GRAND FORKS, N.D. — After Friday’s loss to North Dakota, Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said that the Warriors weren’t interested in moral victories.
However, that’s all his team got Saturday, dropping a close, hard-fought 3-2 game to the Fighting Sioux before 11,603 fans at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
“I always respect our team’s effort when they play that hard,” Dennehy said. “It’s something we pride ourselves on, not being outworked. If we’re going to have success, hard work is a prerequisite. I’m definitely very appreciative and humbled by their efforts.”
A power-play goal by Sioux junior defenseman Jake Marto at 8:53 put UND up 3-1 and seemingly in control of the game. However, the Warriors refused to quit, and when junior forward Chris Barton scored with 3:52 left in the game, the Sioux had to cling to their slim lead and hold on for the win.
“I thought we did a pretty good job after we gave up that second goal,” said UND coach Dave Hakstol.
He credited the team’s play in the final minutes, particularly senior defenseman and team captain Chay Genoway.
“Chay spent a lot of time on the ice the last 10 minutes of the game,” Hakstol said. ‘Chay’s earned the right to be the leader of this team. His competitiveness, as far as Im concerned, is what separates him as a player.”
Merrimack senior goalie Andre Braithwaite’s outstanding 32-save performance had Merrimack entertaining thoughts of upsetting UND, ranked sixth in USCHO’s national poll. He started after sophomore goalie Joe Cannata gave up five goals on 40 shots Friday.
“We’ve got some confidence in him (Braithwaite),” Dennehy said. “I think there a probably a couple he’d like back, but there’s probably a couple that he stole, as well.”
In the first period, the Warriors outworked and outshot the UND, but the Sioux got on the board with their first shot on goal. At 4:11, sophomore forward Brett Hextall’s wrist shot from the right circle beat Braithwaite to make it a 1-0 game.
Barton tied it 32 seconds into the second period when he fired Todd Jesse’s centering pass from behind the net past UND sophomore goalie Brad Eidsness.
Ironically, the turning point of the game came when UND’s Mario Lamoureux was assessed a five-minute major for checking from behind just 23 seconds after the Merrimack goal.
“I thought it took us a while to get into the game,” Genoway said. “The five-minute penalty kind of shocked us back into the game.”
Not only did the Warriors fail to take advantage of the opportunity, but the Sioux penalty killers generated almost as many scoring chances as Merrimack’s power play.
“Our penalty kill mentality is to outwork the power play, and I thought we did,” Genoway noted. “That kind of carried over to five-on-five. It’s huge.”
Dennehy agreed that the game’s momentum shifted after UND killed the major penalty.
“At the very least, your power play needs to give you momentum, and it didn’t,” he said. “It’s an area of concern for us. We haven’t really executed the way we want to on the power play.”
Just over a minute after the Sioux killed the penalty, they took the lead for good at 7:15 of the second on a goal by freshman forward Mike Cichy, who had served the major penalty.
“He was well rested,” Genoway joked.
After winning a faceoff in Merrimack’s zone, the puck came to Genoway, who carried it into the right circle and fed Cichy at the side of the net. Cichy admitted that he didn’t get as much on the sharp-angled shot as he would have liked.
“Honestly, I was just trying to get it in,” he said. “I just put it on net and, thank God, it went in.”
Hakstol noted that the off-speed shot probably worked to Cichy’s advantage.
“Goal scorers have a way of finding the back of the net,” he said. “The way he (Cichy) shot that puck, I’m guessing that he probably caught the netminder a little off guard because it was a little unorthodox.”
Marto’s power play goal at 8:53 of the third period put UND up 3-1 and stood as the game winner. After being denied by Braithwaite on the right side of the net, senior center Chris VandeVelde carried the puck to the left side and backhanded a pass to Marto in the slot, who one-timed the puck in.
By failing to score on six previous power plays, including nearly a minute and a half with a two-man advantage, Hakstol said Marto’s goal was critical.
“We had real good possession; we had good opportunities, but nothing to show for it,” he said. “The Marto goal was a real important goal for us at that point in time.”
Merrimack got right back into it when sophomore center Todd Jesse’s pass in the neutral zone got Barton behind UND’s defense. He went alone on Eidsness and scored to make it a 3-2 game.
Dennehy pulled Braithwaite for the final 1:26 of the game, but UND’s defense held for a home sweep and a 2-0 start.
“I guess coming into the series, you can’t do any better than two wins,” Hakstol said. “We’re certainly not going to get ahead of ourselves here, but two wins is a good start for our team.”
UND next hosts WCHA rival Minnesota for a two-game series at Engelstad Arena Oct. 16-17. Merrimack is at home against Holy Cross Oct. 16 and Army on Oct. 17.