BUFFALO, N.Y. - Minnesota Duluth junior defenseman Nick Wolff loves to talk.
The guy they call ‘Wolffie’ enjoys chats with officials. He’ll chirp the opposing team and even his own teammates.
In a rare moment Thursday inside the locker room of the Buffalo Sabres, however, Wolff struggled to find his words.
That’ll happen, even to the best smack talkers, when you are bound for the national championship game for a third consecutive season, hoping to win a second straight NCAA title. Wolff and the Bulldogs find themselves in that spot following a 4-1 victory over Providence in the NCAA Frozen Four before 13,051 at KeyBank Center.
They’ll play Massachusetts (31-9), a 4-3 overtime winner over Denver, at 7 p.m. Saturday in Buffalo.
“It's kind of strange to be honest,” Wolff said. “It’s something you work for since you are young. To do it three times in three consecutive years as a junior ... I have no words to say how it feels. It's an awesome feeling to have with my buddies and, hopefully, we can win the last one.”
Sophomore center Justin Richards scored twice for UMD with the second being an empty-net goal. Sophomore defenseman Dylan Samberg also scored an empty-netter while senior wing Billy Exell scored the game-winning goal midway through the third period.
Bulldogs junior goaltender Hunter Shepard made 28 saves on 29 shots. The lone goal he allowed was on a power play in the second period. He enters Saturday’s championship having given up just one even-strength goal during 431 minutes, 52 seconds in net during the NCAA tournament the past two seasons.
“It’s incredible, I’ll let it sink in later tonight,” UMD senior captain Parker Mackay said. “We’re very excited right now. Like I said a couple weeks ago, some guys don’t get the opportunity to even make it to the regional level or the Frozen Four, so being in three championship games is going to be huge.”
The Bulldogs actually found the back of the Providence net six times Thursday, but the first two pucks to cross the goal line didn’t count.
Exell had a goal disallowed 10:15 into the game because the whistle blew well before the puck went in and video review confirmed the call.
Freshman wing Cole Koepke then had his goal 16:40 in overturned by video review for goaltender interference, a call that drew boos not only for the conclusion made by the Atlantic Hockey officiating crew of Chris Ciamaga and Mike Schubert, but because it took the pair six minutes to decide the minimal contact Koepke made with Providence senior goaltender Hayden Hawkey at the top of the crease was illegal.
The Bulldogs finally netted a goal that counted 6:39 into the second period when Richards fired a shot low under Hawkey. The Friars tied the game 11 seconds into a cross-checking minor against Wolff.
Providence went back onto the power play early in the third, even getting a 5-on-3 for 1:18 after freshman wing Tanner Laderoute was called for tripping and Exell committed a slash. Shepard made two big saves during the two-man disadvantage to keep the game tied, and less than four minutes later, Exell got a big piece of redemption.
The senior assistant captain said he saw his linemate, sophomore wing Kobe Roth, at the blue line, so he figured he’d go hard to the net and see what happens.
What happened was the game-winner, though not as planned as the puck bounced off Exell’s stick and knee before going in.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh no, it’s going to hop over me,’” Exell said. “I was hoping it would be a flat pass off the pad, but it didn’t happen that way. … I just tried to get my body in front of it so it didn’t get by me and it ended up finding the right place.”
Exell’s game-winner Thursday was just his third goal of the season, but his second of the postseason. Three weeks ago, he recorded a game-tying short-handed goal in a 3-2 double-overtime win over St. Cloud State in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship.
“He's probably one of our hardest workers, and has been for four years,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said of Exell. “He scored a big goal for us in the NCHC championship game to tie it. You love it when those guys step up, especially your seniors, especially your leaders, to create those moments.
“His value, especially the last 2 1/2 years for sure, has been really important to our team. So it's been fun to watch.”
You know what else is fun for Sandelin? Playing for national championships. He and the Bulldogs will go for No. 3 on Saturday.
“I've said it a number of times, I personally don't ever take them for granted,” Sandelin said of playing for titles. “I don't want our players to. I want them to really enjoy it and relish it. Like I said, we're really looking forward to having a chance to play on Saturday.”Providence 0-1-0-1
Minn. Duluth 0-1-3-4