GRAND FORKS, N.D. — In the long emotional masterpiece that is the rivalry between Minnesota and North Dakota, it seems like every game has an endless supply of momentum changes and electricity.
And Friday night, in front of maybe the loudest crowd at Ralph Engelstad Arena in years, the two squads augmented this rivalry with yet another thriller.
Brock Nelson’s gritty goal with 3:35 left in the third period lifted North Dakota (12-8-2, 8-7-0 WCHA) to a 2-1 victory over the Golden Gophers (15-8-1, 11-4 WCHA) in front of a sellout crowd of 11,846.
Andrew MacWilliam also scored for UND, breaking through for his first career goal with nine seconds remaining in the second period.
“That was a fun game to be a part of,” Nelson said. “To come out on top – that was great to see.”
Seven power plays – including a major – kept the game wildly entertaining, with the momentum seemingly changing hands countless times.
North Dakota and Minnesota went through the first period scoreless, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Shots were 8-7 in a whirlwind first period. It began with junior forward Danny Kristo nearly putting UND up on his very first shift on the first of many quality scoring chances both directions.
Kristo was energetic and feisty throughout the first and looked poised to be a big factor for North Dakota. Instead, with just over a minute remaining, Kristo got himself an early shower after a dangerous hit from behind on Ben Marshall earned him a major penalty.
North Dakota was able to kill that penalty as it bled into the second period. That seemed to be the theme throughout the night, as neither team could capitalize on any of the man advantages Friday night.
“We didn’t have great rhythm on our power play tonight,” said Gophers’ coach Don Lucia. “Some of it is what they did and some of it was what we did. That’s an area that we have to do a better job of tomorrow.”
Nonetheless, the speedy Gophers kept pushing. They eventually drew first blood at 6:29 of the second, with Kyle Rau finishing a two-on-one breakout with Zach Budish for his 13th goal of the year.
From there, the emotion that so defines this rivalry took over. A pair of power plays for North Dakota failed to yield a tying goal and the Gophers appeared to be ready to head into the second intermission with a lead.
MacWilliam had better ideas.
After playing in his 101st career game, the junior defenseman took a clean slap shot from the point near the left boards and finally made one count in a big way, notching his first career goal at a perfect time for UND with nine seconds left in the second.
“It felt great,” MacWilliam said. “I always said that if I wanted to get my first, I wanted it to be at home. Even better, it was against the Gophers.”
There was no understating the importance of that goal from anywhere in the UND locker room. North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol liked the way his team played in the second period, but it would not have meant much had they returned to their lockers for the second intermission down a goal.
“We started [the second] with a good penalty kill for several minutes,” Hakstol said. “But you come out of that down 1-0, it takes a little wind out of your sails heading into the locker room. Obviously, that goal was probably the key play of the game from our perspective.”
The Gophers couldn’t manage a response to that and finally Nelson punctuated another crazy period when he picked up a loose puck given up by a Minnesota defender, then muscled his way to the middle and squirted a shot past the pad of Kent Patterson (23 saves) for the game winner.
North Dakota was able to clamp down and hold on for the narrow victory, as Aaron Dell turned away all ten shots he faced in the third to squelch any hope of a rally. Dell, now 9-7-2, finished with 25 saves.
MacWilliam earned first star honors for not only his goal, but for setting the tone physically. His players took note of that.
“He’s a warrior for us,” Hakstol said. “It’s not just one night – that’s how he plays night in and night out. His teammates recognize how valuable he is and how hard he is to play against. It was nice to see him scoring a big goal for our team tonight.”
That tone carried throughout both sides with a number of key hits both directions. That led to a different kind of game than the quick, up-tempo Gophers are accustomed to.
“There wasn’t much space on the rink tonight,” said Lucia. “Both teams battled hard. Both goaltenders played well and made some timely saves. There weren’t a lot of offensive chances because it became kind of a cautious game.”
Nelson said afterward he thought it was the loudest he had ever heard the “Ralph” in his two seasons playing home games there.
“The crowd was unbelievable tonight,” Nelson beamed. “Hopefully, they come back the same way tomorrow.”