GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Although North Dakotas 5-2 exhibition victory over the visiting U.S. National Under-18 Team has no impact on the standings, the return of two key Fighting Sioux players bodes well for the second half of the season.
Sophomore forward Evan Trupp hadnt played since Nov. 29 when he was injured in the third period against Cornell. He scored UNDs first goal and set up its next two, including Matt Watkins game-winning shorthanded goal.
I felt really good, Trupp said. I missed a few games and our teams been scoring a lot of goals. To jump back into the lineup and being able to contribute to that felt pretty good.
Senior defenseman Joe Finley, last seasons WCHA plus-minus leader and a number-one draft choice of the Washington Capitals, saw his first action since he suffered a concussion in UNDs second game of the season Oct. 11 at Massachusetts.
Sioux coach Dave Hakstol was happy to have the pair back on the ice.
Its kind of like at the trading deadline having a couple of new players show up in the locker room — a couple of real good players, he said. Evans been out three weeks and I think he jumped back in and had a great impact on this game tonight.
For Joe, its been a long time, Hakstol noted. When you consider that the majority of those weeks, not only was he not on the ice, but he wasnt even coming to the rink. With all things considered, he did a pretty good job for tonight.
Hakstol said its too early to tell whether Finley will be a regular in the lineup.
We have to gauge how today went, but theres no reason not to think that, he said. I havent talked to him after todays game to see how hes feeling. The hope is that from here, we can move forward.
Assessing his performance, Finley said his return to action went well.
Actually, as the game progressed, I felt more and more comfortable, he said. Its going to take a few games, I think. The coaches are working me in their little by little. Were on course.
The exhibition gave Sioux fans an opportunity to see UND recruit Nick Mattson, a defenseman from Chanhassen, Minn., and other future NCAA players on the U.S. development team.
Thats a great young team, Hakstol said. There are a lot of fun players that are going to be heard from at the college level and the highest level as well for a lot of years to come.
Team USA gave UND all it could handle in the first period. The Fighting Sioux struck first at 6:10 when Ryan Martens sent Trupp in alone down the slot. His wrister beat goalie Andy Murray (Denver) five-hole.
USA answered with a goal from center Kevin Lynch (Michigan) at 9:59. He picked up a turnover in the UND zone and from the right circle, sniped the near top corner, beating Sioux goalie Brad Eidsness glove side.
UND responded a minute and four seconds later with a goal by sophomore forward Brad Malone. Carrying the puck down the slot, Trupp passed to Malone coming down the left wing. He one-timed the pass to put the Sioux up 2-1.
USA made it 2-2 at 16:19 with a goal by A.J. Treais (Michigan). Eidsness apparently thought that hed frozen the puck off a shot along the left wing by Ryan Bourque (New Hampshire). But the puck lay in the crease next to him. Treais alertly crashed the net and got his stick on the puck, sending it across the line.
Although the Sioux outshot USA 10-15 and had the better scoring opportunities, Murray came up with some big saves to make it a tie game at the end of one period.
UND dominated much of the second period, outshooting USA 18-2. But Murray continued to come up big, stopping several point-blank shots on flurries in front of the net. The Sioux finally broke though with a shorthanded goal by Watkins at 14:38. Trupp carried the puck into the USA zone 2-on-1, hitting Watkins with a cross ice pass that he shot in far side from the left circle, giving UND a 3-2 lead.
The Sioux extended their lead with a goal by freshman forward Jason Gregoire at 5:57 of the third period. When Darcy Zajac hit forward Matt Frattin with a pass from behind the net, Murray stopped his point-blank shot. But the rebound went to Gregoire, who had a wide-open net with the goalie out of position.
UND senior forward Andrew Kozek closed out the scoring with an empty net goal at the 19:10 mark to make the final score 5-2.
The Sioux started the season 4-7-1, but have now won five of their last six games. Hakstol said that although the exhibition game doesnt affect any rankings, it was important to build on the teams recent success.
Sometimes its a journey to get to where we need to go, and were not quite there yet, he said. But I think were playing good hockey. We were able to end the first half on a real good stretch. We were able to build some momentum. I thought we were able to continue that tonight.
UND plays next in the Annual Great Lakes Invitational at Detroit Dec. 27-28, taking on Michigan State in the first game and then either Michigan or Michigan Tech.