ST. PAUL, Minn. — According to North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol, Evan Trupp had the play of the game, and it wasn’t one of his two goals.
No. 5 North Dakota led top-ranked Denver by a goal, shorthanded, with six minutes left in the third period when UND’s Trupp beat Denver’s Peter Wiercioch in a race to the puck. Trupp turned and slid the puck across the slot to Brad Malone who beat Denver goaltender Marc Cheverie top shelf.
It was the game-winner as the Sioux advanced to the WCHA Final Five championship game with a 4-3 semifinal win over the Pioneers Friday at the Xcel Energy Center.
“We’ve seen Evan do things like that before,” Hakstol said. “He has the ability to see plays before they happen. He’s extremely intelligent. That was the play of the game.”
Trupp also had two second-period goals, a pair of one-timers — one right in front of Cheverie and one from under the right dot.
“It’s playoff time and I’m starting to bear down on my shots,” Trupp said. “I give credit to my teammates. Both goals were kind of tic-tac-toe.”
The Sioux got on the board first when they began to pepper Cheverie midway through the first period on their first power play.
UND’s Matt Frattin hit the left post and Chris VandeVelde couldn’t bury the rebound. The Sioux regained possession in the Denver zone and got the puck back to Frattin and he let one go from the point. Knight’s rebound attempt came to VandeVelde, who put the puck in a wide-open net 4:18 into the game.
“Marc gave us a chance tonight,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky. “They got the early lead that’s so important this time of year.”
Added Pioneers forward Tyler Ruegsegger: “Obviously you want that first goal. It makes it tough when you’re playing from behind.”
The Sioux took a two-goal lead five minutes after the first intermission when Trupp dumped the puck into the UND zone. Malone played the puck behind the net to Frattin in the corner. Frattin set Trupp up for a one-timer on top of the crease that beat Cheverie at 4:41 of the second period.
“[Denver] is a team that battles no matter what the score is,” said Trupp, who hasn’t had a three-point game all season. “Keeping the lead throughout the game was huge on our part.”
The Pioneers cut the lead to one when Matt Donovan got the puck in the high slot and carried the puck all the way around the net, turned and shot a wrister past Brad Eidsness with 1:35 left in the second period.
Whatever momentum Denver gained with the goal, Trupp snatched it away 48 seconds later, just before the second intermission.
Jake Marto carried the puck along the Denver blue line and turned toward the slot when he got to the halfboards. He found Trupp on a cross-ice pass that Trupp one-timed near post just under the crossbar.
“Evan was our best player tonight,” Hakstol said. “His play all the way through the whole 60 minutes was tremendous for us.”
Denver cut the deficit to one again 4:15 into the third period when John Lee’s shot from the point through traffic found its way past Eidsness.
Then came Malone’s game-winner that Trupp created.
“I’ve been playing with [Trupp] all year and he makes some of the most ridiculous plays in hockey,” Malone said. “I put the stick on the ice and I yell as loud as hard as I can, and he heard me this time.”
Chris Knowlton scored on the backhand with 37 seconds left in the game to pull the Pioneers within one again, but Denver’s last-minute charge for the tying goal fell short when it failed to get a shot on net before the final horn.
“We have to respond tomorrow,” Ruegsegger said. “Let’s be honest. That was embarrassing and we have to have more pride in the crest on our jersey.”
Added Rakhshani: “It’s all about pride tomorrow. We’re going to play as hard as we would as if it were the first-place game.”
The Pioneers will take on No. 3 Wisconsin for third place at 2 p.m. Central Saturday.
UND will play St. Cloud State for the title at 7 p.m. It will be the Sioux’s sixth game in nine days.
“We just look at it one game at a time and obviously with the championship tomorrow, there’s a little more at stake,” Trupp said.