GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Darcy Zajac doesn't score goals often for the University of North Dakota men's hockey team with just four this season and 15 in his career for the junior center from Winnipeg, Manitoba.
He might have collected the biggest goal of his career this afternoon when his rebound off a Brad Malone (So., Miramichi, New Brunswick) shot at 3:25 of overtime delivered a 4-3 Western Collegiate Hockey Association victory for the Fighting Sioux over Colorado College.
It was far more than the game-winning goal, however. The win put the Sioux (16-6-4) atop the WCHA standings for the first time this season, one point of Denver University (16-8-3).
Any combination of one Sioux win at Wisconsin next weekend or a Denver loss in a solo game against Colorado College next Saturday would bring the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA champion to UND for the first time since the 2004-05 season.
On the winning goal, Malone carried the puck down left wing and cranked a hard wrist shot off the left leg pad of Tiger goalie Richard Bachman (21 saves). The puck kicked into the slot to Bachman's left, where Zajac quickly slammed home the rebound before Bachman could recover.
A capacity crowd of 11,772 at Ralph Engelstad Arena gave the Sioux a standing ovation when Zajac popped in the winner. Many of the fans stayed around to celebrate victory laps by the eight Sioux seniors playing in their final home regular-season game.
The victory also vaulted the Sioux to No. 7 in the PairWise rankings, which mimics the process that will used to select the 16-team NCAA field in two weeks. It's UND's highest ranking of the season after the Sioux were out of the top 25 completely in early December.
Earlier this week, Denver University coach George Gwozdecky was quoted as saying that winning the MacNaughton Cup was not a goal set for his team.
It is for the Sioux players and Hakstol, none of who have ever won the prestigious trophy. "We want to win the MacNaugton Cup, absolutely,'' Hakstol said. "Is it the ultimate goal? No. We have a lot of goals. We have an opportunity that we want to take advantage of. Coming into tonight's game, we had an put ourselves into position to control our own destiny. You only have so many opportunities. When they come around, you need to take advantage of them.''
While the victory worked wonders for the Sioux, it put a big hurt on the Tigers (12-8-7), who could finish anywhere from third to seventh in the WCHA going into the final weekend of play.
"We deserved a little better fate tonight, we deserved a point,'' CC coach Scott Owens said. "For us, that's a huge loss. It's probably more meaningful for us than them, where we're sitting in the standings right now. We probably need to get points (against Denver next Saturday) to get home ice (for the playoffs). It's hard to believe watching us skate out here that we could wind up in sixth or seventh place.''
Senior wing Andrew Kozek (Sicamous, British Columbia), who scored UND's first goal midway through the first period, assisted on the OT winner by bumping the puck ahead to Malone.
Kozek was moved onto the top line with captain Ryan Duncan (Calgary, Alberta) and freshman Brett Hextall (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) when freshman Jason Gregoire (Winnipeg) was a late scratch with an undisclosed injury.
"Obviously playing with Hextall and Duncan, it's pretty easy for me out there,'' Kozek said. "To be a part of the win tonight, that's huge for me. It's something I'll definitely cherish.''
Kozek, Duncan and Hextall scored UND's first three goals as the Sioux built a 2-0 lead at one point. The Sioux then saw CC rally to tie it, went back ahead on Hextall's 12th goal of the season at 6:57 of the second period only to see CC's Chad Rau tie it at 3-3 at 15:27 of the third period.
UND had a kill off a charging penalty on Hextall with 10 seconds left in regulation play, a penalty that carried over into OT. Then 95 seconds after the penalty expired, Zajac delivered the winning goal. His magic continues -- the Sioux have never lost a game in three years when Zajac scores a goal.
Zajac said there was nothing fancy about his deciding goal. "It was a pretty simple play,'' Zajac said. "A quick chip up to Malone from Kozek and he used his big body, drove wide and threw it on net low pad, far side. It just happened to kick out to me and I just kind threw it on net. It found a hole and went in.''
Zajac also scored in Saturday's 3-3 overtime tie. "It's always fun to score, I don't think anybody doesn't like to score,'' he said. "I think I've been having a good season, been getting a lot of shots, just not the bounces. Tonight I got the right bounce -- and it worked out for us.''
The Sioux remain on an even keel as far as their MacNaughton Cup chances are concerned. "We try to take one game at a time,'' Zajac said. "You can't look too far ahead. We can't get there if we're not going to compete every night.''
It took the ultimate competition from both teams on Sunday to turn the game into another classic. The two teams delivered a repeat of Saturday's tie dominated by skilled playmaking, physical play and a game played at a very high tempo by both teams,
"Our goal is simple,'' Zajac said. "Two points every night, then keep rolling. Anytime you have a chance to go No. 1 in your league, you always want it. Especially for the senior guys, it's their last chance. You want to do something special for those guys.''
"It's never easy,'' Hakstol said. "But it's a great win for us. It compliment them (CC) with the most respect. They are a very good hockey team.''
SIOUX NOTES: UND was 1-for-5 on the power play, Duncan scoring his 16th goal of the season to match his jersey number on a 5-on-3 power play at 17:53 of the first period for a 2-0 lead . . . CC was 2-for-6 on the power play . . . In the series, UND managed just four shots on goal in 12 man-advantage opportunities, but scored twice . . . Kozek, Hextall and Zajac led the Sioux in shots on goal with three apiece while Rau paced CC with five . . . After dominating on faceoffs over CC in the series opener, UND lost the faceoff battle 39-26 on Sunday . . . The Sioux finished with a 2-1-1 series edge on the Tigers . . . UND freshman goalie Brad Eidsness (Chestermere, Alberta) stopped 22 shots, including a breakaway by Rau in the first period and a glove save right on the goal line as regulation time expired. "He was kind of like he's been all year, flying under the radar with very good performances,'' Hakstol said of Eidsness. Eidsness was making his 33rd straight appearance, a new UND rookie record.
Virg Foss covered UND hockey for 35 seasons for the Grand Forks Herald until his retirement. He now reports on UND home games exclusively for FightingSoux.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.