GRAND FORKS, N.D. — For the second straight weekend, North Dakota’s Ralph Engelstad proved to be the place where ailing WCHA teams come to get better.
With its 3-2 victory and road sweep of UND, Michigan Tech repeated Wisconsin’s feat of the previous weekend, enabling the Huskies to leapfrog the Sioux and Badgers to sixth place in the WCHA standings and break out of a losing slump in convincing style.
“Not a bad weekend for the perennial cellar dwellers,” MTU coach Jamie Russell crowed after the game, referring to the local newspaper’s description of the Huskies after Friday’s 3-1 win over the Sioux.
It was a long time coming. The Huskies (5-7-2 WCHA, 8-8-2 overall) hadn’t swept the Sioux in 14 years and hadn’t swept them at home since 1987. For the first time in UND’s history, it’s been swept in the same season by MTU and Alaska Anchorage.
After rattling off all the ways in which the sweep helps MTU, Russell noted, “We had seven wins last year. We’ve got eight before Christmas this year.”
The Sioux (5-8-1 WCHA, 7-10-1 overall) have won only one of their last eight games. Their last victory came Nov. 25 against Colorado College, the lone bright spot during a six-game home stand against WCHA opponents.
While pleased with UND’s effort, intensity and the scoring opportunities generated, Sioux coach Dave Hakstol said the team wouldn’t let the ongoing slump get it down.
“What we did tonight was not enough, but there’s a lot of fight left in this dog,” he said. “We will not let this last five weeks define what our season’s all about. That much I know.”
Unlike Friday, the Sioux hit the ice with jump and outshot the Huskies 11-6. The only thing they didn’t do was put the puck in the net.
“Right now, we can do a lot of things offensively, but we can’t find a way to light that red light often enough,” Hakstol said.
“We knew North Dakota was going to come out hard,” Russell said. “They’ve had their struggles and they’re like a wounded animal. We weathered the storm and I thought we were fortunate to get out of the period 0-0.”
The goals came fast and furious in the second period which UND began on the power play. It took the Sioux just 49 seconds to cash in. Sophomore forward Brad Miller passed to T.J. Oshie who was alone to the left of sophomore goalie Rob Nolan. Nolan got a glove on Oshie’s wrist shot, but it bounced in to put the Sioux up 1-0.
Undaunted, the Huskies continued to work hard, and it paid off with an even-strength goal at 12:24. Junior forward Peter Rouleau skated out of the right corner with the puck and fired a wrister on Sioux freshman goalie Anthony Grieco. Crashing the net, MTU freshman Alex Gagne banged in the rebound to tie it 1-1.
Just 57 seconds later, MTU went up 2-1 when senior center Tyler Skworchinski made a spinning move to throw the puck across the crease. Junior forward Jimmy Kerr was on the other side to deflect it into a wide open net. The goal was reviewed to determine if Kerr kicked it in, but the play stood.
After the second MTU goal, Hakstol’s decision to pull Grieco and replace him with junior Philippe Lamoureux was booed by Sioux fans. Hakstol said he gave Grieco the start to help spark the team, but he was afraid that if the Sioux gave up another quick goal or two, coming back would be difficult.
“I’m proud of the way Anthony played,” the coach said. “I’m proud of how he battled. I told him that when he came off. He earned himself another start tonight. He’ll get that start early in the new year.”
Just 32 seconds later, Oshie rescued UND from what’s become its standard second-period funk with his second goal of the game to tie it 2-2. Sophomore defenseman Taylor Chorney fired a shot through traffic that Oshie tipped in past Nolan.
The game-winning goal by MTU sophomore forward Malcolm Gwilliam came at 9:08 of the third period. As was the case in Friday’s game, the Huskies were the recipients of a fortuitous bounce. Defenseman John Schwarz’s shot through traffic ricocheted off two players before deflecting at an odd angle to Gwilliam, who put the puck in a wide-open net for the win.
With 54 seconds, left in the game, Lamoureux was pulled for the extra attacker. The Sioux generated several opportunities in close, but couldn’t get the puck past Nolan, who stopped 30 of 32 shots he faced.
Russell said a large part of MTU’s improvement this season is because of the team’s maturation.
“The last two years, we’ve been extremely young,” he said. “When you have 18 kids in the lineup who are freshmen and sophomores, you know you’re going to take your lumps in the WCHA. There’s learning curve.”
Hakstol is all too aware of how steep that curve can be. For Saturday’s game, UND dressed five freshmen and nine sophomores, but he refused to blame youth or inexperience.
“We’re not going to push this off on anybody,” he said. “This is us in the locker room. We’ll sort it out.”
The next four games likely won’t get any easier for UND. Against MTU, the Sioux were without sophomore center Jonathan Toews, who made the Canadian team for the World Junior Championships in Sweden. Sophomore defensemen Brian Lee and Taylor Chorney will play for the U.S. team during the tournament. All three players will return for a Jan. 12-13 series at home against UAA.
Both teams are off a week before going on the road for holiday tournaments against nonconference opponents. UND plays Datrmouth on Dec. 29 and then either St. Lawrence or Boston University. The Huskies play Michigan at Detroit and then either Michigan State or Harvard.