OXFORD, Ohio — In each of the past two seasons, North Dakota entered the final weekend of the regular season with a chance to win a league championship only to lose a possible clinching game and allow a foe to hoist a trophy.
Having already clinched a tie for first place in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) last Saturday, this year North Dakota was in a more selfish mood.
Connor Gaarder scored his third consecutive game-winning goal and Zane McIntyre stopped a season-high 43 shots as top-ranked UND defeated host No. 5 Miami (Ohio) 2-1 to with the Penrose Cup outright and secure the top seed for the NCHC playoffs.
It was the 16th conference title for UND — most in NCAA Division I men’s hockey — and its first since 2010-11.
“It feels great, to be honest,” said McIntyre, whose 43 stops were one short of his career high. “Last year we fell a little short. Freshman year, we were real close too. One step closer to our ultimate goal.”
McIntyre was particularly stingy after UND built a 2-0 lead on goals by Keaton Thompson and Gaarder. The RedHawks peppered the junior netminder with 39 shots during the final 40 minutes alone, including 21 in the second period that was the most allowed by UND in a period all season.
But McIntyre turned in another spectacular performance in nabbing his nation’s-best 25th win of the season.
He stopped 20 of 21 shots in the second period and all 18 he faced in the third period.
“They played a heck of a game, throwing pucks to the net and getting a lot of traffic,” said McIntyre. “It was a really good job by our defensive corps making the simple plays and boxing out. It was a team effort and a team effort for that trophy.”
The lone goal allowed by McIntyre was a rebound tally by Sean Kuraly during a Miami power play at 7:49 of the second period. The game was the fifth in a row in which McIntyre did not allow an even-strength goal.
“Zane had to be good and strong for us just like he’s been all year,” said UND head coach Dave Hakstol. “He did that tonight and everybody else reacted the right way around him.”
Thompson opened the scoring at 2:43 of the first period, firing a shot on net from below the goal line in the corner that somehow managed to sneak between MU goalie Jay Williams and his goal post.
Two minutes into the third period, Gaarder beat Williams on a rush, snapping a wrist shot from the slot on an odd-man rush.
“The guy’s just a gamer. He’s a money player,” said Hakstol of Gaarder.
Gaarder’s goal ended up being the difference after Kuraly got the RedHawks on the board six minutes later.
“They had a real good push in the second period and gained a lot of momentum. And I thought early in our third we were back on our heels a little bit,” said Hakstol. “Beyond that I liked a lot, again, about our play in the third period. Probably the biggest thing was poise in different situations. Everything was calm and everything was just about the next shift and the next job at hand.”
The win improved UND’s record to 25-6-3 (16-5-2-0 NCHC) and strengthened its hold on a potential No. 1 seed in the national tournament.
“Really proud of this group,” said Hakstol, who reached 25 wins for the eighth time in 11 seasons behind the bench of his alma mater. “To win this regular season championship — it was a tough run. It’s a great league and our guys battled hard and stayed with it. Kind of indicative of tonight. We had great goaltending, we battled hard and we had a gritty road win to clinch it.”
It was a bittersweet victory for UND, which played its first game without injured senior assistant captain Mark MacMillan, out indefinitely after undergoing surgery for a lower body injury on Wednesday. MacMillan, the team’s leading goal scorer, was the only player on UND’s roster who did not make the trip to Oxford.
“It’s a little emotional,” said Gaarder of winning without his MacMillan. “We had our class picture out there [after the game] and he wasn’t in it. He texted all the guys and he’s real excited. He’s a great, character guy. I feel real bad for him.”
Hakstol also noted the absence of MacMillan, UND’s active leading scorer with 99 career points.
“The tough part is that Mark’s not here. He’s an awfully big part of this,” Hakstol said. “But you know what? We’ll take the Cup home and we’ll deliver it back to him.”