GRAND FORKS, N.D. — In the first 12 minutes of its exhibition season opener against Manitoba, North Dakota looked like a team with little practice under new head coach Dave Hakstol.
That’s because the first practice Hakstol ran didn’t occur until the morning of the game, and it was only a light skate. Until then, the Sioux had just three weeks of captain’s practices under their belts. The Bison were 1-2 in three regular-season games.
“As with any first game or practice, there was some good, some bad and some ugly,” Hakstol said. “Your first night out, there’s going to be some miscommunication and we saw some of that.”
After a shaky start that saw UND give up two shorthanded goals, the Sioux pulled ahead 3-2 before the end of the period and skated to an 8-3 victory. Sophomore forward Drew Stafford and freshman center Travis Zajac had two goals and two assists each while junior center Paul Deniset scored all three Manitoba goals.
With UND on the power play, Deniset struck for Manitoba just 44 seconds into the game, beating Sioux senior goalie Jake Brandt and quieting the crowd of 11,194 at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
UND senior defenseman Nick Fuher evened it 1-1 with a power-play goal at 2:11. The Sioux went up 2-1 when senior forward Rory McMahon tipped in Zajac’s cross-ice pass on a 2-on-1 rush.
At 12:32, Manitoba knotted it 2-2 with an unassisted goal by Deniset following a turnover in the Sioux zone. Sophomore forward Brady Murray, last season’s WCHA rookie of the year, gave UND the lead for good at 16:37 with an unassisted goal.
UND scored twice in the second period to extend its lead to 5-2. Zajac scored the game-winner at 7:58, firing in a backhand pass from Stafford.
“Travis came out and competed very hard,” Hakstol said. “He didn’t play like a freshman tonight. He wasn’t back on his heels. He played hard and made a lot of things happen.”
Stafford’s power-play goal at 13:02 was a thing of beauty. He moved the puck from his forehand to his backhand and back to his forehand before roofing the puck over befuddled Bison goalie Krister Toews.
The Sioux scored two shorthanded goals in the third period to give UND a commanding 7-2 lead. Stafford picked off a Bison pass in the neutral zone and sent Zajac in alone on Manitoba goalie Jomar Cruz, who replace Toews to start the period. He deked Cruz and flipped in a backhand over his outstretched pad.
Sioux senior defenseman Andy Schneider looked like a forward as he carried the puck end-to-end, splitting three Bison defenders and rifling a wrister past Cruz at the 6:24 mark. Stafford scored UND’s third power-play goal at 15:26, crashing the net and pounding in his own rebound.
Hakstol is counting on Stafford, a first-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres, to make up for scoring the Sioux lost when forwards Zach Parise and Brandon Bochenski turned pro early. The coach was just as pleased with Stafford’s second goal as he was with his first “highlight reel” goal.
“He took the puck to the net hard and drove right through the crease and through the goaltender,” Hakstol said. “That’s a real good sign with Drew is playing power hockey.”
Deniset closed out the scoring with his third goal at 18:38 to make the final score 8-3. He beat UND freshman goalie Philippe Lamoureux, who replaced Brandt with 8:58 to play in the second period.
Manitoba coach Mike Sirant was impressed with UND. “They’re going to be the fastest and most skilled team that we’ll play this year,” he said. “With the speed of UND and the pressure they put on, it forced our guys to make a lot of errors. They’re really hungry to score.”
The Sioux outshot Manitoba 24-19 and were 3-8 on the power play while the Bison were 0-7. Brandt stopped seven of nine shots he faced and Lamoureux stopped nine of 10. Toews gave up five goals on 19 shots while Cruz gave up three goals on five shots.
UND travels to Maine October 8-9 for a regular-season, nonconference series against the Black Bears.