GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Bemidji State got exactly the kind of game it wanted on Sunday, but couldn’t overcome a shutout performance by goalie Aaron Walski and forward T.J. Oshie’s determination to win.
In his first career start for the Fighting Sioux, Walski was perfect, making 13 saves to preserve a 1-0 victory over the Beavers. The nonconference win puts UND at 21-8-2 for the season and raises the Sioux unbeaten streak to a nation-best 12-0-1. BSU falls to 14-15-3 overall.
After being victimized by four North Dakota power-play goals in a 5-1 loss Saturday, a low-scoring, five-on-five game gave the Beavers their best opportunity to upset second-ranked UND. Despite an outstanding performance by junior goalie Orlando Alamano, a goal late in the third period was all the Sioux needed for the win.
Junior forward Andrew Kozek’s game-winner with 4:55 left to play was set up when Oshie bulled his way through two defenders behind BSU’s net. As he was falling, the junior center backhanded a pass up the slot that Kozek one-timed past Alamano.
“I didn’t see him when I was falling, but I knew he was breaking to the net,” Oshie said of his pass, which he described as a desperation move.
“T.J. just put it in a great spot for me to kind of step into it,” Kozek said. “He had three guys all over him, like he usually does. It was just a great play by him.”
“We did everything we had to do,” BSU coach Tom Serratore said of his team’s effort. “Their best player makes a great play, and that’s what happens.
“He’s just a heck of a hockey player,” the Beavers coach said of Oshie. “He had people draped all over him. I mean, what do you do? It’s just a heck of a play.”
UND coach Dave Hakstol said Oshie’s play is one reason the Sioux have been so successful the past two months.
“His play is at a very high level, and that has a tendency to bring the level of play of the team up,” he said. “It also has the effect of bringing up the confidence level of our hockey team. He did a tremendous job tonight with his effort and playmaking in all areas.”
With backup goaltenders starting for each team, a defensive struggle didn’t seem likely. However, Alamano, playing in his fifth game of the season, kept the Beavers in the game, stopping 31 of 32 shots he faced.
For Walski, the win came seven years to the day that he made 73 saves in a five-overtime North Dakota high school championship game. He started in place of Jean-Philippe Lamoureux, whose string of 55 consecutive starts — a school record which ranks third all-time in college hockey — came to an end.
Although Walski’s Fargo North team lost to Grand Forks Red River 2-1, his performance made Sports Illustrated and remains legendary in the annals of North Dakota high school hockey. He made 60 fewer saves against BSU, but getting the start and the win were memorable nonetheless.
“I was nervous, but I was excited,” Walski said. “I’ve waited three years for this and it’s been my dream. When it’s your first chance, you have to make the most of it.”
Even though Walski faced only 13 shots, Hakstol was pleased with the goalie’s performance.
“He didn’t have a lot of work, and for a guy who hasn’t played a lot, that’s really tough,” he said. “But he was sharp when he needed to be. He made three or four big saves and did the job for his teammates.”
“I thought he made some big saves,” Serratore said of Walski. “He saved their bacon a few times. We had six grade-A scoring chances.”
Hakstol said that at this time of the season, it was important for UND’s backup goalie to get some in-game experience.
“We’re preparing as we go to the stretch run. We have to be prepared on all levels and in all positions. For a number of different reasons Aaron’s start and his performance tonight were important.”
Most of all, Hakstol said that Walski deserved the start for the hard work he puts in during practice.
“You can’t count the number of pucks he’s taken off the collarbone or taken off the inside of his kneecap,” he said. “He’s a guy that just grits his teeth and gets back in there. He’s physically tough and mentally tough. Obviously, by his performance tonight, he’s really driven himself to be game-ready.”
UND resumes WCHA play when it travels to Minnesota-Duluth for a two-game series March 1-2. BSU closes out the regular season with a series at home against Wayne State Feb. 29 and March 1.