GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Bemidji State showed up in Grand Forks prepared to fight for their its playoff lives.
The Beavers’ urgency showed on the ice — but not on the scoreboard Friday night, falling to the North Dakota Fighting Sioux (21-12-3), 4-1, in front of 10,644 at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Aaron Dell made 28 saves to help UND to a key win in game one of the WCHA first round playoffs. It wasn’t pretty, but the Sioux were able to hold on, despite giving up many an opportunity to the Beavers (17-17-3).
“We got a win in game one of the series,” said UND coach Dave Hakstol, “playing against a good hockey team that played awful hard tonight.”
Getting outshot (29-23) was just one indicator of not only Bemidji State’s urgency, but also of UND’s inconsistency, which showed at times. Hakstol said he thought overall quality scoring chances were even.
“I look at our performance,” he said. “There’s a lot of good to it, but it’s much too sporadic for playoff time. We need to challenge ourselves tomorrow to be at a higher level on a more consistent basis throughout our game.”
Both Dan Bakala (19 saves) and Dell looked strong coming out of the gate, but it was Bakala who blinked first. Connor Gaarder cashed in on a power play with a goal from the doorstep that he tucked in just out of the reach of Bakala’s skate. Gaarder’s first goal since Dec. 31 made it 1-0 at the 17:10 mark of the first period.
Corban Knight added his thirteenth of the year at 13:47 of the second on a play much like Gaarder’s. He took a feed from behind the net and put the puck between Bakala’s legs. The puck trickled in off of Bakala’s paddle, pushing UND’s lead to two.
That was in spite of many Bemidji State attempts and rushes. Brad Hunt hit two pipes, and Bemidji outshot North Dakota, 13-5, in the second period, to no avail.
“Bottom line is I thought we pushed the pace pretty good,” Beavers coach Tom Serratore said. “It gave us a little confidence as the game progressed. Obviously, we would have liked to convert in the second period, but it didn’t happen.”
Bemidji State finally got on the board at 13:05 of the third when Danny Mattson fed Aaron McLeod for a power-play goal. That appeared to put wind into the Beavers’ sails, but UND staved off a late third period disaster by pushing the lead to two 63 seconds later on a goal from freshman Mark MacMillan.
“We got back in it with that goal and the momentum was ours,” said Serratore. “We stubbed our toe with that third goal there. It could have been prevented, but that’s the way it goes.”
Hakstol also saw it as a turning point. “For us to come back and get another greasy goal down on the crease within a minute obviously was a big part of the game for us,” he said.”
Ben Blood added an empty-net goal from center ice at 19:06, sending the Sioux to their ninth consecutive WCHA playoff victory. They can earn their 10th straight Final Five appearance with a win Saturday night.
However, Blood was pretty critical of his team’s play, despite the win.
“Can’t be upset about a playoff win, but we need to be better tomorrow,” he said. “I thought that we were a little inconsistent at times, taking care of the pucks and not getting pucks deep and having a few turnovers on our blue line and their blue line.”
It was another strong game for Dell, who with Brad Eidsness has been quite the goalie tandem down the stretch.
“It’s nice having that confidence in your goalies,” said Knight. “You know they’re going to bail you out if you make a bonehead play or something like that.”
Dell said the team needs to fight hard to fight off Bemidji State’s urgency and ultimately end the Beavers’ season Saturday.
“They’re a really hard team to play against,” said Dell. “They’re always really tenacious. We just need to up that a little bit and play harder than they do.”