DULUTH, Minn. — Not all the favored teams are headed to the WCHA Final Five this weekend in St. Paul.
Not Denver. Not Wisconsin.
Minnesota-Duluth made it out of the playoff’s first round by the slimmest of margins Sunday night at the DECC, and the Bulldogs are more than happy to have survived.
UMD outlasted Minnesota State 6-5 in the deciding game of the best-of-three series before 4,048 in the final home game of the season to finish 15-5 at the DECC.
Minnesota-Duluth (25-11-4) now faces Minnesota (24-13-3) at 7:08 p.m. Friday in the league semifinals at Xcel Energy Center.
“We breathed a sigh of relief when it was over and were just glad to get out of here with winning the series,” said defenseman Jay Hardwick, one of four UMD seniors finishing out his home career. “These are the kind of games that make you bear down and keep you sharp, and we’ll have to play that way in every game from now on.”
The Bulldogs, second in the WCHA in the regular season, seemed to have the game well in hand with five goals before the game was 11 minutes old. After coming out flat the previous two games, they turned things around with two goals in 60 seconds, three in 3:20, four in 5:48 and five in 9:00.
Junior winger Marco Peluso of Bovey had the first and fifth goals of the barrage and finished with two assists. Ninth-place Minnesota State (10-24-5) was being pummeled by the No. 2 offense in Division I.
“We wanted a great start and I don’t think it could’ve gone any better,” said Peluso, who has 10 goals this season. “Everyone was clicking. Everyone was making great passes.”
The Mavericks didn’t fold. They scored five of the game’s final six goals and pressed UMD until the final seconds. Minnesota State already knew that Colorado College had knocked off Denver in two straight games and that huge underdog Alaska Anchorage had upset Wisconsin in a deciding game Sunday in Madison.
And the Mavericks knew this: they had trailed Denver 7-1 on Dec. 20 in Minnesota State and rallied to win 8-7.
“Our players were upset with themselves after the first period and I wasn’t happy with the effort. And if there was ever a perfect opportunity to pack it up and go home, that was it,” said Minnesota State coach Troy Jutting. “When Duluth got that first goal it gave them some energy. They’re a good offensive team and when they get it going, they get it going.
“But we’ve definitely been playing our best hockey the last six or eight games of the season and we chipped back.”
After outshooting Minnesota State 98-60 in the first two games of the series, UMD went back on the attack with 14 shots on goal the first six minutes. The Bulldogs led in final totals 43-29.
When Minnesota State defenseman Chad Brownlee was called for holding Peluso at 1:10, Peluso responded with a power-play score. Evan Schwabe, who had two assists, passed out of the left corner to the left winger alone in front of the Mavericks net at 1:33.
T.J. Caig’s drive from the right wing hit goalie Jon Volp’s stick but still trickled into the net at 2:33 during a 4-on-4 shift. Josh Miskovich followed with a drive to the crease at 4:53 and Tim Stapleton made UMD’s No. 2-rated power play 2-for-2 at 7:21.
Stapleton’s 16th goal of the season prompted Jutting to put Kyle Nixon in for Volp for a second straight night. He allowed four goals on 15 shots.
However, that didn’t slow UMD. Peluso’s second goal of the night came on an unassisted left-wing shot for a 5-0 lead.
“When we want to play there are times when we look almost unstoppable,” said Caig. “We deserved every goal we got. They were nice goals.
“Minnesota State had nothing to lose after that and all the pressure was on us. We might’ve thought, ‘Hey, we’ve got this game wrapped up.’ Minnesota State played well and it taught us a bit of a lesson.”
The Mavericks made a spirited rally starting with a shorthanded score by freshman David Backes with 5:36 left in the first period. Wingers Rob Rankin and Brock Becker added power-play goals in the second period, while Evan Schwabe had UMD’s third man-advantage score of the game.
With just 12 seconds left in the second period, Lucas Fransen converted from the right edge of UMD’s net past goalie Isaac Reichmuth on the near side to get Minnesota State squarely back in the game at 6-4.
Minnesota State scoring leader and senior captain Shane Joseph made UMD sweat with the only goal of the third period, driving to the net on a stellar effort with 4:22 to play. It was Joseph’s 19th goal of the season and 68th of his career, giving him 144 points.
“We were fortunate that we got ahead like we did. We got the lead and never relinquished it, but maybe we looked for a little too much on offense,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “Minnesota State’s a team that’s had comebacks like this before and there were some anxious moments. We had to settle guys down in the third period and told them to take care of the puck.”
Nixon was pulled for an extra attacker with 1:18 to play as UMD called a timeout, and the Mavericks did get a few decent scoring chances.
Reichmuth was strong at the finish to earn his 21st win of the season. UMD became just the 10th team to win a first-round series after losing the first game since the WCHA format began in 1987-88.
Joining Hardwick as UMD seniors in their DECC farewell were defenseman Beau Geisler (who had two assists, and eight points in the series), and wingers Junior Lessard and Jesse Unklesbay.
So while Denver and Wisconsin have a week off to await likely NCAA tournament bids next Sunday, UMD heads to the WCHA Final Five for a fifth meeting this season with the Gophers.
In Thursday’s play-in game, Colorado College faces Anchorage, with the winner meeting top-ranked North Dakota in Friday afternoon’s semifinal.
Kevin Pates covers college hockey for the Duluth News Tribune.