GRAND FORKS, N.D. — The day after Minnesota ended North Dakota’s eight-game unbeaten streak, the Fighting Sioux ended the Gophers’ season with a 4-1 victory at Ralph Engelstad Arena to move on to the WCHA Final Tournament in St. Paul.
After losing the second game of the series to the Gophers 4-2, the Fighting Sioux played a complete game in which they netted two power-play goals and killed off a five-minute major penalty.
“We left an average performance behind us and we put the loss behind us,” said UND coach Dave Hakstol. “This is an experience that we’re going to be able to grow up from a little bit. It will help us in the future. We just have to realize the situation and the things that we need to do to be successful. We have to go out and execute for 60 minutes, and we did that.”
Sophomore forward Jason Gregoire, who netted the game-winner and had two assists, said that winning the series at home against rival Minnesota was a thrill for the Sioux.
“The first two games, it’s just a big series at home, but to win it means a whole hell of a lot,” he said. “It’s fun to beat them (the Gophers) at home; it’s fun to beat them in their rink, but our crowd was into it amazingly tonight and we didn’t let them down.”
The game was marred by injuries to Minnesota defensemen Kevin Wehrs and Nick Leddy, both of whom left the game in the second period.
“Here you are in game three, in the second half of the game, and you’re down to four ‘D’ (defensemen),” Lucia said. “By the end of the game, they were gassed.”
UND hit the ice with good jump. A strong forecheck drew three quick Minnesota penalties and led to the first Sioux power-play goal of the series. From behind the Gophers’ net, Gregoire passed to defenseman Ben Blood at the right point. With the Minnesota defense drawn in low, Blood had time to skate to the top of the right circle, take a look and fire a shot that beat junior goalie Alex Kangas through traffic, giving UND a 1-0 lead at 4:59.
The Gophers didn’t get a shot on goal until 11:10, but they made it count. A strong shift by Minnesota prevented the Sioux from getting a much-needed line change. Tony Lucia passed from the right of UND’s goal to sophomore forward Jake Hansen high in the slot. The puck was in his skates, but he had time to get it to his stick and fire a shot that cleanly beat sophomore goalie Brad Eidsness.
The second period saw the intensity ramp up, with Minnesota outshooting the Sioux 12-5. This time, it was North Dakota that made the most of its limited opportunities to take a 2-1 lead.
The Gophers had a chance go ahead when UND’s Matt Frattin took a run at Wehrs and left his feet to throw what Lucia called “a vicious hit” at 4:42. The Sioux junior forward received a major penalty for contact to the head charging on a play that caused a melee to erupt that included Kangas.
“Say what you want, it’s not the kind of hits we want to see in the game,” Lucia said. “My own personal feeling is that it was more than a five. Obviously, Wehrs is not in great shape right now. They’ve (the Sioux) got a defenseman (Chay Genoway) that hasn’t played all year because of a hit, and those are things that I don’t think need to be part of the game.”
However, Minnesota could not take advantage of the lengthy power play. UND put on a textbook display of penalty killing that brought the crowd of 11,627 to its feet with a thunderous roar.
Hakstol credited the home crowd’s reaction with keeping the momentum on UND’s side.
“I said coming in that we fight so hard for the home ice advantage,” he said. “I think that’s particularly important for us because of how much our fans mean to us and how much they help us during critical times of hockey games.”
“I decided to try to get the boys going — big hit, a costly five minutes,” Frattin said of his hit on Wehrs. “But it was great PK for our team. That was a huge momentum swing for us and we didn’t look back after that.”
“It would have been great to score a goal,” Lucia said. “We had a couple chances. We tried to almost get three units because here it is in game three and you don’t want to gas your guys in a five-minute span. But they did a good job killing, and specialty teams were really the difference in the game.”
At the 14:12 mark, Blood led a rush into Minnesota’s zone with Minnesota’s Cade Fairchild right on him. Going hard to the net, the pair plowed into Kangas, who punched Blood in the face. Blood received no penalty on the play, but Kangas was whistled for roughing.
The Sioux failed to score with the man advantage. However, six seconds after the power play expired, Gregoire gave the Sioux the lead for good when he tipped Danny Kristo’s shot from the point past Kangas at 16:18, giving ND a 2-1 lead at the end of the second.
The Gophers started the third period down two defensemen. Lucia said that freshman Nick Leddy was injured on a knee-to-knee check in the second stanza and received a thigh contusion that greatly limited his ability.
Minnesota kept the game within one until the 11:24 mark, when Frattin made it 3-1 with a power-play tally, his fourth goal of the series and ninth of the season. Tony Lucia blocked Frattin’s initial shot, but he recovered the puck and threw it back on net to beat Kangas cleanly.
“I just snapped it on net,” Frattin said. “I definitely didn’t lean into it at all. But, change it up, the goalie’s not expecting it. He robbed me a couple times, but luckily that one snuck by.”
For the remainder of the game, the Sioux were so effective at keeping the Gophers bottled up in their own end that Kangas was able to get off the ice for an extra attacker for just 17 seconds. In that time, Gregoire stole the puck in UND’s zone and skated into the Minnesota zone two-on-one. He passed to sophomore forward Brett Hextall, who scored into the empty net at 19:17, icing the 4-1 victory for UND.
“With a one-goal game going into the third period, I thought we were in pretty good shape at that point in time,” Lucia said. “But they did a good job getting pucks in deep and just going after our ‘D’ (defensemen). It’s hard to defend with only four ‘D,’ especially in game three.”
Hakstol said that defensively, the third period might have been one of UND’s best of the season.
“We did a good job with a one-goal lead and an excellent job with a two-goal lead,” he said. “I liked the way we played in the third period. I think we were stingy as far as time and space all over the rink, and I thought we were very tough on the puck, grinding down low in their zone and taking seconds off the clock.”
Under the circumstances, which included season-ending injuries to key players earlier in the season, Lucia said he was proud of how his team battled the Sioux.
“This is not an easy environment to play in,” he said. “I mean, this is probably as difficult an environment to play in as there is in college hockey, and the guys really went toe-to-toe right to the end here tonight.”
Minnesota ends its season at 18-19-2 while the Sioux advance to the WCHA Final Five tournament in St. Paul with a 22-15-5 record. UND and Minnesota-Duluth will square off in the Thursday play-in game at the Xcel Energy Center at 7:05 p.m.