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Frozen Four: Bulldogs' last rally falls short, Denver claims national championship

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University of Minnesota Duluth hockey players Kyle Osterberg (from left), Jared Thomas and Nick Wolff react in the Bulldogs locker room on Saturday night after losing 3-2 to Denver in the Frozen Four national championship game at United Center in Chicago. (Clint Austin / 2 / 10
Jarid Lukosevicius (14) of Denver scores a goal against Minnesota Duluth goaltender Hunter Miska during the second period of the Frozen Four national championship game at United Center in Chicago on Saturday, April 8, 2017. (Clint Austin / / 10
Minnesota Duluth goaltender Hunter Miska (35) makes a first-period save near Dan Molenaar (3) of Minnesota Duluth and Liam Finlay of Denver during the Frozen Four national championship game at United Center in Chicago on Saturday, April 8, 2017. (Clint Austin / / 10
Avery Peterson (11) of Minnesota Duluth puts the puck on goal against Blake Hillman (25) and Tanner Jaillet (36) of Denver in the third period of the Frozen Four championship game at United Center in Chicago on Saturday. (Clint Austin / / 10
Minnesota Duluth left wing Alex Iafallo pushes Logan O'Connor (22) of Denver out of the way during the first period of the Frozen Four national championship game at United Center in Chicago on Saturday, April 8, 2017. (Clint Austin / / 10
Minnesota Duluth defenseman Willie Raskob (15) and goaltender Hunter Miska reacts after Denver scored a goal during Saturday's game. UMD lost 3-2 to Denver in the Frozen Four national championship game at United Center in Chicago. (Clint Austin / / 10
Minnesota Duluth center Avery Peterson (11) is squeezed between Blake Hillman (25) and Tanner Jaillet (36), both of Denver, during the Frozen Four national championship game at United Center in Chicago on Saturday, April 8, 2017. (Clint Austin / / 10
The United Center just before the start of the NCAA championship game between UMD and Denver on Saturday night. (Samantha Erkkila / / 10
Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin greets fans as he walks down the red carpet on the way into United Center as his team arrives for Saturday's Frozen Four championship game against Denver in Chicago. (Clint Austin / / 10

CHICAGO — The 2016-17 Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team built a reputation on dramatic finishes, often on the biggest stages.

The Bulldogs won the North Star College Cup, NCHC Frozen Faceoff and NCAA West Regional via late-game heroics and even advanced to Saturday’s NCAA championship game via a last-minute goal two days prior.

The stage was set at the United Center in Chicago for one more thrilling UMD victory in front of a crowd of 19,783, especially after a late Bulldogs goal with less than six minutes remaining in regulation. The equalizer never came, however, despite a late push as Denver hung on to beat the Bulldogs 3-2 for its eighth national championship in school history.

“Our guys were awesome in the third, and we gave ourselves a chance to get back in the game,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. “And we just came up one goal short.

“It's pretty much been their character all year. They're a great group of kids. And they never quit, a strong will, and we just came up a little short.”

UMD outshot (17-3) and out chanced (6-0) Denver in the third period, but Pioneers junior goaltender Tanner Jaillet, the Mike Richter Award winner as national goaltender of the year, held strong, making 16 saves in the third and 38 overall in the battle of NCHC champions — Denver the regular-season winners and UMD the postseason champs.

Karson Kuhlman (20) of UMD competes with Tariq Hammond (3) of Denver for the puck. (Clint Austin / DNT) Sophomore wing Jarid Lukosevicius scored all three Denver goals in the second period — including two just 16 seconds apart — to put the Bulldogs down 3-1 going into the third. The 16-second margin between goals was an NCAA tournament record for one player while the hat trick was the first since Denver coach Jim Montgomery recorded three goals while playing for Maine in the Black Bears’ 1993 NCAA championship win over Lake Superior State.

Lukosevicius’ first two goals came off a tip and rebound, and he’d finish his hat trick by cashing in on another rebound. Like a vulture, he preyed off the chances created by his more high-profile teammates, like sophomore wing Troy Terry and sophomore center Dylan Gambrell.

“He’s a good player, they have a lot of good players,” UMD senior defenseman Willie Raskob said of Lukosevicius. “He showed up in an incredibly huge game.

