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College Hockey:
Connolly notches three points as Minnesota-Duluth battles past Alabama-Huntsville

— The highest-scoring team in Division I was back on its game Saturday night, and top-ranked Minnesota Duluth needed every bit of its offense take get past independent Alabama-Huntsville.

The Bulldogs had a fight-to-the finish for a second straight game and prevailed 4-3 before an announced sellout crowd of 6,757 at Amsoil Arena. Freshman winger Caleb Herbert got the only goal of the third period, at 2:52, for the game-winner.

UMD (17-4-3) has won eight straight home games, swept six series this season, and is 16-1-3 over the last 20 games, but it was a battle with the Chargers (2-24-1), who lost 2-1 Friday.

“It was a difficult series; we didn’t know what to expect, we were playing Huntsville for the first time,” said UMD captain Jack Connolly, who had two goals and an assist. “Our defense wasn’t great (Saturday), and we lost track of a few guys. We were in a funk for a while.

“We needed to bring more pace and crash the net more. These were not our best games of the season by any means, but Huntsville is a lot better than their record shows.”

The Bulldogs led 47-17 in shots on goal Saturday, 16-2 in the third period, and 101-43 for two games. Huntsville sophomore goalie Clarke Saunders has been good all season, and was the backbone for the Chargers in the series. Huntsville led 2-1 in the first period before UMD rallied.

Huntsville retained its varsity status for 2012-12 in a decision by the school last month after the administration considered dropping the program to a club level. While some players, like Saunders, have already agreed to transfer to other schools for next season, the Chargers have persevered despite having been shutout nine times this season.

“Through two periods (Saturday) all of us were gaining in confidence, but you have to keep it up for 60 minutes and the tank was a little empty at the end,” said Huntsville coach Chris Luongo. “We have a ways to go, but we showed ourselves a few things this weekend. I’m proud of how we played.”

The Bulldogs had a 17-game unbeaten streak broken a week earlier in a 3-1 loss at Nebraska-Omaha, and eeked out a first win over Huntsville, with just three goals total in those games.

Four goals in the first six minutes Saturday, two by each team, indicated scoring might be back in fashion.

All-American center Connolly, the Division I scoring leader, connected at 67 seconds, coming out of the right corner and knocking in a Mike Seidel rebound. That put Connolly’s point streak at 22 games, tying a UMD single-season record set by Mark Pavelich in 1978-79.

However, Huntsville wasn’t fazed. The Chargers scored twice in 59 seconds for a 2-1 lead. Winger Kyle Lysaght got a goal 20 seconds into the game’s first power play, on a rebound. Freshman Andrew Creppin earned his first collegiate goal, right in front of sophomore goalie Aaron Crandall, making his first start since Oct. 8.

Not to be outdone, UMD’s Joe Basaraba cranked a shot from the mid-slot for his seventh goal of the season at 5:44. It was a slugfest.

The teams exchanged second-period goals to remain tied, 3-3.

Connolly’s second goal of the night, and 61st of his career, came when freshman defenseman Chris Casto put him on a breakaway. Connolly scored from the bottom of the left circle over Saunders’ glove. It gave Connolly 177 points in 149 career games.

Defenseman Tom Durnie finished off some good pressure, getting a shot behind Crandall, and the puck just did dribble over the goal line at 7:49.

“Huntsville was tough to play against; they collapsed around the net, blocked shots, and their goalie was great,” said Herbert. “We found ourselves again in the last period and played like we can.”

Herbert had possession at the left edge of the Huntsville net and was patient before ultimately knocking the puck through the legs of Saunders for his eighth goal of the season. Saunders was pulled with 54 seconds to play and UMD just missed a couple of empty-net chances.

“We did some good things, some not so good things, but did enough right to win,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “Jack was good and I was happy for Crandall, and I was impressed by Huntsville. What I liked best was how we responded at the end of the game.”

The Bulldogs finished their nonconference schedule 6-1-1, and return to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association this Friday and Saturday against Michigan Tech at Amsoil Arena. UMD trails league-leading Minnesota by two points with two games in hand. Minnesota beat Colorado College 2-1 Saturday.

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