CINCINNATI, Ohio – Despite being North Dakota’s leading scorer this season, dynamic sophomore forward Rocco Grimaldi had never enjoyed a 2-goal outing in 83 career games at UND.
He waited for his biggest game as a collegian to toss that monkey into the Ohio River.
Grimaldi scored his first hat trick in four years, including a pair of game-clinching empty-net goals in the third period, to lift fourth-seeded UND to a 5-2 win tonight over top-seeded Wisconsin in the NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal.
Six days ago, UND clinched the final spot in the 16-team national tournament by virtue of Wisconsin’s Big Ten title game victory over Ohio State. Tonight, UND ended the Badgers’ season and advanced to its eighth regional championship game in 10 years under head-coach Dave Hakstol.
"A lot of people around the hockey world probably didn’t expect us to win the game," said junior forward Mark MacMillan, "but there’s a lot of confidence in our locker room. We know what we are capable of, and tonight shows exactly that.”
Brendan O’Donnell threw a point shot at the net that went off of MacMillan’s ribs and past UW goalie Joel Rumpel.
"A bit of a lucky one," said MacMillan. "I saw [O’Donnell] hit the puck on the blue line there and it just went off my side and it happened to bounce in the net. A bit of a lucky one, but obviously one that we will take."
Grimaldi sealed the victory – and the hat trick -- with a pair of empty netters 30 seconds apart in the final minute.
"I thought [Wisconsin] played to their strengths in the first period and put us back on our heels a bit," said Hakstol. "We did a good job of surviving those, being strong in our crease. The second period started with three or four shifts with us back on our heels, but Rocco [Grimaldi] had a great play in turning that puck and scoring that goal. That kind of evened us out. Overall, I think we played a great 60 minutes. There are going to be ups and downs, no question, but our mindset was really sound tonight."
"I thought our players really stuck with a good mentality and played a good 60 minutes," added Hakstol. "It was everything that we thought that game would be. I give a lot of credit to the guys in the locker room, again, staying with a 60-minute hockey game, staying determined, and finding a way to move on to tomorrow’s game."
UND opened the scoring on Michael Parks’ 12th goal of the season just 5:06 into the game, capitalizing on a UW breakdown that left him all alone in front of Rumpel. Linemate Drake Caggiula spotted and connected with Parks from the corner, who tucked the puck around Rumpel.
The Badgers’ knotted the game 1-1 six minutes later on the power play, as Jedd Soleway put one off the pipe and in for his first career goal.
Grimaldi scored his first of three to put UND up 2-1 at 6:45 of the first period. A Badger defenseman turned the puck over to Grimaldi in the neutral zone, and the Rossmoor, Calif., native drove wide and beat Rumpel with a backhander.
UW’s Tyler Barnes brought the Badgers back even with 10:28 remaining in regulation, finding a loose puck after a strange bounce inside the UND blueline, and beating Zane Gothberg with a wrister for the circle.
But MacMillan’s “MacRib” goal and Grimaldi’s empty-netter secured UND’s Saturday date with sixth-ranked Ferris State.
“We were just trying to get back to our game and not let it affect us," said Grimaldi of Barnes' tying goal midway through the third. "All we wanted to do was to stick with our game plan and not play a different role or a different game that we’re not used to. We just wanted to play our hockey."
UND outshot the Badgers 35-24, including a 27-13 margin in the final two periods and a 14-6 edge in the third.
"I would describe it as the third period we would hope to play," said Hakstol. "I thought we came out and were on our toes. Intelligent, but trying to remain aggressive. Getting the game winner, one of the guys described it as being a pretty good playoff hockey goal. I thought we had a good response to their second goal and kept a solid mindset."
UND went scoreless on five power play tries while the Badgers went 1 for 3.
Gothberg stopped 22 of 24 shots while Rumpel stopped 30 of 33.
Saturday’s regional championship game begins at 6:30 p.m. Eastern on ESPNU.
“We’ll do what we have to to prepare for them tomorrow," said MacMillan of Ferris State. "We have to enjoy it and know we had a good game tonight, but it’s going to take an even bigger effort tomorrow night to take Ferris [State] down."
UND notes: MacMillan, Parks and Barnes were named the game’s three stars … UND is 15-0-0 this season when scoring four or more goals and is 20-1-0 when leading after two periods … Faceoffs were even at 33-3 … Freshman defenseman Paul LaDue led all players with a +4 rating … Grimaldi had a game-high eight shots on goal .. UND is searching for its 20th Frozen Four appearance, first since 2010-11 and sixth under Hakstol.