DENVER – Six nights ago in Grand Forks, Johnny Simonson thought he had himself the game-winning goal in overtime against Miami. The officials, however, determined during a video review that Simonson had pushed the goaltender’s pad past the goal line after the puck was covered. North Dakota ultimately settled for an overtime tie.
Tonight, the senior from Grand Forks got his game-winning goal and it punctuated one of the wildest tilts in the long, storied rivalry between UND and the University of Denver.
Simonson’s deflection of a Hayden Shaw point shot with 2:31 remaining in regulation broke a 4-4 tie and capped off an improbable 5-4 victory over the top-ranked Pioneers that saw the Fighting Hawks erase a 3-0 deficit.
That UND would even be in position to steal the series opener would have seemed far-fetched in the first period after the Pioneers registered 21 of the game’s first 23 shots on goal and built a 3-0 lead. Jake Durflinger and Jarid Lukosevicius (PPG) both scored in the opening frame and Logan O’Connor pushed the lead to three with a short-handed tally six minutes into the second period.
But the Fighting Hawks slowly worked their way back into the game and found life with 6:22 left in the second period when Simonson’s right winger, sophomore Zach Yon, snapped one from the left circle and beat DU goalie Tanner Jaillet to the short side.
“Our line, I thought, was great all night with Yon getting the first goal and Smitty being a workhorse for us and making things happen out there. I’m really happy for my line to help chip in,” said Simonson.
Both Simonson and UND head coach Brad Berry said that the coaches and players talked about simplifying their game during the first intermission.
“We got a little bit too fancy in our end of the rink,” said Berry of DU’s onslaught in the first period. “They take away time and space and we turned pucks over and then when we got to their end in the first period we weren’t putting pucks on net. So we just simplified our game. Simo’s line with Smitty and Yonner got us going. Guess what? They scored the game-winning goal, too.”
They did, indeed, with Smith gaining the offensive zone and finding Shaw for a one-timer at the point. Simonson camped out in front of Jaillet and beat him with the re-direction for his first goal since the season opener in Anchorage.
“In the first period we were fumbling pucks trying to make pretty plays. Our coaches were all over that in the first intermission,” said Simonson. “Once we started making plays that weren’t so pretty but were effective, we could see that we were having more chances.”
UND rode its simplified attack throughout the game’s final 40 minutes, outshooting the high-flying Pioneers 24-13 over that stretch. After Yon got UND on the board with his first goal of the season, junior winger Joel Janatuinen closed the deficit to one under two minutes later with his first goal of the year. Janatuinen crashed the net and banged home a Gabe Bast rebound and just like that, the game had completely tilted in UND’s favor.
The Fighting Hawks finally got the equalizer 4:40 into the third period when defenseman Colton Poolman led a 3-on-1 rush and elected to shot, wiring one top-shelf from the hashmarks. Exactly one minute later, fellow defender Christian Wolanin gave UND its first lead when he threaded a point shot through traffic while on the power play.
Denver’s Troy Terry knotted the game with a power-play snipe of his own with 8:34 remaining, but Simonson ensured UND’s epic rally would hold up when he scored his late game-winner.
“‘Crazy’ is probably the word to describe that [game],” said Wolanin. “Obviously we knew they’re good. Defending national champions without losing a lot of guys. That’s a good hockey team. We can’t start like that. This group is a pretty confident, resilient group and that we’re showing it early in the season is very promising.”
UND improved to 8-2-3 overall with the win, but Berry said the focus going forward has to be minimizing early-game deficits.
“We’ve got to start trying to playing with leads pretty soon here, because this is a tough way to play,” said Berry. “Hats off to them. They’re a very skilled, fast team and we were slow in the first period. I thought we kind of flipped the tables a little bit in the second period.
Simonson agreed with his head coach.
“We’re pretty pumped about it, but we know in the future we can’t play 40 minute games. We’ve got to start from opening puck drop,” said the Grand Forks native. “We know they’re not going to be happy about that game, the way it finished. They’re going to be ready to go right from the start, as they were tonight. For us most importantly, we need to be ready.”
UND has a chance to sweep the Pioneers on their home ice for the first time since 2003.
“Beating the No. 1 team in the country, it’s huge for the standings, it’s huge for the PairWise, but the biggest thing now is tomorrow.”
The puck drops at 8:05 p.m. MT on Saturday.
Notes: Freshman Peter Thome stopped 30 shots and remained unbeaten (3-0-2) through his first five collegiate starts. Jaillet finished with 31 saves … UND went 1-4 on the power play while DU went 2-4 to become the first team this season to score multiple power-play goals against UND … A combined 22 different players took faceoffs between the two teams. Rhett Gardner won a game-high 13 of his 24 attempts.