Feb. 20, 2010

* Courtesy of North Dakota Athletics

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- It's rare to find a team in sixth place in its own league climbing to No. 8 in the all-important pairwise rankings used to determine the 16-team NCAA tournament field.

That's the situation the Fighting Sioux found themselves in tonight after beating Minnesota Duluth 5-2 in the opening game of a Western Collegiate Hockey Association series before a sold-out crowd of 11,725 at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

The victory boosted the Sioux (10-10-3 WCHA, 15-11-5 overall) to within two points of fifth-place Colorado College in the WCHA with five games remaining. The top five finishers in the WCHA draw home ice for the first round of the playoffs.

Specialty teams carried the night for the Sioux, who have now outscored their opponents 13-3 in the last two games, both wins.

The Sioux scored three goals on power plays after collecting four last Saturday in an 8-1 win at St. Cloud State, added a shorthanded goal by sophomore wing Brett Hextall (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) and an empty-net goal by sophomore wing Jason Gregoire (Winnipeg) to seal the deal.

The Sioux went 3-7 on the power play tonight after scoring four times in seven chances last Saturday in St. Cloud.

In addition, the Sioux killed all seven Duluth power plays, including a 5-on-3 for one minute, 42 seconds of the second period. The Sioux allowed just three shots in 102 seconds and scored the only goal in that period.

Hextall had a huge night. He assisted on a power-play goal by junior wing Matt Frattin (Edmonton, Alberta) to open the scoring at 12:04 of the first period.

He then sniped his 10th goal of the season on a power play at 18:51 to make it 2-0, going short side high on Duluth goalie Kenny Reiter.

Hextall then scored shorthanded at 4:24 of the second period for his third point of the game, a career best for him. He came out of the penalty box after the Sioux had killed the front half of a 5-on-3 Bulldog power play, took a long pass from Sioux defenseman Derek LaPoint (Eau Claire, Wis.) at the Bulldog blue line and whistled a wrister past Reiter.

Freshman Danny Kristo (Eden Prairie, Minn.) one-timed a pass from Evan Trupp (Anchorage, Alaska) to make it 4-0 at 1:46 of the third period for UND's third power-play tally of the night.

Justin Fontaine and Jake Hendrickson scored late goals for the Bulldogs before Gregoire wrapped it up with his team-leading 14th goal of the season into an empty net. He's scored all three of UND's empty-net goals this season.

Sophomore Brad Eidsness (Chestermere, Alberta) provided stout goalending with 31 saves on 33 shots, including a save on a breakaway by Kyle Schmidt early in the third period. He also made a sensational blocker stop on Mike Montgomery later in the period with UND up 4-2.

"The goaltending that Brad gave us, along with the speciality teams, was the difference," UND coach Dave Hakstol said. "Our 5-on-5 play wasn't as good as it needs to be."

The victory boosted UND past Duluth in the pairwise rankings. The Bulldogs slipped to 10th while remaining tied with Wisconsin for third place in the WCHA race.

Hextall gives UND a guy with a big shot down low on the power play.

There's been another difference for the Sioux. "We really put an emphasis on getting the puck to the net right away, within the first 10 seconds of the power play," Hextall said.

Yet all three Sioux goals on the power came on shots from the outside, not on rebounds.

Hextall missed eight games with an ankle injury. He has three goals in three games since his return and 10 points in his last six games overall.

"My ankle's good," he said. "It was a little sore last weekend. It felt really good this week."

His team was feeling really good, too, with the goaltending of Eidsness and strong special teams play carrying the day on a night where the Sioux were outshot 31-23 by Duluth.

The eight goals six days earlier seemed to relax the Sioux. "It may have been a bit of a relief," Hextall admitted. "Now we know how many points we can put on the board."

Eidsness shut down one of the WCHA's best offenses until giving up two late goals. "I thought Eids was great tonight," Hextall said. "That one save he made towards the end, when he threw his blocker out (against Montgomery), I don't know how he saw the puck. Eids is a big-time goalie. We're going to win a lot of games if he keeps playing like he did."