MANKATO, Minn — The Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (4-11-3 overall, 2-9-2 WCHA) have hit rock bottom.
Not only in the WCHA standings, where they now sit two points behind Minnesota State (4-11-3 overall, 3-8-2 WCCHA) after the Mavericks’ 3-1 win over UMD in front of 3,364 at Midwest Wireless Civic Center.
But judging by the lengthy closed-door meeting between UMD coaches and players after Friday’s game, the Bulldogs have come to an important crossroads at the halfway point of their season.
“That was our worst game of the year,” said UMD head coach Scott Sandelin.
For the better part of 50 minutes Friday, it appeared the Bulldogs had forgotten their game in Duluth. MSU outshot Duluth 10-8 in the opening period and 12-5 in the second.
“After two periods, we might as well have been sleeping in the hotel,” Sandelin said. “Especially in that second period.”
Down 2-0 in the third period, the Bulldogs looked as though they were ready to climb back into the game. A goal by Drew Akins at 5:03 looked to swing momentum Duluth’s way and for the following seven minutes it did.
But as has been the case all season long, a key set of mistakes led to UMD’s undoing in the final frame.
A roughing penalty on the ‘Dogs Andrew Carroll put the Mavericks on the power play, on which MSU was unable to capitalize.
The second however, was the final nail in the Bulldog coffin, as Matt Niskanen deflected a Maverick shot into his own net, essentially closing out the game for MSU.
Minnesota State freshman Trevor Bruess drove to the net hard and put a weak shot towards UMD goalie Josh Johnson. Niskanen was the only man close, but his clearing attempt in front of the net did not go wide enough, and Johnson watched helplessly as the puck wafted seemingly in slow motion into the cage behind him. The goal restored the Mavericks two-goal lead, and MSU controlled play in the remaining minutes.
“It was really, really nice [to get a helpful bounce],” said MSU head coach Troy Jutting, whose Mavericks have not been the beneficiary of many his season.
Minnesota State started hot, but was stopped on a pair of breakaways in the opening minute. And until Kael Mouillierat’s goal at 16:37, neither team could find the net. MSU defenseman Steve Wagner’s initial shot was stuffed by traffic in front of the net, but Mouillierat was alone on the doorstep. Johnson stopped his first shot, but he put home his own rebound for his fifth goal of the season.
Again, it was the latter part of the period this time the second that Duluth let their guard down again.
Despite being out shot 21-13, it appeared UMD was only going to be down one at the end of two. But a nice outlet pass from MSU defenseman Brian Kilburg gave the Mavericks one more chance with just seconds remaining in the middle frame.
His pass found the tape of Travis Morin, who along with Jon Kalinski spearheaded a 2-on-1. The senior co-captain decided to take the shot himself and went top-shelf, firing a blistering wrist shot just under the crossbar at 19:50.
“It developed a little slower than normal,” Morin said. “The defenseman took away the pass like he was supposed to so I moved to the middle to give myself a better angle. I was looking to pass at first, but I couldn’t get it over.”
Johnson stopped 26 shots in the loss and according to Sandelin played “very good.” He said freshman Alex Stalock will start in net for the Bulldogs Saturday, however.
Mike Zacharias earned the win with a stellar but not spectacular 23 save performance.
The win was a reward for MSU, which was unable to gain a victory despite playing well against No. 1 Minnesota or No. 12 Denver the past two weekends. It also pulled the Mavericks to within three points of sixth place North Dakota who lost 3-1 to Michigan Tech and idle Wisconsin.
The two intra-state rivals will hook up again Saturday at Midwest Wireless Center with face-off scheduled for 7:07 p.m. in Mankato.