SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Minnesota Duluth is going back to the Frozen Four and going back to the site of the program’s greatest triumph.
The Bulldogs started fast and held on for a 2-1 victory over Air Force in the West Regional final on Saturday for a second straight spot in the national semifinals.
“I am excited for our program,” Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. “I am excited for our team. And obviously for these two guys [Nick Wolff and Joey Anderson] sitting next to me. This is two years in a row for them. We are going to enjoy it and get back to work next week and look forward to going to St. Paul.”
It was in St. Paul in 2011 that the Bulldogs won their first national championship, beating Michigan in overtime.
They were back in the title game last season in Chicago but lost to Denver.
“It was a new team this year. We grew as a group this year and found a way to get it done,” said Bulldogs forward Joey Anderson, who scored the opening goal Saturday. “I feel like us going to two Frozen Fours is pretty cool. We do not want to be done. We want to get to the end goal of winning a national championship.”
After being dominated for the first half of the game, Air Force entered the third period trailing 2-0. The Falcons made it a one-goal lead aided by a penalty for boarding at 12:15 on Blake Young.
Evan Giesler banked a goal off Bulldogs goalie Hunter Shepard on a rebound from behind the net.
“They exerted a tremendous amount of energy trying to give us the knockout punch,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. “We took the punches, took the punches and took the punches. When it was all said and done we turned the game. We just could not find a way to get enough pucks through on the net and ended up one goal short.”
With Air Force goaltender Billy Christopoulos pulled for the last 1:42 of the game, the Bulldogs blocked three shots and made their 2-1 lead stand up.
“At the end of the game with the goalie pulled we are a bounce away from tying that game and going into overtime,” Serratore said.
The Falcons finally started to sustain some offensive pressure midway through the game. They were not able to record many shots on goal but they held the puck in the Bulldogs’ zone for extended periods and had several quality scoring chances, including Tyler Ledford putting the puck over the goal on a wide open net on a back-door play.
It was one of eight misses of the net by Air Force in the period, a stretch where they outshot the Bulldogs 6-1 but were not able to net a goal.
“We changed our forecheck up,” Falcons forward Kyle Haak said. “We went to a 1-2-2 to try and slow the pace so we could knock pucks down in the middle of the ice from going cross ice.”
“We knew it was going to be an extremely difficult game,” Sandelin said. “We had a great start to the game. Obviously, our first period was good. Things tighten up after that and we held on.”
The Bulldogs dominated the first period from the first shift to the last. For the second time on the weekend Duluth held a team without a shot in a stanza, outshooting the Falcons 14-0 and taking a two-goal lead.
Air Force was outhustled to loose pucks and could not get through the neutral zone against Duluth. It took the Falcons nearly 24 minutes to put their first shot on goal.
“Duluth came out and they took us to the woodshed in that first period in a big-time way,” Serratore said. “They came and we had not seen speed like that all year.”
Anderson opened scoring at 9:03, putting a rebound past Billy Christopoulos to give the Bulldogs the early lead. Riley Tufte fired the initial shot from the left circle. Christopoulos left the rebound straight out front, where Anderson fired a backhander into the far right corner. The goal was reviewed for possible goaltender interference but the call on the ice stood.
“I thought it was important to get out and get the first goal,” Sandelin said. “Obviously, he [Christopoulos] has played great for them. He played great against St. Cloud, too. Just to see Joey score that first goal was a big spark for our team and I thought we carried that through the first period.”
Duluth made it 2-0 on its next shot at 12:12 on a left side wall shot by Nick Wolff.
Notes: The all-regional team was forwards Karson Kuhlman and Parker Mackay of Duluth and Tyler Ledford of Air Force; defensemen Dylan Sandberg and Nick Wolff of Duluth; and goalie Christopoulos of Air Force. Kuhlman was the most outstanding player.