The stage was set and the story was all but written.
North Dakota had risen from the ashes. Rebounding from a 15-13-3 record late in the season, UND rallied to make the NCAA tournament and pulled off three straight blowouts to make it to the national championship game against defending champ Denver.
Add in the fact that head coach Dave Hakstol was in his first year behind the North Dakota bench, a move questioned by some as to whether he was the right fit to replace Dean Blais. This was the chance to quiet every single critic.
It seemed like the ultimate story to write of this modern-day Lazarus, the rookie coaching hero. Hollywood was waiting.
Then there was a bad bounce. And another one.
You could read it on the face of the North Dakota faithful who made the trek to Ohio: reason to worry? Yup. The thought that maybe, just maybe, this Hollywood script wouldn’t have the desired ending? No doubt.
The end for the Sioux was near. And by the time the final buzzer sounded, the score was 4-1 on the other side.
Tear up the scripts. The producers can move to a better story. This just wasn’t meant to be.
“We did everything that we wanted to do in tonight’s hockey game,” said Hakstol, who took nothing away from Denver while realizing himself this simply wasn’t the night for the Sioux. “At the end of the night, the difference is some bounces of the puck.”
The game was only six minutes old when Sioux fans began feeling uneasy. As Denver’s Kevin Ulanski was left free near the side of the net, it seemed like goaltender Jordan Parise had the angle cut down perfectly. Instead of shooting, Ulanski tried to pass the puck back, and it hit defenseman Matt Smaby’s skate. The change of direction put the puck in a perfect line towards the net with nothing in its way except Pioneer Jeff Drummond’s stick.
After tying the game on a redirect at 9:52 of the first by Travis Zajac, it looked as if the Sioux had taken the lead at 15:26. After getting two incredible shots in close on Denver goaltender Peter Mannino, Erik Fabian, a hero from Thursday’s semifinal, fired a shot destined for the twine. Mannino robbed Fabian with a quick glove save and even then it appeared that the puck might have crossed the goal line first. A long review by video replay ensued. The verdict: no goal.
With plenty of time left to change their fate, things only got worse for the Sioux. A blast from Ulanski on the power play in the second hit Paul Stastny and bounced past Parise.
From there, the Pioneers were in position, looking to follow the footsteps of 40 out of 47 other teams that had led after two periods of the title game and went on to win. This was when Denver, so many times in the past, had clamped down defensively and moved on for a victory.
Saturday was no exception.
Sure, there were glimmers of hope for the Sioux in the third. They tied a 50-year-old record with 23 shots in the period, but exactly none went in. Most of that can be credited to Mannino, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
“We’d take a shot and see it go five-hole,” said North Dakota captain Matt Greene. “There’s a whistle and the goalie stands up and you see [the puck is] an inch away. From the bench sometimes we’d have our arms raised and we’d think the puck was in.
“They take a one-timer from no-man’s land that goes off a [player] and in. That’s pretty tough to swallow.”
Hockey isn’t a perfect science, and Saturday that was proven. But when all is said and done North Dakota did, indeed, make this season as much of a science as it could. It executed throughout the tournament to perfection. Saturday night the Sioux pasted Denver with 45 shots on goal, but the stars never aligned.
Still, North Dakota has the depth and talent in its underclass to carry future teams, even with the loss of this year’s nine seniors.
“Denver knocked us out of last season as well, so hopefully this will drive us this summer to work much harder so we can make another run next season,” said sophomore forward Chris Porter.
This season, though, is over, leaving the Sioux to think of what might have been.
“Bounces happen. They happen for a reason,” said Greene. “And it just wasn’t our night.”