GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Eric Schierhorn spent the summer calming his goaltending style, working to stay even-keeled and unflappable for college hockey’s craziest moments.
In other words, the Gophers junior worked all those hours to steel himself for nights like Friday, when No. 4 North Dakota unleashed a flurry of shots before a raucous sellout crowd of 11,862 at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
With his teammates blocking a staggering 29 shots in front of him, Schierhorn stopped 34 others headed for the net, as the No. 8 Gophers escaped with a 2-1 victory.
“It was unreal,” Schierhorn said of the atmosphere for Minnesota’s first game in Grand Forks since 2012. “I mean, I wish we could do this four times a year, home and home. It’s the best rivalry in college hockey.”
After getting a first-period goal from Rem Pitlick, the Gophers held on for dear life until Steve Johnson — of all players — stretched the lead to 2-0 with 7 minutes, 52 seconds left.
North Dakota (3-1-1) had so much puck possession going at that point, Minnesota didn’t even have a third-period shot on goal until Johnson delivered his lightning strike. Pitlick crossed the blue line on a rush and saw Johnson trailing the play.
A senior defenseman, Johnson had gone 48 games without a goal, but he sent a wrist shot into the upper-left corner.
“I told him, you’ll remember that one forever,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “That was a big goal.”
Minnesota (3-2) needed it because less than two minutes later, North Dakota finally put a puck past Schierhorn. Edina native Grant Mismash took a shot from the point, on the power play, and Rhett Gardner knocked home the rebound.
So the game’s final six minutes brought some serious nail biting for the Gophers. North Dakota pulled goalie Cam Johnson, and Gophers defenseman Jack Glover sent a 180-foot shot toward the open goal, only to hit the pipe with 1:32 remaining.
But Schierhorn made sure that didn’t come back to haunt Minnesota. With 4.7 seconds left, North Dakota won a draw and got another shot from the point, but Gophers junior Jack Ramsey blocked it, a fitting way to end the game.
The Gophers blocked 12 shots in the third period.
“I told them before the game, if you’re going to win here, you better have some ice bags on you,” Lucia said.
Offensively, the Gophers managed just five shots on goal in the second period and just three in the third. In five power-play chances, Minnesota combined for just three shots on goal.
“Hopefully we’ll be a little more relaxed [Saturday],” Lucia said. “None of our guys have played here before — and when you have nerves, you feel like you’ve got dead legs.”
The Gophers offense also sputtered on Fridays during the first two weeks of the season, in losses to No. 9 Minnesota Duluth and No. 11 Penn State.
The task this Friday was quieting “The Ralph,” where students were in their seats 90 minutes before the game. Before the opening faceoff, with electricity pulsating through the building, Gophers senior center Mike Szmatula and North Dakota’s Dixon Bowen kept jostling at mid-ice.
The linesman had to separate them before finally dropping the puck. The rivalry was back on.
When the teams met last November at Mariucci Arena, they tied 5-5 the first game, and Schierhorn was kicking himself. But he stopped 33 shots the next night, as the Gophers won 2-0.
On Friday, Schierhorn showed he could spoil UND’s night in Grand Forks, too.
“This is why you go to a school like the University of Minnesota, for packed houses like this,” Schierhorn said. “You can’t ask for anything better.”