OMAHA, Neb. — Seventh-ranked North Dakota had to weather multiple storms on Friday, but UND eventually outlasted No. 13 Nebraska-Omaha, 2-1, at CenturyLink Center.
Friday’s affair was entertaining throughout, despite all three goals coming in the first 32 minutes of the full 60, and Danny Kristo’s second-period goal eventually stood as the game-winner for the visitors.
With the win, North Dakota saw its record improve to 15-8-6 overall and 10-5-6 in the WCHA. UNO fell to 16-11-2 overall and 12-7-2 in the league.
UNO had conceded the first goal in five of its last six games before Friday’s series-opener, but the Mavericks made sure to open the scoring. Junior forward and Hobey Baker Award candidate Ryan Walters notched his 17th goal of the season 7:53 into the game.
Sustained pressure from the Mavericks in the UND zone led to a wild scramble in front of visiting goaltender Zane Gothberg’s net. When a failed initial chance sent Gothberg begging with it, Walters fired home into what must have looked like acres of empty net to UNO’s biggest name this season.
Unfortunately for the hosts, their only lead of the night lasted just 67 seconds. Celebrating his 19th birthday in style, UND second-year freshman Rocco Grimaldi tied things up at the 9:00 mark by beating UNO sophomore goaltender Dayn Belfour.
Belfour was a surprise starter in the Mavericks net, having not seen any action this season ahead of Friday’s game against the school that produced his father, the legendary NHL goaltender Ed Belfour.
Belfour’s only six appearances in a Mavericks sweater before Friday came during the 2011-12 season, in which he posted a 2-1-2 record and .902 save percentage.
Friday’s only other goal came 11:24 into the second frame, with senior UND forward Danny Kristo burying a chance low at the near post. The goal had been coming — the Mavericks zone was a shooting gallery for UND throughout the period — and when Belfour finally relented, Kristo pounced for his 17th goal of the season.
“He’d made a good play to make the first opportunity and just stayed with it,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said, describing the lead-up to Kristo’s game-winner. “We kept the puck up high until the second or third opportunity, and then on the fourth, I believe, it went in.”
Gothberg kept the Mavericks out the rest of the way, including a spectacular third period for the freshman in which UNO outshot the visitors, 14-7.
The UND defense in front of him chipped in as well, especially when North Dakota captain and senior blueliner Andrew MacWilliam blocked what had looked to be a sure equalizer for UNO with around six minutes left to play in the game, it looked more and more as though it wasn’t going to be UNO’s night.
UNO had played well despite not having much luck against the stalwart UND defense, and Mavericks coach Dean Blais seemed upbeat after the game.
“Our guys were obviously geared, with all the parents in and knowing North Dakota was going to have a good crowd here, we were mentally ready for this game,” Blais said. “We were settled in, and it was the kind of game both teams wanted to play, although we wanted to win the thing.”
UNO will have a chance to do just that Saturday afternoon when the two teams take part in the Mutual of Omaha Battles on Ice, an afternoon doubleheader going on across the street from the CenturyLink at TD Ameritrade Park.
TD Ameritrade Park is mostly known as the home of the NCAA Division I College World Series, but both UNO and UND are looking forward to the schools’ first opportunity to play a game outdoors.
It’s almost a shame that there are WCHA league points on the line, so the event will be a circus without being an exhibition, but it’s a chance everyone involved is excited about.
“This was a very important hockey game, just as tomorrow’s is,” Hakstol said. “Tomorrow, we play outdoors with the two points in the hockey game are just as important (as any). You’d like to sit back and just enjoy the experience, but you’re not able to do that, and we have to prepare ourselves to play the second game of this series.”