GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Freshman center Connor Gaarder (Edina, MN) spent last season playing in a junior league for the Coulee Region Chill and came to UND as a walk-on without scholarship help this season.
So to say that Gaarder would turn into a pivotal table-setter in both games of the opening round of the Western Colleigate Hockey Association sweep of visiting Bemidji State would rate as a surprise.
For the second straight game, Gaarder scored UND's first goal, this time leading to a 4-3 victory over the Beavers and sending the Fighting Sioux to the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul next week for the 10th straight season. That means the Sioux have made it to the Final Five in all eight years Dave Hakstol has been the head coach.
Gaarder's goal at 13:48 of the first period staked the Sioux to a 1-0 lead, his wrist shot from the high slot beating BSU goalie Dan Bakala short side. The second goal in two nights for Gaarder doubled his season total to four.
Gaarder, the grandson of former Minnesot Vikings head coach Jerry Burns, made a name for himself with his big contributions in a key sweep for the Sioux.
"It's always good to have a good first period and get the team going,'' Gaarder said.
His goal was the only score of the opening period and came from the fourth line with freshman Dan Senkbeil (Freemont, Calif.) and freshman Mark MacMillian (Penticton, British Columbia) double shifting on that line off his usual second line.
"It's always key to get the first goal of the night,'' Gaarder said. "Doesn't matter who gets it, but it's always a key play in every game.''
MacMillian made key plays all over the ice for the Sioux in a career night for himself. He assisted on three of the four goals, his biggest point total this season.
MacMillian, who plays left wing on a line with junior Carter Rowney (Sexsmith, Alberta) and freshman Michael Parks (St. Louis, Mo.), was part of a big night for that line as well.
Rowney and Parks each had a goal and an assist to more than make up for a night in which UND's top line of Brock Nelson (Warroad, Minn.), Corban Knight (High River, Alberta) and Danny Kristo (Eden Prairie, Minn.) was held without a point,
Goal by Rowney (his 17th) and by Parks (his 9th) staked the Sioux to a 3-1 lead after two periods. Rowney scored into an open net after a perfect setup on a 2-on-1 feed from MacMillian and Parks tipped a MacMillian pass by Bakala short side when Bakala moved off the near post.
Sophomore defenseman Dillon Simpson (Edmonton, Alberta) scored his second goal of the season at 5:06 of the third period for a 4-1 Sioux cushion.
That goal proved to be big as BSU stormed back with goals 19 seconds apart by Jamie MacQueen at 16:04 and 16:23 of the third period to make in interesting.
Still, the Sioux hung on for their 10th straight WCHA playoff win over the past three season. UND now is 18-5-2 since losing to Bemidji State 1-0 on Nov. 20 and 13-4-2 since Christmas.
The Sioux weren't pleased about giving up two late goals after having control of the contest. "I think we got a little sloppy,'' MacMillan said. "I think we sat back a little bit. They had it in our zone popped a couple ugly goals in, I guess. We were playing extremely well up to that point.''
Hakstol took a time out after the second of MacQueen's goals and the Beavers never had a scoring chance the rest of the way.
"We knew they would come hard,'' MacMillan said. "Everyone kind of regrouped and got it done.''
The line of MacMillan, Rowney and Parks accounted for 13 points on goals or assists in the two games.
"I think that's a long-time coming for us,'' MacMillan said. "We've been playing well lately, all three of us. I don't know how long we've been together now. But as you play more with two guys, you going to build chemistry. As we continue to play and find where each other are, that kind of stuff is going to happen.''
The Sioux take a 22-12-3 record to St. Paul and enter as one of the nation's hottest teams.
"Our record just explains how good we've been playing lately and how hot we are,'' MacMillan said. "We're going in with confidence for sure. We think we can beat any team in the league as long as we're playing our best hockey. This is the time of the year to do it.''
More importantly, the Sioux moved into ninth in the Pairwise Rankings, which mimic the selection process which will ultimately select the 16-team NCAA tournament field.
Senior goalie Brad Eidsness (Chestemere, Alberta) made 26 saves in finishing his career record against BSU at 4-0. MacMillan, Rowney and Eidsness were named the three stars of the game, in that order, by the media.
"The way this game tonight went is kind of indicative of our year,'' Hakstol said. "We don't or can't do things in an easy way, but we just find a way to get it done. I guess that is the best compliment I can pay our guys.''
It's a good one.
A team unable to field a full roster of 20 players for some time now strung together a typical second-half surge to the season to go into the Final Five on a roll.
"It's a nice reward to head to St. Paul,'' Hakstol said.
"Hats off to UND,'' BSU coach Tom Serratore said. "I thought they had great presence tonight on the ice. They didn't give us a lot down low. With their big, strong defensemen, it was difficult for us to penetrate and have any substained pressure.''
The Beavers finished 17-18-3 overall record and a 1-3 season mark against the Sioux.
SIOUX NOTES: MacMillian, Parks, Kristo and Nelson tied for the team lead for UND with four shots on net . . . MacMillan finished with a plus/minus rating of plus-3 for the game, best on the team . . . MacQueen had five shots on goal and Jordan George, who scored BSU"s other goal, had 4 to lead the Beavers.
Virg Foss covered UND hockey for 35 seasons for the Grand Forks Herald until his retirement. He now reports on UND home games exclusively for fightingsioux.com.