GRAND FORKS, N.D. — In a battle of two WCHA teams that underachieved throughout the season, one will move on in convincing style while the other is left to ponder what went wrong.
North Dakota completed an impressive two-game sweep of Minnesota-Duluth with an 6-1 win before 9,784 fans at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
“We weren’t very good this weekend,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “They (UND) came to play. They were the hungrier team, the better team. They deserve to be going on. We don’t.”
In a preseason poll of WCHA coaches, the Bulldogs were picked to finish first in the league and the Fighting Sioux second. They finished sixth and fifth respectively.
Sandelin said the series against the Sioux in which the Bulldogs were outscored 14-3 was indicative of the team’s entire season.
“We’re not an overly skilled team,” he said. “We need to play hard, we need to compete and we need to be in teams’ faces. We didn’t do that a lot this year, and that’s why we had the record we did. It’s disappointing.”
As the season wound down, UMD and UND fought for home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. The Sioux finished three points ahead of the Bulldogs.
“You fight all year for home-ice advantage, and I thought we were able to take advantage of that,” said UND coach Dave Hakstol. “And maybe that was the difference.”
In the first period, the Bulldogs played as if they’d shaken off the 8-2 Friday night thrashing at the hands of the Sioux. Junior center Tim Stapleton got UMD on the board at 15:22 of the first period when he picked off freshman Rastislav Spirko’s pass and scored unassisted on a breakaway. UMD had its first lead of the series.
But at 2:30 of the second period, Spirko atoned for his mistake with a power play goal that knotted the score 1-1.
“I was really thankful that I scored that goal,” Spirko said. “It gave kind of a spark to the team, and right after that, we started rolling.”
Hakstol agreed, saying, “That really turned the momentum our way and got the crowd going. From there, it was just kind of a wave of momentum.”
The wave became a tsunami when UND’s seniors took control. Forwards Rory McMahon, Colby Genoway and Brian Canady each scored to give the Sioux a commanding 4-1 lead at the end of two periods.
McMahon scored the game-winner unassisted at 5:02 directly off the faceoff he took.
“I kind of had it planned,” he said. “It just has to bounce right, and I was lucky enough to get it in the net.”
It was the sixth playoff goal of McMahon’s career and his first 4-point game for the Sioux.
“Your seniors and your leaders have to be your best players this time of year,” Hakstol said. “Rory McMahon stepped up.”
At 9:39, Genoway scored his 10th goal of the season on the power play. Nineteen seconds later, Canady deflected senior defenseman Matt Jones’ shot from the point past UMD goalie Isaac Reichmuth.
In the third period Josh Johnson replaced Reichmuth in goal, but gave up two goals on 10 shots. UND clamped down on defense, limiting the Bulldogs to just five shots on goal in the final period. Sioux goalie Jordan Parise stopped 17 of 18 shots he faced.
“When you get down, UND’s a tough team to come back on,” Sandelin said. “Parise’s playing well, and they don’t give you a lot of opportunities. That was the difference. They got better and we didn’t.”
Spirko scored his second goal of the game and 15th goal of the season at 11:31. Senior defenseman Nick Fuher netted a power play goal at 18:12 to give UND a 6-1 victory.
“I thought that the difference tonight was that we had a good first period, we got the lead and then we didn’t get goaltending,” Sandelin said. “We didn’t get the saves we needed.”
Hakstol was pleased with his team’s defensive effort against UMD, especially the play of Parise. Since taking over as starting goalie six games ago, he is 4-0-2 with a 1.33 goals against average and .947 save percentage.
Although the Bulldogs came into the series riding a five-game unbeaten streak, Spirko wasn’t surprised at the outcome of a series that many predicted would go three games and UMD’s way.
“Two or three weeks ago, we started playing real well — our game — and nothing could stop us,” he said. “Right now, we are kind of on fire. Hopefully, we can keep going.”
Hakstol said the decisive sweep of UMD gives the Sioux a boost of confidence heading into the WCHA Final Five tournament March 17-19 in St. Paul.
“We feel good about the way were playing,” he said. “We’ve felt good about the way we’ve played over the last four or five weeks. Now we’re starting to get the results.”
UND will face the winner of the Wisconsin and Alaska-Anchorage series in the opening game of the Final Five on March 17 at the Excel Energy Center.