DULUTH, Minn. — The playoffs have started, and so have the upsets. There were three in the first days of the WCHA postseason, including one Friday night at the DECC.
Ninth-place Minnesota State defeated second-place Minnesota Duluth, 4-3, in overtime to begin their WCHA playoff series before a crowd of 4,408.
National No. 4 UMD must win Saturday’s 7:05 p.m. rematch to continue the best-of-three series. The Bulldogs (23-11-4) are all but assured a spot in the 16-team NCAA field, but need to do well in the WCHA tournament to improve their national seeding.
Minnesota State (9-23-5) led 3-1 early in the second period, saw UMD rally to tie, and then got a good bounce in sudden death. Defenseman Aaron Forsythe cracked a shot off the mask of UMD goalie Isaac Reichmuth and defenseman Lucas Fransen got to the rebound for an open-net goal at 7:18.
UMD outshot Minnesota State 49-38, including 22-9 in the third period, yet couldn’t get past goalie Jon Volp when it mattered. It was the third time the teams had gone into overtime in this season’s five-game series, which UMD leads 3-1-1.
“We didn’t play our game. I don’t know if we had our heads in the clouds, or didn’t give Mankato enough respect,” said UMD winger Justin Williams. “We broke down in our defensive zone coverage. We were hitting posts and peppering the goalie, and couldn’t score enough. It was a tough, tough loss.”
The upsets started Thursday as Boston University won at top-ranked Boston College in the Hockey East playoffs, while Alaska-Anchorage went to Madison and stopped No. 8 Wisconsin on Friday for its first-ever WCHA playoff win.
Minnesota State, an NCAA tourney entrant last season, won its fourth consecutive game with two goals by winger Chad Clower and 46 saves from Volp. The Mavericks thought they had the go-ahead goal with 44 seconds left in the third period when center Brad Thompson got to his own shot, which had trickled through Reichmuth, but not over the goal line. But referee Randy Schmidt had lost sight of the puck and blew the play dead.
“The whistle shouldn’t have blown, but that’s hockey. It was a tough break, but it was still anybody’s game,” Clower said. “Most people would consider this an upset, of course, but we came in here thinking we matched up well with the Bulldogs.
“We had been giving up seven goals, eight goals and nine goals a game earlier this season and the last couple of weeks we’ve been using a new defensive system. We’re a totally different team.”
UMD did have a lead, at 1-0, on a Luke Stauffacher goal 6:02 into the game. He was alone in front of the Minnesota State net to convert a Tim Stapleton pass for his 13th goal of the season, one more than in his first two seasons combined.
Three consecutive goals gave Minnesota State a 3-1 advantage. Clower’s first came midway through the first period, then there were scores five minutes apart early in the second. Freshman winger David Backes earned his first goal in nine games with a power-play attempt at 1:25 and Clower put in a rebound on his backhand at 6:34.
Minnesota State entered the series on a 15-for-37 (40 percent) power-play conversion rate the previous six games.
“We gave up some easy goals and then it’s hard to play catchup,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “Mankato kept working and got good goaltending and buried their chances. We played maybe half a game.”
The Bulldogs rallied with consecutive goals for a 3-3 tie after 40 minutes. Junior Lessard stuffed home his own rebound from the left edge of the crease with 7:36 left. His team-leading 24th goal of the season came on a power play.
UMD put on considerable offensive pressure in the final two minutes and it paid off with a Williams goal with four seconds left. Defenseman Beau Geisler made an excellent cross-ice pass to Williams, who was on one knee at the left corner of Minnesota State’s net.
“Every game in our league is tough and we didn’t play our best. We have to bounce back,” said Geisler, who had three assists.
The Bulldogs were without three players who were injured last week at Wisconsin — forwards Tyler Brosz and Josh Miskovich, and defenseman Tim Hambly.
“We’re a better team than our record shows; we haven’t been healthy all year,” said Minnesota State coach Troy Jutting. “We were back on our heels for awhile and Duluth took it to us. They’re a great team. But we kept battling and Jon [Volp] is back to playing the way he can.”
Kevin Pates covers college hockey for the Duluth News Tribune.