DENVER — Led by their big guns Ryan Duncan and T.J. Oshie and the strong goaltending of Jean-Philippe Lamoureux, the No. 8 North Dakota Fighting Sioux salvaged a split with the No. 3 Denver Pioneers, taking advantage of their special teams to earn a hard-fought 3-1 win.
“It’s nothing new for us,” said Lamoureux of the play of Oshie and Duncan. “We don’t have success unless those guys produce. Fortunately for us tonight we were able to execute a little better offensively. There’s a very fine line between winning and losing in this league. I thought it was a great team effort through the lineup.”
The first period was much chippier than Friday night’s game. Seven penalties were called over the course of the period, most for marginal things like tripping. The Sioux seemed to have a little more jump, and used it to draw the calls. With Brandon Vossberg in the box for holding, the Sioux’s top line got them on the board. Oshie fought off a check in the corner and passed to Chris VandeVelde in the slot, and VandeVelde one-timed a shot low glove side past Peter Mannino.
“Playing a great goalie like Peter Mannino, you can’t let him get too comfortable,” said Duncan. “I think last night we gave him a little confidence, and we definitely wanted to get an early goal on him and hopefully we could build from there.”
The Sioux continued to test Mannino often. Robbie Bina and Joe Finley fired shots from the point that Mannino seemed to have difficulty picking up. On one of Bina’s shots, Mannino gave up a rebound that seemed to sit in front for an eternity, and led to an interference penalty on Cody Brookwell, as he tried to keep Bina from pouncing on the rebound.
“Denver, as we saw last night, they’re just so good when they get the lead,” said Sioux coach Dave Hakstol. “It was kind of a classic goaltenders battle this weekend. I thought both guys played well.”
The Sioux’s best chance to build on the lead came on the ensuing power play when Matt Watkins slid a pass through the slot from the right side boards to Rylan Kaip on the far post, but Mannino came up with a huge save.
“I thought both goaltenders were very good,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky, echoing Hakstol’s thoughts. “I thought both goaltenders were sharp.”
Offensively, the Pioneers couldn’t seem to get untracked. They generated some pressure in the Sioux zone, but kept looking for the perfect setup, and ended up only getting two shots on goal.
The Sioux quickly built on their lead in the second on another power play goal. Anthony Maiani was called for slashing late in the first period, and the penalty carried over into the second. Derrick LaPointe carried the puck into the Pioneers’ zone, and three Pioneers converged on him, but the puck popped free to Oshie along the left boards, and Oshie quickly fed a cross-ice pass to Duncan, who ripped a shot top shelf glove side past Mannino at 1:05.
“We’ve been having a little trouble with our power play,” said Duncan. “We’ve been working it around well and getting chances; we’ve just been having trouble burying the chances, but tonight it just happened that we got the bounces and the puck went in.”
Sometime around the 8:00 minute mark of the period, the Pioneers finally started to generate some offense. Jesse Martin hit the outside of the left post on a redirect, and Lamoureux robbed Tyler Bozak with a quick glove.
“He was coming across the middle, but I didn’t have any traffic in front and I was able to get a good read on it,” said Lamoureux.
Right after that chance, Brian Gifford received a pass in the right circle, looked at a wide-open net, lined up a shot and fired the puck five feet over the crossbar.
Bozak finally got the Pioneers on the board at 10:04 on a great setup by Brock Trotter, who had the puck behind the net, held it just long enough to freeze the Sioux defense, then fed a pass to Bozak in the slot.
When Oshie took a penalty seconds later, the Pioneers looked to have a golden chance to tie the game, but it was the Sioux who got the goal when a clear got behind the Pioneers’ defense and VandeVelde and Duncan raced down two-on-none. VandeVelde carried it deep down the left side and passed over to Duncan, who fired it home.
“Joe (Finley) made a great play; he kind of chipped it up the boards,” said Duncan. “He had great vision and saw Vandy in the clear and we were able to get a step and get a two-on-0. It doesn’t happen very often, especially against a great team like that.”
“I thought the biggest goal of the game was the shorthanded goal,” said Hakstol. “There was a momentum swing there where Denver scored a few minutes before and the crowd was getting into it, and that goal was a critical one.”
Rattled by the quick Sioux goal, the Pioneers started to press offensive plays and passes that didn’t exist, and turned the puck over numerous times, leading to good Sioux scoring opportunities.
“We just got reckless and impatient,” said Gwozdecky. “It’s very rare that you see a two-on-0 breakaway. You’ve got to work pretty hard to create that kind of thing. To give up a shorthanded goal when you’ve just got back into the game, that’s a huge emotional swing. The disappointment, and all the emotions that go into it. You had a great chance to perhaps tie it, and now it’s a two-goal swing. I think that takes the wind out of your sails and gives them such a boost.”
In the third period, the Pioneers finally started to settle down and get some good chances. Martin had a good chance early from down low in the slot, but couldn’t jam a rebound home. Bozak continued to be strong offensively, and just missed lifting a backhand over Lamoureux’s shoulder.
“I think they were definitely going to be way more aggressive,” said Lamoureux. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t get outnumbered at the net. The PK guys did a great job of allowing me to see the puck and I didn’t really see too many second or third shots, so credit to the guys in front of me.”
With the Pioneers on a power play, their leading scorers, Trotter and Tyler Ruegsegger, both had chances from near the left post. With the puck sitting just outside the crease, Trotter couldn’t get it free from between a Sioux defenseman’s skates and poked it behind the net. He picked it up and passed it to Ruegsegger coming down towards the net, but Ruegsegger’s shot was stopped by Lamoureux.
“I was pleased by the way we played in the third period,” said Gwozdecky. “I thought we played hard. We tried a lot of different things, but Lamoureux was there to answer the bell.”
“I think we played a little too conservative and gave up some chances,” said Duncan of the third period. “Phil stood on his head and played a great third period and really kept us in the game, so that’s something we can learn from.”