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Back in December, the Denver Pioneers traveled to Grand Forks to face league-leading North Dakota. After 1:22 of the first period, Denver was up 1-0, and probably feeling good.
It didn’t last. Just 26 seconds later, North Dakota tied it, and the Fighting Hawks scored the next eight goals of the series en route to a convincing sweep that was the low point of Denver’s season, a weekend that carried over into a sweep one week later at home by St. Cloud State.
That series was certainly on Denver’s minds Friday night at Magness Arena against North Dakota, and Denver used an energetic forecheck and cycling to win one of the more entertaining college hockey games of the year, 6-4.
“It was an unbelievable game to be a part of, and it’s the first time where as a coach in the last 10 minutes I was sitting there, like, this is so much fun,” said Denver coach Jim Montgomery. “What a great game for anyone to be a part of. It was nice for our guys to realize, it took them about seven minutes to realize they can play with North Dakota.”
North Dakota got on the board first. After getting the game’s first power play, UND got several good chances, but couldn’t score. Shortly after the power play ended, Denver’s defenders got caught chasing one player and leaving Christian Wolanin with a lane, and he skated into the slot and beat Tanner Jaillet with a wrist shot five-hole at 5:39.
“You know what, I think it was our leadership, and I thought it was Gabe Levin’s line, and Matt Marcinew’s line, had two shifts in a row where they bodied and hemmed them in, and got good opportunities, and then all four lines started to follow suit,” said Montgomery of Denver’s response to North Dakota’s goal. “I think we’re a lot mentally tougher as a team, and people understand their roles in more ways.”
The Pioneers answered during a delayed penalty call when Nolan Zajac fired a shot from the left point and Grant Arnold redirected it past a screened Cam Johnson at 12:44.
Early in the second, Denver took a 2-1 lead on a defensive breakdown. Right off a faceoff, Trevor Moore drove to the right post while Danton Heinen got the puck in the slot and skated toward Johnson. He spied Moore at the post and slid him the puck, and Moore redirected it into the open net at 6:08 of the second.
“They were great, and we need them to be when we play top-level teams,” said Montgomery of Heinen and Moore. “I like the way everyone played. Everyone, when you draw it up on the board how they should play, and the roles that would allow them to have success as a team, everyone did them.”
The game became much more up and down from there on, and North Dakota finally tied it on a pretty play when Nick Schmaltz carried the puck deep along the right side of the ice and spied Troy Stecher trailing on the left side and fed him a perfect pass that Stecher one-timed with a wrist shot short side past Jaillet at 11:48.
However, North Dakota couldn’t celebrate long. Heinen and Moore worked a give-and-go in deep in the right corner, and Moore then spun back toward the net and found a streaking Adam Plant in the slot, and Plant redirected it past Johnson at 13:37 of the second.
“I think we always work on cycling, but that was all Trevor,” said Heinen. “He made a great pass.”
North Dakota started the third period with a lot of jump, and it paid off when Stecher got the puck in the right corner deep in Denver’s net and drew several defenders with him. Stecher made a pretty spin move and fed it across the crease to Brock Boeser, who was all alone on the left post with time to lift it past Jaillet at 1:36.
Denver then poured on the pressure, forcing Berry to call timeout. It wasn’t enough, as Heinen and Moore again worked a give-and-go. Heinen streaked up the middle of the ice and passed it to Moore at the North Dakota blue line, then split the North Dakota defense and Moore fed him the puck as he broke in and Heinen lifted a wrist shot top corner stick side at 7:44.
“That was kind of a breakout play,” said Heinen. “Trevor again made a great play, and I split the D and got lucky to get the shot.”
With under five minutes to go and Denver on a power play and buzzing, Zajac was called for a marginal interference penalty, putting the teams four-on-four and then giving North Dakota 1:29 of power play. However, it was Denver that scored. As North Dakota’s power play started, the Pioneers cleared the zone and sent the puck deep, and Heinen chased a North Dakota pass around the boards and forced a turnover, then he found Quentin Shore alone in the slot and sent him a pass, and Shore roofed it glove side at 16:16.
“They’re good players and they made plays,” said North Dakota coach Brad Berry. “Our good players made plays tonight and scored goals. At the end of the day, I think the team that closes down and clamps down defensively wins games. We didn’t do a very good job of that. … Every time we scored a goal, they had a response, and that’s the sign of a good team.”
However, the goal was still being announced when North Dakota struck back, as Austin Poganski got the puck at the Denver blue line and sent Schmaltz in alone on a breakaway. Schmaltz beat Jaillet low glove side at 16;46.
Berry pulled Johnson with 1:25 left in the period and generated several quality scoring chances that elicited screams of hope from the many North Dakota fans in attendance. With just over 20 seconds left, Plant backhanded it the length of the ice, just missing the empty net. Montgomery then called time with 20 seconds on the click and a faceoff deep.
North Dakota won the draw and got a shot off, but it went high, and the puck was cleared and Moore and Heinen skated in on the empty net. Despite having the open net to shoot at, Moore dished it to Heinen, who scored with 3 seconds left to seal the win.
“Until the timeout right before that icing, that was nerve-wracking,” said Montgomery. “North Dakota does a great job in the offensive zone, and their defensemen get really active, and we did a good job of staying at the netfront. When you are playing what I think is the best team in the country, it’s very nerve-wracking.”