ST. PAUL, Minn. — A team that entered the postseason looking quite the opposite of a a threat to the WCHA’s top five teams took down another one Thursday.
Up next for No. 17 Minnesota-Duluth: the top seed.
The Bulldogs tacked two more days onto their stay at the WCHA Final Five with a heartstopping 2-1 victory over No. 13 Minnesota at Xcel Energy Center in the tournament’s play-in game.
Considering that the Bulldogs went winless in their last five regular season games to slide into the league’s second division, a three-game playoff winning streak may not have been the most likely of scenarios.
But here they are, among the WCHA’s final four teams and probably with a little better feeling about their NCAA tournament chances.
Goals by MacGregor Sharp and Matt Greer in the first two periods and another strong outing from WCHA first-team goaltender Alex Stalock made the difference and put some more distance between the seventh-seeded Bulldogs and the disappointing regular season finish.
“From the beginning of the year, this group’s been (close),” Stalock said. “Something like that’s never going to get in the way of a group.”
But Thursday’s thriller went down to the wire, and the Bulldogs could celebrate only after winger Andrew Carroll hooked Gophers forward Ryan Stoa off the puck in the dying seconds — a play that drew a penalty that didn’t matter because it came after the horn.
“Great penalty,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “That one didn’t bother me.”
It was those kind of little plays — most of them were, in fact, legal — that defined the smart, safe way UMD pulled out the victory Thursday.
Things didn’t always turn out that way down the stretch of the regular season, when the Bulldogs went from home-ice contenders to bottom-half dwellers.
Sandelin cited four games that the Bulldogs could have won had they held onto leads.
“Maybe it was one of those things that (was) the best thing that (can) happen,” he said.
UMD (19-12-8) knocked off fourth seed Colorado College in two games last weekend to turn things back around in a topsy-turvy second half of the season that also included a 7-2 stretch. Thursday, fifth seed Minnesota was the victim.
Now it will be the next in line to try to pull off what hasn’t been done in Final Five history — win three games in three days.
The next step is a 7 p.m. game Friday against top seed North Dakota, a team the Bulldogs tied and defeated at home in November.
Other than a first-period stretch in which it recorded 13 shots on goal in under five minutes and its third-period rally attempt, Minnesota (17-13-7) looked sluggish.
Battling the flu all week, starting goaltender Alex Kangas lasted only a period before being replaced by Kent Patterson.
Kangas left a bad rebound that turned into Sharp’s goal just 3:46 into the game, giving the Bulldogs the early lead that is becoming their postseason trademark.
Greer scored on Patterson in the second period off the second rebound of his initial shot on a rush up the right side.
Still, the Gophers had their chances.
They enjoyed a 5-on-3 advantage for 66 seconds in the first period, but UMD held them off the scoreboard.
“To kill that penalty was huge,” Sharp said, “and I think it really set the tone for the whole game for us.”
With Minnesota pushing for an equalizer after Cade Fairchild’s third-period goal, forward Nico Sacchetti missed an open net from the slot.
“Kind of typified our night a little bit,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, by no means surged toward the final horn. They played it safe and relied on Stalock and the defense to come through to pull out a one-goal victory.
It worked, so they’ll work again Friday.