ORONO, Maine — A two-game series this weekend between the North Dakota Fighting Sioux and the Maine Black Bears left one team eager for the season ahead and another reeling from a disappointing performance.
Fifth-ranked UND swept the series, defeating second-ranked Maine 3-1 Saturday night on their home ice at Alfond Area in Orono. Freshman Ratislav Spirko led the offensive attack for UND while junior Greg Moore scored Maine’s lone goal.
The Sioux improved to 2-0-0 on the season with the win while the Bears dropped to 1-2-0. Maine’s two home losses have already exceeded its total from last season when the Black Bears went 17-1-1 at the Alfond.
“We’re not as good as we thought we were,” said Maine’s junior co-captain Jeff Mushaluk. “We took things for granted this weekend, and it showed in the score. They really took it to us in our own building.”
In the first period, Maine looked like a different team than the one that suffered a 4-3 overtime loss Friday night. Less than a half-minute into the game, North Dakota’s Colby Genoway was sent to the penalty box for hooking, giving Maine a power play.
Just 50 seconds into the one-man advantage, the Black Bears drew first blood. On a feed from Ben Murphy and Michel Leveille, Moore snuck the puck past UND netminder Jake Brandt’s right pad to give Maine the 1-0 lead at the 1:11 mark of the period.
Off a shaky start the night before, Maine goalie Jimmy Howard played with more confidence in the first period. After falling to the ice on an initial shot from the point, Howard stoned Matt Smaby’s second attempt from the top of the crease to preserve the Maine lead with time ticking down in the first.
In the second period, the Fighting Sioux came out with a fierce shooting attack. It took the UND snipers a little more than three minutes to find the net. On a pass from Matt Greene, Matt Jones fired a shot from the point. Standing in front of the crease, Spirko redirected Jones’ shot in midair past Howard’s right shoulder for his first goal of the season, tying the score at 1-1.
A little more than a minute later, Drew Stafford converted on the power play to give UND a 2-1 lead. After corralling a pass from Rory McMahon on the odd-man rush, Spirko left the puck in the slot for Stafford, who picked it up and buried a wrist shot into the back of the net, giving the Fighting Sioux their first lead of the game 4:27 into the second period.
After scoring on a penalty shot Friday night to give his team the win, Stafford’s second goal of the season proved to be the game winner Saturday as well.
With less than five minutes remaining in the second, the Black Bears began to show the life they exhibited in the first period. Maine created a few scoring opportunities on the power play but was denied by the senior goalie Brandt. Leveille was then called for elbowing to the head. The penalty killed Maine’s power play and put a cork on their momentum for the rest of the game. UND ended up outshooting Maine 13-4 in the second.
“Toward the end of the second period, things got better,” said the Black Bear forward Moore. “Overall, we thought we were playing well in the first, but I guess we just forgot to come out in the second.”
North Dakota stuck with the same high-powered game plan to start the third period, but Maine failed to match UND’s intensity. After gathering a pass around the boards from Spirko, senior center Quinn Fylling fired a sharp-angled shot from the goal line to the right of the net. Howard squeezed the puck against his left side, but it popped out and into the goal.
Fylling’s first goal of the season gave the Fighting Sioux a 3-1 lead, which proved to be the final score.
Spirko’s assist on the final goal capped a three-point night for him. With one goal and two assists, Spirko helped out on every scoring play of the game for UND.
With six minutes remaining, the game got rougher, and the sellout crowd of 5,641 grew impatient. Coach Tim Whitehead pulled Howard with 43 seconds remaining to no avail. UND claimed all four points of the weekend.
After 30 penalties were called Friday night, only 14 players were whistled for infractions during the second game of the physical series. UND outshot Maine 27-19.
The Black Bears were not happy with their play but recognized the learning experience the two losses offered.
“In the long run, this will probably be one of the most profitable weekends we could learn from as a team,” said Moore. “You need some losses once in a while to put you in your place so you can learn from your mistakes. I think a lot of guys understand how serious this weekend was, and everyone should take a piece of it with them for the rest of the season.”
“They outplayed us all weekend,” said Mushaluk. “The first night, we were a better team, but for the most part, they really took it to us, especially in their fore checking and the way they sustained the puck in our zone.
“But it’s only the second weekend of the year. I don’t think it’s time to hit the panic button. They’re just a better-prepared team right now, and the results from this weekend showed that.”
Whitehead had mixed reactions to his team’s performance.
“If we play a top team like North Dakota, we’re going to need to work harder than that from start to finish,” said Whitehead. “A couple guys in that locker room left it all out on the ice — Brent Shepheard, Ben Murphy, John Ronan, Josh Soares, Rob Bellamy, Bret Tyler. I was very impressed with those guys.
“But I think some of our veterans forgot what a privilege it was to play here in front of the best fans in the country and to have the tradition that we have here. I think some of the guys forget that sometimes, and I don’t like that.”
Prior to the contest, a ceremony at center ice commemorated long-time head coach Shawn Walsh’s contribution to the Black Bear hockey program. A green shamrock, which is also sewn to the players’ sweaters this season, joined the numbers of three other retired jerseys — Paul Kariya, Jim Montgomery and Scott Pellerin — on a banner hanging from the rafters at Alfond Arena. A four-time coach of the year, Walsh won 399 games with Maine and coached its two national championship teams.
Maine will face Niagara next weekend in a pair of home games while North Dakota will travel to Minnesota State for a two-game series.