BUFFALO – The only difference over the last three years for Minnesota Duluth has been a few different players suiting up every night.
Other than that, their formula of relentless defense and outstanding goaltending has carried them far. And this year, it has carried them to a third straight national championship game appearance.
Billy Exell had a rare goal to break a third-period tie and give the Bulldogs the lead for good, then a pair of late insurance empty-net goals put the Providence Friars away as UMD won 4-1 on Thursday night at KeyBank Center.
Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin knew they were in for a tough challenge against Providence, and two disallowed goals by his team in the first period made things more challenging.
“Tonight’s game was a very, very hard hockey game. I can’t say enough about our players,” Sandelin said.
After finding their stride offensively during the East Regional, particularly on the power play and after falling behind Minnesota State 3-0 in the first game out there, the Friars only managed one goal against UMD’s tough defense. It was a tight battle after 40 minutes that saw the teams tied at a goal apiece, and Providence even had a 5-on-3 advantage in the early stages of the third with a chance to take the lead. Not being able to cash in likely was their downfall.
“As a team we expect to score on those 5-on-3’s,” defenseman Jacob Bryson said. “We work on those in practice.”
Friars head coach Nate Leaman thought that missed power play gave the Bulldogs the boost they needed. And in his eyes, it came down to one crucial stat.
“It did swing momentum. I’m not going to lie to you. It did,” Leaman said. “On the 5-on-3, we didn’t win the faceoffs. We were chasing the puck too much, particularly in the third.”
The first period was mostly back-and-forth, but UMD had those two goals waved off, and the second one came with controversy. A Mikey Anderson shot from the slot rebounded off PC goaltender Hayden Hawkey, and it was knocked in by Cole Koepke in front. The replay appeared to show Koepke making minimal contact, if any, with Hawkey. The goal was waved off after a lengthy review.
As has been the case these last few years during this postseason success, however, UMD kept their cool.
“Any time you get a goal disallowed, you don’t want to give them momentum again,” Exell said. “You think you’re getting the momentum. You just have to have a good shift after that, stick with it.”
No review was necessary on the next puck off a Duluth stick to go in. Justin Richards let one go from the right circle, and it snuck in through the five-hole of Hawkey after getting deflected.
It didn’t take long for Providence to respond. Their power-play unit, which has been outstanding in the NCAA Tournament, converted for the sixth time in ten tries as a Bryson shot rebounded to Brandon Duhaime in front, and he fed Josh Wilkins on the back door for a beautiful tying goal.
Exell put Duluth up 2-1 6:39 into the third period by pouncing on a rebound off a Kobe Roth shot to the left of Hawkey. For a fourth-line forward who doesn’t score a lot of goals, the senior sure got a timely one there.
“I decided just to go to the net. I knew he was going to shoot,” Exell said. “The rebound came to me and happened to go in.”
That huge sequence by UMD may never have happened had they not come up with their biggest penalty kill of the season just a few minutes before. A tripping call on Tanner Laderoute and a slash on Exell 42 seconds apart early in the third gave the Friars 1:18 of a 5-on-3 advantage, but the Bulldogs managed to kill it off. Being able to pull off that feat against an outstanding Providence power-play unit just may have saved their season.
“I can tell you I was nervous as hell,” Sandelin said. “To be able to do that at that time of the game was a big-time moment. Those are changing turning points in games.”
Richards agreed with his coach.
“We knew how dangerous they were. So, I mean, like when we got that five-on-three, we knew this could be the turning point of the game,” Richards said. “We ended up killing it off. I think we got a ton of momentum off that.
“Bill got his goal pretty quickly after that. We sealed the game from there.”
And UMD did just that with empty-net goals from Dylan Samberg and Richards with under a minute left.
Hunter Shepard made 28 saves for the Bulldogs, and Hawkey finished with 32.
The Bulldogs will take on Massachusetts Amherst in the championship game on Saturday night. The Minutemen kept their dream season alive by outlasting the Denver Pioneers 4-3 in overtime in the other semifinal.
UMD goal at 6:39: Justin Richards (11). Assisted by Parker Mackay (16) and Matt Anderson (6).
PC power-play goal at 11:17: Josh Wilkins (20). Assisted by Brandon Duhaime (2) and Jacob Bryson (24).
UMD goal at 10:07: Billy Exell (3). Assisted by Kobe Roth (7) and Dylan Samberg (12)
UMD empty-net goal at 19:27: Samberg (7). Unassisted.
UMD empty-net goal at 19:54: Richards (12). Assisted by Noah Cates (14).
Power plays: PC 1-3, UMD 0-2.
Shots on goal: PC 29, UMD 36.