DENVER — Of all the statistics in hockey, shots on goal might be the most useless. Witness tonight’s game at Magness Arena. With its season on the line, the North Dakota Fighting Hawks threw shots at Denver goaltender Filip Larson with abandon, outshooting the Pioneers 42-18. However, it was Denver that won, 4-2, sweeping the Fighting Hawks and advancing to the Frozen Faceoff in St. Paul, Minnesota, next weekend.
It was an impressive weekend for a team that last weekend only scored one goal against Colorado College and got swept, losing the Gold Pan trophy to its arch-rival.
“I think we just tried to remind everyone what our mantra was all season,” said Denver captain Colin Staub. “We started off this season with a lot people kind of counting us out, and we just reminded the team of that, that we hadn’t done anything yet and we needed to come into this weekend with this being our first real chance to prove to those people that counted us out that we’re contenders.”
For North Dakota, it was a bitter feeling, as for the second straight year the Fighting Hawks failed to make the NCAA tournament. Coach Brad Berry seemed to indicate there was a lot of work that would be done in the off season.
“We didn’t get the result we wanted,” said Berry. “It’s an empty feeling. It’s a feeling that we don’t like, a feeling we don’t want to get used to. It’s one of those things where we’re going to go through the summer and scrutinize everything we do.”
Denver got the first power play when Gavin Hain ran into the goaltender. Right off the draw, Les Lancaster fired a shot low toward the far post that Cole Guttman redirected past Peter Thome at 3:45 of the first period.
Denver almost immediately went back on the power play, but was unable to convert on its second opportunity.
North Dakota finally broke Filip Larson’s shutout streak of 74:33 on the weekend on a perfect shot from Nick Jones. Jones raced up the left side while Grant Mismash carried the puck up the middle. Near the top of the slot, Mishmash fed Jones, who as he was backing away fired a perfect snap shot top corner far side post at 14:33 of the first.
North Dakota then had a great chance to take the lead when it went on a power play in the last two minutes of the period, but Denver’s penalty kill withstood the barrage. Overall, North Dakota outshot Denver 16-3 in the first period.
“We had a chance to end their season, and that’s motivation more than anything,” said Staub of what they talked about in between periods. “It’s no secret that North Dakota and Denver are rivals, we don’t really like each other that much when we’re on the ice. Just said to stick to the process.”
Denver struck early in the second to regain the lead. Griffin Mendel carried the puck down low on the left side and cut toward the net, then slid the puck through the crease to Staub on the far post, who managed to bang it in past Thome at 1:02.
“I think we did a better job possessing pucks in the offensive zone, particularly in the second period,” said Denver coach David Carle. “I thought some things started to open up for us, and we were able to make some plays.”
North Dakota had two power plays that proved good chances to get back in it, but Denver killed both, and then on a power play they got toward the end of their second penalty, the Pioneers had a golden chance for a two-goal lead when Jarid Lukosevicius one timed from down low in the left circle, but Thome got his shoulder on it.
“We took too many penalties, too many stick penalties unfortunately,” said Carle. “Commend our penalty kill, particularly (Jaakko) Heikkinen, Staub, (Ryan) Barrow, and (Tyson) McLellan. Those four did the bulk of the work. I thought we did a good job staying compact, keeping shots to the outside for Filip.”
Ultimately, Thome couldn’t stop Lukosevicius all night. Guttman carried the puck over the blue line on the right side and slid the puck to Lukosevicius who rifled a perfect shot top corner glove side at 14:38 to give Denver the two-goal lead.
“It was a big-time play by Guttman to find Luko,” said Carle. “Luko was screaming his head off; we could all hear him from the bench.”
A Jones goal at 5:42 pulled North Dakota within a goal but it wasn’t enough.
“He wears his heart on his sleeve each and every night, and it was no different,” said Berry of Jones. “In the biggest game of the year that we had to have, he competed, and he led how a North Dakota player does.”
Heikkinen’s empty net goal with 1:33 left sealed the fate of the Fighting Hawks and punched Denver’s ticket to St. Paul.
Five series will need winner-take-all game 3s on Sunday
Five different teams facing elimination on Saturday won to stay alive and force a third-and-deciding game on Sunday.
Boston College bested Providence, 4-3 in overtime to even their series. UMass Lowell won a wild game against Boston University, 6-4, to live another day.
In Atlantic Hockey, Robert Morris and Army West Point bested second-seed Bentley and top seed American International, respectively, by identical 2-1 scores.
And in the ECAC, Cornell rebounded from a 3-2 loss on Friday with a 4-0 victory over Union on Saturday to force game 3.
Also on tap on Sunday, Ohio State will host Penn State in the Big Ten semifinals. The winner will play Notre Dame in next weekend’s Big Ten title game.
And Colorado College, leading one-game-to-none in their series that was delayed a day by weather, will try to eliminate Western Michigan in the NCHC. Should that series need three games, the deciding game will be played on Monday.