ST. PAUL, Minn. — In a game of bounces, just enough of them went the way of Minnesota-Duluth Thursday night.
The workaday Bulldogs brought their lunchpails, the offense took advantage of its opportunities and Isaac Reichmuth (31 saves) provided the steady goaltending Duluth required to upend North Dakota 2-1 in the play-in game at the WCHA Final Five.
UMD’s two goals came in unlikely fashions, each in its own way. Fourth-liner Matt Mathias scored the first on a one-timer, and Junior Lessard — a more traditional source of Bulldog offense — got the second after getting in the way of a slapshot and whipping the bouncing puck home from the slot.
That sort of goal typifies the season for the Bulldogs (21-14-5).
“We’ve had to earn a lot of things,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin, who beat his mentor, UND’s Dean Blais, “because we’re probably not the most talented team.”
North Dakota (26-11-5), meanwhile, couldn’t find its scoring touch.
“I don’t know if we were tired from three games [last weekend],” said Blais. “It’s not an excuse, but we didn’t have the jump.”
With the game tied at 1 late in the third period, Duluth finally penetrated the wall that had been disguised as UND goaltender Jake Brandt (25 saves). Mucking behind the net, Jon Francisco worked the puck free to the point, where Steve Czech lined up a slapshot.
The puck hit Lessard, who was standing in the high slot, and landed at the junior winger’s feet. He banged it underneath a crossed-up Brandt at 14:47 for his 19th goal of the season and the game winner.
“It hit me in the chest … and I picked up the rebound. It was bouncing, and I was lucky to get [good] wood on it,” said Lessard.
The early going didn’t give the impression of a defensive struggle.
In the first period, just after the expiration of a UMD penalty, Brandon Bochenski opened the scoring with his 35th goal of the season. Taking the puck from Andy Schneider, Bochenski swung out to the top of the left circle and released a shot that beat Reichmuth short-side at 7:12.
Minnesota-Duluth took very little time to knot the score, with the fourth line doing the damage. A centering pass from Evan Schwabe found Mathias in the high slot, and Mathias one-timed the pass through Brandt at 8:48.
“When I got a chance to be back in the lineup, I didn’t want to give the coaches any reason to take me out again,” said Matthias.
North Dakota turned up the pressure in the second period, but couldn’t score even when presented with 32 seconds of five-on-three after penalties on Minnesota-Duluth’s Brett Hammond and Francisco. Instead, the Sioux needed Brandt to be rock-solid in net just to keep the contest tied.
Late in the second, Brandt made what at the time was the save of the game during a Bulldog power play. Nick Anderson, parked alongside the UND net, found Francisco uncovered on the back door, but Brandt flashed across the crease to deny Francisco’s shot at the half-open net with a spectacular glove save.
“The puck came down on my right side, and I saw it was a two-on-none,” said Brandt. “Odds are, the guy was going to pass it.”
Midway through the third, Brandt picked up two more saves to keep the game tied, first stopping a two-man play by Francisco and Tim Hambly, then holding off Hammond from the right side of the crease.
After Lessard’s goal, with 35.6 seconds remaining Bochenski was hauled down on a breakaway by Czech, setting up a power play and one last chance for North Dakota.
With less than 20 seconds to go, what would have been the game-tying goal was waved off as Reichmuth appeared to be pushed into the net with the puck gloved. The goal light went on, but two officials both signaled no. Video replay was consulted, and the play was confirmed dead.
“I had no doubt whatsoever,” said Reichmuth of the call. “I barely even looked up.”
UMD held on during the remaining seconds of a Sioux six-on-four to seal the win.
North Dakota knew it had a spot wrapped up in the NCAAs regardless of Thursday’s outcome, and the Sioux’s thoughts turned in that direction, with Blais taking some solace in the extra rest UND would get.
The Bulldogs, however, advance to Friday afternoon’s semifinal against top-ranked Colorado College. Since Duluth is not in a position to earn an at-large bid, UMD’s only hope to keep playing next weekend is to keep winning this weekend.
“This is the hardest-working team I’ve been on, and if we keep that up good things are going to happen,” said Francisco.