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NCAA Frozen Four notebook: 'Dogs 'kneed' Wolff in final seconds

Minnesota Duluth left wing Alex Iafallo shoots the puck past Harvard goaltender Merrick Madsen at 19:34 in the third period to give the Bulldogs a 2-1 lead. Minnesota Duluth hung on to defeat Harvard and advance to the national championship game Saturday at United Center in Chicago. Clint Austin /

CHICAGO — Senior wing Alex Iafallo scored the game-winning goal and freshman goaltender Hunter Miska made a whopping 39 saves for Minnesota Duluth in its last-minute 2-1 victory over Harvard in the semifinals of the NCAA Frozen Four.

But if not for the knee of UMD freshman defenseman Nick Wolff, the Bulldogs and Crimson could very well still be playing at United Center.

With time winding down and the Bulldogs up by just one, Wolff dropped to his keester and stretched out his legs in hopes of blocking the incoming shot of Harvard senior wing Luke Esposito. Wolff's knee caught the puck just enough to tick it a hair higher than its original trajectory. The puck went off the crossbar and away from danger, only to come back again in a matter of seconds and hit the post.

Harvard never did find the back of the net, just iron, sending the Bulldogs to their third NCAA championship game in program history. UMD will try for its second national championship at 7 p.m. Saturday against NCHC rival Denver, a 6-1 winner over Notre Dame, at United Center, having won its first title six years ago at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

"It was pretty nerve-wracking," Wolff said of the final seconds. "The puck was on the right side and they crossed over to the middle. Right when he shot it, my first thought was to go down. I think it hit the top of my knee. It hit the crossbar and went out. If it was an inch lower, it would of went bar down. We're really fortunate it went out."

Wolff finished with three blocks in Thursday's semifinal, which was second on the team to senior defenseman Brenden Kotyk.

Shot-blocking has been a strength of the Bulldogs all season. The team takes a lot of pride in putting their bodies in the path of cold, hard, speeding discs of rubber. UMD ranks fourth in the nation in total blocked shots with 598.

Wolff is now up to 24 blocked shots in his rookie season at UMD, with 12 coming in the NCHC and NCAA playoffs and 16 coming in the last eight games — all Bulldog wins.

"It was nice to see, he had two or three blocks throughout the game that were big," Kotyk said of Wolff's efforts. "When you have guys like a freshman doing that, it's contagious throughout the team."

Soucy returns to lineup

Sitting in the visiting NHL locker room at United Center — the Bulldogs' home this week for the Frozen Four — Carson Soucy had a big bag of ice wrapped around his knee, the same knee that kept him out the last month and nearly ended his college career.

There was no pain in the senior defenseman's eyes, just joy. Not only did Soucy get to play one more game with the Bulldogs on Thursday, he'll get another Saturday.

"Down to one game left, it's going to be tough to take that (Bulldog jersey) off for the last time, but at least we're in a spot where it's going to feel good taking it off," Soucy said. "We're going to hopefully enjoy it if we get that win. I can't say enough about our guys getting me in a jersey again."

The Frozen Four semifinal was Soucy's first game since going down with a knee injury in the third period of the second-to-last game of the regular season — a March 3 loss at Western Michigan. He ended up missing seven games.

Soucy didn't register a point or block a shot — probably for the best considering there is one more game to play — in his much anticipated return, but Soucy did get three shots on goal and finished with a plus-1 rating.

Soucy was on the ice for Iafallo's game-winner, and he was happy to be there. Tight games like Thursday's are a lot easier to handle on the ice than in the stands for Soucy, who had to watch his team squeak out a pair of 3-2 overtime wins two weeks ago in the stands in a suit at the West Regional in Fargo, N.D.

"It's definitely nice to be able to help, but you also have that pressure of being on the ice against great players like Harvard's got," Soucy said. "It's a little bit added pressure, but less nervous."

Defense does its job

Harvard entered the Frozen Four on a 16-game winning streak and 18-game unbeaten streak and the nation's best-scoring offense that averaged 4.14 goals per game.

The only blemish during that unbeaten streak was the only game it failed to score three or more goals — a 1-1 tie with Yale.

History repeated itself Thursday. For just the sixth time this season, Harvard was held to less than three goals, and like all the others, they failed to win.

"Pretty much every bit of ice was hard to get out there. I give Minnesota Duluth a lot of credit for that," said Harvard coach Ted Donato, whose team fell to 0-4-2 this year when scoring fewer than three goals. "I thought we generated chances. I don't think the game ever got probably up and down the ice as much as we would have liked. But as I said, I think Minnesota Duluth deserves a lot of credit for that."

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

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