GRAND FORKS, N.D. — North Dakota downed Bemidji State 5-1 Sunday to claim at least a share of the WCHA regular season title, giving the Fighting Sioux a nation-leading 15th conference championship.
“It’s the best time of the year to play hockey,” said UND sophomore Corban Knight, who had a three-point game. “There’s a lot of fun hockey ahead of us.”
Top-ranked UND (24-8-3, 19-6-1 WCHA) extended its unbeaten streak to 6-0-1 and heads to last-place Michigan Tech next weekend needing only one point to claim the league championship outright. The sweep of BSU (12-16-4, 8-14-4) enabled UND to lock up the top seed in the league playoffs.
It was Senior Day at Ralph Engelstad Arena, so it was only fitting that four of UND’s five goals came from the six seniors in the lineup.
“Within that class, there’s a lot of different guys with different personalities and different abilities,” said UND coach Dave Hakstol. “They’re all contributing within their own role, and that’s the most important thing, more so than just the points.”
Playing in front of 11,775 fans in his hometown, senior defenseman Jake Marto led the way with the game-winning goal and two assists.
“It’s the kind of stuff you dream about, you know?” Marto said. “So it’s pretty special.”
BSU got the start it wanted when UND defenseman Andrew MacWilliam was whistled for interference. The Beavers cashed in on the man advantage at 7:06 of the first period when sophomore forward Jordan George’s wrister from the right dot deflected in off a Sioux defender and past sophomore goalie Aaron Dell, giving BSU a 1-0 lead with its first shot on goal.
UND took two more penalties, which gave the Beavers a short five-on-three advantage. Matt Read and Brad Hunt each hit pipes during the ensuing BSU power plays. The Sioux outshot BSU 9-4 during the period, but big stops by junior goalie Dan Bakala kept UND off the board.
“We could have been up 2-0,” said BSU coach Tom Serratore. “Against these guys, you just have to get some of those breaks and you pop one of those. You get that two-goal lead and things change a little bit from your standpoint. Your mentality is a little different when you’re up 2-0 versus 1-0, especially in their building.”
The Sioux erupted for four unanswered goals in the second period to take a commanding 4-1 lead. UND got the first of three power-play goals at 3:43. After center Brad Malone won a faceoff in BSU’s zone, forward Matt Frattin rifled a wrist shot through traffic that deflected in off Malone’s glove. Bakala challenged it, but after a review, the goal stood.
“We needed to come out and push hard in the second period and try to turn our game around as quick as we could,” Hakstol said. “The tipped goal on the power play by Malone seemed to really ignite us.”
The Sioux cashed in on the man advantage again at 9:14 when Marto and center Corban Knight worked the give-and-go to perfection with Marto tipping Knight’s return pass over Bakala’s shoulder to put UND up 2-1 with the game-winning goal.
“Corban made a great play,” Marto said. “It was a good rushing play. Two guys went to him and I just stayed in the middle. He made a great pass and I just kind of shoveled it up and it went in.”
The Beavers went on the power play with a chance to tie it up. Dell made a big save on a one-timer from the slot by George. As the penalty expired and Frattin came out of the box, Marto lofted the puck from deep in the Sioux zone. The puck hit Frattin in the skates, but he kicked it to his stick, went in alone, got Bakala down and buried the opportunity five-hole.
“I thought Matt tonight did the things we’re becoming accustomed to seeing him doing,” Hakstol said. “He’s found a different level to his play and he’s been at that level the last five or six weeks. He’s been good all year, but he’s found another gear.”
Junior forward Jason Gregoire made it a 4-1 game when he fired in a cross-ice pass from Knight, beating Bakala short side at 17:47.
“We came in from the first period 1-0 and they [the Sioux] didn’t convert on a couple open nets,” Serratore said. “So then you sit there and hope that you get that second one and then you make a game out of it. It just wasn’t meant to be. They obviously had that strong second period.”
UND closed out the scoring in the third period with a power-play goal by senior forward Evan Trupp at the 13:20 mark.
“I thought we played a better 60 minutes,” Serratore said of his team’s effort. “I thought we had better jump. I thought we made more plays. We got a couple more power plays, so that means we drew some penalties, too. I thought we were a better hockey team tonight than we were last night.”
Hakstol is pleased with the way the Sioux have played down the final stretch of the regular season, but emphasized that the team can’t become complacent with its success.
“We’re earning our way right now; we’re earning wins,” he said. “We’ve earned our way to the No. 1. And now, we’ve got to wake up tomorrow and continue earning it.”
UND recognized its seven seniors and their parents in a pre-game ceremony. The group includes Sioux captain and defenseman Chay Genoway, forward Brent Davidson, Frattin, defenseman Derrick LaPoint, Malone, Marto and Trupp.
UND ends the regular season on the road at Michigan Tech. BSU, tied for 10th in league standings with Minnesota State, is at home against Minnesota.