GRAND FORKS, N.D. — With a 4-1 win and sweep of the visiting Denver Pioneers, North Dakota accomplished three important goals.
First, the Fighting Sioux clinched home ice for the playoffs. Second, they solidified their hold on second place in the WCHA while moving into a tie for first place with Colorado College. Finally, UND ran its unbeaten streak to 10-0-1, continuing to build momentum as the end of the regular season approaches.
Although Denver and Colorado College each have two games in hand on UND, associate head coach Cary Eades said, “It was an important game for us. It was a big four-point match for us. You either gain two points on them (Denver) or lose two.”
Coming off a bye week following a series in Minnesota Feb. 1-2 in which the Sioux took three of four points from the Gophers, Eades said, “It’s more important to get back to playing, playing well and winning.”
How well are the Sioux playing? Denver coach George Gwozdecky put it this way.
“(Jean-Philippe) Lamoureux’s playing extremely well in goal for them. They’re tough defensively. It’s tough to generate any chances coming up the ice on them, and they’re very aggressive.
“Offensively, they’re being creative. They’re hitting guys in stride. When you’re doing those things, you seem to even get extra bounces. I’m very impressed with their team.”
The Sioux dominated the first period, jumping out to a 2-0 lead with a power-play goal and a four-on-four goal. Sophomore defenseman Chay Genoway played a prominent role in both goals.
UND’s first score at 13:04 came when Denver goalie Peter Mannino made a stick save on a shot by Genoway from the right point. The rebound came all the way out to Sioux defenseman Joe Finley at the left point. He took a look and fired the puck in over Mannino.
“That knuckleball that went in to make it 1-0 was exactly what the doctor ordered for North Dakota and exactly what we didn’t need to happen,” Gwozdecky said.
With the Sioux on a power play, Genoway let go a slap shot from the right point that freshman forward Evan Trupp deflected past Mannino, giving the Sioux a 2-0 lead at 15:01.
After giving up a three-goal lead the previous night and losing 5-4, Gwozdecky said UND’s strong first-period start deflated the Pioneers.
“Last night probably took more of an emotional toll on our team than I thought it did,” he said. “We really came out and struggled. We were very flat.”
In the second period, the two teams traded goals and punches. UND went up 3-0 at the 11:46 mark. Sioux center T.J. Oshie won a faceoff in the Denver zone and batted the puck toward the goal. Junior forward Andrew Kozek got his stick on it and put a backhander through Mannino’s pads for his fourth goal of the series.
Oshie said the goal came off a designed play that he and Kozek planned to run.
“We kind of looked at each other, nodded and knew what we were doing,” he said. “We ran the play and fortunately it worked.”
The Pioneers got on the board at 13:14 with a goal by sophomore center Brian Gifford. From along the goal line to Lamoureux’s left, forward Tom May chipped a pass through UND’s defense that isolated Gifford on the Sioux goalie. He quickly whipped the puck through Lamoureux’s five-hole to make it a 3-1 game.
The rough stuff started about four minutes into the second period when UND forward Kyle Radke and Denver defenseman J.P. Testwuide dropped the gloves and squared off. However, the officials quickly got between the players. Each received minors for roughing and 10-minute game misconducts.
As the second period ended and both teams skated off the ice, a melee erupted between players in front of Denver’s bench. Amid the wrestling and throwing of punches, Radke dropped his gloves again, this time with sophomore forward Brandon Vossberg, who came out on the short end of the fight. Both were ejected with fighting majors and game disqualifications.
UND came out of the scrum with a power play to start the third period, but was unable to capitalize on it. For the remainder of the period, the Sioux forecheck kept the Pioneers bottled up in their own end and Lamoureux made the necessary saves to keep Denver off the scoreboard.
“We figured out that we need to get the puck down low and really just grind, grind their defensemen as much as we can,” Genoway said. “Our forwards did a heck of a job.”
Denver had one final opportunity to cut UND’s lead when Sioux captain Rylan Kaip was called for interference with 2:13 to play. With Mannino pulled for a 6-on-4 advantage, Oshie iced the game with an unassisted, shorthanded goal. His backhander from UND’s blue line bounced once and then lazily slid across the goal line to make the final score 4-1 at the 18:50 mark. It was Oshie’s 13th goal of the season and UND’s first empty net goal of the year.
“It was actually a pretty lucky shot,” Oshie said. “I had an idea where the net was, but I didn’t even take a look. I just turned around and threw it as hard as I could on my backhand, and fortunately it went in.”
Denver captain Andrew Thomas summed up the two-game series concisely. “They capitalized on their chances, just like they did last night, and we didn’t capitalize enough.”
Having lost Brock Trotter, Denver’s leading scorer, to the pros and with top forward Tyler Ruegsegger missing the last four games with an injury, Gwozdecky said it isn’t surprising that the Pioneers struggle to score at times.
“Any time you take two of your top players out of your lineup, it’s going to affect you,” he said. “But at the same time, as far as being able to come out of our own zone and get our transition game functioning and playing defensively well, I don’t know if you can put all that on losing two of your top players.”
Oshie said the Sioux need to stay focused during their final six games of the season and guard against overconfidence.
“One thing we’re trying to do is not get satisfied with what we’ve accomplished,” he said. “It’s great to be where we’re at now after all that hard work we put in, but there’s still a bunch of steps we have to take to get ready for the end of the year.”
UND’s next series is at home against non-conference opponent Bemidji State Feb. 23-24. Denver plays next at home against WCHA opponent Alaska Anchorage Feb. 22-23.