GRAND FORKS, N.D. — With home ice for conference playoffs on the line for Western Michigan and the Penrose Cup within reach for North Dakota, focusing on the task at hand quickly became the focus for both teams.
But the Broncos (16-14-5, 10-11-2 NCHC) followed suit of its previous seven meetings with North Dakota (20-10-3, 15-8-0 NCHC) and couldn’t clinch a victory.
UND sharpened its focus away from the big picture and on to closing out 60 minutes on Friday to skate away with the 2-0 shutout in front of 11,682 at the Ralph Engelstad Arena.
“Obviously, it’s in the back our of minds, but we try not to think about that,” UND’s Luke Johnson said. “We just want to try to get the six points that we need to fight for first.”
With both teams fighting for the first mark on the scoreboard, it was North Dakota that saw its efforts pay off late in the second frame with two quick goals by Stephane Pattyn and Johnson.
“It was nice that we got rewarded,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “I thought we had a pretty good first period. Then at 17 minutes [in the second period] or whatever it was, we didn’t have a lot to show for it. A nice power-play goal followed up with another quick one was critical for that period.”
Paul LaDue controlled the puck at the point on the power play advantage and fired a shot at Lukas Hafner (33 saves) that was tipped in by Pattyn at 17:21 – North Dakota’s first after review by referees.
Just 18 seconds later, Johnson caught a pass and sniped it in the bottom of the crossbar to yield UND’s second goal in spite of a second review.
Although the Broncos’ held the consistent edge in shots – posting 35 over North Dakota’s 18 – their efforts were challenged by a determined presence in the net.
“I give North Dakota a lot of credit,” WMU coach Andy Murray said. “I actually thought our game in the first 15 minutes was pretty good. We had two or three great chances in front of [UND goalie Zane] Gothberg. He made some big saves. We had that second period where we took four minor penalties … North Dakota was hungry and they came after us. They played hard.”
Despite a dangerous two-goal lead, Gothberg closed out the game with 18 saves and took over the NCHC lead in goals against average with 2.02 — a feat he said he accomplished in the shadows of his teammates.
“It felt good,” Gothberg said. “If you look at the game and break it down, our defense played a heck of a game up front. Paul LaDue, Dillon Simpson blocking shots – all the rest of the guys getting pucks out of the net. They were superb. I didn’t have to do much.”
He only faced four shots in the second period, a turnaround of the previous meetings between the two teams.
In early December, matching 3-2 victories in a sweep for North Dakota at Kalamazoo featured a 38-24 shot advantage for the Broncos on Friday en route to a 25-16 edge Saturday. Gothberg finished the weekend with 59 saves.
Tonight, his persistence proved no different.
“He was tremendous and the difference was they scored on their chances there and we didn’t,” Murray said. “He’s a quality goaltender and they certainly did their research – that goes along with him getting the net and finding his game. He’s been good for quite a while now.”
The race was tight for both teams, but it was North Dakota’s ability to capitalize on its chances that earned it the victory.
“We’re playing against a very good North Dakota team and I think you could tell we were ready to play tonight, the way we came in in the first 15 minutes,” Murray said. “In reality, we could have been up a couple goals and who knows how that goes. But they’re a good team, the coaches do a great job and they play a brand of hockey. I think both teams play fairly similar – they just played it better tonight than what we did.”