KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- North Dakota had never lost in its first eight visits to Western Michigan’s Lawson Ice Arena.
Yet it boarded its plane on Saturday night having suffered a two-game sweep that leaves the Fighting Hawks with an uphill climb both in the national picture and in the chase for home ice in the NCHC Quarterfinals.
The Broncos built a 3-0 lead and withstood a North Dakota onslaught over the final 40 minutes to hang on for a 3-2 victory.
The loss left the Fighting Hawks ranked 13th in the PairWise rankings and two points behind idle St. Cloud State for the final home spot in the NCHC standings with two weeks to go.
It also left UND coaches and players scratching their heads, wondering what it will take to unlock the requisite offense needed to consistently win games as the postseason approaches.
UND blitzed the Broncos with 49 shots on goal, including a 34-7 edge over the final two periods. UND out-attempted WMU 82-38 for the game and 60-16 in the final 40 minutes. Its top line of Tyson Jost, Brock Boeser and Shane Gersich alone combined for 23 shots, while the Broncos registered just 19 as a team.
But WMU freshman goaltender Ben Blacker dazzled with 44 stops and sent UND back to Grand Forks with a sub-.500 NCHC record (8-11-1-1) and a 15-13-3 overall mark.
“We dominated every category except the scoreboard again,” said Brad Berry. “It’s pretty common now as far as goaltenders having great efforts against us. It’s not perimeter shots or it’s not just throwing pucks at the net. We had a lot of traffic and a lot of great opportunities and we didn’t put it in.”
Still, Berry cited a pair of early UND turnovers in the defensive zone – both of which resulted in Matheson Iacopelli goals and a 2-0 first-period deficit – as critical, but fixable, mistakes.
The Broncos made it 3-0 early in the second period after UND iced the puck and lost a defensive zone faceoff, with WMU defenseman Taylor Fleming getting a point shot through traffic and past Cam Johnson.
“The start is the key,” said Berry.” Instead of chasing games, we’ve got to try to lead games. The other way is try to capitalize on the chances that we had.”
Despite the deficit, UND continued to dictate the pace throughout the remainder of the game, outshooting the Broncos 17-4 in the middle frame and 17-3 in the third period.
Boeser (8 shots and a ninth off the crossbar), Gersich (8) and Jost (7) led a relentless attack and created myriad scoring opportunities, but Blacker was equal to the task at nearly every turn.
Gersich finally broke the ice for UND just nine seconds after Fleming’s goal, slipping a shot past Blacker along the ice from the top of the faceoff circle.
Blacker’s best save, and arguably the save of the year in the NCHC, came with UND trailing 3-1 midway through the third period.
With Blacker down and out at the left side of the net, the puck came free to Tucker Poolman at the bottom of the right circle. The junior defenseman hammered a shot at the open net, but Blacker somehow leaned across to his left and swatted the puck away with his glove just before it reached the goal line.
“I’ve never seen such a good save like that,” said Jost.
Undeterred, UND pulled within a goal on the power play with 5:19 remaining when Austin Poganski deflected a Poolman one-timer past Blacker.
Berry shortened his bench at forward in the third period, essentially double-shifting the Jost line, and UND generated multiple chances for the tying goal. Its best came with five seconds remaining when Boeser received a centering pass on the doorstep but could not jam the puck through Blacker’s legs.
Another effort worthy of a better fate, yet another demoralizing loss for the defending national champs.
“It’s that time of year when the result matters more than how you play,” said Poolman. “But if we keep battling like that, having a relentless mindset of working hard, believing in each other and having that energy, eventually it’s going to give way.”
Jost said the team's confidence remains high despite the frustrating weekend.
“It’s tough to analyze it,” said Jost. “You feel like you’re doing everything right. We’re not giving up in that locker room. We still have hope in there and we still believe. I really thought we played like a team that could definitely win a national championship. That’s just truly what I believe.”
UND will return home to face Omaha next weekend and will close out the regular season the following week at Miami.
“Eventually, if you do the right things, things will turn out,” said Berry. “We’re a resilient group. That’s what North Dakota is and we’ll be back next weekend.”
Notes: Blacker, Iacopelli and Poolman were named the game’s three stars … UND went 1-4 on the power play and killed all three WMU chances with the man advantage … The Fighting Hawks had a 36-31 edge on faceoffs, led by Jost (16-6) … UND was without forward Dixon Bowen and Hayden Shaw, both of whom suffered injuries during Friday's game ... Attendance was 3,275.