“We had our chances. They played an incredible game, they’re an incredible team. We just came up a little bit short.”

The Bulldogs entered the title tilt on an eight-game winning streak, with five of those victories coming by a single goal. The run included a pair of overtime victories at the regional in Fargo, N.D., two weeks ago, and a last-minute goal from senior wing Alex Iafallo on Thursday to beat Harvard and reach the NCAA championship.

Those experiences left the Bulldogs confident they could pull out one more dramatic finish in the third period. According to senior captain Dominic Toninato said a two-goal deficit in the national championship felt like any other game.

“This group has been confident all year,” Toninato said. “They’ve been resilient all year. They never quit. It showed. They battled hard that whole third period. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

Iafallo tried to spark a rally initially in the second, offering a response to the first two goals from Lukosevicius. The Bulldogs’ leading scorer and All-American redirected a goal in on the power play 7:44 into the second period to cut the Pioneers lead to 2-1. It was the 21st goal of the year for Iafallo, who was fed via a pass from freshman wing Joey Anderson.

UMD's Riley Tufte (27) scores a goal against Blake Hillman (25) of Denver on Saturday. (Clint Austin / DNT) Junior wing Avery Peterson and freshman forward Riley Tufte launched a second comeback attempt with less than six minutes to play. Peterson put a puck off the post, but Tufte was there to finish the chance, using his chest to direct the puck into an open net.

UMD pulled freshman goaltender Hunter Miska — who had 25 saves — with 90 seconds to play, but that dramatic, last-second goal everyone was accustomed to seeing from the Bulldogs never came.

“All the boys played with their hearts,” Iafallo said. “We trusted each other. It’s just the way it goes sometimes. If we had a couple more minutes left, we would have put one in.

“Everybody sacrificed in that last period. They put in everything they had. No regrets.”

This was the Bulldogs’ third appearance in the NCAA championship game, with the previous two being as dramatic as the 2016-17 season. UMD lost its first shot at a title to Bowling Green State 5-4 in four overtimes in 1984 in Lake Placid, N.Y. UMD won its one and only NCAA title in 2011 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, beating Michigan 3-2 in overtime.

While this was the Pioneers’ eighth NCAA title in school history, it was the school’s first since winning back-to-back titles under coach George Gwozdecky in 2004 and 2005. Denver beat UMD in the 2004 Frozen Four semifinals.

Gwozdecky was ousted on April Fools’ Day 2013, and the Pioneers went on to hire a young junior coach, Montgomery, who had just won two U.S. Hockey League Clark Cup titles in three seasons with the Dubuque Fighting Saints.

Montgomery is the fourth person to win an NCAA championship as a player and as a coach, joining Gwozdecky (who played at Wisconsin), former Badgers coach and player Mike Eaves and Michigan’s Al Renfrew.

“As a coach, it's an incredible feeling,” Montgomery said. “And you're more proud of your student-athletes and how they've grown and how they seized the moment. And being part of that and being able to lead that group, so to speak, as the head coach, it's an incredible feeling of pride that we were able to do this.”

Minnesota Duluth........... 0-1-1—2

Denver.............................. 0-3-0—3

First period — No scoring. Penalties — Dan Molenaar, UMD (elbowing), 17:32.

Second period — 1. DU, Jarid Lukosevicius 14 (Michael Davies, Blake Hillman), 4:44; 2. DU, Lukosevicius 15 (Troy Terry, Davies), 5:00; 3. UMD, Alex Iafallo 21 (Joey Anderson, Neal Pionk), 7:16 (pp); 4. DU, Lukosevicius 16 (Dylan Gambrell, Terry), 12:23. Penalties — Matt Marcinew, DU (hooking), 6:44; Willie Raskob, UMD (indirect contact to the head elbowing), 7:34.

Third period — 5. UMD, Riley Tufte 9 (Avery Peterson, Brenden Kotyk), 14:39. Penalties — None.

Shots on goal — UMD 10-13-17—40; DU 13-12-3—28. Goalies — Hunter Miska, UMD (28 shots-25 saves); Tanner Jaillet, DU (40-38). Power plays — UMD 1-of-1; DU 0-of-2. Att. — 19,783.

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.

(218) 723-5317