GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Considering that there were no fights, no dramatics and few penalties, the 11,616 fans in Ralph Engelstad Arena who saw North Dakota down Denver 4-3 might wonder if they were in the right building.
“I don’t know what that means,” said Pioneers head coach George Gwozdecky about the lack of fireworks that have characterized contests between the two teams for the past several seasons.
“Maybe just give it time,” he added. “I think that both teams are trying to find their identity. As time goes along, I wouldn’t be surprised to see both teams get a little feistier.”
On a night that UND honored goalie Ed Belfour, who helped the Fighting Sioux win an NCAA championship in 1987 and Dallas win the Stanley Cup in 1999, the home team was practically angelic.
In fact, UND took just one penalty the entire game, and that didn’t come until 5:05 of the third period when Danny Kristo was called for hooking. The previous weekend when Maine swept UND, the Sioux were shorthanded 19 times and gave up five power play goals.
“We realized that in order to have a good 60 minutes and win the game, we’ve got to stay out of the box,” said sophomore forward Corban Knight, who had two goals. “Guys took that upon themselves. We just played really good, hard hockey, and we didn’t need to take penalties tonight.”
UND head coach Dave Hakstol gave his team high marks for its performance.
“Coming off the weekend in Maine, we did what we wanted to do,” he said. “We got contributions from everybody in the lineup. I thought we played hard for 60 minutes. That’s what he had to do; (Denver’s) a good hockey team.”
The Pioneers opened the scoring at 6:19 of the first period. From behind the net, sophomore forward Shawn Ostrow centered the puck to freshman forward Jason Zucker, who one-timed it past UND sophomore goalie Aaron Dell.
The Sioux answered at 11:51 of the opening stanza when freshman defenseman Dillon Simpson notched the first goal of his college career. Simpson forced freshman goalie Sam Brittain to make a pad save on his shot from the slot, then stuffed in his own rebound to make it a 1-1 game.
The Pioneers scored on their only shot on goal of the second period to take a 2-1 lead. At the 1:53 mark, Denver sophomore defenseman Matt Donovan carried the puck into the UND zone one-on-three. He got around Sioux defenseman Ben Blood and jammed the puck past Dell to give the Pioneers a one-goal lead.
In a period dominated by the Sioux, it would be Denver’s last lead. UND sophomore forward Mike Cichy knotted it 2-2 at 9:04 when his wrister from the top of the right circle caught the inside of the top corner on Brittain’s glove side.
“That was a huge goal for us,” Hakstol said. “I like the way reacted when we went down 2-1. We didn’t get back on our heels. The bench didn’t sag. We just went out and pushed and had a great period.”
Knight gave UND the lead at 16:43 when linemate Brett Hextall fed him a pass that isolated him on the Denver goalie. Brittain dove across the crease, but Knight slipped the puck under him to put the Sioux up 3-2.
“The second period was certainly an impressive period, in my mind, for the Sioux,” Gwozdecky said. “That was the difference in the game.”
Zucker didn’t disagree.
“That second period, we didn’t play our best,” he said. “We got outshot 11-1. We can’t let that happen. We’ve got to come out and play better tomorrow.”
Knight’s power play goal at 1:13 of the third period stood as the game winner. His attempted pass to Jason Gregoire went off a Denver player and between Brittain’s pads to give UND a 4-2 lead.
“We played a really solid 60 minutes,” Knight said. “Give them (the Pioneers) credit; they played hard, too. But I think when we were playing really well and rolling the lines, we dictated most of the game.”
The Pioneers made it a one-goal game at 10:37 with Zucker’s second goal. On a Denver odd-man rush, Dell stopped freshman forward Beau Bennett’s initial shot, but Zucker corralled the puck at the side of the net and put it in.
But the Pioneers would get few opportunities for the remainder of the game, even with Brittain pulled for the final 41 seconds.
Unlike last season when the Pioneers won four regular-season games against UND, the Sioux held on to remain undefeated in WCHA play (3-0-0 and 4-2-1 overall). Denver is 1-1-1 in the league and 2-3-2 overall.
“I know the Sioux struggled last weekend out at Maine and were trying to right the ship,” Gwozdecky said. “We, as well, are trying to figure out what works best for us.”
Dell finished the game with 14 saves on 17 shots while Brittain had 26 saves on 30 shots. Denver was 0-1 on the power play and the Sioux were 1-3.
The two teams meet at 7:05 Saturday at Engelstad Arena for the second game of the series.