By John Gilbert for WCHA.com
SAINT PAUL, MN. --- If it was the last time the North Dakota hockey team ever wears the familiar green jerseys with the stylish Native American warrior on the chest, the Fighting Sioux gave the controversial logo and nickname a proper sendoff Saturday night, before 16,838 observers at Xcel Energy Center -- whipping Denver 4-0 in the WCHA Red Baron Final Five championship game.
North Dakota thus claimed the Broadmoor Trophy for an unprecedented third consecutive time, and gave Aaron Dell an easy shutout for his third victory in three days. The Sioux (25-12-3) ride into next week's NCAA tournament on the wings of a seven-game winning streak, which started, ironically, after a 5-3 loss that resulted in a split at Denver. They could, in fact, return to Xcel Center as the No. 1 seed of the West Regional, when pairings are announced Sunday.
However, wherever they go, it will be clad in new North Dakota jerseys, because the NCAA has decreed that if North Dakota insists on wearing its Fighting Sioux-logo jerseys, or uses the Fighting Sioux nickname, they will forfeit any NCAA victories.
North Dakota's old Fighting Sioux jerseys worked just fine to stop Denver (24-13-4). The Pioneers were outshot 29-22 and unable to muster any sustained offense, while the Fighting Sioux got a goal and an assist from both Carter Rowney and Mark MacMillan, and added power-play goals from Brock Nelson -- his fourth in three Final Five games -- and Michael Parks.
It used to be customary that teams that had to win a play-in game to reach the semifinals would never have enough staying power to win three games in three days, but Minnesota-Duluth pulled it off in 2009, and North Dakota won three in 2010. This year, however, was the first in which both finalists were playing for the third time in three days.
Denver has had a rougher road, playing the sixth game in nine days. First, the Pioneers had to go three games to beat Wisconsin, losing 1-0 and winning 3-1 and then 3-2 in overtime to get to Xcel Center. After three days of rest, the Pioneers had to go overtime again to beat Michigan Tech 3-2 Thursday, then beat UMD 4-3 in two overtimes Friday in the longest game in Final Five history. If six games in nine days wasn't enough, they included four overtime periods, the equivalent of another full game, making it more like seven games in nine days.
North Dakota beat St. Cloud State 4-1 on Thursday, and though the Sioux seemed tired as they fell behind 3-0 through the first half of its semifinal against Minnesota Friday, before rallying to win 6-3. Maybe there was a positive carryover from scoring six unanswered goals against the Golden Gophers.
"We wanted to play a complete game tonight," said North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol. "We didn't play complete games either Thursday or Friday, and we wanted to exploit the chance they might be a little more tired, because of how much they've had to play. Our energy level was pretty good, and we were plus-one 5-on-5, scored two power-play goals, and one short-handed."
It appeared that the Pioneers may have finally been overtaken by battle-fatigue, and it didn't help their manpower when they lost defenseman Josiah Didier to an injury, then offensive star Jason Zucker went out in the third period and was taken to a hospital for an MRI on an "upper body" injury. At one point coach George Gwozdecky said he moved two forwards back to play defense. "I noticed how much quicker we were able to go back and get the puck," Gwozdecky said. "That made me realize how tired we were."
Gwozdecky praised North Dakota for its play, however. "North Dakota was sharp and moved the puck well," he said. "The way they played last night with their great comeback, and the way they played tonight, I would say they would be a very likely Frozen Four team."
Goaltender Aaron Dell was sharp in his third game in three days, which, he said, he hadn't done since his junior hockey days in the Alberta league. The Pioneers had the first great scoring chance, but Dell came up with the save when Nate Dewhurst blasted a one-timer from the slot after a feed from behind the net. Later, Dell said that was the toughest save he could remember. "The guys made it pretty easy for me," he said.
Denver went back to goaltender Juho Olkinuora, who won against Tech, after Sam Brittain made a tournament record 67 stops against UMD.
A few seconds after Dell's big save, Mario Lamoureux wound up to shoot at the other end. Denver freshman Matt Tabrum hooked his stick to prevent a shot, and was called for hooking at 16:25, and North Dakota jumped at the power-play chance. Corban Knight pulled a left-corner faceoff back to Dillon Simpson, who shot from the top of the circle. The blocked shot popped up into Brock Nelson's body, and he let the puck drop, then scored his 27th goal of a sterling sophomore season into the Denver net at 17:43.
"Knighter made a big play winning the faceoff, and when Dillon shot the puck bounced up off the goalie and hilt me," said Nelson. "I was just lucky to be in the right place, and I got a good stick on it."
On the next shift, North Dakota center Carter Rowney skated to the left edge as Mike MacMillan sent him a perfect pass for a goal at 18:29, and the two goals in 46 seconds sent the Fighting Sioux into intermission up 2-0.
"They started off better than we did, and they kept it rolling," said Denver center Drew Shore. "We don't play three games in a row much, but the first goal in any game is huge. They got it, and I thought that was one of the big turning points."
True, if both teams were weary, the first goal could provide an adrenaline jump-start, and the Fighting Sioux kept feeding it. Early in the second period, they were bolstered by two Denver penalties, and on the second of those, Michael Parks scored a power-play goal with a quick shot from deep on the right side at 9:58.
To that point, the Fighting Sioux hadn't drawn a single penalty, but they got the next three. Rowney's second penalty in a row opened the third period, but instead of giving hope to the Pioneers it was the Sioux who scored, short-handed. MacMillan blocked the puck free from a Denver skater at center ice and raced in alone at Olkinuora and drilled a shot into the left edge at 7:11.
A goal at 7:11, short-handed at that, for a team wearing green uniforms on St. Patrick's Day in downtown Saint Paul -- how could the Pioneers overcome that?
They couldn't. About the only highlight for Denver in the third period was when Brock Nelson fired the rebound of Danny Kristo's shot into the net, the officials reviewed it and disallowed the goal before Kristo had skated into the goal crease and bumped relief goalie Adam Murray an instant before the puck crossed the goal line.
Gwozdecky said, "We are really looking for a little rest. Whatever region we're in, great. We just need some rest, and maybe we could even get a couple of our long-term injured players back."
2012 Red Baron WCHA Final Five Attendance Summary
Game 1: 11,489
Game 2: 15,133 (26,622)
Game 3: 12,804 (39,426)
Game 4: 16,738 (56,164)
Game 5: 16,838 (73,002)
Tournament attendance total of 73,002 is eighth highest in 20-year history of the WCHA Final Five!