GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Listening to North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol and Fighting Sioux players after their 4-1 playoff win over Bemidji State, one might have thought they'd lost.
"Looking at our performance, I thought there was a lot of good to it, but it was much too sporadic for playoff time," Hakstol said. "We need to challenge ourselves tomorrow to be at a higher level on a more consistent basis throughout our game."
UND's win in the best-of-three before 10,644 fans at Ralph Engelstad Arena puts it one game away from making the WCHA Final Five tournament next weekend in St. Paul. The Sioux improved to 21-12-3 overall while the Beavers fell to 17-17-3.
"I don't think anyone feels like it was a 4-1 game," said senior defenseman Ben Blood (Plymouth, Minn.). "It was definitely a little closer there at times."
Assistant captain Corban Knight (High River, Alberta) said, "It was important to get the win, but there's definitely some things we need to work on for tomorrow."
If not for another outstanding performance by Sioux junior goalie Aaron Dell (Airdrie, Alberta), the outcome might have been different. He held the Beavers scoreless for just over 53 minutes and was named the game's first star after turning back 28 of 29 shots he faced.
Asked if the team might have relied too much on Dell, Blood replied, "That's why he's there, and he's alright with that. He wants to play in big games like this."
Dell also got some help from the goal posts as BSU twice hit iron on quality scoring chances.
"It's always a good feeling when you hear that ring out and no one cheers," he smiled.
The game was even in the first period until the Sioux broke through BSU's league-leading penalty kill to go up 1-0 at 17:10. Freshman forward Connor Gaarder (Edina, Minn.) notched his third goal of the season with the man advantage when he took a pass from behind the net from Michael Parks (St. Louis, Mo.) and stuffed it in.
BSU outshot UND 13-5 in the second period as the Sioux had to kill off two penalties. Hakstol thought the team had a chance to take the control of the game when it started the frame with 1:22 of power play time, but generated no offense.
"I thought we were sloppy on that power play and that carried over into the next four or five minutes of play," he said. "It really set the tone for the second period for us."
Despite BSU's dominance, UND came out of the period with a 2-0 lead. Sophomore forward Brock Nelson (Warroad, Minn.) centered the puck as he was falling and Knight pounded it past Beavers senior goalie Dan Bakala to extend the lead at the 13:47 mark.
"I just tried to get it on net, to be honest," Knight said. "I knew the defenseman was right on me. I just tried to jam it as hard as I could. Luckily enough, it just kind of trickled over his pad far side there. It was just one of those plays where a little bit of luck was involved."
UND's lead seemed secure in the third period until BSU center Aaron McLeod tallied on the power play at 13:05 to make it a 2-1 game. Just over a minute later, Sioux freshman forward Mark MacMillan (Penticton, British Columbia) restored UND's two-goal cushion. Crashing the net, he knocked in Carter Rowney's (Sexsmith, Alberta) centering pass as he was being tackled by a defender.
"That was big," Hakstol said. "For us to come back and get another greasy goal down on the crease probably within a minute was a big part of the game for us."
BSU's attempt to pull Bakala for the extra attacker backfired when the Beavers were whistled for too many men on the ice. They managed to get the goalie off with less than a minute left, but Blood iced the victory at 19:05 when his shot from near the center line went off the post and in.
"I didn't want chip it up the boards," Blood said of his with an empty net power play goal. "I wanted to throw it on net to see if it would get a bounce or something, and it did."
Hakstol noted that during the playoffs, every game is important.
"Tonight was a critical game," he said. "We came out with a win. It's done and gone. Tomorrow night is the most critical game of our season."
"You can't be upset about a playoff win, but I think we need to be better tomorrow," Blood said.
The puck drops for the second game of the series at 7:07 p.m. Saturday in Engelstad Arena. Notes: Rowney finished with a career-high three assists, while linemate Parks had his first career 2-assist game ... Junior forward Danny Kristo (Eden Prairie, Minn.) had his 6-game point streak come to an end ... UND went 39-31 on faceoffs, led by Corban Knight (19-11) and Mario Lamoureux (10-4) ... The Sioux have now won nine straight WCHA playoff games.