GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Despite watching bounce after bounce in front of the net, Clarke Saunders kept North Dakota in the running to hold the lead.
But it was Paul LaDue that made the save of the game.
The freshman defenseman quickly made his way to the net and managed to drive away Dominic Zombo’s shot with his stick in the third period to salvage a 3-1 North Dakota lead en route to a 4-2 victory over Nebraska-Omaha (10-13-2, 7-6-2) on Friday night in front of 11,403 at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
“I didn’t touch that,” Saunders said. “That was Paul. That was a heck of a save — probably the save of the year. It’s just kind of funny a goalie didn’t do it.”
In a play that would have tied the game, UND (12-8-3, 9-6-0 NCHC) was able hold control.
“He got a stick on it and it was a little bit of good fortune there, but great instinct,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “That’s a great instinctual, defensive play and Paul LaDue has a way of getting those kind of plays.”
It was Omaha that got on the board first in the game during the second period with a goal from Brian Cooper that made its way past Saunders (31 saves) from the point.
But North Dakota responded at 11:04 of the second in a passing effort from Michael Parks to Drake Caggiula, who saw Mark MacMillan at the bottom of the circle for an open-net opportunity.
In what began as UND’s 9-6 edge in shots in the first, the Mavericks controlled by the end of the second — tripling its shots in the middle frame for a total of 24 before beginning the third period.
“I thought the second period was all the Clarke Saunders show,” MacMillan said. “Obviously, that was big for us.”
Persistence became big for the Mavericks as they hoped to capitalize on more chances in the third period.
“We were believing we could win the game,” UNO defenseman Brian O’Rourke said. “We always have to believe that. Obviously, we weren’t going to press and try and give them any more opportunities. We knew being on the road, we’ve got to keep things simple and just try and get pucks to the net. I thought we did a pretty decent job of that, but I guess they just capitalized on a few more chances than we did.”
North Dakota found those chances right away, despite multiple turnovers, as 35 seconds proved enough time to take the lead in the third. MacMillan controlled the puck on the boards and passed to Parks at the top of the crease for a top-shelf shot with the backhand.
Brendan O’Donnell tallied another goal for UND before Ryan Walters’ shot took an odd bounce off Saunders and slipped into the back of the net to narrow the margin to one goal.
“The puck was bouncing,” Saunders said. “Sometimes it goes that way, but we made a couple funny plays — whatever you want to call them. They happen in hockey and that’s what the goalie is there for, to kind of be there at the right time and we obviously played really well in the third period from there.”
Rocco Grimaldi picked up another bounce and flipped a backhand down the ice into Omaha’s open net at 19:32 to seal the game.
“That’s what good teams do,” Saunders said. “They find ways to win. It probably wasn’t our overall best effort tonight. I think we had some lulls in the second as a team, but like I said, good teams find ways to get a ‘W’ and that’s what we did tonight.”
Omaha held the 33-22 edge in shots, but North Dakota succeeded in more chances.
The Mavericks’ efforts held strong in the second period — it was the third that silenced the team.
“I thought both teams played pretty well,” O’Rourke said. “They obviously came out with the home crowd and they fueled off that for a while. I thought we did a good job weathering the storm, but they just buried a few more of their chances tonight.”
The effort may not have been top-notch, but Hakstol said the team has to be ready to compete — no matter which team it plays.
“Omaha is an outstanding team offensively,” Hakstol said. “They’re very dangerous and every weekend is a little different challenge. But right now, it’s just the focus of preparing yourselves to going out and play — regardless of who it’s against.”