MINNEAPOLIS - As any coach will tell you, it’s the next game that matters.
For the No. 8 Western Michigan Broncos, even though they fell short of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff title, they can still focus on improving their NCAA Tournament seeding position in the third-place game.
As for No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth, they’re now in position for their first Frozen Faceoff title thanks a 5-2 victory on Friday night at the Target Center.
“I thought we competed all night. A lot of credit to Duluth,” said Western Michigan defenseman Taylor Fleming.
Five different Bulldogs had goals and Hunter Miska made 24 saves as UMD advanced to its second straight Frozen Faceoff championship after falling to St. Cloud State 3-1 a year ago.
“Hard-fought game, which is what we expected, and this time of the year it’s about moving on,” said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin.
Western Michigan looked poised for an early first goal after UMD’s Riley Tufte and Brenden Kotyk went to the penalty box for tripping minors 51 seconds apart, but then NCHC Coach of the Year Andy Murray took a surprising timeout just 2:24 into the game. The move backfired as WMU couldn’t sustain a forecheck or keep puck possession during their extended power play time.
“We didn’t execute very well. We were not sharp,” Murray said. “We never really got it set up the way that we wanted.”
When asked about the timeout he took, Murray replied, “We were trying to give our players a bit of a break.”
The Bulldogs drew first blood with 6:51 left in the first period, cashing in on their second power play when Alex Iafallo launched a shot from the left circle and Dominic Toninato buried the rebound off WMU goaltender Ben Blacker from the left side of the crease. It took less than three and a half minutes for the Broncos to respond, however, as Fleming picked up a loose puck and sent it home from the right circle to even the game at 1.
“[The goal] was huge for our team,” said Fleming, who also had an assist. “You get that first one-it definitely picked up our spirits.”
UMD had an even quicker response to reclaim the lead as Kyle Osterberg put away an Adam Johnson rebound 24 seconds later to go up 2-1 after a penalty-filled first period that saw both teams get called three times.
Western Michigan came out strong in the second period and got their second equalizer of the game on a Colt Conrad tally at 7:10. But Duluth grabbed their third lead nine minutes later when Iafallo received a neutral-zone pass from Parker Mackay, raced up the right wing wall, skated to the right circle and sniped it past Blacker.
The Bulldogs finally got their two-goal cushion on a beautiful 2-on-1 rush as Johnson avoided a sprawling WMU player and fed a wide-open Parker Mackay on the doorstep at 14:58.
“I just tried to hold onto it and look for a play,” said Johnson, who finished with three assists. “The [defenseman] slid past me, Parker got to the net and I saw a stick there and I just fired it off a stick.”
Jared Thomas added an empty-netter three minutes later for the icing on the cake.
Western Michigan outshot Minnesota Duluth 26-23 for the game. Blacker made18 saves for the Broncos and Hunter Miska had 24 for the Bulldogs.
Despite falling short in the semifinals for the second time in as many trips to the Frozen Faceoff, Murray knows this time is different, as they now have to shift their focus to the third-place game…and the upcoming NCAA Tournament, their first in five years.
“We’ve got a lot of hockey ahead of us,” Murray said.
UMD PP goal at 13:09-Toninato 14. Assists: Iafallo 25 and Adam Johnson 16
WMU goal at 16:34-Fleming 2. Assists: Griffen Molino 16 and Lawton Courtnall 7
UMD goal at 16:58-Osterberg 12. Assists: Jarod Hilderman 1 and Johnson 17
WMU goal at 7:10-Conrad 13. Assists: Fleming 17 and Hugh McGing 13
UMD goal at 16:11-Iafallo 18. Assists: Parker Mackay 4 and Neal Pionk 23
UMD goal at 14:58-Mackay 18. Assists: Johnson 18 and Osterberg 11
UMD EN goal at 17:59-Thomas 3. Unassisted.
Power plays: WMU 0-5, UMD 1-5.
Shots on goal: WMU 26, UMD 23.