GRAND FORKS, N.D. – If you were to pick one player from the University of North Dakota hockey roster who'd turn into a hero for his team and its fans tonight, Mike Gornall likey wouldn't have been your first pick.
The sophomore walk-on from Irwin, Pa., had played in just nine games this season without a goal and 12 games over the past two seasons with just a single goal to show for it.
But he put on the Superman cape when his team needed him most.
He scored both UND goals, including the overtime winner, in a 2-1 National Collegiate Hockey Conference victory over St. Cloud State at a sold-out (11,774) Ralph Engelstad Arena.
In overtime, Gornell chipped the puck past St. Cloud defenseman Dennis Cholowski along the right boards, darted around him and cut alone to the net before roofing a backhanded just 41 seconds into OT to give the Fighting Hawks the much-needed win.
"Relief,'' teammate Trevor Olson said of seeing Gornall's winner go in. "We always give him a little crap for his shootout moves in practice, but he obviously buried that one on the breakaway there in OT. A relief, monkey off our back.''
Gornall had tied the game at 1-1at 6:10 of the second period, swatting in a rebound of his initial shot past Hukies' goalie Jeff Smith (24 saves) after heavy pressure by UND.
St. Cloud State had taken a 1-0 lead at 11:25 of the first period when Mikey Eyssimont scooped a puck off the end wall and tucked it past UND goalie Cam Johnson (20 saves), returning from injury after missing the last four games .
But Gornall was the major story as UND, which had scored just one goal in its previous two games, ramped up just enough offense.
"It feels great,'' Gornall said. "The big thing is we won. Wins have been a little scarce for us. It's huge to get one in our building, going into the bye week and building momentum for the rest of the season.''
UND, idle next weekend, moved into a tie for third place in the NCHC with Western Michigan and into 10th in the Pairwise Rankings, used to pick the 16-team NCAA tournament field.
Gornall dug deep to come up with his game-winning move.
"I don't really go to the backhand too often, to be honest,'' he said. "For some some reason, that popped into my head.''
Johnson had the same feeling as Olson when Gornall's winner found net.
"Relief,'' the UND netminder said. "We needed it big-time. We needed it for us, for Pairwise, for our fans, everything. We've been struggling at home, so it's huge.''
UND had been just 2-6-1 at home in league play before Gornall nailed down a win.
"We're all very happy for him,'' UND coach Brad Berry said of Gornall. "He earns everything he gets. He does it the hard way. It's great to see him have a little bit of success here. We needed a guy like that to step up. It was huge for our team. The morale on the bench, the excitement, when he scored, was second to none.''
UND players poured over the boards and raced across the ice to mob Gornall after his winner.
Penalty killing was key for UND as well. St. Cloud State did score its lone goal on a power play, but finished 1-5 on the power play with just three shots on goal. UND was 0-1 on the power play with two shots on net.
UND improved to 9-9-1-1 in the NCHC and 15-11-3 overall. St. Cloud State is 7-10-1 in the NCHC and 13-14-1 overall.
Game notes: Three stars, as named by the media, were Gornall, SCSU goalie Smith and UND goalie Johnson, in that order ... UND outshot the Huskies 26-21 ... Walk-on winger Cole Smith led UND in shots on goal with five ... Eyssimont had five shots to pace the Huskies ... Defenseman Gage Ausmus had six blocked shots among UND's 17 total while Jimmy Schuldt had five for SCSU among its 15 blocks ... SCSU won the faceoff battle 29-26, but Johnny Simonson was 6 of 6 for UND ... UND is idle until playing at Western Michigan on Feb. 17-18 in what shapes up as a key battle for a first division finish in the league.
Virg Foss covered UND hockey for the Grand Forks Herald for 35 seasons, including 5 NCAA championships, prior to his retirement in 2005. He's in his 12th year of reporting on UND home games exclusively for UNDsports.com.