GRAND FORKS, N.D. — In dramatic fashion, North Dakota moved one step closer to claiming its first WCHA championship in five years with a thrilling 4-3 overtime victory over Colorado College.
“Coming into tonight’s game, we had an opportunity to put ourselves in control of our own destiny,” said UND coach Dave Hakstol. “You only have so many opportunities. When they come around, you need to take advantage of them.”
In a series with important playoff implications that featured two teams playing with speed, skill and physical intensity, junior center Darcy Zajac’s goal with 1:35 left in overtime put UND in the driver’s seat for the league title.
“It’s probably about as good as back-to-back college hockey games as you could watch,” said CC coach Scott Owens, whose team came away with just one point after a 4-4 overtime tie Friday.
“It’s a great win for us,” said Hakstol, who’s closing in on UND’s first MacNaughton Cup since he became coach in 2004. “We knew it would be right down to the wire, but I guess this time of year, maybe it’s not a surprise that two nights in a row you go into overtime.”
The Sioux took a 3-2 lead into the final period and kept the Tigers contained until senior center Chad Rau took advantage of a neutral zone turnover. He entered UND’s zone with speed, fired a wrist shot through traffic from the top of the right circle and tied the game 3-3 at the 15:24 mark.
“I couldn’t really see the goalie,” Rau said of the play. “I got the shot off across my body and somehow it found the open net. I didn’t even know it went in, to be honest.”
Both teams seemed content to play for overtime until UND freshman forward Brett Hextall was called for charging with 10 seconds left in regulation. The Tigers controlled the faceoff in UND’s zone and forced freshman goalie Brad Eidsness to make two big saves from point-blank range as time expired.
CC started the overtime period with 1:50 of power play time remaining and with momentum on its side. But the Sioux, who had problems stopping the Tigers’ power play throughout the series, killed the penalty and went on the attack.
“It was almost as if they got momentum off the kill,” said CC coach Scott Owens. “In that situation, you either want to finish the game off or have momentum for the remaining three minutes.”
The play on the game-winning goal epitomized UND’s season since beginning the team’s successful second-half surge (12-1-3 in 2009). The three players involved were each playing on different lines. A senior started the play, a sophomore took the shot that led to the goal and a junior scored the game-winner.
Hakstol said he’s known since the beginning of the season that to have success the Sioux would have to have everybody chipping in.
“It’s the true meaning of a team,” he said. “That’s they way we’ve been getting it done and that’s the way we’ll continue.”
Senior Andrew Kozek was moved from the fourth line to the first line just before game time because of an injury to freshman Jason Gregoire. He chipped the puck out of UND’s zone to sophomore fourth-line center Brad Malone, who carried it into CC’s zone and put a shot on goal from the left circle.
Tigers’ goalie Richard Bachman made a pad save on Malone’s shot, sending the rebound straight up the slot and on to the stick of Zajac, UND’s third-line center. He buried the opportunity, sending the sellout crowd of 11,772 at Ralph Engelstad Arena into pandemonium.
“I’m kind of kicking myself right now,” Bachman said. “I really feel like I should have put that in the corner a little bit instead of kicking it right out. But they had a guy rushing the net hard. It was a good, smart hockey play.”
Zajac came into the series with just two goals on the season, but doubled his output with two goals in the series.
“It’s about time he scored some goals,” Hakstol quipped.
UND took three of four points in the two-game series while Denver split its series with St. Cloud State. That puts the Fighting Sioux on top, one point above the Pioneers. UND has a game in hand on DU and travels to Wisconsin to take on the Badgers March 6-7. DU has one game remaining at home against CC on March 7. The Sioux need just one point in from the series in Madison to secure at least a share of the title.
“We’re just trying to win game by game,” Kozek said. “Going into Wisconsin, we’re not going to try to get the one point or whatever. We’re going there to try to get all four, just like we’ve been doing all season.”
Echoing his teammate, Zajac said, “You can’t look too far ahead. Our success comes one night at a time. We can’t be there if we’re not going to compete every night. So we just try to keep our goals simple.”
Playing on UND’s first line with Ryan Duncan and Hextall, Kozek made the most of the opportunity in the first period. Leading a rush down the right side, he fired a wrist shot just as he crossed the blue line that beat CC goalie Richard Bachman to give the Sioux a 1-0 lead at 10:58.
Consecutive penalties on the Tigers’ Tyler Johnson and Jake Gannon gave UND nearly two minutes of 5-on-3 power play. Hextall centered to center Chris VandeVelde in the slot. Bachman stopped his shot, but the rebound went to Duncan at the right side of the net. He pounded home his 15th goal of the season to up the Sioux up 2-0 at 17:53.
Eidsness was the difference in the opening stanza, stopping CC’s Bill Sweatt and Rau on breakaways. Despite giving up two goals on 13 shots, Bachman was also sharp as UND generated several good scoring chances of its own.
The Sioux got into penalty trouble in the second period and the Tigers capitalized. CC made it a 2-1 game when senior wing Scott McCulloch beat Eidsness five hole with a power play goal at 3:54. At 6:12, the Tigers tied it 2-2 with their second power play goal of the period. Senior wing Cody Lampl intercepted a Sioux clearing attempt in the slot and fired a quick wrister past Eidsness.
It took UND 45 seconds to regain the lead. After Bachman juggled and lost control of Kozek’s shot from the left circle, CC’s clearing attempt went straight up the slot to UND’s Hextall who fired the puck into a wide open net. The unassisted goal was his 12th of the season and his third of the series.
The Sioux took the 3-2 lead into the final stanza. Until Rau scored with under five minutes left in regulation UND appeared to have the game in hand. But for the third time this season, the Sioux found a way to win in overtime and are 3-0-4 in overtime games.
“We deserved a little better fate,” Owens said of the loss. “We deserved a point. But it doesn’t always happen that way. For us, it’s a huge loss. It’s probably more meaningful for us than for them (UND). Where were sitting in the standings right now, we need to get points to get home ice. We could end up in sixth or seventh place.”
Still, Owens believes the Tigers are on the right path as the playoffs approach.
“I liked the way we played,” he said. “We’re playing pretty good hockey this time of the year. That’s the main thing. If you keep playing well, good things are going to happen.”
Zajac said the opportunity to win the WCHA championship is important to the team.
“Any time there’s a chance you can be number one in you league, you always want it, especially for those senior guys,” he explained. “It’s their last chance, so you want to do something special for those guys as a team.”
Before the game, a ceremony was held to recognize UND’s eight seniors and their parents. They are: Duncan, Calgary, Alberta; Joe Finley, Edina, Minn.; Zach Jones, Lisle, Ill.; Kozek, Sicamous, B.C.; Ryan Martens, Selkirk, Manitoba; Brad Miller, Alpharetta, Ga.; Aaron Walski, Fargo, N.D.; and Matt Watkins, Ayelsbury, Sask.