A bounce of the puck separates old rivals North Dakota, Wisconsin

Wisconsin and North Dakota players get tangled up after a whistle (photo: Rachel Lewis).

CINCINNATI — Playoff hockey always has a winner and a loser. Some nights the winner dominates and leaves no doubt. And some nights the winner is determined by the timely (or untimely) bounce of the puck.

The latter was the case Friday night, when Brendan O’Donnell’s point shot ricocheted off Mark MacMillan in front of the net and across the goal line with 1:44 remaining in what became a 5-2 North Dakota victory over Wisconsin in the Midwest Regional semifinals.

Rocco Grimaldi’s two empty-net goals sealed what was otherwise a furious rekindling of a rivalry that ended with one team triumphing at the very end. Friday night, it was a triumph thanks to a fortunate redirection for a goal.

But in hockey — and especially in the playoffs — a goal is a goal and a win is a win.

“2-2 with 1:44 to go in the game,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves. “At that point of the game, you’re just getting pucks and bodies to the night. North Dakota did exactly that, and they got the puck to go in.”

North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol more or less echoed those words. “One of the guys described it: It wasn’t pretty, but it was a pretty good playoff hockey goal,” he said.

MacMillan’s goal captured for UND its fourth consecutive regional final appearance after 58 minutes of back-and-forth hockey that had both teams convinced they could, and would, win.

Both teams showed dominance at times and both teams spent time on their heels through two periods.

Grimaldi’s first goal at 6:45 of the second period gave North Dakota a 2-1 lead it would hold onto for over 20 minutes, seemingly looking confident enough to hang on for the win … before relinquishing it on a game-changing wrist shot from Tyler Barnes at 9:32 of the third.

And then it was Wisconsin’s turn to smell blood.

“Once we tied it up 2-2 there, I thought we had it,” said Jake McCabe. “We were buzzing. It was kind of a flashback to our [previous] comeback games.”

Wisconsin was hoping to duplicate last week’s comeback win against Ohio State. But all hope was lost when with two minutes left, North Dakota struck gold while simply getting a puck to the net.

“I just knew there was traffic going to the net,” O’Donnell said. “I tried to get it there. Luckily, it hit Mark or it probably would have gone over the net.”

The puck found MacMillan, then fluttered past Joel Rumpel and over the line for the game winner.

“I give credit to a lot of guys in our locker room for sticking to a 60-minute hockey game, staying determined and finding a way to move on to tomorrow’s game,” Hakstol said.

For the Badgers, it ended the season on an unfortunate note, but the fight until the final seconds proved the resiliency of Mike Eaves’ squad, especially a senior class that poured so much into their four years in Madison.

“Your last game of the year is always a tough game — especially tough for our group of guys,” Eaves said. “We’ve got nine seniors that gave us great leadership this year. As we said to these young men, they left nothing inside of them. It was all on the ice. And for that reason alone they can walk out of this building with their heads held high tonight.”