DULUTH, Minn. — Mike Connolly, Jack Connolly and Justin Fontaine were back together Saturday night. Their performance, and that of their Minnesota-Duluth teammates, brought an Amsoil Arena sellout crowd of 6,764 to pure elation on the way to a 6-4 Western Collegiate Hockey Association men’s victory.
Junior left winger Mike Connolly of Calgary, Alberta, took the game in his hands, tying a school Division I record with five goals , and Jack Connolly had four assists and Fontaine three assists.
They drove the No. 4 Bulldogs (18-5-4 and 13-4-3) to their most dramatic victory of the season and put themselves back into first place in the league with Denver, moving one point ahead of idle North Dakota. Minnesota (11-11-4 and 8-9-3) fell behind 3-0, yet never backed off, and pulled within 3-2, 4-3 and 5-4 before the game was finally tucked away by Mike Connolly’s final goal, into an empty net with 80 seconds to play.
Fontaine, a senior right winger, was put back with the Connollys after helping out on UMD’s second line while Kyle Schmidt was out injured. Schmidt returned for Friday’s 2-2 tie, then coach Scott Sandelin made the line revisions Saturday.
“We took it upon ourselves to push our team in the right direction; we’re there to create offense,” said junior center Jack Connolly. “This was a pretty special night for Mike. He had the scoring touch, he knows how to get open, and you wanted to get him the puck.”
Two goals in the first period for a 2-0 lead and two goals in the second period for a 4-2 lead. Connolly had four goals in five shots, and had scored the final goal Friday, so that was five straight UMD goals by one player. Connolly says he never had more than two goals in youth hockey or for the Camrose Kodiaks in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. He has 19 goals and 16 assists for 35 points in 27 games this season and 45 goals and 71 assists for 117 points in 108 career games.
He tied the effort of Duluthian Pokey Trachsel, who had five goals on Nov. 17, 1971 in an 11-5 win over Lake Superior State at the DECC.
“Fontaine is a sniper and Jack passes the puck so well, and I’m just happy being the guy in front of the net banging in some shots,” said Mike Connolly. “It was pretty exciting to get the win here and to have this place go crazy. It was amazing.”
It was indeed an amazing game and entertaining series. There were two disallowed goals, one for each team Saturday, while UMD’s Aaron Crandall and Minnesota’s Kent Patterson were solid in goal. UMD led in shots on goal, 40-36.
Mike Connolly scored from the right edge of the net 8:04 into the game for UMD’s first lead in the series, and scored 34 seconds into UMD’s second power play from the slot. And 1:22 into the second period, it was 3-0, as Fontaine made a slick pass to the right circle and Connolly quickly released.
However, the Gophers, 2-4-2 in the last eight games, didn’t fold. Despite losing scoring leader Jay Barriball to a first-period injury, they came back, starting with defenseman Kevin Wehrs scoring 33 seconds after Connolly’s third goal. Mike Hoeffel made it 3-2 and the frantic pace continued the rest of the way.
“I give our kids credit; we kept coming back and battling to the end,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. “This game had everything we would want as a fan. The people here couldn’t have had a better weekend of hockey. I thought it was a good move (to reunite the Connolly line). They are such intelligent players.”
It appeared Minnesota tied the game at 3-3 with 4:04 left in the second period, yet Gopher Nico Sacchetti interfered with Crandall before a Patrick White shot and the goal was disallowed. With 77 seconds left in the period, Connolly got his fourth goal, shooting to the far side from the right circle.
The third period was just as frenetic. Duluthian Cade Fairchild, a Minnesota senior defenseman, scored at 9:44 to get Minnesota within 4-3. UMD’s Travis Oleksuk had a goal disallowed when it was determined the puck was directed into the net with 3:32 to play. Just 31 seconds later, Oleksuk remedied that, clanking in a shot from the left circle. Minnesota’s Nate Condon scored with 95 seconds to go, after Patterson was pulled, then Mike Connolly got an empty netter.
Never a dull moment. UMD is 6-1-1 in 2011, 9-1-1 on Saturdays this season, 2-2-1 at Amsoil Arena, and 1-1-2 versus Minnesota this season.
“This series, all four games, were as even as you can get,” said Sandelin. “Every time Minnesota would get a goal (Saturday) and come back, we responded. I liked that. Mike was so good for two nights and really had a great series.”