DENVER, Colo. — The University of North Dakota opened the playoffs the same way as it played the regular season.
It controlled the first period, held Denver without a shot on goal for the first 16 minutes, generated the majority of scoring chances, yet found itself trailing.
UND’s inability to turn puck possession into offensive production and goals started with a preseason exhibition game, continued during the regular season and has now extended into the postseason with a 2-0 loss to Denver in Game 1 of their National Collegiate Hockey Conference series in Magness Arena.
UND’s season now rests upon winning back-to-back games in Magness Arena — something the program hasn’t done since 2003. Game 2 is set for 8:08 p.m. Saturday night.
UND’s streak of 16-straight first-round league playoff wins also is in jeopardy. The Fighting Hawks haven’t lost a first-round series since 2002 — also the last time it was on the road for the first round.
“We’ve been in do-or-die scenarios the last two months,” UND senior forward Rhett Gardner said. “We’re battle tested. We’re staying positive. There are things we want to do better, but we’ve got to win two games and there are two games left.”
The Fighting Hawks (18-16-2) also have to try to find a way to solve Filip Larsson. The Pioneer rookie has now stopped 140 of 143 shots in his three games against UND this season.
“No. 1, he’s a quality goaltender,” UND coach Brad Berry said. “I think the biggest thing is getting net-front traffic on them, trying to get there and establish your territory there. Obviously, getting pucks there is the next thing. We have to do that a little bit more. I thought we sustained a lot of play in the offensive zone. We didn’t play a lot in our end of the rink. But we’ve got to do a better job of being sharper tomorrow, moving pucks and getting bodies to the net.”
It took Denver 16 minutes, 15 seconds to even register a shot on goal, but the Pioneers left the first period with a 1-0 lead.
With a minute to go in the frame, Denver senior Jarid Lukosevicius centered a pass to Tyson McLellan, who one-timed it past UND goalie Peter Thome (15 saves) for his second goal of the season. Both of McLellan’s goals have come against the Fighting Hawks in Magness Arena.
Gavin Hain was on the ice for that goal, marking just the second time this entire season that Hain has been on the ice for an opponent’s even-strength goal.
At 11:44 of the third period, Denver extended its lead on a point shot by Griffin Mendel with traffic in front. It was Mendel’s first goal of the season.
UND pulled Thome for the final 3:37, but couldn’t get one past Larsson.
“We have to lay it all on the line,” UND defenseman Gabe Bast said. “We have to win this game.”