ST. PAUL, Minn. — In a back-and-forth game in front of 10,621 fans at the Xcel Energy Center, Minnesota Duluth won the first NCHC championship game to be decided in overtime, 3-2 over St. Cloud State.
“Really proud of our guys,” said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin. “Certainly exciting to win this championship again, against a great team. Didn’t look so early, but our guys just stuck with it and kind of grinded through it.”
As the first game in the Frozen Faceoff championship game to go to extra time, it certainly set a tone for the future, as the first overtime wasn’t enough. It proved the second-longest NCHC game in history at 87:29, as Duluth scored the winner in the second OT.
Ironically, St. Cloud State has also played in the longest NCHC playoff game, a double OT game against Omaha in 2015 that the Huskies won.
Nick Swaney was the hero for the Bulldogs. He broke in on a two-on-one with Tanner Laderout. Laderout had gotten the puck after Jesse Jacques blocked a shot by Jimmy Schuldt and it rebounded into the neutral zone. Laderout raced up the right boards and slid the puck to Swaney skating down the left side of the slot, and Swaney backhanded it in stick side at 7:29.
“Jesse blocked that shot and helped the transition go the opposite way,” said Swaney. “Tanner picked it up and made a great pass. I was fortunate enough to find the back of the net. It was all him.”
The Huskies got off to a strong start in the game, buzzing in the offensive zone and outshooting the Bulldogs in the first period, 15-6. St. Cloud struck first during an extended attack in the Bulldogs zone. With a delayed penalty called, Patrick Newell got a shot on net, and Blake Lizotte got the rebound to Robby Jackson right at the crease. He had an open net to knock it into at 7:45 of the first. St. Cloud then went on a power play since the Huskies scored during the delayed goal.
“We wanted to come out with a good start; I could tell the guys were real emotional for the game,” said St. Cloud coach Brett Larson. “We loved our jump. We were winning races to pucks, we were getting there first. We had gone through four line changes before they went through two. We have to find a way to get that lead and extend it. After the first 10-12 minutes, I thought it was a real even hockey game.”
During the ensuing power play, Louie Roehl hit Easton Brodzinski when the latter’s back was turned and knocked him into the boards. It was reviewed for a potential five-minute major, but Roehl was given a minor for boarding. Only four seconds of the first penalty remained, so St. Cloud didn’t get any five-on-three established. Right after that, Brodzinski was called for hooking, turning it into four-on-four.
“We didn’t have the puck in the first period, so we had to do something,” said Sandelin. “I want to sit here and say we were bad, but they made us be bad, that’s how good they were. They jumped on us. That first period, it couldn’t end quick enough for me.”
That four-on-four gave the Bulldogs the opening to tie it. Parker Mackay carried the puck up the right boards and dropped a pass back to Scott Perunovich at the point. Perunovich sent a pass over to Mikey Anderson, who was trailing the play and driving up the middle of the ice. Anderson ripped a slap shot from the top of the circles past Dávid Hrenák at10:39.
“We knew we might not have come out how we wanted to, but at the end of the period it was 1-1,” said Swaney. “We knew that we had to come back and play a lot better. I think staying positive and staying with the game.”
Early in the second, St. Cloud had back-to-back power plays, including 11 seconds of five-on-three from the overlap, but Duluth’s Hunter Shepard stood strong in net. Jackson had the best chance with an open net on the first power play, but his shot from the left faceoff dot went high of the goal.
“Special teams are big, they can either win or lose a game,” said Swaney. “We knew our penalty kill had to step up. I think that every single guy did a great job there. Being able to kill those two penalties in the second was big for us and gave us some jump.”
Minnesota Duluth had a fantastic chance to take the lead late in the second period on its own power play. During a mad scramble in front, the Bulldogs couldn’t get to the puck near the crease. Hrenák lost his stick at one point and was given a regular stick by one of his teammates, but Duluth couldn’t capitalize.
After the kill, the Huskies also got a golden chance when a turnover near the Duluth blue line sent Blake Lizotte in alone on Shepard, but his backhand chance went wide.
“To me being around college hockey a long time, that was one hell of a hockey game,” said Larson. “Two teams getting after it. If you are a fan of college hockey, you like that one for sure.”
St. Cloud started the third period with 1:13 of power-play time, and the Huskies quickly capitalized. They got Shepard moving, and Newell picked up the puck in the slot after Blake Lizotte got it free, spun, and shot it top corner stick side at 28 seconds of the period.
Blake Lizotte appeared to make it a two-goal lead with a pretty backhand from the right side of the crease midway through the third, but on review it hit the far post and rolled along the goal line, never going in, and the refs called it back.
“That would have been nice,” said St. Cloud captain Jimmy Schuldt. “He made a really good play. That’s something we need to be able to move on from and battle through. A 3-1 game would have been a lot different than a 2-1 game. Obviously, they took advantage of that bounce. I think that’s something we need to learn from going forward.”
Duluth started buzzing after that and had several good chances. At one point, Swaney was to the left of Hrenák and had an open net, but he couldn’t corral the puck in before St. Cloud cleared it.
“I think we knew we just needed to stick with the game no matter what was going to happen,” said Swaney. “We knew we needed to go back out there a battle. It kind of game us some life.”
With 6:21 to go in the game, St. Cloud went on a power play and appeared poised to put the game out of reach, but instead Kevin Fitzgerald couldn’t control a pass at his own left faceoff dot, and Laderout stole it and drove toward the net. Laderout then passed it to Billy Exell streaking down the slot, and Exell beat Hrenák with a quick slap shot low stick side at 4:51. UMD then killed off the remaining penalty time.
“On the penalty kill, I saw them going back to get the puck,” said Exell. “We wanted to get in and get pressure on them. I came in and out, and then Tanner came in and kept that pressure and ended up getting a turnover. I just saw him taking it to the net, and he made a nice little fake and slid it over to me.”
The extra session started with some tentative play from both teams. St. Cloud’s Nick Poehling just missed a rebound shot wide of Shepard’s outstretched early in the period after the puck slid of his brother Jack’s stick in the crease and sat there for him. Just before the midway point of the period, Nolan Walker picked up a rebound and tried to stuff it in, but Shepard kept his right leg down to close off the opening.
Duluth’s best chance came when Peter Krieger intercepted a clear and skated in on a two-on-one break from the right point with Riley Tufte on the far side. Krieger went for the shot and missed the net high.
The Bulldogs had a great chance early in the second overtime with the puck sitting in the crease and seemingly every player on the ice poking at it, but they couldn’t get it in.
At the 5:35 mark of the second OT, referee Geno Binda was tripped up by the stick of Micah Miller as the latter was going down. He was shaken up on the play and seen by a trainer, but after a brief pause, the game resumed.
Duluth kept pressing, and a minute after they were unable to get a shot off on a two-on-one, Swaney got the game-winner.
There was some interesting symmetry with the winners of the two games on Saturday. Like Denver, which got swept by its rival Colorado College on the last weekend of the regular season and then won against them tonight, Duluth was swept by St. Cloud State on the final weekend of the regular season, but got a measure of redemption. Now St. Cloud and Minnesota Duluth enter the NCAA tournament seeded first and second, respectively.