OMAHA, Neb. — Minnesota-Duluth hadn’t played a non-exhibition game since Dec. 14, but not enough rust showed Friday to keep the Bulldogs from picking up their second win in a row.
What UMD needed in the end against Nebraska-Omaha was for a handful of key cogs in the Bulldogs’ machine to perform, and that’s what happened.
Senior goaltender Aaron Crandall made 38 saves, including a couple monster ones in the first and third periods, and he got enough goal support at the other end en route to the visitors’ 3-2 win over UNO at CenturyLink Center.
The win boosted UMD’s record to 8-8-1 overall and 4-5-0 in the NCHC. UNO fell to 8-10-1 overall and 5-3-1 in the league.
Duluth coach Scott Sandelin was concerned about potential rustiness going into Friday’s game, considering UMD only had one exhibition game over the holiday break while UNO had two counters on the road at New Hampshire.
There was some of that to shake off, but the Bulldogs came through.
“Going in, it’s always a tough battle against these battles, and certainly on the road, and after [UNO was swept at New Hampshire] last weekend, they were going to be ready to play,” Sandelin said. “I was a little concerned because we only had one game [over the holiday break] and they had two and sometimes that makes you a little more prepared.
“We’ll see tomorrow, but we had a good first period. I was pleased with our first period and for not having played for a long time, I thought our guys played the game with a lot of composure and we played pretty good defensively.”
A game that started out hotly contested, but without a ton of Grade ‘A’ chances early on finally opened up in the second period. The bounces were still only going one way, though, and UMD took advantage of a pair of scoring opportunities late in the frame.
Friday’s first goal finally arrived 14:55 into the second period. UMD forward Dominic Toninato’s fourth goal of the season did it, knocking down in front a long shot from linemate Alex Iafallo past UNO goaltender Ryan Massa.
In fact, both of the visitors’ second-period goals came thanks to the Bulldogs’ third line of Iafallo, Toninato and senior Adam Krause, who found the UNO net at 19:28.
Krause, whose brother, Joe, played at UNO before being cut by the Mavericks last May, solved Massa with a hard shot from the slot that zoomed in between Massa’s legs.
UNO and UMD then scored a goal apiece in the first half of the third period.
The Mavericks halved Duluth’s lead at 5:55 of the frame when UNO defenseman Nick Seeler scored thanks to a long shot from the blue line that found its way past Crandall.
The visitors restored their two-goal lead at 8:29, however, when they won a faceoff in UNO’s zone before Andy Welinski fired a snap shot through traffic and past a screened Massa.
UNO then cut into the Bulldogs’ lead again at 17:33 through defenseman Ian Brady’s fourth goal of the season.
An arguably deserved equalizer, however, never came.
That it didn’t is thanks in large part to Crandall’s performance in the Duluth net. He was on form all night, robbing UNO forward Josh Archibald with a glove save off a 2-on-1 early in the game and then making an incredible sprawling save with his left pad on Archibald on a 1-on-1 chance with 1:10 left.
Sandelin said that Crandall – who for some unknown reason didn’t end up listed as one of the three stars of the game – was Duluth’s best player Friday night.
“There’s a reason [Archibald] has 14 goals,” Sandelin said. “He can shoot the puck well, he plays the game hard and he made a good play on the net and ‘Cranny’ made a good save [on Archibald late in the game] there, but you need those.
“Every team needs those timely saves to win hockey games or preserve wins and certainly, ‘Cranny’ did that tonight. He made a lot of very good saves at crucial times.”
UNO assistant coach Alex Todd, taking the media duties after Friday’s game for suspended head coach Dean Blais, also gave his take on Crandall’s big stop late.
“He made a really good save,” Todd said. “For the goalie to get all the way across the crease, matching Arch’s speed, which is tough to do, tip your hat to the goalie for making the save.
“And a lot of credit to Arch for having the gas in the tank late to turn on the jets and create the opportunity. You always want him to finish those, but sometimes two good players even each other out.”
Which team’s big names come up biggest in the teams’ rematch Saturday may well determine whether Duluth comes away with a split from this series or if UNO can salvage a split of this two-game set.