GRAND FORKS – Minnesota and North Dakota fans waited for nearly six years for their rivalry to be renewed in Grand Forks.
Though maybe not as chippy as in years past, they were still treated to a great game. And they still have one more to see for the regular season.
Which is good for UND, because they unfortunately were on the wrong side of the scoreboard again in a hard-fought game.
A late Steve Johnson goal gave No. 8 Minnesota the insurance goal they needed as they held off No. 4 North Dakota late for a 2-1 win on Friday night in front of 11, 862 fans at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
A poor first ten minutes could’ve proved costly, but the Golden Gophers (3-2-0) were able to get an early edge in a raucous fan environment, improving to 3-0 on the season when they score first.
“Good, gutty win on our guys’ part,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “[North Dakota’s] a good team; they came at us hard and we were kinda able to weather it. Good team win; we’ll take it.”
Goaltender Cam Johnson made 16 saves, for the Fighting Hawks, who suffered their first loss. Rhett Gardner had a late power play goal, but it wasn’t enough despite UND outshooting the Gophers 35-18.
“We were relentless tonight,” North Dakota head coach Brad Berry said. “I thought we did a good job playing in the other team’s zone. [Minnesota] did a good job of defending and blocking shots.”
North Dakota (3-1-1) came out strong early, outshooting Minnesota 9-1 in the first ten minutes and giving the Gophers their third straight poor start on a Friday. However, momentum shifted after three Fighting Hawks penalties, and Rem Pitlick got Minnesota on the board first on a breakaway just before the second penalty, beating UND goaltender Cam Johnson top-shelf over his right shoulder on just the second Gopher shot of the night.
Minnesota’s 1-0 lead after two periods was thanks in large part to goaltender Eric Schierhorn, who made some brilliant saves to keep the Fighting Hawks off the scoreboard.
“I felt really good,” said Schierhorn, who finished with 34 saves.
When asked how he dealt with the loud UND crowd noise, Schierhorn replied, “Tonight, I kind of blocked it out. It’s a pretty impressive crowd, but you’re so focused on the game that you’re not worried about that.”
Credit has to be given to the Gophers blocking shots as well; while the Fighting Hawks had 35 shots on goal, they also had 29 shots blocked to make Schierhorn’s job easier.
“We got some bumps and bruises [from blocking shots],” Lucia said.
North Dakota continued to push in the third period, but Johnson scored a huge insurance goal on a great feed from Pitlick with just under eight minutes left to push the Minnesota advantage to two. It was the first goal in the last 48 games for the senior defenseman, and the fourth of his career.
“Felt great,” Johnson said. “It was a great pass by Rem and just try to get it through and luckily it went in.”
The Fighting Hawks pulled within one on a Gardner power play goal, but sustained pressure at the end couldn’t push across the equalizer as UND fell to 0-5-2 in its last seven games against Minnesota.
The teams conclude their series at 7:07 CT on Saturday night, and Lucia believes his team needs to relax a bit more and play their style of hockey if they intend to get their first road sweep of North Dakota since December 2005.
“None of our guys have played here before, and when you have nerves you feel like you have dead legs,” Lucia said.
As for North Dakota, everyone knows they’re very tough to beat at the Ralph. They’re even tougher when they know they’re on the verge of getting swept, and they know they’ll be ready to go.
“You know North Dakota; after you lose the first game, we’ll be back,” Berry said.
MINN goal at 11:00: Rem Pitlick (2). Assisted by Casey Mittlestadt (2) and Tyler Sheehy (2).
MINN goal at 12:08: Steve Johnson (1). Assisted by Pitlick (4).
UND power play goal at 13:40: Rhett Gardner (2). Assisted by Grant Mismash (2) and Christian Wolanin (3).
Power plays: MINN 0-5, UND 1-6.
Shots on goal: MINN 18, UND 35.