ST. PAUL, Minn. — It finally happened.
The University of Denver finally lost a game at the Xcel Energy Center.
More importantly, the winner of the play-in game, in this case the University of Minnesota Duluth, finally won the WCHA Final Five.
Using the same formula of defensive success that carried them to the championship game, the Bulldogs shut out the Pioneers, 4-0, to win their first-ever Final Five championship and first league title since 1985.
“I think we willed our win,” said UMD forward MacGregor Sharp, who scored a hat trick in the game. “Nothing was going to stop us. Right from the start in the locker room today, guys were tired maybe, but there’s too much at stake and guys are too motivated for that to come into effect at all.”
“Our kids played great,” said head coach Scott Sandelin. “I think we played better each game.”
The motivation showed as Duluth got on the board first a little over 10 minutes into the first period. That came just as they did all tournament, with a power-play tally. Justin Fontaine and Sharp broke into the Denver zone on a give-and-go with Sharp sliding the puck five-hole past Pioneer netminder Marc Cheverie (25 saves).
Perhaps the Pioneers’ best chance all night came with 3:27 remaining in the first. The Pioneers got a shot on net that was sliding toward the net before tournament MVP and Duluth goaltender Alex Stalock dove on top of it.
“We were obviously hoping to get that first one to see how they would react with us closing the gap, but obviously we couldn’t,” said DU head coach George Gwozdecky. “Stalock was great and they broke up a lot of our attacks.”
However, it wasn’t to be as the Pioneers were unable to get anything past Stalock (20 saves) and the Bulldogs kept up the pressure.
“Even when we were putting forth our best foot, they weathered the storm,” said Pioneer forward Rhett Rakhshani. “It’s pretty impressive to see them play that hard and that physical the third night of three games in three nights.”
“I’m seeing the puck pretty good,” said Stalock. “The bigger part of the picture is that my d-men are letting me see the puck, forwards are getting back and our defensive zone’s been unreal these last five games.”
Sharp potted his second of the night 9:13 into the second period on another give-and-go play, this time with Mike Connolly giving it to Sharp on the back door, from where he tapped it in behind Cheverie.
“I thought the second goal really was the deflator for us and a great inflator for Duluth,” said Gwozdecky. “[It was] a play that I thought we had shut down and then a great pass at the back door that I thought we should have had covered and we didn’t. To me, that was the real turning point in the game.”
Then, about three minutes later, Jack Connolly sliced a power-play shot short-side past Cheverie to put UMD up 3-0.
“I just looked like I was going up to the point and I saw that the seas kinda just parted for me and [I] just took it to the net,” said Connolly. “I was originally going to go to my backhand — then I saw there was a d-man out in front of the crease, so I just tried to throw it on net. I got lucky [and] caught it chicken-wing there.”
In order to try to put something, anything past Stalock, Gwozdecky pulled Cheverie with three minutes to play, but Sharp sealed the victory with an empty-net goal for his second hat trick of the season.
“I thought we had good composure,” said Sandelin. “I’m more impressed with how we played in the third period. Our last two — again, Thursday night wasn’t a very good third period. We started last night not very good and to hold [Denver] to one shot, I think maybe we learned after two games.”
Both teams will next play next weekend in the national tournament and will learn their locations and opponents Sunday morning during the NCAA selection show.