ST. PAUL, Minn. — The formula is seemingly not complicated.
The success is not exactly overwhelming.
But Minnesota-Duluth keeps plugging away in the WCHA playoffs, and it has earned a chance at becoming the league’s ultimate bracket buster.
Already having dispatched the WCHA’s fourth and fifth seeds in their first three games of the postseason, the Bulldogs took down the top dogs, North Dakota, with a set of events that is becoming familiar.
First-period goals by MacGregor Sharp and Mike Montgomery established seventh-seeded UMD, and it relied on more strong goaltending from first-team all-WCHA selection Alex Stalock to bring home a 3-0 victory over the Sioux on Friday at Xcel Energy Center.
In all four playoff games, the Bulldogs have gained a first-period lead and been strong defensively each time.
“That’s our goal, to come out in the first five minutes and set the tempo for the game,” Stalock said. “I thought we did a good job with that. … We don’t look back once we get the lead.”
Said Sharp: “Getting the first goal is huge so we get can into our style of play again.”
No team has ever won three games in three days at the Final Five. No team has ever defeated Denver in the tournament at this arena.
The Bulldogs get the chance to do both Saturday night in the title game, a place UMD has never been since the league moved to the playoff championship format in 1988. Its last appearance in the finals was 24 years ago, when it beat Minnesota in a two-game, total-goals series.
It’s likely the Bulldogs will try to follow the same map that got them there. Why not? It worked again Friday.
Minnesota-Duluth got the lead thanks to a blunder by North Dakota goaltender Brad Eidsness, who left the puck for a teammate behind his net on the power play.
But Sharp zoomed in and got to the puck first, then tucked it inside the left post before Eidsness could recover.
It was the 10th shorthanded goal North Dakota has allowed this season, but Sioux captain Ryan Duncan wouldn’t say it was a backbreaker.
“That one goal shouldn’t have beaten us,” he said. “It just wouldn’t go in for us tonight.”
Less than three minutes later, the Bulldogs had a 2-0 lead after Montgomery did a nice turn on the rebound of a Josh Meyer shot and got the puck far enough around Eidsness to slide it into the net.
“They outplayed us for what they needed to,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. “I think we played better in the last 20 minutes, but they did enough to win the game.”
Mike Connolly scored into an empty net with 1:53 remaining to seal the Bulldogs’ entry in the Broadmoor Trophy championship game Saturday.
But the 2-0 lead was more than enough for Stalock, who stopped all 31 Sioux shots for his fourth shutout of the season.
He earned it with a second-period performance that included 10 saves on nine minutes of North Dakota power play time.
“Tonight, the guys made it a little easier, blocking shots from up high,” Stalock said. “They didn’t get many quality chances — maybe a couple here and there. But they let me see the first shot and controlled the rebound and everybody else cleared it away from danger.
“I thought tonight we just kept it simpler and we settled down into the Xcel and played even more the style of our game.”
The style of Stalock’s game?
“He’s got confidence in the guys in front of him,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said, “and we’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”