MEN'S HOCKEY: Sioux eliminate Gophers from NCAA playoffs
The UND men's hockey team bid farewell to its seniors last week after a sweep of Michigan Tech in the regular-season finale.
They got a much better send-off on Sunday.
The Sioux ended rival Minnesota's season with a 4-1 win in a decisive Game 3 of the first round Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoff series in Ralph Engelstad Arena, the last that Chris VandeVelde and Darcy Zajac will play here.
It marks only the second time in the past 32 years that the Gophers have been knocked out in the first round and it marks the earliest ending of their season in 26 years.
"To win, it means a whole hell of a lot," said UND forward Jason Gregoire, who had a goal and two assists. "It's fun to beat them at home. It's fun to beat them in their rink. Our crowd was into it amazingly tonight and we didn't let them down."
The Sioux will make their eighth straight trip to St. Paul and the WCHA Final Five later this week, which more than doubles the next longest streak of Final Five appearances. They will take on Minnesota-Duluth at 7:07 p.m. Thursday in a play-in game.
If they win, the Sioux would take on top-seeded Denver in the semifinals Friday.
Minnesota, meanwhile, will finish its season 18-19-2 -- the first sub-.500 finish under 10th-year coach Don Lucia. And it was a familiar end to the season for the Gophers. In four of the six years that Dave Hakstol has been head coach at UND, Minnesota's season has come to an end against UND or in Ralph Engelstad Arena.
The sold-out crowd was buzzing throughout Sunday's game, reaching peak levels during the four goals. Ben Blood scored on the power play in the first, Gregoire tipped a point shot in the second, Matt Frattin snapped a wrist shot in the third and Brett Hextall iced it with an empty-net goal.
"There's definitely something extra on the line," said Frattin, who now has nine goals in the last 10 games. "We love playing the Gophers in our building. We just wanted to get the crowd going and we got them rocking tonight."
The Sioux, winners of nine of the last 10 games, improved to 22-12-5 and surely locked up an eighth straight NCAA tournament bid with the victory.
"There was an awful lot on the line tonight," Hakstol said. "It was do or die. Win and move on or lose and stay home. We showed up at the rink today and left an average performance behind us."
It wasn't a dominating win, like the 6-0 victory in Friday's opener, but the Sioux played better than Saturday's 4-2 loss from the start. They outshot the Gophers 13-2 in the opening period and were buzzing around the net in the third.
Brad Malone set the tone, making 10 hits in the first period alone. Frattin had 20 shot attempts for the game and 11 in the third period alone.
"We definitely played the game we wanted -- get pucks deep, grind down low," Frattin said.
Lucia said that the Gophers were worn out by the third period, playing with only four defensemen. Nick Leddy left in the second period with a bruised thigh, while Kevin Wehrs was knocked out by a hit by Frattin, who was given a five-minute major for charging.
The game was tied 1-1 at that point, but the Sioux killed off the five-minute power play, spurred on by a thunderous ovation from the 11,627 in attendance.
"As hard as those guys worked, it was well deserved and what a charge that type of reaction from the crowd gives our players, bench and team," Hakstol said. "They were such a big part of this win tonight. I said coming in that we fight so hard for home-ice advantage. That's particularly important for us because of how much our fans mean to us and how much they help us at critical times in hockey games."
From here on out, it will be away from Ralph Engelstad Arena, though. The Sioux will play in the Final Five next weekend and find out their destination for the NCAA regionals next Sunday.
Minnesota is hosting one of those regionals in the Xcel Energy Center, but won't take part in it.
"I'm happy for the guys, the way they came back, competed and played the last two nights," Lucia said. "The guys hung in there and battled. This is not an easy environment to play in. This is probably as difficult of an environment to play in as there is in college hockey and the guys really went toe-to-toe."
Notes: UND made two lineup changes on its fourth line. Mike Cichy and Brett Bruneteau replaced Carter Rowney and David Toews. Minnesota used the same lineup as Saturday's game. . . Danny Kristo had an assist to extend is point streak to nine games.