GRAND FORKS, ND– It was the ending of an era. Not just because the North Dakota Fighting Hawks won’t be hosting a playoff game for the first time in 17 years, but because they say goodbye to five seniors from the team on this night. Rhett Gardner, Joel Janatuinen, Hayden Shaw, Ryan Anderson, and Nick Jones all skated their last time on the ice at Ralph Engelstad Arena, but make sure to not let that emotion get in the way of the task at hand against Omaha. It took extra time, but Jordan Kawaguchi scored in OT to get the sweep of Omaha and give UND a 5-4 win and a three-game win streak heading into the NCHC playoffs.
The seniors were ready to play, as only 23 seconds into the game, Nick Jones got a lovely pass from Rhett Gardner and put in a backhand past Evan Weninger to make it 1-0 UND within the first minute of the game. UND was firing on all cylinders, putting plenty of good chances on Weninger, but getting nothing out of it. However, a wild sequence of events which saw Peter Thome stop a Nate Knoepke shot, but Dixon Bowen lost the handle of the rebound into Peter Thome, which saw Tyler Weiss crash the net, into Thome, and in the net. After a long official review, the goal stood.
After a penalty to Jordan Kawaguchi for cross-checking, Omaha’s power play struck as Fredrik Olofsson found a wide-open Zach Jordan on the far wing and put it past Thome to make it a 2-1 game. UND got a power play of its own in the middle of the frame and made short work of it, as Jones found Kawaguchi in the slot, putting it past Weninger to tie the game at twos.
While there was some offensive pressure by Omaha, a bad clearing pass found the stick of Cole Smith, who snapped it to the glove of Weninger, where it bounced off the cuff and into the net to make it 3-2. It took to the middle of the frame for Gavin Hain to make it 4-2 on a rebound off a Smith shot to make it 4-2. After a fracas in front of the Omaha net, it went to four-on-four.
While Gardner was dragged down on the play, it resumed and resulted in Knoepke streaking down the slot and putting Omaha within one-goal, with Gardner down in the Omaha zone. UND did get into some penalty trouble, going down two men following a fracas in front and a tripping call seconds after the initial penalties. However, the team sold out on the power play in order to keep the puck out of Thome’s net and preserve the one-goal lead. With only 1:07 remaining in regulation, Tristan Keck tied the game with Weninger pulled after Kawaguchi couldn’t get a handle on a cross-ice pass and it landed on Keck’s stick, who went off the cross-bar and past Thome.
It only took 16 seconds for UND to end the game with Kawaguchi picking up an interception off the stick of an Omaha defenseman with Weninger out of position to end it quick and sweep the weekend for the Hawks. It was a goal that Kawaguchi said was his after giving up the Omaha tying strike.
“You know that turnover was on me,” Kawaguchi said post-game. “I take responsibility for that. I should have gotten the puck out of that area and I didn’t and they score. Obvious feel pretty bad about myself. I got back to the bench and I told the boys, ‘It’s on me, but I can get you back, I got this one’ and just so happened first chance I got was right in the first shift.”
“I think he felt pretty bad,” mentioned coach Brad Berry after the game. “He had the puck on his tape on the tying goal and he came back to the bench and you know, I really commend him because he said, ‘You know, it was my fault guys, I got the next one, I got the one in overtime.’” And you know what, 16 seconds later he got it so it says a lot about him.”
It was also a big deal with the seniors being sent off with a win and a sweep. It was also the last class to be a part of the 2016 National Championship team.
“It was fitting with a win,” mentioned Berry. “They came in their freshman year, they only had six losses in it and they won a lot this year. This team has a lot of pride and the seniors have a lot of pride and they wanted to end their career here at the Ralph with a win. The challenge going forward from here, and our guys are embracing it, is that we’re going on the road and keep continuing this thing.”
“They put so much into this program and we wanted to show them how much they meant to us,” said Smith. “They’ve given everything they’ve had. They got us the start we needed and the finish we needed.”
Now, UND will travel to Denver next weekend to take on the Pioneers in a best-of-three series for the right to play in the Frozen Faceoff in St. Paul in two weeks.