ST. PAUL, Minn. — For most of the 2008-09 season, Minnesota Duluth’s special teams had only been partially deserving of that description.
Entering this weekend, the Bulldogs ranked third nationally in power-play efficiency at 22.0 percent, but had burdened themselves with a dismal 79.5 percent success rate on the penalty kill.
This season’s edition of the WCHA has featured unusually strong power plays and atypically porous penalty-killing compared to the rest of the country and to past seasons. Regardless, a sub-80 percent PK is rarely going to get the job done, especially during the playoffs.
But the Bulldogs’ shorthanded woes appeared to wash away the minute UMD arrived at the Xcel Energy Center. The Bulldogs shut down Minnesota’s power play on five tries in Thursday’s play-in game, and then came Friday’s semifinal against North Dakota.
In that game, UMD not only kept UND off the board with the man-advantage in five chances, the Bulldogs went one better by scoring the game’s first goal shorthanded. MacGregor Sharp did the honors, stuffing home his 22nd goal of the season unassisted after a giveaway in North Dakota’s defensive zone.
“Obviously we got a break with Sharpie’s goal,” said UMD head coach Scott Sandelin. “That was a huge lift.”
That tally gave the Bulldogs a 1-0 lead just over five minutes into the first period, and they never looked back. Sharp acknowledged the importance of scoring first, but was not about to take too much credit for sparking his team.
“I think a goal is a goal anytime you can get one,” he said. “But if you can get a shorthanded goal, it definitely takes the wind out of their sails.”
For North Dakota, Sharp’s goal was disappointing, but the Sioux had their chances.
“We’re not going to win many games if we don’t score a goal,” said UND’s Ryan Duncan, refuting the idea that Sharp’s quick strike was a game-turning event. “We had tons of chances on the power play … and that one goal shouldn’t have beaten us.”
A number of those UND chances came during the second period, when the Bulldog penalty kill was called repeatedly to do its duty. With UMD already up 2-0 at that point, the Bulldogs spent nine of the last 16 minutes of the middle frame shorthanded, with five of those minutes due to a major for kneeing on Brady Lamb.
Ten of the Fighting Sioux’s 14 shots on goal during the second period came while on the power play, but netminder Alex Stalock turned them all away to maintain the Bulldogs’ momentum.
“We’ve done an unbelievable job killing penalties, blocking shots,” said Stalock. “It’s been a complete team effort.”
“I can’t say enough about our penalty kill,” agreed Sandelin. “They’ve done a tremendous job.”
That left the rest of the game to Stalock and Duluth’s defense, areas where the Bulldogs have sparkled in their last few games, and all made possible by UMD’s second consecutive fast start of the weekend.
“We talk so much about the first three, four, five minutes and how important it is to have a few good shifts and maybe score a goal,” said Sandelin.
The Bulldogs have done that in the play-in game and again in the semifinals. All that remains is Saturday’s championship game against Denver. No play-in participant has ever won the Final Five, with the need to win three straight contests in three days the key factor in that fact.
Daunting? Maybe. But it also means that the Bulldogs have a chance to make history.
“Come 7:07, our guys will be excited to play in the championship game,” Sandelin promised.