SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - Minnesota Duluth is heading back to the NCAA Frozen Four for the second consecutive season and sixth time in program history, and a near-death experience a week ago in St. Paul might very well be the reason for the program’s latest trip.
The Bulldogs scored two first period goals and rode them to a 2-1 victory over cinderella Air Force in the NCAA West Regional Championship on Saturday at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D.
The Falcons were the tournament’s No. 16 overall seed - they upset No. 1 overall seed St. Cloud on Friday - but it was the No. 12 Bulldogs who were the final at-large team to get into the tournament after losing twice a week ago at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Xcel Energy Center - the site of this year’s NCAA Frozen Four April 5-7.
UMD needed the Falcons in Atlantic Hockey, Michigan Tech in the WCHA, Denver in the NCHC and Notre Dame in the Big Ten to all win conference titles last Saturday in order to edge out the Minnesota Golden Gophers for the final at-large spot by one ten-thousandth of a point in the RPI.
Coach Scott Sandelin, coaching in a program record 723rd game behind the Bulldogs bench Saturday, said that near death experience last week was exactly what his team needed to get back to the Frozen Four.
“I think the way we got in really was the spark for our team,” said Sandelin, who has led the program to four of the six Frozen Fours now. “Instead of it not being so dramatic, I think our guys really appreciated the opportunity they got and that’s how hard it is sometimes.”
UMD, as the region’s third seed, put itself in a position to reach back-to-back Frozen Fours for the second time in program history by rallying on Friday from a two-goal deficit and scoring twice in overtime to edge second-seeded Minnesota State-Mankato 3-2 in the regional semifinals. The Bulldogs’ first game-winner 55 seconds into overtime was overturned by video review due to goaltender interference, but not the second by junior wing and assistant captain Parker Mackay.
Saturday against Air Force, it was the complete opposite.
Taking the advice Huskies coach Bob Motzko gave Friday to the Falcons future opponent - “you better score early,” Motzko said - the Bulldogs stomped on the Falcons during the opening 20 minutes Saturday.
UMD outshot the Falcons 14-0 in the first period and held them to just four shot attempts - all blocked - while sophomores Joey Anderson and Nick Wolff scored to stake UMD to a 2-0 lead.
Anderson, a winger, made it 1-0 via his 11th goal of the season by backhanding a rebound in just past the nine-minute mark. Wolff, a defenseman, used a rocket from the left faceoff circle to tally his seventh goal of the season, putting UMD ahead by two with less than eight minutes to play in the first.
“Duluth came out and took us to the woodshed in the first period in a big way,” said Falcons coach and Coleraine native Frank Serratore. “They came. We hadn’t seen speed like that all year. We went with a two-man forecheck - aggressive - and they were just coming through us.”
Serratore and the Falcons shifted gears in the second period, changing their forecheck to a hard one-man attack. They kept more bodies back.
The switch allowed Air Force to not only slow down the Bulldogs, but finally get a little life offensively. The Falcons finally put a shot on the UMD net 3:54 into the second period. They wound up putting six total shots through to the UMD net - same as the Bulldogs - that period and even out-attempted their opponent in the second 19-11.
Sophomore wing Riley Tufte said the key at that point for the Bulldogs was to stay structured and at times pack it in around the goal if necessary.
“They really turned it on after the first period,” Tufte said. “We knew it was coming. We’re happy with the way we played tonight. I’m just looking forward to a couple weekends from now.”
Air Force finally got on the scoreboard with less than seven minutes to play in regulation thanks to a power-play goal by junior wing Evan Giesler, who from behind the net bounced the puck in off the skate of UMD sophomore goaltender Hunter Shepard.
With their net empty, Air Force had a golden chance to tie the game late when senior wing Erik Baskin found the puck on his stick, right in front of Shepard. His shot missed the net wide, however.
In terms of shot attempts, the Bulldogs smoked the Falcons in the first period 24-4, but after that, it was 39-20 in favor of the Falcons.
Of those 39 Air Force attempts in the second and third period, just 12 reached Shepard. The Cohasset native said that’s a testament to the job done by the guys in front of him to preserve Saturday’s win.
“The first two goals (Friday), they are what they are, but we shut it down after that,” Shepard said. “It was kind of a tipping point for us last night. After the first two goals, we asked, ‘Are we going to roll over here or are we going to refocus?’ And look where we are?”
Where the Bulldogs are is back at the Frozen Four, joining Mike Sertich’s 1983-84 and 84-85 teams that went to back-to-back Frozen Fours at Lake Placid, N.Y. and Detroit. Those were the program’s first two trips to the national semifinals, with the 83-84 team playing for the NCAA title.
UMD beat Harvard last year in the semifinals of the Frozen Four before falling to Denver in the national championship game. Of the 21 Bulldogs who dressed for both games at the United Center in Chicago, only 11 remain. Seven of the 21 were seniors, while three others left early to sign NHL deals.
The Bulldogs lost six of their top eight scorers from that team, five of their six defensemen and their starting goaltender; yet here the Bulldogs are once again after bringing in 10 freshmen, and playing five of them on defense.
“We did lose a lot, but we also knew that we had great guys coming in,” said Wolff, the only returning defenseman from last year’s team. “We also have a great upper class that were great leaders. They not only lead by their voice, but also by example. We knew what we had in the locker room and we were very confident. Our goal was a national championship and we’re not done yet. We have to keep it going.”Air Force 0-0-1-1
Minn. Duluth 2-0-0-2
First period - 1. UMD, Joey Anderson 11 (Riley Tufte, Dylan Samberg), 9:03; 2. UMD, Nick Wolff 7 (Jade Miller, Scott Perunovich), 12:12. Penalties - Tyler Ledford, AF (hooking), 3:26l Samberg, UMD (elbowing), 16:51; Zack Mirageas, AF (hooking), 18:48.
Second period - No scoring. Penalties - Brady Tomlak, AF (hooking), 15:00.
Third period - 3. AF, Evan Giesler 12 (Matt Koch, Mirageas), 13:44 (pp). Penalties - Blake Young, UMD (boarding), 12:15.
Shots on goal - AF 0-6-6-12; UMD 14-6-6-26. Goalies - Billy Christopoulos (26 shots-24 saves); Hunter Shepard, UMD (12-11). Power plays - AF 1-of-2; UMD 0-of-3. Referees - Brian Aaron, Barry Pochmara. Linesmen - Bruce Vida, Joe Hutek. Att. - 8,015.