GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- North Dakota's 4-2 win over visiting Minnesota State might not have been a thing of beauty, but it enabled the Fighting Sioux to secure a fourth-place finish in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA).
"Fourth place, it's good to lock that up, but we've got the Pairwise (rankings)," said UND junior forward Danny Kristo (Eden Prairie, Minn.), who had two goals. "I'm not sure where we sit right now, but we have to climb that ladder as much as we can before we go in the playoffs. It's a must-win game tomorrow."
With the victory before 11,651 fans at Ralph Engelstad Arena, UND improved to 19-12-3 overall and 15-11-1 in conference play. The loss kept the Mavericks (12-21-2 overall and 8-17-2 WCHA) in 11th place in the league.
Making his first start since Feb. 11 at Duluth, Sioux junior goalie Aaron Dell (Airdrie, Alberta) made 25 saves on 27 shots. He came up big in the second and third periods when the Mavericks outshot UND 17-11. Dell also helped blank Minnesota State on its two power play opportunities.
"He made probably three or four saves that could have been goals," Kristo said. "He's been sick and battling injuries for the past two weeks. He came out tonight and played great. He helped get the team a huge win."
UND got off to an inauspicious start when the Mavericks capitalized on a turnover in UND's zone and scored just 1:37 into the opening stanza. Dell stopped a shot from the slot, but freshman forward Matt Leitner put in the rebound.
"You just have to forget about it and worry about the next play," Dell said of the early goal. "Think about the next shot and make sure you don't give up another one right away."
Two minutes and 16 seconds later, Kristo blew past a Minnesota State defender, came in alone on junior goalie Phil Cook and beat him through the pads to make it a 1-1 game. At the 7:44 mark, Sioux freshman forward Michael Parks (St. Louis, Mo.) notched his eighth goal of the season to give UND the lead for good.
The goal came off a flukey play following a melee in front of the Mavericks' net. With Parks in the crease and the net off its moorings, the referee initially waved off the goal. But after reviewing the video, the goal was allowed to stand and UND had a 2-1 lead.
"I believe it was (Mark) MacMillan's shot off my shin pad," Parks recalled. "I turned around, and the puck was in the net. The net was off and it was in the net just in time before it came off. It counted; that's it."
UND coach Dave Hakstol said he didn't know at the time whether the goal would count.
"I couldn't have told you whether it was a good goal or not live," he said. "But video shows that it was, and it's pretty distinct, even though it was close."
Sioux freshman forward Stephane Pattyn (Ste. Anne, Manitoba) gave UND a two-goal cushion at 15:46 when he stuffed in a rebound off slap shot from the right point by freshman defenseman Andrew Panzarella (Washington, D.C.). His fourth goal of the season stood as the game winner.
"I thought our ability to answer back after we gave up the first one of the game was very important," Hakstol said. "We had a couple of grinding goals down low on the crease after that."
The Mavericks outshot the Sioux 9-7 in the second period. Dell made some of his biggest saves, enabling UND two carry its two-goal lead into the final period.
"They stepped up for me all night, so I had to step up when they needed me," Dell said. "That's what's expected of me, I guess."
Dell picked up where he left off in the third period, stoning Minnesota State's Eli Zuck on a point-blank shot off an odd-man rush.
"I think that might have been his best save all year, that 2-on-1," Parks said. "That was a huge save."
The Maverick's made it a one-goal game at 12:03 when defenseman Josh Nelson's shot from above the right circle beat Dell high to the far side. But once again, UND responded with 4:14 left to play.
Carrying the puck into the Minnesota State zone, Sioux junior center Corban Knight (High River, Alberta) made a nifty move that split the defense before dishing the puck to Kristo streaking down the right side. He beat Cook with a wrister short side.
"You saw a little bit of Knighter's skill level - head fake you at the blue line," Kristo said. "He's got great vision and kind of just put the puck right on my stick. I got a quick shot off. It hit the goalie's shoulder and went in after that. It was a great pass by Knighter."
The Mavericks coach Troy Jutting pulled Cook for the final 2:28 of the game. UND missed some opportunities for the empty netter and Minnesota State couldn't get another puck past Dell, making the final score 4-2.
Parks said UND's rally after falling behind early is a sign of how the young team has grown during the season.
"It's not the first time we've given up the first goal in the first five minutes or so of the game," he said. "A couple months ago, we wouldn't have responded the way we did tonight. We've matured quite a bit as a group."
The two teams will meet for the second game of the series at 7:07 p.m. Saturday in Engelstad Arena. It will be senior night for UND's Mario Lamoureux (Grand Forks, N.D.), Ben Blood (Plymouth, Minn.) and Brad Eidsness (Chestermere, Alberta).
Notes: Kristo, Dell and Parks were named the game's three stars ... Dell won his 44th career game, tying him with Peter Waselovich (1973-77) for 10th all-time at UND ... Kristo has established new career highs in points (38) and goals (17) ... Pattyn's has three GWG this season, a number topped by only seven freshmen in UND history ... Freshman Dan Senkbeil (Fremont, Calif.) collected his first career point with an assist on the game's final goal .. Knight and Kristo each extended their point streaks to five games ... A win on Saturday would give Hakstol his eighth 20-win season in as many years behind the Sioux bench.