GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Canisius came to North Dakota with the top penalty kill in the nation and the best power play in its conference, but it was North Dakota’s special teams that proved decisive Friday.
“Special teams wins games, and we won that battle tonight,” said Sioux senior Rory McMahon, assistant captain.
Behind a 3-point game from freshman center Travis Zajac, the Sioux scored five unanswered goals to claim a 5-1 nonconference victory over the Golden Griffins at Ralph Engelstad Arena. UND went 3-4 on the power play while Canisius was 0-5.
“The key to the night was scoring three power-play goals and the shorthanded effort by Travis Zajac,” said Sioux coach Dave Hakstol.
Zajac, a 6-2, 205-pound Winnipeg, Man., native who’s a first-round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils, scored a power-play goal, an unassisted shorthander, and also assisted on UND’s third power-play goal.
Following last week’s firing of head coach Brian Cavanaugh, Canisius assistant coaches Clancy Seymour and Stephen Fabiilli are sharing coaching duties. Despite that turmoil and the suspension of forward Dan Bognar after he was arrested last weekend, the Griffs stayed with the Sioux for two periods.
After playing to a 0-0 tie in the first period, Canisius stunned the 9,791 fans in Engelstad Arena when junior forward Andrew Dawe scored at the 3:35 mark of the second period. A breakdown in the Sioux defensive coverage enabled Dawe to skate in alone on UND freshman goalie Philippe Lamoureux and fire in a wrist shot from the slot.
The Sioux answered at 4:55 of the second when forward McMahon scored the first of his two goals, banging in the rebound of defenseman Andy Schneider’s shot from the point.
“They’ve been giving me more opportunities to have an offensive role,” McMahon said. “For three years, I’ve been a defensive forward. It’s nice to step up and start scoring some goals.”
Zajac scored the game-winner on the power play at 5:38 of the period. He deflected Colby Genoway’s shot from the point past Griffs’ senior goalie Bryan Worosz, giving UND a 2-1 lead after two periods.
“We played a good two periods, played hard and did exactly what we wanted to do in a road barn,” Seymour said. “We just didn’t get any breaks in terms of bounces and things like that. Against a good team like North Dakota, you need a couple breaks.”
At 3:01 of the third period, the Sioux needed just eight seconds of a 21-second power play to go up 3-1. Sophomore forward Brady Murray came straight out of the penalty box and fired in forward Scott Foyt’s pass from behind the net for his fifth goal of the season.
Zajac’s shorthanded goal at 10:23 was a back-breaker. He picked off a pass in the neutral zone, cut in behind the Canisius defenders and slid the puck past Worosz’s outstretched pad to put UND up 4-1.
Zajac, who has 11 goals this season, enjoys being a penalty killer.
“I like the defensive side of the game,” he said. “I concentrate on that, trying to be an all-around player. I want to play in all key situations.”
The final Sioux goal came at 13:57 during a 5-on-3 power play. Zajac skated in on Worosz from the bottom of the left circle and fired a hard wrist that the goalie blocked. However, the rebound came to McMahon, who pounded in his eighth goal of the season.
“It wasn’t picture-perfect, but it was a shot on goal and it was a rebound goal,” said Hakstol, who’s more accustomed to seeing his team defending two men short rather than playing with a two-man advantage. “We need some more of those. We haven’t had a whole lot of 5-on-3 opportunities.”
The Sioux outshot the Griffs 35-14. Worosz had 30 saves and Lamoureux had 14.
The Canisius goalie came into the game with an impressive .934 save percentage and an 8-5-2 record. Early in the game, his play kept it close.
“We’ve been riding on Bryan’s coattails all year and I can’t say enough about his effort tonight,” Seymour said. “If it wasn’t for him, going into the third period it would have been a different score.”
Eighth-ranked UND’s overall record improves to 12-7-2 (9-6-1 WCHA). Canisius continues to lead Atlantic Hockey with 7-2-1 record in league play, but falls to 8-8-2 overall.
UND and Canisius meet for the second game of the series at 7:05 p.m. Saturday at Engelstad Arena.