GRAND FORKS, N.D. — North Dakota kept its nation-best 9-0-1 unbeaten streak alive by scoring four unanswered goals to defeat the visiting Denver Pioneers 5-4 in a thriller played in front of a sell-crowd of 11,793 at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
The Pioneers looked to have the game well in hand when they built a 4-1 lead at 8:09 of the second period, but the Fighting Sioux scored two goals in the final minute of that period to make it a one-goal game and regain the momentum.
“We didn’t panic when we were down 4-1,” said Ryan Duncan, last season’s Hobey Baker winner, who had a goal and three assists. “There was still half the game left. We just stuck together as a group. We came out in the third period and got the job done.”
Denver coach George Gwozdecky said it was disappointing that the Pioneers couldn’t put away the Sioux after building a three-goal lead.
“The difference in the game was obviously in the last two minutes of the period when we got a little lazy in clearing our zone both times and, as a result, paid for it,” he said. “We got a little reckless and weren’t able to finish it off.”
UND junior forward Andrew Kozek recorded his first career hat trick, scoring the game-tying and the game-winning goals in the third period. Recruited for his goal-scoring ability, his skill was on display as he played on UND’s top line with Duncan and center T.J. Oshie, a first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues.
“It’s definitely pretty easy playing with those guys,” he said. “They make the game a lot easier for you.”
What many expected to be a defensive struggle turned into an offensive slugfest as two of the top goalies in the WCHA struggled.
UND’s Jean-Philippe Lamoureux entered the contest with the best save percentage and goals against average in the nation, but he gave up four goals on Denver’s first eight shots. Pioneers’ goalie Peter Mannino ended the game with 21 saves on 26 shots.
“Both teams have a lot of offensive firepower and made some smart hockey plays,” said Sioux associate head coach Cary Eades. “Whether it’s 8-7 or 1-0, we’ll take the victory and the two points.”
Sioux coach Dave Hakstol was not at the game. He’s serving a two game suspension for making an obscene gesture toward a WCHA official during UND’s Feb. 2 game at Minnesota.
For most of the first two periods, it appeared UND missed Hakstol more than Denver missed two of its top scorers. The Pioneers leading scorer, forward Brock Trotter, departed for the pros on Feb. 7, and sophomore forward Tyler Ruegsegger missed his third straight game with an abdominal injury.
Freshman forward Anthony Maiani got Denver on the board first at 13:29 of the first period when he scored on a power play off a rebound shot. UND’s Kozek evened it up at the 16:00 minute mark with a power play goal of his own.
The Pioneers struck for three unanswered goals in the first nine minutes of the second period, seemingly taking control while taking the partisan crowd out of the game.
Freshman center Jesse Martin finished off a two-on-one rush when he beat Lamoureux five-hole 56 seconds into the period. Senior forward Tom May put the Pioneers up 3-1 when he fired in a rebound. At 8:09, it became a 4-1 game when sophomore forward Matt Glasser tipped in a centering pass from Brian Gifford
The Pioneers had what appeared to be an insurmountable lead, but the Sioux didn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think we ever thought that we were really out of the game,” Kozek said. “We talked about going one shift at a time, hard and short and seeing what happens. At the end of the second period, we really came together as a team. When we got within one goal of tying them, it was huge for us, a big momentum booster.”
With exactly one minute remaining in the period, Sioux sophomore defenseman Chay Genoway blasted in a shot from the left circle to make it 4-2. Just 33 seconds later, the Sioux struck again when Duncan tipped a shot by Kozek past Mannino. Suddenly it was a 4-3 game.
“We’ve been known to take shifts off and let teams come back on us,” May said of Denver’s effort during the final minute of the period. “We need to play 20 minutes each period and 60 minutes each night. That’s definitely been a problem.”
The Sioux and Kozek were just warming up for a big finish. Never mind that since Feb. 18, 2005, UND has been 0-24 when trailing after two periods and Denver was 16-0-1 this season when leading after two.
Kozek notched the game-tying goal at 10:58 of the third period. Duncan picked off a Denver clearing attempt and then fed Kozek, unguarded in the slot. He fired a hard wrist shot past Mannino to knot the score 4-4.
The game winning goal came at the 15:15 mark. Behind Denver’s goal, Oshie fought off a check from defenseman Chris Butler, went hard to the net and attempted a wraparound shot. The puck hit the far post, but rebounded to Kozek, parked at the top of the crease. He punched the puck into the open net to put UND up 5-4 for good.
The Pioneers had one more shot when they went on a power play with 2:37 left in the game, but Lamoureux and UND’s penalty killers held off Denver to gain the victory and a conference win that keeps the Sioux alone in second place, four points ahead of third place Denver.
“There’s no question that it’s a disappointing loss,” said Gwozdecky, “Nonetheless, as I told the team, there’s going to be games like this where there are huge momentum swings. We can learn from this.”
Eades credited his team with refusing to get down after what could have been a disastrous second period.
“The players just kept believing in themselves,” he said. “Denver forced us into some mistakes and capitalized on them. You’re either going to feel sorry for yourselves or find a way to scrape, claw, climb your way back into it. We were able to do that tonight.”
UND, ranked third in national polls, improves to 18-8-2 overall and 15-7-1 in conference play. With the loss, the sixth-ranked Pioneers fall to 19-9-1 overall and 13-7-1 in the WCHA. The two teams meet at 7:05 p.m. Saturday at Engelstad Arena for the second game of the series.