Minnesota Duluth jumped on Western Michigan early Sunday and never looked back, cruising to a 4-1 victory over the Broncos for the NCHC series sweep before 150 invited guests at Amsoil Arena in Duluth.
The Bulldogs — who used a third-period hat trick on Saturday to win 5-1 — led 3-0 after the first period as sophomore center Ben Almquist and freshman defenseman Connor Kelley both picked up their first collegiate goals.
Almquist — playing in just his third game this season — made it 2-0 UMD just 67 seconds after Hermantown’s Cole Koepke buried a feed from fellow junior wing Tanner Laderoute seven and a half minutes into the game. Kelley, on a give-and-go with sophomore Quinn Olson, made it 3-0 with 2:12 to go in the first.
“(Olson) made a great pass to me, and I found myself on a little breakaway, so I just had to finish the job,” Kelley said of his first collegiate goal. “I was pretty surprised (to be on a breakaway). I saw the D tried to step up on me a little bit; that’s why I kicked it out and kept driving. I was surprised no one came to me.”
Junior center Noah Cates added a power play goal for UMD in the second period, 67 seconds after the Broncos had pulled within two via a power play goal of their own.
Senior defenseman Matt Anderson appeared to nab a power play goal in the third for UMD, but video review determined there was goaltender interference on what would have been Anderson’s first goal of the season and just the second of his college career.
Western benched budding freshman goaltender Alex Aslanidis after he gave up three goals on nine shots in the first period. Senior Austin Cain finished the evening for Western, stopping 10-of-11 shots faced in the second and third period.
Aslanidis came to Duluth having posted a .928 save percentage and 1.71 goals against average during the Broncos’ four-game unbeaten streak (3-0-1), but gave up eight goals on 40 shots over four periods against UMD.
Freshman goaltender Zach Stejskal made 24 saves in his third start of the season — and second in three games — for UMD on Saturday.
UMD now faces a short week and a long trip to Oxford, Ohio, to play Miami on Friday and Saturday in a series that was postponed from Jan. 8-9 due to a positive COVID-19 test result within the UMD program.
The Bulldogs are scheduled to host Miami the following weekend as well, Feb. 5-6 back at Amsoil.
“It’s a good week for our guys, less practice. They want to get back playing,” Sandelin said. “We needed this weekend. It gives us a little boost here. We can build off this going into Miami. We’ll see them four times in a row. It doesn’t get any easier.”
Thumbs up to Cole Koepke
Sandelin was a big fan of Koepke on Sunday night, calling the play of the Tampa Bay Lightning prospect “outstanding” in the first period when he scored 7:31 into the game on a one-timer to put UMD on top 1-0.
“Cole had a real good game,” Sandelin said. “He was moving, he was physical, he was more determined tonight with his game. When he’s doing that, it certainly helps our team.”
Sandelin said he used the Koepke-Jesse Jacques-Laderoute line to neutralize the Broncos’ top line of senior wing Josh Passolt, senior center Paul Washe and freshman wing Luke Grainger. The Jacques line, first put together this weekend, did so by often holding its own in the faceoff circle against one of the league’s top faceoff specialists in Washe. The also won races to pucks and controlled the play.
Koepke himself finished with five shots on goal Sunday.
“We had a few plays where we cycled it below the net and came out from the corner and hit one of us out front,” Koepke said. “We were creating chances all night. That goes back to all of us moving our feet and working hard and just having trust in one another. It was great, and hopefully, we can keep it up in future weekends.”
Thumbs up to a good problem in goal
Sophomore Ryan Fanti was the Bulldogs go-to goaltender in Omaha, starting eight of the nine games in the NCHC Pod.
But now the Bulldogs have found themselves a second option in the net in freshman Zach Stejskal, who has split time over the last two series with Fanti. After a shaky first start in Omaha against Miami on Dec. 8 (a 23-save 4-2 win), Stejskal has been solid in his past two starts against St. Cloud State on Jan. 9 (a 20-save 1-0 OT loss) and Saturday against Western.
“(Stejskal is) learning, and we have one of the best goaltending coaches in the country, right? He’s learning from the right guy,” Sandelin said, referring to volunteer goaltending coach Brant Nicklin. “It's like anything; it's like any player. You got to practice hard, you got to do your job, you got to prepare through practice, and you got to be ready when you're called upon. That's one of the things that he's learned.”
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Fanti was solid Saturday for the Bulldogs, making 17 saves, and he now finds himself in a rotations not because his play has slipped, but because Stejskal has stepped up his game.
For Sandelin, two potential starters on the roster is a great problem to have. And if Ben Patt ever gets a chance to play, the coach said he’ll likely find himself a third option, and that’s OK. He won’t turn down competition in goal, ever.
“I don’t want to forget about Patter. He hasn’t played, but he’s very instrumental in this group,” Sandelin said. “He pushes guys. He’s such a great team guy. He’s always ready, and having those guys like that can help, too.”
Matt’s Three Stars
3. UMD’s Connor Kelley and Ben Almquist — Both picked up their first college goals Sunday, further showing UMD can get offense from more than just its big guns.
2. UMD sophomore wing Quinn Olson — He had two assists Saturday and was praised by both Koepke and Kelley for setting up their first-period goals.
1. UMD junior wing Cole Koepke — Tough to argue with Sandelin over how big of an impact Koepke made Sunday. He had a step on the Broncos all night long.
Western Michigan 0-1-0—1
Minnesota Duluth 3-1-0—4
Saves — Alex Aslanidis, WMU, 6-X-X—6; Austin Cain, WMU, X-5-5—10; Zach Stejskal, UMD, 7-9-8—24.
Power plays — WMU 1-4; UMD 1-3. Penalties — WMU 3-6; UMD 4-8.