GRAND FORKS, N.D. — What was expected to be one of the tightest battles in the WCHA playoffs was just that, as visiting Minnesota State defeated North Dakota 3-2 in overtime.
Rob Rankin’s slapshot from the top of the slot 3:18 into overtime enabled the Mavericks to take 1-0 lead in the best-of-3 series at Ralph Engelstad Arena. The teams will meet for game two at 7:05 p.m. Saturday.
Throughout his college career, Rankin has been a defensive forward, but MSU coach Troy Jutting said he’s become a goal-scorer recently and is a big part of the Mavericks’ late-season five-game winning streak.
“I think he scored more goals the last two months than he’d has in two and a half years,” he said. “I’m happy for him. He’s a hard-working kid who’s kept his nose to the grindstone, hasn’t ever balked about playing a defensive role and playing against the other team’s best lines. It’s great to see a kid who’s a senior start to get some rewards.”
Rankin almost seemed shocked that his shot, coming toward the end of a shift, won the game.
“I was so tired, I just dropped my head and took a slapshot,” he said. “It found the back of the net.
“I was pretty surprised. I didn’t really know what to do. I don’t score too many goals,” said the Eagan, Minn., native who notched his 12th goal of the season and the 23rd of his career.
The Mavericks came off a week of rest, and it showed in the first period as they outshot the Fighting Sioux 15-7. UND junior goalie Jordan Parise, coming off back-to-back shutouts of Michigan Tech the previous week, kept the Sioux in the game. Some luck helped as MSU freshman forward Kevin Huck rang a shot off the post and a deflection off a Sioux defenseman trickled just wide of the net.
“I think maybe we were a little nervous,” said Sioux captain Matt Smaby of his team’s sluggish start. “We have a lot of young guys and it’s their first time in the playoffs.”
After a scoreless first period, UND struck first with a power-play goal at 5:55 of the second by sophomore center Travis Zajac. Defenseman Taylor Chorney picked off an MSU outlet pass and fed the puck down low to forward Rastislav Spirko. Zajac shot Spirko’s centering pass past freshman goalie Dan Tormey to put The Sioux up 1-0.
Just 35 seconds later, MSU answered with a goal by junior forward David Backes. Entering the Sioux zone, center Travis Morin fed Backes the puck as he broke in on the right wing. His wrist shot from the right circle beat Parise short-side.
MSU took a 2-1 lead with 28 seconds left in the second. Forward Jeff Marler outfought the Sioux defenders behind the net and hit Morin with a pass as he cruised down the slot. His wrister cleanly beat Parise to his glove side. Although the Sioux outshot the Mavericks 13-8 for the period, MSU had the lead.
UND tied it 2-2 at 5:22 of the third period. Freshman center Matt Watkins got his stick on Chorney’s shot from the left point and deflected the puck into the top right corner. The Sioux went on the power play with just over four minutes left in regulation, but couldn’t capitalize.
MSU started the overtime period playing with a purpose, forcing Parise to scramble to make two difficult saves. A neutral-ice turnover by UND allowed Rankin to skate into the Sioux zone uncontested. His slapshot beat Parise cleanly to give the Mavericks a 3-2 overtime victory at the 3:18 mark.
“We told the kids going into overtime, ‘Shoot the puck,’” Jutting said. “And that’s what he did. Fortunately for us, it went in.”
Last weekend, the Sioux lost junior forward Erik Fabian for the season to a knee injury. About halfway through the first period of Friday’s game, Drew Stafford, UND’s leading scorer (23 goals, 21 assists), left the ice with what coach Dave Hakstol called a “lower-body injury.”
Stafford returned briefly for the start of the second period, then went to the locker room for the remainder of the game. Hakstol wouldn’t comment on whether Stafford would be available for Saturday’s game, but he did say his absence affected his team’s play.
“It seemed like it took us a while to recover from that,” Hakstol said. “At this time of year, you can’t take time to adjust. You have to right away adapt to it and immediately overcome it. I thought tonight it took us 15 to 20 minutes to adjust and begin to play with confidence again. That’s a little too long.”
The Mavericks are becoming a hot team late in the season. After sweeping St. Cloud State with two overtime wins, they ended their season with a sweep of Wisconsin.
“Our last two series were pretty tough teams to play against,” Morin said. “The experience from the two overtime games we won against St. Cloud a couple weekends ago really played a factor. We knew that we’d been in a couple games like this already and we knew what we had to do.”
Asked if the Mavericks are becoming the team nobody wants to play, Jutting chuckled.
“Hopefully we can stay that way,” he said. “Hopefully, we can stay the team nobody wants to play.”
For the Sioux, the road to the WCHA Final Five and the NCAA playoffs became more difficult.
“We want to be in St. Paul next weekend, and that’s what our goal is this weekend,” Hakstol said. “Our backs are against the wall. We’ve got to come back and get game two.”