The ballots for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award have already been cast, but Junior Lessard is making a strong showing on the Frozen Four stage just to confirm his candidacy.
Lessard scored just 69 seconds into the first national semifinal at the FleetCenter on Thursday, then added a second goal to cut short Denver’s run to get back in the game. His pair of power-play goals gave Minnesota-Duluth a 3-1 lead going into the third period.
The UMD senior winger is one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker, which will be presented on Friday. Lessard said Wednesday he’s trying not to think about that, instead focusing on what his team was facing.
And in UMD’s first Frozen Four appearance since 1985, Lessard has been the star.
His second goal of the game came just under four minutes after Denver’s Luke Fulghum cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 2-1. Tyler Brosz added the second goal for UMD in the first period.
Lessard got a great feed from Evan Schwabe on a 3-on-1 break off a Denver turnover at center ice. When Denver goaltender Adam Berkhoel went down, Lessard fired the puck high into the net for his nation-best 32nd goal of the season.
It was the second power-play goal of the game for UMD, which entered the day with the nation’s second-best power play. Through two periods, the Bulldogs were 2-for-6. Denver was 0-for-4. Fourteen of Lessard’s goals have come on the power play, and the Bulldogs scored their 59th goal of the season on the man advantage.
And it was an important score because it countered a goal that put Denver back in the game.
Fulghum’s 14th goal of the season at 11:40 of the second period cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 2-1. He poked in a loose puck off a centering pass by Lukas Dora.
UMD had its way with the first period, outshooting Denver 11-5, but the Pioneers responded with more jump in the second 20 minutes to climb back in a game in which they were trailing early.
The Bulldogs got four power plays in the first period, but they needed only 33 seconds of the first one to get on the board. Lessard banked a sharp-angle shot from the right goal line extended off Berkhoel’s skate and into the net.
Brosz put UMD ahead 2-0 a short time later, firing a wrist shot past Berkhoel, off the left post and in after a faceoff win by T.J. Caig to the left of the net.
UMD’s Isaac Reichmuth stopped 11 shots in the second period for a two-period total of 16 saves. Berkhoel has 20 saves through two periods.
Thursday’s game marked the return to the Denver lineup of left winger Connor James, who missed the Pioneers’ last four games with a broken right fibula suffered on March 5. On Wednesday, James said he was playing in pain but hoped that would subside with the excitement of the atmosphere.
James was worried that he may have lost a step, and that came into play when he took a penalty midway through the first period to give UMD its third power play. Lessard was breaking away from him up ice and James had to hold onto the speedy Bulldogs winger to keep him from having a chance.
Both goaltenders were coming off stellar regional final efforts. Denver’s Berkhoel blanked North Dakota 1-0, making 33 saves to claim the West Regional championship, while Minnesota-Duluth’s Reichmuth made 22 saves in a 3-1 victory over Minnesota in the Midwest.