GRAND FORKS, N.D. — In a game of WCHA rivals that was a rematch of last season’s NCAA championship, North Dakota extracted a measure of revenge with a three-goal first period to down visiting Denver University 3-1 before 11,045 fans at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
The game was expected to be emotional and physical, not only because of the way Denver has ended UND’s season in the playoffs the past two years, but also because it was the Pioneers’ first visit to Grand Forks since the WCHA Final Five game in which forward Geoff Paukovich broke the neck of Sioux player Robbie Bina with an illegal check from behind.
“North Dakota’s notorious for being a hostile place to play,” Paukovich said. “With my situation and the history we’ve had with them the last two years in big games, there was going to be a lot of emotion in this building tonight either way.
“I knew that they were going to be hostile and I knew they were going to be loud, but the fact of the matter is, we lost to a better team in the first period tonight,” he said.
Some of the emotion was tempered when, just two minutes into the game with Denver on the power play, Sioux defenseman Matt Smaby delivered thundering check to Pioneers freshman forward Brock Trotter behind the UND goal. Trotter got to his feet, but then collapsed at the side of the net. UND goalie Jordan Parise immediately signaled for help.
Trotter was tended to on the ice for several minutes by medical personnel, then wheeled out of the rink on a stretcher. He didn’t return to the game. It was a sobering reminder of the hit on Bina that will cause him to miss this season as he heals from his neck injury.
“Everybody realized that it’s just another game and that we’re not out to kill anybody,” Parise said. “I think that really took a lot of the emotion out.”
Denver coach George Gwozdecky said the team’s trainer told him that Trotter suffered a four-inch cut right above the boot of his skate. He didn’t believe the injury was serious or season-threatening, but on a team that started the series with two forwards out with injuries, it will be a significant loss for the second game of the series.
Just over halfway through the second period, Denver also lost star center Paul Stastny for the game when he was called for checking from behind and given a game misconduct. The loss of Trotter and Stastny, two key members of Denver’s power play unit, would prove costly in the third period.
“The first period was the story of the game,” said Denver freshman defenseman Chris Butler, who scored the lone Pioneer goal. “They came out with twice the energy and the jump that we did. When you play on the road in your first game in the WCHA, there’s no excuse for that.”
UND’s first goal came at 9:35 of the first period. Forward Chris Porter outworked the Denver’s defense behind the goal, stepped out front and fired a sharp-angle shot that Pioneer goalie Glenn Fisher couldn’t control. The puck rebounded straight up the slot where Sioux defenseman Kyle Radke found it and fired it in.
At 12:22 with the teams skating four-on-four, Sioux forward Drew Stafford passed to center Travis Zajac from behind the net. Zajac fired in his first goal of the season from the left circle to put UND up 2-0.
Still in the first period, UND went on the power play for a Denver too many men on the ice penalty. At 16:33, freshman forward Jonathan Toews skated from behind the net and fired a wrister from the bottom of the right circle that beat Fisher short side, giving the Sioux a 3-0 lead.
“We just wanted to come out of the dressing room ready to play, and I thought we did that” said UND coach Dave Hakstol. “I give credit to the team leaders. They had the team ready to play.”
Gwozdecky also noticed.
“I thought the Sioux played extremely well that first period,” he said. “The emotional, intense onslaught that we saw the first period was a little too much for us.”
Outplaying the Sioux for much of the second period, the Pioneers finally solved Parise at 14:28. On a 3-on-2 rush, Paukovich left a drop pass in the left circle the for Butler, the trailing defenseman.
“I came late, Geoff dropped the puck to me and I had a couple of guys in front of the net,” Butler said. “I just tried to get it through, and it ended up going in.”
Trailing by two goals with time running out in the third period, Denver couldn’t capitalize on power-play opportunities after UND took back-to-back penalties. Gwozdecky said that not having Trotter and Stastny hurt his team during a key part of the game.
“We earned some opportunities to get back into the game, and we couldn’t take advantage of it on the power play,” he said. “It’s those little opportunities or those advantages that you have to jump all over if you’re going to try to change the tide of the game.”
“It is really nice to get a win. It’s been almost two years now,” Parise said, referring to the fact that until this game, the Sioux had been 0-5-1 against the Pioneers since early 2004.
The Pioneers outshot the Sioux 28-25 and were 0-10 on the power play while the Sioux were 1-5. Fisher had 22 saves for the game, and Parise had 27.
The two teams meet for the second game of the series 7 p.m. Saturday at Ralph Engelstad Arena.