DENVER — In a wild game that, for the most part, wasn’t as close as the score indicated, the No. 14 North Dakota Fighting Sioux beat the No. 9 Denver Pioneers, 4-3, in front of a packed house at Magness Arena in Denver. Danny Kristo had a goal and an assist, and Brad Eidsness made 26 saves. With the win, North Dakota moved into a tie for ninth with Cornell in the all-important PairWise rankings.
“We had a good start,” said Sioux coach Dave Hakstol. “We had a pretty solid 55 minutes of hockey, then got a little sloppy in the last five minutes. The bottom line is its a good win for us and an important two points.”
North Dakota came out with a lot of energy, dominating the action and putting Denver on its heels. As a result, Denver took two consecutive penalties. Though the Pioneers killed both off, at the end of the second, Denver turned it over along the right side boards and Kristo got it and fed it to Corban Knight all alone in front of the Denver net. Knight lifted it in at the 7:07 mark of the period.
“We definitely knew coming in that we wanted a fast start, and it was probably the best start we’ve had all season,” said Kristo. “We got that first goal, and going up 1-0 in the first period was huge. I think we were in control the entire first period. That first goal was a little bit of a weird play because the power play was just ending and the guy was still coming out of the box. I won a scrum along the wall and he was kind of open in front.”
The action got increasingly chippy, and Andrew MacWilliam put a hard check on Matt Tabrum that looked clean, but left Tabrum shaken up. MacWilliam was assessed a five-minute major and game misconduct for contact to the head. However, Denver was unable to seize the momentum, and the Sioux kept the Pioneers pinned in their own end with an aggressive forecheck. North Dakota outshot Denver, 17-4, in the period.
“He’s a tough guy for us to lose, especially so early in the hockey game,” said Hakstol of MacWilliam. “I thought the guys did a good job of staying focused on the job at hand. They didn’t worry about what had happened in the game, or look too far forwards in the game. That was a good mentality for us tonight.”
Though Denver got off to a better start in the second period, North Dakota played smart, trying to spring players behind the Pioneers’ defense. The strategy paid off when Kristo got a partial breakaway and was hauled down by Denver defenseman Paul Philips in the slot. The referee immediately signaled penalty shot. Kristo skated up the right side and cut back to the middle, beating Sam Brittain five-hole at 7:21. The goal sapped any momentum Denver had.
“We’re a good transition team,” said Kristo. “Simpson made a good pass to me and I got taken down and luckily I got a penalty shot. I was planning on going five-hole from the start. He’s a big goalie and takes up a lot of the net, so I kind of tried to freeze him a little bit with a couple head fakes and his legs opened up a little bit, so I put it through his legs.”
North Dakota came out and dominated the first half of the third period. Carter Rowney made it 3-0 at 6:16 off a perfect feed by Joe Gleason. Gleason was in the right circle and passed it to Rowney in the left circle, who one-timed it into the open net before Brittain could dive back.
Barely two minutes later, Stephane Pattyn gave the Fighting Sioux a cushion when he beat Brittain from nearly the same spot as Rowney off a rush. That was all on the night for Brittain, who was replaced by Adam Murray.
That last goal would prove pivotal. With the game seemingly wrapped up, Luke Salazar got in close on Eidsness and fed a perfect pass to Drew Shore on the far post, who tapped it in at 14:34.
Playing for pride, the Pioneers finally got something going in the last minute. First, Joey LaLeggia beat Eidsness on the inside post with a quick wrist shot from the left circle at 19:13. Then, off a draw, Jason Zucker beat Eidsness five-hole with a shot from the hashmarks at the left circle with 11 seconds to go.
“They made plays and we were sloppy on details,” said Hakstol. “When your intensity drops against good teams, those things are going to happen.”
Both DU and North Dakota called timeout after the goal, but on the ensuing faceoff, Denver was kept pinned in its own end after North Dakota won the draw, and time ran out.
“It’s hard to say anything good about that game; you have to give full credit to North Dakota, they were better than us in every department tonight,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “As lopsided as that game was after one period, Sam Brittain was the difference, he kept the game close and gave us a chance. I am extremely disappointed.”