great character team in this room,” said Brandt. “And we proved it tonight; it’s just great to come into the place and steal three points, just great.”