GRAND FORKS, N.D. — North Dakota’s senior captain Ryan Duncan called his final game at Ralph Engelstad Arena, a 4-3 win over Michigan Tech, a storybook ending.
Not only did the former Hobey Baker winner’s rally the Fighting Sioux and send UND to the WCHA Final Five as the tournament’s No. 1 seed, but he also got to skate the MacNaughton Cup with his team before a sell-out crowd of 11,719 appreciative fans.
“He’s been doing that all year,” sophomore forward Matt Frattin said of Duncan’s game-changing performance. “It’s nothing new for us. He puts his team on back of his shoulders.”
UND coach Dave Hakstol concurred with Frattin.
“He’s our captain and certainly our leader; he stepped forward and everybody came with him. ‘Dunc’ was the guy in the clutch who got it done.”
UND clinched the WCHA regular season championship March 6 with a 2-1 victory at Wisconsin, but Hakstol elected to wait on the Cup presentation until after winning the best-of-three series against MTU. League commissioner Bruce McLeod was on hand to award the trophy during a post-game ceremony.
“Probably the most important thing for me was to be able to lift that cup and share it with my teammates for the last time that I was playing in this rink,” Duncan said. “That’s something that you can carry with you and with your buddies for the rest of your lives. ”
Although some Sioux fans hoped to skate the Cup sooner, Hakstol said, “The way it turned out tonight, I don’t think it could have been any better.”
Unlike Friday’s game, in which MTU dominated much of the first period, UND came out with better jump, but the Huskies matched their intensity from the previous night and came out of the opening stanza with a 1-0 lead.
MTU freshman forward Alex MacLeod scored his second power-play goal of the series at the 1:06 mark. Alex Gagne’s centering pass from behind the net connected with MacLeod in the slot. He battled his way through Sioux defenders and swatted the bouncing puck past freshman goalie Brad Eidsness to give the Huskies the lead.
UND went ahead in the second period when Duncan took over the game. Duncan’s three points tied him with Tony Hrkac, UND’s other Hobey Baker winner, for 15th among the school’s all-time leading scorers.
“He’s a difference-maker,” MTU coach Jamie Russell said of Duncan’s effort. “Great players rise to the occasion, and he stepped up to the plate and delivered.”
At 8:30, Duncan scored on a power play, firing a wrist shot from the right circle that beat freshman goalie Josh Robinson short side. He gave UND the lead for good at 10:31, firing a wrist shot from nearly the same spot, that was deflected in by Chris VandeVelde.
Duncan’s second goal at 11:46 gave UND a 3-1 lead. Forward Brett Hextall held the puck in at the blue line and fired a shot on goal that Jason Gregoire attempted to redirect. Robinson made the save, but the puck squirted free in the crease where Duncan alertly knocked it in. MTU senior Rob Nolan then replaced Robinson in goal.
“Ryan Duncan played a hell of a game and showed why he was the Hobey Baker winner,” said MTU senior captain John Schwarz. “He took their power play on his back and it cost us in the end.”
The Huskies refused to quit and took advantage of a UND too many men on the ice penalty to make it 3-2 at the end of the second period. With MTU skating four-on-three, defenseman Drew Dobson fired a shot on goal from the left circle. Eidsness failed to control the rebound and sophomore forward Jordan Baker pounced on the loose puck to make it a one-goal game at 17:31.
The Huskies came out for the final period with renewed vigor and turned up the pressure on the Sioux, but at the 5:29 mark, Frattin restored UND’s two-goal lead. His shot through traffic off a faceoff won by VandeVelde in MTU’s zone beat Nolan cleanly.
“‘Vandie’ won it pretty clean back,” Frattin said of his game-winning goal. “I walked past him and then there was a (MTU) guy in the way. I shot through his legs. The goalie didn’t see it. I beat him short side, blocker. I didn’t even know it went in until everyone started cheering.”
The Sioux then went into a defensive shell and it nearly cost them. It took some big saves by Eidsness and some timely puck clears by UND’s defense to keep MTU off the board, but the Huskies’ hard work finally paid off when Dobson scored a wraparound goal at 16:35 to make it a 4-3 game.
Schwarz said the second game of last year’s playoff series at UND was on the team’s mind. The Huskies scored a short-handed goal in the final seconds of that game and then won it in overtime. Even though MTU played most of the final two minutes with its goalie pulled for the extra attacker, the Huskies were unable to tie it up before time ran out.
“We never gave up,” Schwarz said. “We were behind the eight-ball right away, playing the No. 1 team and no one really gave us a chance to win the game. I’m real proud of the guys and the 60-minute effort that we put in.”
“I thought we played very well over 60 minutes,” Russell said. “Last night, I was very happy with the first period and then we tapered off. I thought our kids came out and competed hard and laid everything out there tonight. We had a lot of guys who stepped up.”
For the Sioux, winning the league championship and advancing to the WCHA tournament in St. Paul next week is just another chapter in their storybook season.
“The MacNaughton Cup was a real nice way to finish the weekend and the season here on home ice,” Hakstol said. “What we were trying to accomplish this weekend was get down to the Final Five.”
MTU ends its season at 6-25-7 while UND improves to 24-12-4. The Sioux will play the winner of the March 19 play-in game between Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth on March 20 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.