DULUTH, Minn. — The WCHA’s top seven teams were within seven points of each other with seven regular-season games remaining entering play Saturday night.
And the No. 3-ranked Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs were battling to regain form, break a losing streak and remain in the hunt for the MacNaughton Cup, which goes to the league’s regular-season winner.
The Bulldogs got what they were looking for in a scintillating 5-4 victory over No. 16 North Dakota played before6.790 fans, the largest crowd in the brief history of Amsoil Arena.
Two-time All-American center Jack Connolly was at center stage of the physical battle with the best night of his career, earning two goals and three assists for five points in his 155th straight game, a school record. The victory pushed the Bulldogs within one point of first-place Minnesota, which lost 4-3 in overtime at Denver.
“We didn’t make any huge adjustments [from Friday's 3-1 loss],” said Connolly. “We got good special teams play and the puck started to fall. We got a great power-play goal [6:22 into the game from J.T. Brown] and that was a huge confidence builder. That set the tone.”
UMD (19-7-4, 13-6-3 in WCHA) trailed 2-1, then raced to a 5-2 lead, and then withstood a stubborn North Dakota comeback.
The Fighting Sioux (16-11-2, 12-10-0 WCHA) got two goals from junior center Carter Rowney and outshot UMD 36-31.
Rowney had a puck just roll off his stick in the final seconds at the crease.
Senior goalie Kenny Reiter held on in the frantic final minutes to end North Dakota’s four-game win streak. North Dakota outshot UMD 16-5 in the final period. And UMD played the final two periods without Brown, who was injured late in the first period.
“They came out fast and we dug ourselves a deep hole,” said North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol. “But our team stayed true to character and kept battling. We created some of our problems and then tried to find solutions and we threw everything we had them at the end.”
A wild first period put UMD up 4-2 as the Bulldogs scored three times in the final four minutes with two goals coming 24 seconds apart.
After falling behind, UMD leaned on its power play, which had been ineffective the last month.
Center Travis Oleksuk tipped a Chris Casto drive in a 4-on-3 shift with 3:42 left in the first. Connolly stole the puck in the offensive zone and fed Mike Seidel, who tucked a shot behind goalie Aaron Dell, after two or three moves, with 3:18 to go in a 4-on-4 shift.
After North Dakota defenseman Ben Blood was called for a five-minute major penalty for checking Connolly from behind six seconds after a Mario Lamoureux elbowing minor, the Bulldogs had a two-man advantage. Connolly took a Caleb Herbert cross-crease pass for a goal with 22 seconds left.
UMD pushed its lead to 5-2 just 1:46 into the second period, as the major power play continued, as Connolly put in a Seidel rebound. Hakstol took out Dell and put in senior Brad Eidsness, who stopped all 14 shots he saw the rest of the way.
Rowney, who had two goals Friday, connected on a power play with 5:18 to go in the second. Through two periods UMD was 4-of-8 on power plays and led 5-3.
“We just simplified our game,” said UMD freshman winger Adam Krause. “We played hard-nosed hockey, just like North Dakota. We wanted to get pucks out of the zone and get back to protect our blue line and not turn the puck over.
“We were probably too hesitant in the third period against a great team.”
Rowney’s 12th goal of the season from the slot got North Dakota within 5-4 with 4:31 to play and the Sioux kept pressing.
Reiter had 15 saves in the final period.
“The first 40 minutes were closer to how we have to play,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “Our best players played that way and we got the power play going. We had more pace, we made more plays, and we knew North Dakota was not going to quit.”
UMD came into the game 1-3-1 the last five games and 3-4-1 the last eight. In the previous two games at Amsoil Arena, North Dakota had outscored UMD 8-1 and is 10-5-1 against UMD the last 16 games in the series.