GRAND FORKS, N.D. — With a Final Five expedition in sight after etching out a victory over Michigan Tech Friday night, North Dakota saw its two-game ticket to the tournament fall short as the Huskies claimed Game 2 Saturday night.
C.J. Eick rushed down the ice with minutes remaining on the clock in a tie game and scored on a backhand to lift the Huskies (13-19-4) to a 2-1 win over North Dakota (20-11-7) in front of 10,953 at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
“They played hard,” MTU coach Mel Pearson said. “Really proud of how they played tonight and it was a close game. It was a close checking game and fortunately, we got the bounces tonight to win the game.”
After a checking-from-behind penalty on Dennis Rix at 19:15 of the first period, North Dakota looked to start the second period on a power play, but a hooking penalty on Michael Parks allowed the teams to compete at even strength.
The Huskies snatched an opportunity early as Tanner Kero handled the puck at the bottom of the circle and passed it up to Blake Pietila, who put a quick shot on net past Clarke Saunders (29 saves) that was tipped in by Kero to claim a 1-0 lead and an advantage moving forward.
“I think we play much better when we get the lead and that was a big goal for our team,” Pearson said. “That just gives your team confidence and I thought we had a good second period. We had a few good spurts in the second period. Great goal by Blake Pietila, Tanner Kero I guess tipped it in. They’re two of our best players and we need them to score.”
After a flat second period, North Dakota erased the deficit late in the third as Danny Kristo handled the puck at the top of the zone and made a quick shot in the net past Pheonix Copley at 14:57 to tie the game 1-1 and keep a final home sweep alive.
“It was a good play,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. “He came up with the puck and got a quick shot in the net and it found a hole, which we didn’t find a lot of holes in [Copley] tonight.”
The Huskies responded quickly at 17:58 as Eick rushed down the right wing and slid one in past Saunders on a backhand to once again claim the lead.
Despite regaining control for the majority of the third period and putting 14 shots on the net in the final frame, it wasn’t enough for North Dakota to climb to victory.
“It was a hard-fought playoff game,” said Hakstol. “We came up one goal short, so we battled hard. There was momentum — it was kind of an up-and-down first period. I thought they carried the momentum in the second period. We had a good push throughout the third, but it wasn’t enough.”
With an empty net, North Dakota continued to generate chances nearing the end of the game, but was held down by a strong Michigan Tech defense.
Copley finished with 29 saves.
“We got really good goaltending,” Pearson said. “Phoenix Copley had to make a difference, and you need that on the road, and he did.”
For UND, an equally competitive presence in the net forced both teams to battle for the spot in the Final Five tournament.
“Their guy played great and so did [Clarke],” UND defenseman Joe Gleason said. “Couple huge saves on both ends, so that’s a mental adjustment you have to make as a player and just keep pushing through it and eventually, they’re going to go in.”
With less than a second left on the clock, North Dakota created one last opportunity, but Copley covered the puck in front of the net and ended North Dakota’s chance to punch its ticket for the next run — forcing the series into its final matchup Sunday night.
“We sort of put it like a tournament – this is the game that gets you in the championship game,” Pearson said. “I think we’re drawing on some past experiences that we had. Three games in three days is tough. It takes a lot of energy out of you.”
With a rematch of the two teams to determine which will move ahead in WCHA play, both will arrive ready to battle hard.
“We’ve got to come back and play an outstanding 60 minutes,” Hakstol said. “It’s two teams fighting to move on, so you have to set your mental mindset to reset and be ready to come back and play Game 3 tomorrow.”