North Dakota Shows No Thanks In Knocking Out Badgers
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
CINCINNATI Thanks, but no thanks.
In last week’s Big Ten tournament championship game, it was Wisconsin scoring a goal emblematic of postseason hockey, finding a loose puck amidst chaos in the opposing crease. It’s the type of goal, of course, that happens all season long but becomes even more vital in the playoffs, when defenses and goaltenders are at their stingiest.
Wisconsin’s triumph over Ohio State last week set the stage for Friday night’s matchup against old friend and foe North Dakota, and the team that was so appreciative of the Badgers a week ago – Wisconsin’s win, after all, allowed North Dakota to earn the final at-large bid to the NCAA tournament – returned the favor, gritting out a 5-2 win whose final score isn’t at all suggestive of how close it really was.
“That’s a 2-2 game with 1:44 to go,” said Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves. “You’re just trying to get pucks and bodies to the net. UND did exactly that and got the puck to go in.”
North Dakota’s dirty goal came as regulation seemed close to giving way to overtime. Either way, at that point of the game, it was sudden death, and the game winner came after Brendan O’Donnell’s shot from the point ricocheted off junior center Mark MacMillan and into the net behind Wisconsin’s Hobey finalist Joel Rumpel.
North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol described it aptly.
“It wasn’t a pretty play,” said the 10th-year head coach, “but it was a pretty good playoff goal.”
Added MacMillan, “I saw [O’Donnell] get the puck on the blue line. It just went off my side and happened to go in the net. A bit of a lucky one, but obviously one we’ll take it.”
For a team that was 4-7-2 on Nov. 29, the goal was in many ways illustrative of the entire 2013-14 season for North Dakota, now one win away from yet another Frozen Four – for a program that has seven national titles and more NCAA tournament appearances (29) since 1958 than any other Division I team.
“Everyone kept their composure,” said North Dakota senior captain Dillon Simpson. “Maybe a dirty goal, but at the end of the day, that’s the kind of stuff we look for, and that’s a big staple of our game.”
Simpson (Edmonton Oilers) is one of five NHL draft picks among the six blueliners who played for North Dakota on Friday against Wisconsin. During the season, Simpson has contributed 22 points, good for sixth-most on the team, but on Friday, he registered no shots on goal and no points.
But offense, on this night, wasn’t his focus – winning dirty, for Simpson, meant directing his energies elsewhere. After all, he watched Wisconsin’s Big Ten title win alongside his teammates last weekend, and he paid particular attention to the Badgers’ top line. Mark Zengerle, who scored the championship game winner, along with Nic Kerdiles and Tyler Barnes, compose that top line and were three of Wisconsin’s top four scorers this season.
Friday, for much of the game, that trio was held in check; by Simpson, his defensive partner Jordan Schmaltz, and by a lineup that doesn’t allow much of the all-important space and time.
“It was an open dialogue with our ‘D’ corps, trying to do the right things against them,” said Simpson. “They’re a very opportunistic line who can make plays. They’ve got good sticks and can finish. We wanted to make sure to try and keep it simple, move pucks up ice, try and make them play defense as much as possible.
“Moving forward, especially when you have to play a lot of minutes against top lines like that, for me personally I wanted to make sure I was responsible in my own zone and help the team out by doing my job shutting down their top guys.”
Of course, Barnes, Zengerle, and Kerdiles connected on a third-period goal that tied the game 2-2. North Dakota entered the game 19-1-0 this season when leading after two periods and 111-7-8 in its last 126 such situations. But Barnes’ tying goal seemed poised to switch the momentum to Wisconsin – just as it did against Ohio State, when the Badgers overcame a two-goal third period deficit to come back and win the Big Ten crown.
Simpson, the captain, spoke to his teammates on the bench in the critical moments after the Barnes goal.
“First and foremost, we’ve had ups and downs and have had to battle some adversity,” said Simpson. “We’re a team that I think thrives on that. For me personally, it was talking to the boys, talking to the ‘D’ corps, to just keep pushing forward, to keep our foot on the gas. I think a big part of us coming back in that game was that no one was on their heels. Everyone was ready to go.”
In the end, there were many heroes for North Dakota on Friday. Beyond Simpson and the defensive effort, sophomore Rocco Grimaldi surpassed his freshman point total by scoring a hat trick that included two empty-netters – “The goalie was out, so that really helped me,” he joked afterwards – and goaltender Zane Gothberg, on a 17-4-1 stretch currently, improved to 2-0-1 lifetime against Wisconsin.
But again, the win was epitomized by the play of the defense, and by the bounce off MacMillan.
It was North Dakota’s most important – and dirtiest – goal of the year.