DULUTH, Minn. — After 45 years and 862 games, it was time for the Minnesota-Duluth men to say goodbye to the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center’s Arena rink Saturday night.
The will of a standing room only crowd of 5,409, including many alumni, drove the No. 1 Bulldogs to a scintillating 2-1 victory over No. 10 Denver in a memorable farewell.
The Bulldogs wore throwback jerseys, replicas from the first game in the building played Nov. 19, 1966, in which UMD beat Minnesota 8-1.
The victory split the weekend series, broke Denver’s Division I-leading seven-game win streak, and put UMD back in first place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, one point ahead of North Dakota and two ahead of Denver.
“We had a whole week to think about this game; we knew how momentous it was for everyone connected with UMD and we wanted to give the best performance we could,” said UMD junior goalie Kenny Reiter, who made 28 saves. “The biggest thing for us is that if you want to be a champion, you have to beat championship teams like Denver. It was a great experience for us to win a game like this.”
The Bulldogs finished 459-352-51 at the DECC. The team moves next door to the $80 million Amsoil Arena for practice this week and has a grand opening Dec. 30 against North Dakota.
After giving up a third-period lead and losing 5-4 in overtime Friday, UMD (12-2-2 and 9-2-1 WCHA) came out with some fire and got the lead in the rematch. Reiter and Denver star freshman Sam Brittain matched each other save-for-save until UMD freshman defenseman Justin Faulk smacked home a power-play rebound from Justin Fontaine from the slot with 4:38 left in the first period.
“We were pretty focused and started strong, that was so important,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “Give Denver credit, they kept coming and threw everything they had at us. Kenny was good, Mike Connolly had a great game and we got two important points.”
Denver coach George Gwozdecky, who scored his first collegiate goal at the DECC while playing for Wisconsin, pointed to the game’s turning point as the final two minutes of the second period. The Pioneers (11-5-2 and 8-3-1) went on a power play, yet allowed a short-handed goal by junior winger Connolly.
Connolly had gotten loose for a short-handed breakaway and had two shots on Brittain and needed just to chip the puck up over the goalie at the crease, but missed. As Denver came back up ice, Fontaine poked the puck loose at neutral ice and sent in Connolly for a second chance. From near the top of the right circle, he put a shot to the far side, under Brittains’s arm with 64 seconds left in the second period for a 2-0 lead. It was his 11th goal of the season, the second short-handed.
“I thought ‘We can tie it up on the power play and get the momentum for the third period.’ But we had a turnover and it backfired on us,” said Gwozdecky. “This series went the way most people thought it would — two close games between two good teams.”
Connolly’s goal sent the crowd into a frenzy, especially in the student section, which stood the entire game as usual.
UMD had a chance to add to its lead when Denver’s Nick Shore was called for a checking-from-behind major penalty on UMD’s Kyle Schmidt 3:16 into the third period. Yet the Bulldogs couldn’t convert and the Pioneers countered with a power-play goal from a faceoff by Anthony Maiani at 8:25 to get within 2-1.
The DECC was dripping in tension the rest of the way. Brittain was pulled with 1:48 to go and UMD’s fans hoped against hope of any possibility of a fourth straight overtime game for UMD. The Bulldogs held on and the party began. UMD led in final shots on goal 33-29.
The crowd stayed afterward to hear from some luminaries, including Keith ‘Huffer’ Christiansen of Duluth, who had six assists for UMD in the debut victory in 1966. On hand were some members of UMD’s All-DECC team, chosen by hockey alumni, Guy Gosselin, Brett Hauer, Jim Johnson, Tom Kurvers, Norm Maciver, Matt Christensen, Walt Ledingham, Dan Lempe, Chris Marinucci, Shjon Podein, Derek Plante and Bill Watson.
“It was an absolute honor to be on the ice with those guys, all of those alumni,” said Connolly. “This was a big win for a lot of people and I’m just so glad we were able to do this for everyone who cares about our program and all of its history.”
Within an hour after the game, DECC workers were removing the championship banners for the men’s and women’s teams, which will be moved to Amsoil Arena.
The UMD women skate in their final games at the DECC this Friday and Saturday against North Dakota.
The UMD men go on the road this weekend at Minnesota to finish league play for 2010.