ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota-Duluth didn’t look like a team with nothing to play for Saturday.
The Bulldogs (22-15-5) leaped out to an early three-goal lead, then weathered a Minnesota State (20-10-10) rally before pulling away again for a 6-4 win in the consolation game at the WCHA Final Five.
Afterward, talk centered on likely NCAA fates. Current projections have Duluth as the odd man out when the field is announced Sunday evening.
UMD netminder Isaac Reichmuth (23 saves) was still hopeful.
“Our motivation was that we still want a chance to get into the NCAA tournament,” he said. “And when you’re playing for your life it’s easy to get into a game.”
Despite six games in nine days, the Bulldogs carried play throughout most of the game.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” said Bulldog head coach Scott Sandelin. “Regardless of whether we go on, we wanted to go out [of the Final Five] on a high note.
“I came down here thinking we had to win three games to get in. Yeah, I’ll be disappointed … but it’s been a real positive season for this program.”
Minnesota State, meanwhile, is expected to hear its name called Sunday despite an 0-for-2 performance this weekend.
“Two losses is something we can’t be happy with,” said Shane Joseph, who scored two second-period goals to keep the Mavericks in the game. “Hopefully … we’ll be playing next weekend, and we’ll use this as preparation for that.”
UMD defenseman Tim Hambly’s shot from the left-wing boards turned into the first goal of the game when the puck beat Jason Jensen over his shoulder at 3:20 of the first.
The Bulldogs extended the lead when Junior Lessard picked up his third goal of the weekend, beating a defender around the corner and roofing the puck at 12:12.
The Mavericks seemed to reverse the momentum with a goal in the final minute. Grant Stevenson’s slapshot from the left side was tipped in by Cole Bassett to make it 2-1.
But UMD stunned MSU with just 15 seconds left in the period. T.J. Caig won a faceoff back to Tyler Brosz in the offensive zone, and Brosz’s slapper beat Jensen cleanly to restore the two-goal lead.
A shaky Jensen was replaced by Jon Volp, who stopped 46 shots in Friday’s loss to Minnesota, to start the second period.
It didn’t help at first, as Josh Miskovich scored off a rebound of Steve Czech’s shot to make it 4-1 Duluth at 2:22. That was when Mankato turned the jets on, thanks to the usual suspects.
The Mavericks narrowed it to 4-2 at 12:18 on the power play, when Stevenson’s shot glanced off Bassett’s skate to Joseph, who put away the puck from the edge of the crease.
Joseph and Bassett again combined on the third MSU goal. On another power play, Bassett’s short wrister rebounded to Joseph in the slot, and Joseph’s putback eluded Reichmuth.
Duluth racked up 21 shots in the second period while seeing its lead shrink. Through 40 minutes of play, UMD led MSU 31-19 in shots on goal.
Undeterred, the Bulldogs made it 5-3 on a tic-tac-toe play at 6:15 of the third period. Passes from Jon Francisco to Nick Anderson to Czech gave the rookie defenseman a back-door putaway to short-circuit the Mankato rally.
UMD extended to a three-goal lead again on a broken play, as Caig corraled a loose puck just outside the crease and stuffed it home. The Mavericks responded a minute later with an Adam Gerlach goal, but it was too late to stem the tide.
“We’ve only lost three of the last 25 games,” said MSU head coach Troy Jutting in reference to Mankato’s recent play, “but two of those are the last two.”
Added Joseph, “We still have our best hockey ahead of us, if we get that chance.”