Faceoff wins, Exell third-period goal key Minnesota Duluth’s semifinal victory over Providence

Minnesota Duluth celebrates a third-period goal by Billy Exell, left (photo: Melissa Wade).

BUFFALO, N.Y. — It has become a pretty familiar position for Minnesota Duluth. The Bulldogs are playing for the national championship.

For the third straight season, Minnesota Duluth will play on the final night of the college hockey season after a 4-1 victory over Providence on Thursday in a first national semifinal game that was much closer than the final score portrayed.

In fact, halfway through the third period, the game was tied at 1 before fourth-liner Billy Exell buried what might be the biggest goal of his career, poking home a rebound at 10:07 of the third. The Bulldogs then added two empty-net goals to account for the final.

Exell’s goal completed a major momentum shift in the game.

Less than seven minutes earlier, Duluth was whistled for back-to-back penalties that created a 5-on-3 advantage for the Friars for 1:18. That in a game where the red-hot Providence power play had already struck for a goal.

The Bulldogs penalty kill, though, stood tall, most importantly winning critical faceoffs to get possession and force the Friars to chase the puck more than they would ever like with a two-man advantage.

Although Providence was able to get two solid looks during the man advantage and then another just after the power play ended, coach Nate Leaman admitted that not scoring in that situation was a major momentum changer.

“It did [swing momentum],” said Leaman. We had a couple of good looks. The only thing I was down on the 5-on-3 was that we didn’t win the faceoffs. The faceoffs, that was the big weakness of us in the game.

“We were chasing the puck too much.”

Faceoffs indeed were a major factor not just during the two-man advantage but also in the game. Duluth held a 40-22 advantage in the faceoff circle, something that coach Scott Sandelin took pride in after the game.

“We did a good job on faceoffs,” said Sandelin. “They’re important anytime because they’re possession. But when you can do that on a power play or a penalty kill, on the power play you’re not chasing it and the penalty kill you can get possession and get it down the ice.”

Earning the wins in the faceoff dot both during the two-man kill, where he went 3-for-4, and the game, where he led the Bulldogs by going 16-for-26, was the game’s offensive hero Justin Richards (two goals).

Sandelin called him their best faceoff man and noted how important he was to the penalty kills in the third.

“He’s been one of our best faceoff guys for two years,” Sandelin said of Richards. “I tried to get him out there as much as I could to take the draws. He played a lot of minutes on that PK, as did Parker Mackay. But you go with your best guys.”

In a tight-checking first period, it appeared that Minnesota Duluth took a 1-0 lead with 3:20 remaining when Cole Koepke poked a rebound past Hayden Hawkey. After a seven-minute video review, however, it was ruled Koepke had made contact with Hawkey prior to the original shot, which prevented the goaltender from playing his position.

At 6:39 of the second, Minnesota Duluth put a puck past Hawkey and this time there was no doubt or controversy. Richards snapped off a quick shot in transition that seemed to handcuff Hawkey, beating him under the left arm to give the Bulldogs a 1-0 lead.

Providence had an answer. The Friars, who scored five power-play goals in their two regional games, wasted little time capitalizing with the man advantage when Josh Wilkins finished off a no-look pass from Brandon Duhaime at 11:06 to knot the score at 1.

After killing the two-man advantage and then taking the lead in the third, the Minnesota Duluth defense went on lockdown, as it has in all of its Frozen Four wins over the last two seasons. In fact, after taking the lead, the Bulldogs allowed just two Providence shots the rest of the way.

Minnesota Duluth became the first team since Boston College in 2006 through 2008 to reach three straight title games and will look to become the first team since Denver in 2004 and 2005 to repeat as national champions.

“No [it never gets old],” said Sandelin on returning to the championship game. “But I know it’s hard. It’s extremely difficult. Tonight’s game was a very, very hard hockey game. I can’t say enough about our players. I think for me I’m so excited for them to have the opportunity again.”