GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- It takes a combination of skill and luck to shoot a puck into an empty net off your backhand from the faceoff circle in your defensive zone.
University of North Dakota sophomore Rocco Grimaldi did just that with 28 seconds left in the game tonight to cement UND's 4-2 National Collegiate Hockey Conference victory over Nebraska-Omaha in front of 11,403 fans.
Grimaldi's team-best 10th goal of the season fluttered high in the air to near the Omaha blue line, then bounced slowly before rolling into the empty net dead center.
"It was a pretty goal in my eyes,'' UND coach Dave Hakstol.
For several reasons, too.
It gave UND a big win to push its record to 10-1-1 in the last 12 games. More importantly, coupled with St. Cloud State shootout loss at home to Denver University, the win moved UND into a two-way tie for the NCHC lead with St. Cloud with nine games to go.
It highlights UND's rise from bottom of the league standings earlier in the season to a piece of the top now.
UND's go-ahead goal in the third period came just 35 seconds into it. Michael Parks took a feed from Mark MacMillan and cut sharply across the slot in front of the net. He then lofted a backhander into the net before Omaha goalie Reed Peters (18 saves) could move over to his right.
At 8:48 of the period, UND's Brendan O'Donnell scored his first goal in the last 16 games when he grabbed a loose puck in the faceoff circle, whirled and fired it past Peters to make it 3-1.
But perhaps the play of the game came two minutes after Parks had given UND its first lead. Omaha's Dominic Zombo, son of former UND defenseman Rick Zombo and coming off a hat trick in his last game, whipped a backhand from in front that appeared destined to go into an open net. But UND rookie defenseman Paul LaDue stuck out his stick at the last second, knocking the puck away, preserving the lead and perhaps saving the game.
"I didn't touch that, it was Paulie,'' UND goalie Clarke Saunders said. "It was a heckuva save, probably the save of the year. It's just kind of funny that a goalie didn't do it.''
Saunders made 31 saves including 17 of 18 in the second period when Omaha outshot UND 18-5 but broke even in goals (1-1). Saunders has been a nemesis for Omaha. When he played for Alabama-Huntsville, Saunders once made a school-record 58 saves vs. the Mavericks in a 2-1 win.
"I don't know what it is,'' Saunders said. "I have played well in the past against them. I try not to dwell on that too much, to be honest. I try to prepare like I normally do.''
MacMillan credited Saunders for bailing out UND in the second period, when the Mavericks had a 15-2 shot advantage at one point.
"I think the second period was all Clarke Saunders show,'' MacMillan said. "It was big for us.''
Omaha had taken a 1-0 lead on sophomore defenseman Brian Cooper's first college goal, coming in his 57th game. His wrister from center point at 8:15 of the second period broke a scoreless battle.
Less than three minutes later, MacMillan capped a great three-way passing play with linemates Drake Caggiula and Parks. MacMillan found an open net waiting for him at the tail end of the quick play when Caggiula's sharp left-to-right pass hit MacMillan's stick at 11:04 of the period.
Parks and O'Donnell then staked UND to the 3-1 lead which held until Ryan Walters flipped a backhander. Walters was near the end line when he flipped a backhander that floated into the air, hit Saunders in the back and dropped into the net at 17:29 to make it 3-2.
Omaha coach Dean Blais pulled Peters for a sixth attacker with 1:58 remaining, but the Mavericks were unable to mount any pressure on Saunders. Grimaldi then iced it with his perfectly-placed backhander from perhaps 140 feet away.
UND survived a 5-minute major and game misconduct penalty on Connor Gaarder in the first period. The Mavericks managed just two shots on net on the extended power play that carried over into the second period.
UND was 0-4 on the power play with just three shots on goal, Omaha 0-3 with five shots. But the play that stood out was the save made by a UND defenseman, LaDue.
"Paulie made an amazing play,'' Saunders said. "Probably saved the game there.''
The victory moved UND to 9-6 in the NCHC and 14-8-3 overall. Omaha slipped to 7-6-2 in league play and 10-13-2 overall.
UND notes: MacMillan, Parks and Saunders were named the three stars of the game by the media, in that order ... MacMillan and Parks each had a goal and one assist while UND defenseman and captain Dillon Simpson had two assists for a two-point game as well ... UND narrowly won the faceoff battle 34-32, led by Grimaldi (11-6) while Omaha's Brock Montpetit led the Mavs (14-7) ... O'Donnell, MacMillan, Bryn Chyzk and defenseman Jordan Schmaltz tied for team best with three shots on net ... Austin Ortega and Walters had five shots each to pace Omaha.
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.