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College men's hockey: Bulldogs' Alex Iafallo hopes to cash in on NCAA title

MINNEAPOLIS -- With more than 60 percent of NCAA Division I teams eliminated from postseason play, the college free-agent frenzy has begun. NHL teams are already swooping in, having signed six undrafted free agents off college teams, hoping to la...

t020317 --- Clint Austin --- 020417.S.DNT.UMDMPUX.C05--- Omaha Nebraska goaltender Evan Weninger (35) hurries to cover a shot on goal from Alex Iafallo of Minnesota Duluth during the second period of Friday's game at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Omaha Nebraska goaltender Evan Weninger (35) hurries to cover a shot on goal from Alex Iafallo of Minnesota Duluth during the second period on Feb. 3 at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
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MINNEAPOLIS - With more than 60 percent of NCAA Division I teams eliminated from postseason play, the college free-agent frenzy has begun. NHL teams are already swooping in, having signed six undrafted free agents off college teams, hoping to land the next Jason Garrison, Chris Kunitz or Torey Krug.

Minnesota Duluth senior wing Alex Iafallo will join that list of undrafted signees in the near future. Every time a list comes out ranking the top college free agents, Iafallo's name can be found near the top.

The native of Eden, N.Y., stands to make a pretty penny next month, but that's not what's on his mind these days.

"I haven't really thought about that, to be honest with you," Iafallo said. "The reason why I came back was to win the national championship with the boys. That's our main focus right now and it should always be our focus until we hopefully win it at the end."

Iafallo's decision to return to UMD for his senior season has paid off professionally, but there's nothing he values more right now than a chance to play for a national championship after losing by a single goal in each of the last two NCAA Northeast Regional finals.

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For the Bulldogs (23-6-7), their NCAA title run begins this weekend at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Target Center with a 4:08 p.m. semifinal Friday against Western Michigan (22-9-6). While this weekend's results won't impact whether the Bulldogs make the NCAA tournament or what seed they will be - they're guaranteed one of four No. 1s - Iafallo said the Frozen Faceoff can set the tone for what's to come.

"It's starting to set in that it's time to go," he said. "I think over the last couple weeks and now, you get the goosebumps every time you step on (the ice) because you don't know when it could end. I just try to focus on every game and every play. I'm just trying to stay positive and make every solid play I can to score a goal."

Iafallo enters the Frozen Faceoff on a nine-game point streak with five goals and nine assists in that span. He's notched a goal and an assist in each of the last three games. In the NCHC quarterfinal series sweep of Miami last weekend, Iafallo assisted senior center and captain Dominic Toninato on the game-winning goal in overtime of Game 1. Iafallo then scored the game-winner with 4:23 to go in Game 2 to secure the sweep.

Iafallo's 41 points are tied for 19th nationally and second among NCHC scorers. He finished as the NCHC's regular-season scoring champion, recording 30 points off 11 goals and 19 assists.

Iafallo was a nominee for NCHC Player of the Year, but lost out on Thursday to Denver senior defenseman Will Butcher. Iafallo was edged by Miami senior Anthony Louis - who signed with the Chicago Blackhawks this week - for NCHC Forward of the Year as well.

"He's at the top," Toninato said of his longtime linemate earlier in the week. "He's been playing the best hockey I've seen in the last four years. He's always been a great player, but he's definitely elevated it just a little more."

Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said Iafallo's game has been elevated all season. The wing put together a nine-game scoring streak earlier this season, too, totaling eight goals and eight assists from Oct. 28-Dec. 9.

Sandelin said Iafallo was determined to put in the work this summer in order to have a solid senior season. After posting 11 goals and 11 assists as a freshman, Iafallo had eight goals and 17 assists as a sophomore and eight goals and 15 assists as a junior.

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Iafallo smashed those numbers this season with 17 goals and 24 assists for 41 total points.

The coach pointed to two things Iafallo is doing more of this season to boost his scoring. He is shooting the puck more - and shooting confidently - as well as taking pucks to the net and finishing more chances.

"Our best players have been playing at a consistently high level," Sandelin said. "He's certainly one of those guys and been an offensive catalyst for us, a key player all year."

Asking Iafallo what makes him such an offensive catalyst is useless. He'll only deflect all the credit to linemates Toninato and freshman wing Joey Anderson.

His linemates are not shy about praising Iafallo, and neither is his coach.

Sandelin said Iafallo's speed is his biggest asset. It gives him the ability to push defenders back. Iafallo's hands allow him to get out of tight areas and make plays as well, Sandelin said.

What stands out to Toninato is the job Iafallo does protecting the puck, specifically when Iafallo gets his leg out so a defenseman can't knock the puck away.

Anderson and Toninato both cited Iafallo always being in the right spot, offensively and defensively.

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Anderson was quick to credit Iafallo for his success as a rookie in the NCHC, saying Iafallo's ability to make simple, smart plays with the pucks allows the freshman to read plays and know where to go.

"He's a top player in this league and he's done phenomenal things this year," Anderson said. "He's a difference-maker every night and that's what you look for out of the top guys in any league. Some things he does with the puck, you look at and you're like, 'Wow.' You can't even believe that he's doing that. He ranks right up there with the best of them."

Toninato wins NCHC award

The NCHC announced its award winners Thursday at Muse Events Center in Minneapolis prior to the Frozen Faceoff.

Toninato was the lone Bulldog to win an award, taking home the Defensive Forward of the Year honor. Toninato had a plus-13 rating in NCHC play.

The Bulldogs had 13 total nominees in 11 categories. Freshman goaltender Hunter Miska was nominated for three awards while Iafallo, junior wing Karson Kuhlman and sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk had two nominations each.

NO. 2 UMD (23-6-7) VS. NO. 3 WESTERN MICHIGAN (22-9-6)

What: NCHC Frozen Faceoff semifinal

When: 4:08 p.m. Friday

Where: Target Center, Minneapolis

TV: CBS Sports Network

Radio: WWAX-FM 92.1

Internet: network1sports.com/station/kqds (audio); nchc.tv (video)

Twitter: @mattwellens

Related Topics: COLLEGE HOCKEY
Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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