GRAND FORKS, N.D. — As University of North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol gave his post-game comments, the sounds of the Denver University Pioneers celebrating their sweep of the Fighting Sioux echoed through the corridors of Ralph Engelstad Arena.
UND jumped out to a 2-0 second period lead, only to see Denver respond with four unanswered goals. The 4-2 win enabled the Pioneers to take eight valuable WCHA points from the Sioux and regain the conference lead.
“It was a huge character win for us,” said Denver sophomore forward Joe Colborne, who celebrated his 20th birthday with the game-winning goal and an assist. “We may end up looking at this as being a huge turning point in our year.”
For UND, the chances of a strong finish in the second half of the season are rapidly fading. After a 7-1-1 start, the Sioux have gone 6-9-4. Hakstol said the best way for the Sioux to regain their winning ways is to not get discouraged and continue to work hard.
“There’s no magic formula that brings that back,” he said. “It has to be a belief in everybody in the locker room and it has to be a real strong will of everybody in the locker room. You know what? Hard work and a little bit of success brings that back. We have to work for it.”
Eleven seconds after an apparent Denver goal was waived off, UND took a 1-0 lead at the 12:19 mark of the opening stanza. Camped in front of the Pioneers’ net, senior forward Chris VandeVelde deflected defenseman Andrew MacWilliam’s shot from the left point past junior goalie Marc Cheverie.
“It was a big gut-check for our team after the first period,” Colborne said. “They came out and got the lead on us. The coaches came in (between periods) and got under our skin a little bit. They got us going.”
The Sioux struck again at 2:42 of the second with VandeVelde’s second goal just after Denver killed a penalty. From the bottom of the right circle, forward Jason Gregoire made a cross-crease pass that VandeVelde knocked in.
From then on, it was all Denver, as the Pioneers closed out the period with three straight goals and a 3-2 lead.
Forward Anthony Maiani made a sensational behind-the-back pass from behind UND’s goal that found junior forward Kyle Ostrow coming alone down the slot. He fired the puck past UND sophomore goalie Brad Eidsness to make it a 2-1 game at 10:31.
“We had a very good start to the hockey game,” Hakstol said. “For the first 30 minutes, we played well. For whatever reason, we didn’t handle giving up the first goal very well. From there, we didn’t recover for the rest of the second period.”
“They pumped one in there and it kind of took the wind out of our sail,” VandeVelde said. “We’ve got to work on that. We’ve got to mature and grow.”
The Pioneers then took advantage of a penalty on UND defenseman Ben Blood to tie it up with a power-play goal by freshman forward Drew Shore at 13:37 off another impressive setup by Maiani.
“Maiani came down and drove the net wide and kind of backed their defenseman off,” Shore said. “He passed to me right in the slot and gave me plenty of time to shoot. I got the bounce off the post and in.”
Colborne gave the Pioneers the lead for good at 17:52 off a play that started with Gregoire blocking Shore’s shot at the UND blue line. Rather than the puck going out of the zone, Shore held it in.
“I just kind of walked on the blue line, made a pass to Rhett (Rakhshani) who made a pass to Joe who pretty much had an empty net,” Shore said.
Rakhshani put the final nail in the coffin at 12:16 of the third period when his wrist shot from the top of the right circle beat Eidsness cleanly far side. Hakstol pulled the goalie for an extra attacker for the final 1:47, but Cheverie and the Denver defenders kept the Sioux off the board for the 4-2 win and the sweep.
“With the rivalry that we have against these guys and their crowd, it’s always a challenge to come in here,” Colborne said. “This is my favorite arena to come play. It’s fun with the fans getting on you right from warm-ups. It’s one of the hardest buildings to play in. To come in a get a sweep is huge for our confidence.”
While the Pioneers season is heading in the right direction, Hakstol said the Sioux need to look at being swept at home in an important conference series as a wake-up call.
“You have to be determined not to allow this type of weekend to be the defining moment of our second half,” he said. “This has to be a moment that springboards us — kind of a slap in the face — that pushes you in the right direction.”
Denver improves to 16-6-4 overall and 12-4-4 in the WCHA. The Pioneers next host Mercyhurst Feb. 5 and travel to Air Force Feb. 6. UND, 13-10-5 overall and 8-9-3 in league play, is off next weekend and then travels to St. Cloud State for a series Feb. 12-13.