GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Many know North Dakota forward Brett Hextall as a player who gets under other teams’ skins, but since he’s come back from an injury, the Fighting Sioux have been a different team.
Hextall’s breakaway short-handed goal at 4:24 of the second period was the game-winner in UND’s 5-2 victory over visiting WCHA opponent Minnesota-Duluth. He also had a power-play tally and an assist in the win.
“Obviously, his play has a high impact for us, but it’s also the voice that he has in the locker room, as well as on the bench,” said UND coach Dave Hakstol. “On our power play, it’s really allowed us to put people in what we feel are their best positions.”
Hextall suffered a leg injury against Notre Dame on Jan. 3. While he was out of the lineup, the Sioux had an 0-32 slump on their power play. Since he returned Feb. 12 against St. Cloud State, the Sioux are a red hot 8-17 (47 percent) with the man advantage.
“We changed up the look on both power plays, and it seems to be working well for us,” Hextall said. “The key is to being sharp and executing.”
One of those changes including putting junior forward Matt Frattin on the point, a move that paid off at 12:04 of the first period. His wrister from the top of the right circle beat UMD sophomore goalie Kenny Reiter short-side to put the Sioux up 1-0.
Hextall followed that with a power-play tally at 18:51 of the first. He dragged the puck over the right dot and then rifled a wrister from the bottom of the circle that beat Reiter high short side, giving UND a 2-0 lead.
“You hate to look at the scoreboard after the first period and you’re down 2-0 when you feel like you played a pretty good road period,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “But the difference was that they scored on their power plays and we didn’t.”
The Bulldogs had a golden opportunity to get back in it early in the second period with a two-man advantage for 1:41, but instead of cutting UND’s lead, Hextall came out of the penalty box, gathered in a long pass from defenseman Derrick LaPoint and went in alone on Reiter to score short-handed at 4:24.
“I yelled right away when I got out,” Hextall said. “I don’t know if he (LaPoint) knew I was in the middle there or what. Either way, it was a great play.”
“I thought the five-on-three was a killer,” Sandelin said. “We really didn’t have a lot of urgency. They got the short-handed goal after that. I thought that was the backbreaker.”
UND went up 4-0 on a power-play goal by freshman forward Danny Kristo at 1:46 of the third period. The Bulldogs managed to make it interesting with goals by Justin Fontaine at 9:13 and Jake Hendrickson at 17:22, but sophomore forward Jason Gregoire sealed the win with an empty-net goal at 19:42 to make the final score 5-2 UND.
With three man-advantage tallies, a short-handed goal and holding the Bulldogs 0-7 on their power plays, Sandelin said UND was the clear winner of the special teams’ battle. Part of it had to do with UND sophomore goalie Brad Eidsness, who stopped 31 of 33 shots he faced.
“Five-on-five, I thought we played pretty well. He (Eidsness) made some good saves, but they were the better team, certainly on special teams.”
The Sioux have scored 16 goals in their last three games, which Eidsness said makes his job easier.
“From Saturday night last weekend until tonight, the power play’s been pretty hot, so that takes a lot of pressure off me,” he said.
Hakstol said the team is finally being rewarded for its hard work.
“Last weekend, we finally broke through and scored goals five-on-five, as well as on the power play,” he said. “That has a way of carrying over, so hopefully it will be a trend for us.”
So far, the momentum from UND’s 8-1 victory over SCSU the previous weekend is staying with the Sioux.
“Now we know how many points we can put on the board,” Hextall said. “It was definitely a relief. We felt like we kind of exhaled.”
UND improves to 15-11-5 overall and 10-10-3 in the WCHA. The win over UMD, combined with Colorado College’s loss to Minnesota, puts the Sioux two points behind the fifth-place Tigers. UMD is 18-12-1 overall and 14-8-1 in league play. The Bulldogs remained in a third-place tie with Wisconsin.
The second game between UND and UMD begins at 7:05 p.m. Saturday in Ralph Engelstad Arena.