Men's hockey: UND wins WCHA titleUND won the MacNaughton Cup on Friday night as Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season champion. Behind 22 saves from Brad Eidsness, UND defeated Wisconsin 2-1 to clinch the regular-season title in Madison.
By: Brad Elliott Schlossman, Grand Forks Herald
MADISON, Wis. — Ryan Duncan was the last player off the ice Friday night.
The UND senior captain stayed around to congratulate every teammate that passed by on the way to the locker room in the Kohl Center, minutes after the former Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner earned another piece of hardware.
This one, he can share with teammates.
The Sioux, by virtue of their 2-1 win over Wisconsin, are the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and MacNaughton Cup champions.
It would have been hard to believe three months ago, when they sat in ninth place in the league standings and out of the top 25 in the PairWise Rankings.
But the team known for its second-half runs, has reached the summit of the league for the first time since 2004. It is UND’s first MacNaughton Cup of the Dave Hakstol-coaching era and 14th overall for the program.
For the eight seniors, who have gone to three Frozen Fours, it will mark the first time they’ve hung a banner in Ralph Engelstad Arena.
“It’s really special,” Duncan said. “I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet. To do it in a place like this, it’s a very tough place to play. To be behind the eight-ball, we scratched and clawed our way back in to it. That’s kind of been the way our season has gone, so it’s fitting that’s the way we clinched the MacNaughton Cup. It’s fitting that this group will be remembered for this. Hopefully, there’s more to come.”
UND wasn’t presented the MacNaughton Cup on Friday night — that will wait until the team hosts a first-round playoff series against Michigan Tech next weekend. But the Sioux still did some celebrating. While it was subdued on the ice, they went back to the locker room and the players enjoyed the moment.
“We’re happy, obviously, especially for our seniors,” alternate captain Matt Watkins said. “We’ve been here four years now and this is a tough trophy to win. It’s a tough league to come out on top of after the regular season. There are a lot of good teams, a lot of good players. So, we’re in a good mood. Obviously, there’s more to accomplish this season and we’re looking to move on and have success.
“But right now, we’re enjoying the moment.”
The team even got a slight pass from Hakstol on Friday night. Instead of immediately turning the page and focusing on tonight’s series finale, which is the norm, Hakstol said he wants his players to step back for a moment.
“These guys have accomplished a MacNaughton Cup championship,” Hakstol said. “I want them to take a couple of hours, let it sink in, soak in and enjoy it. That’s why we play the game, to enjoy some moments like this. Then, tomorrow morning, we’ll come back to work.”
UND, 22-11-4 and 17-6-4 in the WCHA, has 38 points entering the regular-season finale at 7:07 tonight. That’s three points ahead of Denver, which will finish in second place and host Alaska-Anchorage in the first round.
The Sioux improved to 13-1-3 in the year of 2009 and 17-3-3 since the start of December.
They had to clinch the Cup the hard way, coming from behind against a Badger team that clinched home ice Friday because of losses by Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota and St. Cloud State.
Wisconsin (16-15-4, 13-11-3) forward Ben Grotting scored a goal from the slot 6 minutes, 12 seconds into the game to stake the Badgers to a 1-0 lead. But UND rallied with a pair of special teams goals.
Matt Watkins scored shorthanded with 4:04 left in the second period, when he got the puck past power-play point man Jamie McBain and came in on a breakaway. Streaking in from the right wing, Watkins snapped a wrist shot past Shane Connelly’s blocker.
Then, UND took advantage of its fifth power play of the night late in the third period. Chay Genoway’s point shot hit off of Duncan and went to Chris VandeVelde in the slot. The Sioux junior hesitated for a moment, looking to pass, then put a shot past Connelly’s blocker with 5:59 left.
Sioux goalie Brad Eidsness (22 saves), who made a key stop on a Matt Thurber breakaway in the second period, turned away Michael Davies with about two minutes left to seal the victory.
Wisconsin couldn’t get anything going with Connelly pulled, and the whole Sioux team skated on to the ice to celebrate a championship on the Kohl Center ice for the second March in a row. Last year, UND won the Midwest Regional title here over the Badgers.
“We’ve been in this situation before, where we needed to win games here,” Watkins said. “We had that experience and it feels real good, feels great.”
Notes: Jason Gregoire, listed as questionable earlier in the week, played on his normal spot on the top line. . . . Wisconsin dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen, instead of the normal 12 forwards and six defensemen.