GRAND FORKS, N.D. — It’s hard to tell what was the better moment witnessed by 12,004 fans at Ralph Engelstad Arena on Saturday night.
Was it when North Dakota killed a 5-on-3 St. Cloud State power play for a full two minutes early in a game scoreless at the time, allowing just two shots, no goals and earning a deafening ovation from the fans?
Or was it when the seven seniors on the UND were honored post-game on Senior Night after a 3-1 victory against the Huskies that clinched at least a tie for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference title for UND?
Seniors Connor Gaarder and Nick Mattson joined Austin Poganski in scoring goals as the top-rated team in the nation improved to 24-6-3 overall and ran its unbeaten streak to seven games.
As outstanding as the early 5-on-3 penalty kill was for UND against the NCHC’s top power play team, it could prove quite costly.
Senior Mark MacMillan blocked a blast with his left leg by rocket-shooting Jonny Brodzinski while helping kill that penalty and didn’t return to the game. He later hobbled onto the ice for the post-game tribute hopping on one leg.
UND coach Dave Hakstol said he was unable to talk about the full extent of the injury to MacMillan, who centers the top line and is one of UND’s leading scorers.
“I’ve got a pretty good idea (of the extent of injury) but it’s probably too early to discuss it,” Hakstol said. “I don’t know officially, so I’m not really comfortable discussing it.”
The early penalty kill was turned into a major positive by UND, which fed on the huge reaction from the crowd over the determined kill.
“Those guys in that two-minute span,” Hakstol said, “kind of showed what heart and character are all about. The energy that (crowd reaction) generates onto our bench and into our team is tremendous.”
North Dakota was ready for business from the start, coming out with the black jerseys that are a favorite of UND teams when a big game is at stake. UND captain Stephane Pattyn had asked about a month ago if the team could wear black on Senior Night, Hakstol admitted. It worked again. UND is now 3-0 this season when wearing black.
“Not like we needed much extra motivation tonight,” Mattson said, “but I wish everyone could have seen the look on everyone’s face when we walked into the locker room tonight and saw that (black jerseys hanging in the lockers). It was electric.”
“It’s just the tradition behind it (black jerseys),” Pattyn said. “Everyone tells you when you come in that you’ve got to win in black. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. We’ve worn them for three years now, and every time we put them on, there’s that extra little jump.”
Poganski dove toward the crease to bang in a rebound for his fourth goal of the season to stake UND to a 1-0 lead at 7:53 of the opening period.
Then trouble arrived — big time.
UND’s Gage Ausmus (high sticking) and Michael Parks (slashing) were both whistled for minors at 8:27, sending the dangerous Huskies on the 5-on-3. But with MacMillan and Troy Stecher both blocking blasts by Brodzinski to set the stage, the Huskies managed just two shots on goal, had two shots go wide and three more blocked by UND players in an inspiring penalty kill.
Gaarder’s fifth goal of the season on a wraparound at 6:58 of the second period made it 2-0 with Mattson blasting his third goal on a power play left point shot at 19:09 to close the period. That was more than enough to offset Brian Prow’s power play goal for St. Cloud at 4:43 of the third period as UND competed the weekend sweep.
The Huskies, who came into the game converting at a 24.2 clip on the power play this season — fourth best in the nation — scored on just 1 of 7 chances tonight.
Junior Zane McIntyre stopped 26 of 27 St. Cloud shots, including a shorthanded breakaway by Joe Rehkamp when UND was leading 2-0, in another strong showing.
But no question that the 5-on-3 penalty kill early set the tone for the big night.
“That’s just our team right there,” Pattyn said. “Everyone is willing to sacrifice, everyone is going to do what it takes to win.”
North Dakota now goes to Miami next weekend with a chance to win the Penrose Cup outright as NCHC champs with a tie or win in one of the two games.
“That’s our next goal,” Pattyn said.
UND, 15-5-2 in the NCHC, leads second-place Miami by six points with two games remaining after the RedHawks lost 6-2 at Denver tonight.
UND notes: UND rebounded from getting drilled on faceoffs 41-24 Friday night to win 33 of 59 on Saturday, led by Drake Caggiula (9 of 13) and Luke Johnson (8 of 13) … Named three stars of the game by the media were Gaarder, Poganski and Mattson, in that order … Keaton Thompson led UND in shots on goal with 4 while Brodzinski had 5 for the Huskies … UND had a 23-15 edge in shots on goal through two periods before the Huskies outshot UND 13-6 in the final period to trail only 29-28 … St. Cloud slipped to 15-16-1 overall in losing the season series to UND 3-1.