DENVER — Even though the game was played in Magness Arena, it felt almost like a North Dakota home game. The entire end section behind Denver goalie Sam Brittain was packed with fans in green North Dakota shirts and jerseys. By the end of No. 18 UND’s convincing 4-2 win over No. 16 Denver, half of the fans left were fans in green.
The game had everything, including power-play goals, short-handed goals, and the usual physical play between these bitter rivals. It also saw the return of Clarke Saunders to the net for North Dakota, who played in place of injured Zane Gothberg. Saunders hadn’t played since Nov. 29, 2013, in a loss to St. Lawrence.
“That’s just being part of a team,” said North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol of Saunders good play in his return. “Everybody has a role, everybody has a job. Clarke hasn’t played in a while, but he’s a good goaltender, and his teammates knew that he would go in and play well, battle hard, and vice versa; I think they battled hard for him.”
Despite the fact that shots were relatively even in the first half of the first period, North Dakota clearly got the better scoring chances, eliciting roars from the strong North Dakota fan presence. It seemed Denver goalie Sam Brittain could hold off the assault only so long, and UND notched the first goal at 7:31 when Michael Pates stuffed a rebound in from the slot past Brittain.
“I think we did a good job of coming out with some energy and getting some momentum and keeping pucks down low,” said North Dakota captain Dillon Simpson. “As for Clarke Saunders, we have a ton of confidence in him too. He hasn’t played, but he’s been doing great every week.”
North Dakota boosted its lead to two with a pretty power-play goal by Drake Caggiula. Brendan O’Donnell fed a perfect cross-ice pass to Caggiula on the back door in the right circle, and Caggiula one-timed it into the open net at 14:29.
“I thought it was a racehorse period, up and down the rink, which maybe wasn’t the first thing I expected between these two teams,” said Hakstol. “I think we did a good job generating simple opportunities. We didn’t turn down shots, we put pucks to the net, and our first goal was a rebound goal, which I think it was the second or third rebound we got to in the first period, and it finally found a hole.”
After such an up-and-down first period, the teams came out more cautious in the second. However, the Pioneers got a five-minute power play when Gage Ausmus got called for boarding at 5:32. Though the first half of the power play was lackluster, Denver finally got on the board on a seeming broken play when the puck came from behind the net to Ty Loney standing at the left post with an open net, and he poked it in at 9:28.
“Flat; no emotion and no energy,” said Pioneers coach Jim Montgomery of his team’s play. “North Dakota did a great job. They won every facet of the game, and their coaches prepared their team better than I prepared our team. Every part of our game wasn’t up to snuff tonight. Our execution and our effort wasn’t there. Couple that with a lack of emotion and your are going to give them great looks.”
However, North Dakota got a power-play goal of its own to regain the two-goal lead on a play Brittain probably wants back, as Mark MacMillan got a pass to Simpson streaking into the slot. Simpson got an off-pace shot on net from near the crease that beat Brittain low at 11:15.
“It was kind of a broken play,” said Simpson. “Jordan kicked it out to Mark MacMillan and we kind of two-on-one’d the guy. I was glad I put it in the right spot because I definitely didn’t get all of that shot, so it was great to get that goal.”
Denver’s last chance to get back in the game came early in the third, when the Pioneers went on a power play at 4:53. However, after a powerless power play, it was North Dakota that scored the short-handed goal when a turnover at the blue line led to a North Dakota two-on-two rush. Colten St. Clair carried it up the left side boards, and Rocco Grimaldi snuck up the middle between two Denver defenders. St. Clair passed it to Grimaldi in the slot, and Grimaldi redirected the pass through Brittain’s five-hole at 6:52.
“Our specialty teams went through a dip two to three weeks ago,” said Haktsol. “Last weekend, we felt like we were starting to do things pretty well, but we didn’t have much to show for it. Tonight on the power play, I thought we obviously had a lot more to show for it. The penalty kill, forget about the stats, I thought our PK did a solid job.”
Denver got two more power-play chances in the third, and finally got another goal late. Trevor Moore got the puck on the left side of the crease and had a partly open net, but missed. However, he picked up the puck behind the net and scored a wraparound goal on the other side at 16:04.
Any hopes for a Denver comeback however, were snuffed when Matt Tabrum took a hooking penalty on the next shift.
“I think that mentally, we were not sharp, and when you couple that with a lack of emotion and energy, everything is slow,” said Montgomery. “We were so deliberate and so methodical, it was painful to watch. You watch the other team, and they’re just taking the space and going hard to the net.”