ST. CLOUD, Minn. — For the second consecutive year, the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs are proving to be hazardous to the playoff aspirations of the No. 2 overall seed in the WCHA playoffs.
Senior Josh Johnson made 27 saves, and sophomore forward MacGregor Sharp created two goals for the Bulldogs as Minnesota-Duluth took advantage of their opportunities and dropped a punchless St. Cloud State squad, 3-1, at the National Hockey Center.
“We wanted to get out and get the first goal tonight,” said Johnson. “We wanted to get that goal and then not sit back, and that’s just the way we made it work.”
“They had a handful of individuals who absolutely outworked the heck out of us,” said SCSU head coach Bob Motzko. “We were still fine until we started to get frustrated on the bench. The minute that happened, we were in trouble.”
Minnesota-Duluth (13-19-5) had to weather the storm early on as St. Cloud State (20-8-7) came out throwing everything it had at the Bulldogs, buoyed by two power-play opportunities during the game’s first 20 minutes.
The Huskies just missed goals on more than one occasion as UMD bent, but did not break. Johnson stood tall in turning away all nine SCSU shots, while the defense in front of him displayed a willingness to sacrifice the body to stop the puck.
“I like seeing a lot of shots early,” said Johnson. “It helps me get into the game. You never knows what happens if you let them get a couple of quick ones, so the first period was huge for us tonight.”
The defensive perseverance paid off in the first minute of the second period as the Bulldogs opened the scoring for the first time in seven meetings with SCSU. Just 33 seconds after the center-ice faceoff, Sharp took a pass from behind the St. Cloud net and found Bryan McGregor directly in front of the net. The senior winger quickly rifled the puck before St. Cloud netminder Bobby Goepfert could position himself.
Immediately after giving up the game’s first goal, St. Cloud State went back on the hunt for one of its own, responding with a flurry that almost ended with a tie score mere seconds after UMD had dented the twine. After moving across the crease to make a spectacular save, a bad bounce off a UMD defender left the puck sitting in the crease, but a heads-up clearance off the line by senior Ryan Geris kept the Bulldogs from losing their lead.
“If they’d scored there, who knows what the outcome would have been,” said Johnson. “They came out hard and I was just fortunate enough that our guys helped keep that out of there.”
Gradually, St. Cloud State found more scoring opportunities, and knotted the score shortly after their fourth power play of the game had expired without producing a point.
Sophomore John Swanson was the catalyst with a perfect pass from the left side of the net into the slot, but the goal-scorer was hardly unexpected given the evening’s matchup — former Bulldog Dan Kronick. The SCSU senior, who has victimized his former team in nearly every meeting since transferring, poked Swanson’s pass into the net to Johnson’s right to tie the score.
About six minutes later, UMD would regain the lead under similar circumstances. Just after the second Bulldog man advantage of the evening had expired, Duluth junior Mike Curry intercepted a clearance attempt at the blue line. With a quick snap shot, Curry put the puck in the back of the net with help from a timely screen by sophomore captain Andrew Carroll which blocked Goepfert’s view of the shot.
“It was a real ‘seeing-eye dog’ type of a shot,” said UMD head coach Scott Sandelin.
In the third period, the Duluth penalty kill took control. UMD took several untimely penalties which threatened to let the Huskies back into the game, but the Bulldog PK unit stood strong, shutting down passing and shooting lanes left and right.
All told, the UMD penalty killers blocked four shots while SCSU had the man advantage during the third period, and Johnson was only forced to make one power-play save.
The frustration mounted for St. Cloud, and with four minutes left to play, it was the Huskies’ turn to begin taking foolish penalties. A penalty to junior Andrew Gordon prematurely ended their seventh and final power play of the evening, and another penalty shortly after Gordon’s ended, this time to senior Casey Borer, gave UMD the opening to seal the upset.
Almost identical to Kronick’s goal in the second period, Sharp took the puck to nearly the same location on the ice that Swanson had worked, and made a strikingly similar pass into the slot. Sharp’s pass was just slightly deeper, right into the sweet spot, and found sophomore Josh Meyers, who promptly ripped a one-timer to the back of the net.
“Our penalty kill has been outstanding over the last month,” said Sharp. “Everyone’s really bought into it, we have guys getting down and blocking shots. Come playoff time, it’s your special teams and goaltending that can get you through and we did well on both of those.”
Last season, Minnesota-Duluth surprised the second-ranked Denver Pioneers in Game 1 before going on to win the series in three games, becoming the first nine-seed to advance to the Final Five. With one more win over the next two days, the Bulldogs can duplicate the feat for the second year straight.
“We’ve played well,” said Sandelin. “We’ve beaten some good teams, we’ve lost some tight games, but it was good to see that we can come into the third period on the road with a lead and find a way to win.”
St. Cloud State has lost consecutive games for only the second time this season.
“We weren’t winning after the first period, and we started to panic for some reason,” said Gordon. “Every game’s going to be a tight one in the WCHA, especially this time of year, and we came in with the wrong mindset. I think we expected to breeze through this first game, but they deserved to win this game, plain and simple.”
“Our power play did a horrible job tonight,” said Motzko. “Your power play has got to be good to win at this time of year.”
Duluth can close out the best-of-three series Saturday night at the National Hockey Center in Game 2.