GRAND FORKS, N.D. — It’s not often that a timeout can change the tides of a game, but in Friday night’s season opener, one might have done just that.
Brock Nelson’s two goals after a third period North Dakota timeout rallied the Fighting Sioux from a 3-2 deficit to an exciting 4-3 victory over the Air Force Academy in front of 8,699 at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Early on, North Dakota stuck to their game and in the first period, it paid off. Corban Knight batted a shot out of mid-air at the 6:37 mark to put UND on the board. But the Falcons quickly responded with a goal of their own from Casey Kleisinger.
UND made it 2-1 on Carter Rowney’s tap in off of his own rebound. That power play goal put UND in the driver’s seat heading into the first intermission.
But Air Force never relented, and they recaptured the momentum, taking command of the second period. Goals from Stephen Carew and George Michalke tamed the crowd with impressive even-strength goals from a deep, blue-collar offense that outworked the nation’s second-ranked team much of the second and third periods.
“They’re a real good hockey team,” said Sioux head coach Dave Hakstol. “We were pretty sleepy—we gave up a lot of 3-on-2′s tonight. Give them a lot of credit, they move up the ice with speed, they attack, and they’re not afraid to make plays.”
Air Force was able to keep that lead heading into the third period, but North Dakota slowly crawled back, attempting to turn the ice back in their direction.
“Air Force was doing a real good job early in the period,” Hakstol said. “We didn’t get a whole lot going. Any possession we had was perimeter.”
Eventually, they would get the break they needed—an Air Force penalty. The charging penalty on Alex Halloran opened the door for the Sioux, and they got the opportunities that they weren’t getting before.
“We got kind of outworked a little bit and didn’t get too many pucks to the net,” Nelson said. “We wanted to drive to the net, get some pucks to the net, create some chances and we did that the last ten to fifteen minutes of the game.”
With 6:59 left and UND in desperate need of another play goal, Hakstol used the team’s timeout to get the edge he needed and was able to put his top line back out on the ice.
“We knew that was a big moment there,” Nelson said. We needed to capitalize on a chance on that power play. Special teams is a big thing we stress, and if you win the special teams you have a great chance to winning the game.
Then with three seconds left on the man advantage, the top line capitalized. Brock Nelson finally buried his own rebound to knot it up at 3.
“Coach drew up the game plan and told us what to do and we were able to go out and do it,” said Corban Knight, whose centering pass to Nelson earned him the first assist. “That was a big change in momentum for us and it was definitely a crucial point in the game.”
Then Nelson struck again just under two minutes later, at 15:15, on a give-and-go from Danny Kristo. Nelson was able to wrist one past the out-of-position Jason Torf (22 saves) and across the goal line before the net was knocked off by a Falcon defender.
Nelson said that Kristo’s play was the key to that goal. “He did what we tried to emphasize in the second intermission—getting the puck to the net,” he said. “It hopped out front and I was lucky enough to be right up front up there and put it in.”
North Dakota’s strong defense was able to clamp down and thwart Air Force’s attempt to even it out, and the Sioux held on. Aaron Dell made several key saves and finished with 22 saves in his first victory of the season.
UND outshot Air Force 26-25.
The Fighting Sioux (1-0) will face Boston College in the Icebreaker Tournament championship Saturday at 7:37 p.m.