MADISON, Wis. — Even over the hum of the Zamboni machine, the North Dakota celebration could be heard from well down the hall.
After five years of coming up just short in the end, No. 6 North Dakota scored its two goals on special teams and won another big game in the Kohl Center, this one by a 2-1 margin to capture its first MacNaughton Cup since the 2004 season.
This is a tough trophy to win and a tough league to come out on top of in the regular season, said senior Matt Watkins. There are a lot of good teams and a lot of good players. Right now, were enjoying the moment.
Numerous times in years past, the only thing separating the Fighting Sioux (22-11-4 overall, 17-6-4 in the WCHA) from the regular season crown was them. Last season, a furious finish to the season, going 11-0-3 in their final 14 conference games, couldnt overcome a slow start (splitting their first seven series), as the Sioux finished alone in second place.
This time around, North Dakota got off to a better start (6-3-2 in conference) and has been on a tear since, as the Sioux have lost only once since the calendar turned to 2009.
The MacNaughton Cup is obviously a grind to win it, and these guys have accomplished it, a MacNaughton championship, UND coach Dave Hakstol said. I want them to take a couple of hours and let that sink in. Thats why we play the game, to enjoy moments like this.
Winning for the 10th time in a one-goal game and 10th road game, North Dakota had to overcome sluggish legs, an early deficit and desperately needed a break to find some momentum against a Wisconsin (16-15-4, 13-11-3) team that was fighting for home ice and grasping for momentum.
They got that break on Wisconsins second power play, when a piece of loose ice saw the puck skip over UW defenseman Jamie McBains stick and right in front of Watkins, who had a full head of steam.
Watkins went untouched down the right boards and beat UW goalie Shane Connelly (21 saves) low glove side to tie the score at one at the 16 minute, 56 second mark of the second period.
Nothing too special about that one, said Watkins about his goal. Any situation (though) that anyone scores a goal, its going to help the team get a little momentum back on their side. We got better as the game wore on.
And so did North Dakotas power play, which was shutout on its four previous attempts by an aggressive Wisconsin penalty kill that had taken lumps in recent weeks.
During the Badgers four game winless streak, the team allowed seven power-play goals on 21 penalty kills, a stark change from UW allowing just seven power-play goals in the previous 18 games.
Junior Chris VandeVelde made sure the struggles continued, as he beat Connelly low stick side to put North Dakota ahead for good.
Hes finding ways at critical times of games to impact the game, said Hakstol about VandeVelde. He did that again tonight. Over the past month, you know youve seen him, hes been an impact player for us.
It was the same song for Wisconsin, as the Badgers dropped their 10th one goal of the season, as seven of UWs last eight losses have come from a single tally.
The year we won it, we won all those games, UW head coach Mike Eaves said of his 2006 national championship team. You go back and look, those are the games we found a way to win. We havent found those ways this year. That timely goal is something that has been very elusive for us this year.
Even so, based on the results that Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State all lost Friday night, Wisconsin, even going 0-4-1 in its last five games, clinched home ice for next weekends first round of the WCHA tournament and can finish third with a win and a Colorado College loss or tie or a Badgers tie and Tigers defeat.
I guess thats what it is, Eaves said. If we lose and the other team loses, yes, then we back in.