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College Hockey:
Connolly ignites Minnesota-Duluth’s rally past Maine

— Halfway through the Northeast Regional semifinal, Minnesota-Duluth’s reign as defending NCAA champions appeared to have ended.

Maine led 2-0 and was storming the castle. It seemed only a matter of time before the Bulldogs would succumb.

Instead, a Jack Connolly power-play goal sparked a comeback that within seven minutes had transformed the two-goal deficit into a 3-2 lead. A fourth-period tally provided insurance and an empty-netter completed the run of five unanswered goals, resulting in the 5-2 final score.

“We were looking for that spark,” Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. “We needed something to get going. It was a huge lift for us guys to get [Connolly's] goal.

“Once we got that, we got a lot more life on the bench and managed to get the next two goals after that and carry the lead into the third period. That was huge for us.”

With that lead, Duluth shut down the Black Bears, holding them to only three shots after surrendering 24 over the first 40 minutes.

“We’ve been a pretty good team if we’ve had a lead going into the third,” Sandelin said. “I liked how we closed the game out tonight.”

The Bulldogs now advance to face No. 1 seed Boston College on Sunday night at 8 p.m. with the winner advancing to the Frozen Four.

The game included bizarre second goals for both sides.

Maine’s came on a Matt Mangene breakaway after several Duluth players held up because a teammate had dislodged the net in the Maine end. The whistle was not blown based on rule 6-10-c. (If the non-offending team has an offensive opportunity and its defensive goal cage is dislodged, play shall be allowed to continue until the scoring chance it complete.)

Duluth’s crazy counterpart came when Caleb Herbert forced a bad turnover in Maine’s end. Goaltender Dan Sullivan got a piece of Herbert’s shot, but the puck deflected to the high glass behind the goaltender only to carom back and bounce off his back and into the net.

For Maine, the loss spelled a painful end to the season, one which saw it earn its first NCAA tournament berth since 2007.

“We’re obviously disappointed not to advance,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “We felt we came out of the gate very strong, but Duluth did a great job bouncing back.

“The key was that power-play goal and then that crazy-bounce goal. They seized the momentum.”

Until Minnesota-Duluth went on the power play at 9:54 of the second, the game looked like Maine’s to lose. The Black Bears led 2-0 and had taken control of the territorial play.

Arguably, if not for Duluth goaltender Kenny Reiter, the margin could have been doubled.

The two teams had played a mostly even opening 15 minutes with chances for both sides. The best one had gone to the Bulldogs when Brady Lamb came out of the penalty box at 8:58 and took off on a breakaway. Sullivan, however, responded with a big glove save.

At 17:16, Maine seized the lead on the power play. As his teammates moved the puck around, Spencer Abbott rotated to the left point. He shot through a screen and found the back of the net for a 1-0 lead.

On the power play again in the final minute of the period, Abbott rushed the puck up ice and put the puck on net, resulting in a juicy rebound that had ‘goal’ written all over it until Reiter came to the rescue with a potential game-saving stop.

Maine’s momentum and territorial dominance continued for the first half of the second period. Mangene scored the first of the bizarre goals, streaking up the right wing and breaking in all alone. He cut across the goal and backhanded the puck in the net.

At 10:47, however, the game turned on a dime. Connolly roofed a shot into the far corner from the right faceoff circle and what had threatened to become a snoozer instead morphed into a one-goal game.

Herbert tied it with his own bizarre goal and exactly one minute later, Duluth completed the transformation from ugly duckling to swan. Lamb shot from the right faceoff circle, Sullivan made the stop, and Jake Hendrickson knocked the puck at Sullivan’s feet into the net.

Duluth continued its takeover of the contest in the third period, scoring at 9:15 to make it 4-2. Travis Oleksuk cut along the right goal line and got a shot on net. The puck caromed to J.T. Brown on the left where he backhanded the puck in.

In the closing minute, Hendrickson added the empty-netter for the final score.

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