GRAND FORKS, N.D. — As if North Dakota needed any more motivation to play Alaska-Anchorage, a fire dancer got the sellout crowd of 12,090 fired up just before the Fighting Sioux took to the ice.
Fans roared their approval when UND alum Michael Morgen twirled flaming pots at center ice as “Welcome to the Jungle” blared throughout Ralph Engelstad Arena.
In the Fighting Sioux locker room, word that Minnesota was soundly beating league-leading Denver gave Fighting Sioux players all the motivation they needed to complete the sweep with a 3-1 victory over the visiting Seawolves.
“A lot of us saw the Minnesota score before our game started, and we knew Saturday night in our rink is huge for us down the stretch,” said UND forward Jason Gregoire, who had a two-point night. “With one more home weekend, we needed this one, and the guys came out playing.”
The win and Denver’s loss gives UND a one-point lead in the WCHA. Fifth-ranked UND improves to 21-8-2 overall and 16-6-0 in conference play. UAA falls to 10-15-3 overall and 9-13-2 in the WCHA.
Despite missing two of its top players — senior defenseman Chay Genoway and sophomore forward Danny Kristo — UND coach Dave Hakstol said the Sioux played one of their best series of the season.
“It was a complete weekend,” he said. “That’s what you have to do at this time of year. It’s a tough league throughout the year, but it’s an extremely tough league this time of year.”
UAA coach Dave Shyiak said of the Sioux, “They’re a good team; they’re playing for a championship. They certainly deserve all the credit. They were the better team for both nights.”
Despite being heavily outshot in the opening period, solid goaltending by UAA freshman Rob Gunderson almost got the Seawolves a scoreless tie — almost.
With under 12 seconds remaining, UAA’s Craig Parkinson was whistled for roughing. That was just enough time for the Sioux, who notched their only power-play goal of the series with .8 seconds on the clock.
After stopping shots by UND’s Corban Knight and Gregoire, junior forward Brett Hextall got his stick on the loose puck in the crease and fired it past a screened Gunderson just before time expired.
“We were a little bit frustrated there,” Hextall said. “It seemed like we had a lot of good chances in the first and couldn’t quite get one. To get one at the end gives you a little bit better feeling going into the locker room.”
“That was a huge goal for us,” Hakstol said. “That was a huge point in the game. It really helped us come into the second period with good energy.”
UND struck quickly again early in the second period. Sioux forward Matt Frattin created a turnover at the UAA blue line and dished the puck to linemate Evan Trupp, sending him in alone on Gunderson. Trupp buried a slapshot that gave UND a 2-0 lead.
“I thought we were fine until they scored with .8 seconds left to go up 1-0 after the first period,” said Shyiak. “And then they scored the first shift of the second period. I thought they (UND) gained a lot of momentum after that and picked up their stride a bit. We just couldn’t get anything going offensively.”
The Sioux outshot the Seawolves 16-5 in the period and at times looked as if they were playing with the man advantage. However, Gunderson’s goaltending continued to keep it close.
At the 5:45 mark of the third period, UND extended its lead to 3-0 when Gregoire notched his 14th goal of the season. Streaking into the UAA zone down the left side, Gregoire put a shot on goal. Gunderson failed to control the rebound, leading to a scrum in front of the crease. Gregoire came up with the puck at the side of the net and jammed it home.
“I had no idea it was in,” he said, of the tally, which was reviewed. “It was a good feeling — big goal. It was an ugly one, but it’s the kind of goal you need to score against a team like that to win a game.”
The Sioux seemed to have the game well in hand until UAA freshman forward Matt Bailey used his hand to knock the puck down in the crease, then fire it past goalie Aaron Dell with 3:01 left in regulation.
“I didn’t think we played with any urgency until we scored that goal, and then we started to play with urgency,” Shyiak said.
Penalties against UND’s Brad Malone and Andrew MacWilliam opened the door for a potential Seawolves’ rally. UAA played most of the final three minutes without Gunderson in the net, but the Seawolves couldn’t get the extra-attacker goal and the Sioux couldn’t get the empty-netter. The final 3-1 score gave UND the home sweep and the WCHA lead.
In the race to gain home ice in the playoffs for the first time in UAA’s WCHA history, the loss dropped the Seawolves one point behind the sixth-place Gophers.
“We have to raise our level of play in order for us to take the next step,” Shyiak said. “Our focus is just Friday night. We have to take it one game at a time and do what we got to do to succeed to get the two points. But I think we’re a much better team than what we played and showed this weekend.”
As for the Sioux, Hextall said they are right where they want to be — leading the race for the WCHA title.
“Whenever you can be in control, that’s what you want,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us the next couple of weeks to make sure we show up both nights on a weekend. Two points isn’t good enough for a weekend. We need four from here on out. That’s what we expect of ourselves.”
Hakstol said that with six games left in the regular season, it’s not a time for the Sioux to rest on their laurels.
“We worked awful hard this weekend, so it’s nice to see that we have something to show for it in terms of the standings,” he said. “But I don’t think anybody’s going to spend tomorrow, Monday or Tuesday, sorting through the schedule or looking at the standings. We’re going to concentrate on ourselves, concentrate on our game and try to get better.”
UND is on the road next against St. Cloud State for a two-game series Feb. 18-19. UAA hosts Nebraska Omaha for a series Feb. 18-19.