GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Minnesota kept its season and playoff hopes alive by snapping North Dakota’s eight-game unbeaten streak with a 4-2 win at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Embarrassed by a 6-0 loss to the Fighting Sioux in the first game of the best-of-three WCHA playoff series, the Gophers got solid goaltending from junior Alex Kangas (41 saves) and three goals in the third period to force a third game Sunday.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia said widespread criticism of the team’s effort on Friday had an impact on how it played Saturday.
“Anybody can have an off night,” he said. “It goes with us a little bit and some people might want to pile on a little extra. I think some of the guys took it to heart.”
“It was definitely a gut check for us to be able to pull through tonight,” Kangas said.
After UND took a 2-1 lead on junior forward Matt Frattin’s tally at 10:44 of the third period, the Gophers responded with two goals 48 seconds apart to regain the lead.
“They (UND) had the momentum there, and we could easily have folded,” Kangas said. “But we came back, got a power play, and were able to capitalize on that, which was huge.”
When Sioux defenseman Ben Blood went to the box for tripping Minnesota forward Jacob Cepis, the Gophers cashed in. From near the top of the right circle, Cepis took a look and fired a wrist shot through traffic that beat UND sophomore goalie Brad Eidsness to make it 2-2 at the 12:10 mark.
Gophers’ freshman defenseman Seth Helgeson, who replaced senior Brian Schack in the lineup, scored his first collegiate goal and the game-winner at 12:58 to give Minnesota a 3-2 lead. Center Nico Sacchetti won a faceoff in UND’s zone and got the puck back to Helgeson, who fired a quick wrister through traffic that Eidsness apparently never saw.
“You’ve got to give them credit,” said UND forward Corban Knight. “After Frattin’s goal, they gave a pretty good push and scored a couple that seemed to have eyes.”
“We pushed back a little bit tonight, and you have to be able to do that,” Lucia said.
Once Minnesota took the lead, UND had difficulty generating scoring chances because the Gophers effectively clogged the neutral zone.
“For the last five minutes, they didn’t have much pressure,” Kangas said. “We were able to keep (the puck) down low for the most part.”
UND pulled Eidsness for the final minute of the game, but that went awry when the Sioux were called for too many men on the ice. With a man short, UND got the goalie off the ice again and forced Kangas to make another save, after which he moved the puck forward to Tony Lucia. He passed to sophomore center Jordan Schroeder for an empty-net power-play goal with one second left. Kangas got an assist on the play.
“We live to fight another day, and that’s what we wanted to do,” Lucia said. “We’ve been here before. With this group of seniors, it’s the third time we’ve been in game three.
“I think they understand what you have to do. We have great respect for North Dakota. That’s a heck of a team there. It’s going to take a terrific effort for us to be there late in the game tomorrow night and give ourselves a chance to win, and that’s what we did tonight.”
The Gophers came out with more jump and tenacity than they displayed in Friday’s 6-0 UND blowout, but the biggest difference was the play of Kangas, who swallowed up rebounds and repeatedly turned back Sioux scoring opportunities.
“We were getting a lot of shots, and Alex Kangas played well for their team,” said UND alternate captain Chris VandeVelde. “We just have to get more traffic and execute a little better.”
UND outshot Minnesota 14-3 in the first period, but it was the Gophers who came away with a 1-0 lead. After Eidsness was called for tripping Cepis, it took Minnesota just 12 seconds to capitalize on the man advantage.
From the bottom of the right circle, Cepis spotted junior forward Mike Hoeffel unattended to the left of Eidsness. Hoeffel knocked in the centering pass to put Minnesota up by one at the 17:20 mark.
UND evened it 1-1 at 7:03 of the second. With the faceoff in Minnesota’s zone, Sioux center Darcy Zajac won the draw. The puck went back to Danny Kristo, who put a shot on goal through traffic. Kangas couldn’t find the rebound, but freshman forward Corban Knight did and pounded it home.
Kangas made his best save of the game about two minutes later when UND’s Brett Hextall got his stick on a centering pass as he streaked in on goal. Kangas read the play and came across the crease to deny Hextall.
UND took a 2-1 lead in the third period when VandeVelde passed to an unattended Frattin from behind the Minnesota net. Frattin’s one-timer from the slot at 10:44 was soon erased by goals from Cepis and Helgeson.
The Sioux power play continues to experience problems, going 1-19 in the last four games, including 0-5 in the series with Minnesota.
“It’s just not clicking right now,” VandeVelde said. “I think we’ve just got to keep it a little more simple and things will start happening.”
Minnesota’s record improves to 18-18-2 while the fifth-ranked Sioux fall to 21-12-5. The third and final game of the series begins at 7:05 p.m. Sunday at Engelstad Arena.