North Dakota delivered one of its most complete games of the season tonight to eliminate Michigan Tech from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs with a resounding 6-0 win in the third game of the best-of-3 first round series.
The victory advances UND as the No. 3 seed to the Red Baron WCHA Final Five in St. Paul next week, where it will face No. 6 seed Colorado College on Thursday. The Tigers beat Denver 4-3 Sunday night in Game 3 to win that series from the higher-seeded Pioneers.
This marks the 11th straight year UND has advanced to the Final Five, tying the league record for longest streak set by Minnesota (1999-2009).
UND, winners of the last three Final Five titles, looked very much in top playoff form before an announced crowd of 10,384 at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Six different players scored goals, 12 had at least one point, everybody except freshman Drake Caggiula finished in the plus column and all 18 skaters had at least one shot on goal.
Goalies Clarke Saunders (27 stops) and senior Tate Maris (1) combined for the shutout. Maris, who played the last 4:02 of the game, saw his first varsity action in his four years and entered to a thunderous ovation from the fans.
"I thought the level of play was our most complete of the year, without a question,'' UND coach Dave Hakstol said. "We played at a playoff level for three periods. That started right from the drop of the (opening) puck.''
UND ran away with the game with an explosive four-goal second period, the most goals in a single period for UND since they scored four against Alaska Anchorage on Oct. 28.
Junior defensman Dillon Simpson had scored his third goal in the last eight games to give UND a 1-0 lead after one period in which UND outshot the Huskies 18-5.
Sophomore Brendan O'Donnell completed the masterpiece for UND with his second goal of the season late in the third period.
The victory boosted UND's overall record to 21-11-7 and wrapped up Tech's record at 13-20-4, including four losses in five games against UND.
Scoring first set the tempo for UND, but Simpson's goal meant more than an initial tally, Hakstol said.
"Sometimes you can score the first goal in a game and maybe not deserve it,'' Hakstol said. "We deserved it tonight and we kept our foot on the gas after we got the first one.''
The fact that all four lines and all three sets of defensive pairings contributed to the scoring was a welcomed sign with more playoffs looming.
"We have to have different people chipping in,'' Hakstol said. "I thought all four of our lines looked the same tonight.''
Tech beat UND 2-1 on Saturday to force Game 3, but UND was too much tonight.
"All you have to do is look at this series and see how hard it is to advance and get to St. Paul,'' Hakstol said. "I felt like we had maybe the toughest draw in the first round of the playoffs with Michigan Tech with how well they were playing. We knew it was a bit challenge in front of us. Our guys got it done.''
Done so well, in fact, that fan favorite Maris, also much loved by his teammate, got a chance to play in goal for UND.
"Easy decision,'' Hakstol said. "It means an awful lot to the guys in that locker room. He (Maris) means a ton to our program. He's earned a helluva lot more minutes than four over his time here.''
Maris, a walk-on from Denver, Colo., has practiced with the team every day, but never got into an actual game, other than exhibitions, until now.
"It's kind of indescribable,'' Maris said of getting into a game. "I guess I'm at a loss of words for it. It's kind of four years pushed into four minutes right there at the end. It's pretty surreal, to say the least.''
The highlight goal of the night might have been St. Clair's goal. Just as he came out of the penalty box for his tripping minor, defenseman Joe Gleason found him breaking in the neutral zone and hit him with a pass.
St. Clair sailed in along on Tech goalie Phoenix Copley (38 saves) and beat him cleanly with a backhander after cutting across the crease.
"I think I almost lost an edge, actually, but the goalie was giving me my backhand, so I took it to my backhand, got lucky, and scored,'' St. Clair said.
The goal made it 5-0. "For me, it was a huge relief,'' said St. Clair, who had gone 18 games without a goal. "But the team, we just put the pedal to the metal. We didn't let up the whole game. That's the way we need to play from here on in.''
St. Clair was named No. 1 star of the game for that goal, with Knight and Saunders earning the other stars.
"We reponded pretty well from last night, I think,'' Knight said. "Coach challenged us this morning to be better for 60 minutes and I think for the most part, we were able to do that.''
UND notes: Rookie Rocco Grimaldi led UND in shots on goal with six, followed by Rowney with five, Caggiula and Mitch MacMillan with four . . . The 44 shots on goal was three shy of the team high this season of 47 . . . Prior to tonight, the only shared shutout in school history occurred on Nov. 1, 2003, when Jake Brandt and Jordan Parise combined for a 10-0 win over Yale.
Virg Foss covered UND hockey for 35 seasons for the Grand Forks Herald until his retirement in 2005. He now reports on UND home games exclusively for UNDsports.com.