ST. PAUL, Minn. — A year ago, Minnesota Duluth lost to Denver, 3-1, in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff in its first year in the Xcel Energy Center, and then lost the third-place game as well, jeopardizing their chances of an NCAA tournament berth. Ultimately, other results broke their way, and three weeks later the Bulldogs won their second national championship, again winning at the Xcel.
Friday night, in front of an announced combined crowd of 9,517, the Bulldogs rode 25 saves from Hunter Shepard and an early third-period goal from Cole Koepke to a win over the Pioneers.
The victory sets up an all-Minnesota Frozen Faceoff final, and an all-Colorado third-place game, as the Bulldogs play St. Cloud State and the Pioneers play Colorado College.
“It was a real good win for our team, a real good third period,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “It was a battle, like we’ve had with them many, many times. Not a lot of room to do a lot of things.
Duluth carried the early part of the play, but Denver started to rally in the latter half of the first period. That carried over into the second period. Early on, Cole Guttman had a breakaway, but he lost control of the puck as he drove toward the UMD net. On Denver’s first power play of the game, Hunter Shepard robbed Jarid Lukosevicius on his redirect from down low in front of the slot.
“He’s been outstanding for us,” said Sandelin of Shepard. “If there are breakdowns, he’s made that save, or timely save, and tonight was no different. When you play good teams, you’re going to get tested, and they’re going to get opportunities, it’ s how many you give them. He was there tonight to answer that.”
Duluth gained momentum from its kill and started to put sustained pressure on the Pioneers as the period wore on. On their own power play, their second of the game, the Bulldogs had good puck movement and kept getting the puck low, forcing Filip Larsson to make several big saves.
At the end of the period, Denver again generated several strong chances, with the puck bouncing around near the crease. Shepard kept it scoreless through two. It was just the second time in the tournament’s history that a game had been scoreless after two periods; the last time it happened also involved Denver, when the Pioneers lost to North Dakota, 1-0, in the 2017 tournament.
“We talked about what we needed to do, what I felt we needed to do to try and generate some offensive chances, and I thought our guys did a good job of that,” said Sandelin of what he told his players in between the second and third periods. “We fortunately came up with the goal. I said it could be a one-shot, one-goal game, just like the last game we played them.”
Duluth got on the board just 42 seconds into the third period, taking the 1-0 lead when Koepke’s shot from the top of the left circle beat a screened Larsson after a mad scramble.
“I had just come off the bench on a change, I was the late guy on the rush, and Dylan took the puck wide and cut in front of the net and kind of created a commotion in front of the net, him, Parker (Mackay), and Richie (Justin Richards),” said Koepke. “I was just trying to stay out, the puck popped right out to me. I was lucky enough to get it through traffic, and it went in.”
The Bulldogs appeared to make it 2-0 at just before the halfway point of the third when a shot from the right point ricocheted off the end boards and came back and hit Larsson in the back of the legs. The puck just sat there while a scramble ensued. Riley Tufte knocked into Larsson while Larsson was trying to find the puck, and then a Duluth played knocked it in. The goal was reviewed for goaltender interference on Tufte, and it was overturned.
“There was an opportunity there that was taken away, but we stuck with the game, and good things come when you stick with it,” said Louie Roehl.
The Pioneers then had a chance to get back in it when they went on a power play, but they were unable to generate any sustained pressure during their opportunity.
“That was a good hockey game, tight checking, similar to most of our games against Duluth,” said Denver coach David Carle. “There wasn’t a lot of time and space out there. They made one more play than we did, and ultimately that was all that was needed.”
With just under two minutes to go, Carle pulled Larsson looking for the equalizer, but Roehl intercepted in the neutral zone and sent it into the open net. Carle again pulled Larsson, and this time Denver defenseman Ian Mitchell lost the puck at the offensive blue line, and Koepke picked it up and skated down, scoring at 19:39 for his second of the night and final margin of victory.