DULUTH, Minn. — Back at home for the first time in two months, top-ranked Minnesota-Duluth got a warm welcome on a cold Friday night from a near-sellout crowd of 6,614 fans at Amsoil Arena.
And the Bulldogs got a battle from first-time foe Alabama-Huntsville.
The Chargers, a team without a conference that recently received a reprieve from losing its varsity status, pushed UMD to the brink before losing 2-1.
UMD went to 16-4-3 (including 15-1-3 the last 19 games) and Huntsville went to 2-23-1 — a night of survival for the WCHA co-leader.
“This was a learning lesson for us,” said UMD goalie Kenny Reiter. “We stressed all week long that it doesn’t matter who we play, you have to work hard all game. There were times we had momentum, especially at the start of the game, but when you don’t bury your chances and let teams hang around, then anything can happen.”
UMD took a 2-0 lead after two periods and secured a season-high 54 shots on goal for the game, while limiting Huntsville to 26. But the highest scoring team in Division I was shut out in the final period and the Chargers scored on a power play with 2:55 to play to make things interesting.
A seventh straight home win, and the first since Nov. 19, was secured despite 52 saves by Huntsville sophomore goalie Clarke Saunders, who will reportedly transfer to North Dakota next season.
“We’ve arrived at a point in our program where we can come into a series with the intention of winning,” said second-year Huntsville coach Chris Luongo, whose team was 4-26-2 last season. “We’re past moral victories, but we’ll look at this as a moral victory. We were proud to play well against an amazing team. We played well against the best team we’ve seen this season.”
After four straight road series starting Dec. 2-3, the Bulldogs were home and clicked off the game’s first eight shots on goal. Yet the score was 0-0 until freshman winger Justin Crandall tipped a Wade Bergman point drive at the right edge of the crease with 8:54 left in the first period.
UMD senior center Travis Oleksuk earned his team-leading 15th goal of the season, and 40th of his career, with 7:39 left in the second period. Just after the end of a UMD power play, Jack Connolly, from behind the extended goal line, passed to Oleksuk at the right circle. An assist extended Connolly’s point streak to a career-best 21 games.
It was 2-0.
“We didn’t execute as well as we wanted and we sat on a two-goal lead,” said UMD defenseman Brady Lamb. “We weren’t bad, but we weren’t spectacular. There are some areas we can sharpen up.
“Huntsville works hard and waits for you to make a mistake and lulls you to sleep.”
Reiter and Saunders matched each other in making tough saves, as Reiter had a chance at a school-record 10th career shutout. But a Joe Basaraba boarding penalty with 2:59 to play put Huntsville on a power play for a sixth time and senior defenseman Tom Durnie connected from the high slot. Saunders was pulled for an extra attacker with 66 seconds left.
UMD held on.
“As the game went on, we didn’t have many second and third efforts from our team and our puck support was average,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “It’s a win, but we can play better and need to play better.”
Colorado College won 2-1 at Minnesota to keep the Gophers tied with UMD for the league lead.
Huntsville has had an emotional season. The Chargers were told they’d be downgraded to club status after 2011-12, but got a reprieve last month as new school president Robert Altenkirch reevaluated athletic department finances. The Chargers will remain a varsity sport in 2012-13.
Huntsville’s two wins have come against WCHA members — 3-1 over Nebraska-Omaha and 3-2 over Denver.