Minnesota-Duluth’s play on the road has been a strength this season and the No. 4-ranked Bulldogs stayed in the WCHA championship race Friday night with another away-from-home victory.
Senior center Travis Oleksuk scored twice, including the go-ahead goal with less than a second left in the second period, in rallying for a 4-2 win over Minnesota State before 3,710 fans at the Verizon Wireless Arena.
UMD (20-7-4 overall, 14-6-3 WCHA) assured a fourth straight season of 20 wins or more while remaining a point behind first-place Minnesota and a point ahead of Denver in the battle for the WCHA’s MacNaughton Cup. Five games remain in the regular season.
The Bulldogs are 10-2-3 on the road and 11-1-1 the last 13 games in the Mankato series. UMD trailed 1-0 after one period.
“After the first period we worked hard on both ends of the ice, and we were definitely better in the third period,” said Oleksuk. “Once we got our first goal, we played with a lot of energy and with a lot of speed.”
Mankato (12-20-1, 8-16-1) had gone 4-1 the previous five games, including a sweep last weekend at Alaska-Anchorage. But after Johnny McInnis scored eight minutes into the game, the Mavericks were held off the scoreboard until 30 seconds remained in the game.
Sophomore goalie Aaron Crandall played in place of senior Kenny Reiter, who had started 27 of the last 28 games, but became ill Thursday. Crandall made 16 saves for the win, following up on his last WCHA win, 6-2 at Mankato on Feb. 19, 2011. UMD was also without injured forward J.T. Brown for the first time this season.
“As well as Kenny has been playing, you don’t want him out of the lineup, but I was excited to get a start and to be able to help the team,” said Crandall, 2-1 this season and 12-4-1 in his career.
Two second-period goals gave the Bulldogs a 2-1 lead through 40 minutes. Mankato senior defenseman Cameron Cooper was called for a five-minute checking-from-behind penalty after a hit on UMD’s Jake Hendrickson at 8:55 and what looked to be a Scott Kishel goal less than two minutes later was negated by officials, saying the Mankato net was first lifted up.
Oleksuk connected on the same power play at 11:04 to tie the game. At the end of the period he won a faceoff in the defensive zone and the puck was relayed from Drew Olson to Joe Basaraba, back to Oleksuk. And with eight-tenths of a second left in the period he launched a shot from the bottom of the left circle that tipped off the stick blade of Mankato defenseman Zach Palmquist, and the puck fluttered to the far side past the reach of goalie Phil Cook for a 2-1 lead.
Oleksuk gained the team goal-scoring lead with 19 this season, 43 in his career and 105 career points.
Cook entered the game 7-3 in his last 10 starts with a .926 save percentage and 2.37 goals against average in that stretch.
“After we killed off that five-minute penalty, we never had the same jump back in our step. We never had the same energy,” said Minnesota State coach Troy Jutting.
Oleksuk knew his team was on the other end of the spectrum.
“We were going pretty well already, but a last-second goal like that gives you a boost,” he said.
Senior winger David Grun’s second goal of the season, on a wrist shot from the right circle, put UMD up 3-1 with 9:09 to play. The teams then exchanged goals in the last 29 seconds. Mankato freshman star J.P. Lafontaine scored with an extra attacker to make it 3-2, and UMD defenseman Brady Lamb hit an empty net with a 180-foot shot that banked off the Plexiglas.
UMD led in shots on goal 28-18.
“We stayed with our game and got a little better every period,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “Oleksuk’s second goal proved that you never quit, and get a shot on goal and anything can happen.”