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Bulldogs Take NCHC Title in Penalty-Filled Thriller

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MINNEAPOLIS-From start to end, neither No. 11 North Dakota nor No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth was going to give up a chance for their first conference tournament title in years without a fight.

Or, to be more precise, several fights.

27 penalties, 57 penalty minutes and three periods later, the Bulldogs became the fourth different NCHC team to win the Frozen Faceoff with a 4-3 victory over the Fighting Hawks on Saturday night at the Target Center.

A lucky bounce off a Joey Anderson shot with less than a minute remaining proved to be the difference as UMD defeated UND for the fifth time in five tries this season and sixth in a row overall. It’s the first conference tournament title for Duluth since winning the 2009 WCHA Final Five.

“I’m really excited for our team. We certainly earned that; it wasn’t easy,” Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin said. “This group has shown that all year long-a lot of character and resiliency. It was certainly a battle.”

After falling to St. Cloud State 3-1 in last year’s title game, the Bulldogs were determined to win it this time, and for forward Alex Iafallo and his team, the fact that they were able to pull it off makes it that much sweeter.

“We came up just a little short last year, so obviously that was one of our goals to get back down here,” said Iafallo, who had two assists.

North Dakota, meanwhile, fell just short of its first conference tournament title since winning the 2012 WCHA Final Five but will still play in its 14th consecutive NCAA Tournament.

“I thought our team [played] exceptionally well on this stage with a lot of great teams here,” North Dakota head coach Brad Berry said. “Proud of the effort that we put forward and we’ll be ready for next weekend.”

It was a physical game from the opening puck drop, as North Dakota’s play style completely frustrated the Bulldogs, forcing them to take penalties and spend a lot of time in the defensive zone. The Fighting Hawks eventually scored first on a Brock Boeser one-time blast from the left circle on a power play.

After that, things got really physical. After UMD defenseman Willie Raskob was sent to the sin bin for tripping Tyson Jost in the defensive zone, an ensuing shorthanded rush was stopped by UND goaltender Cam Johnson and the chaos ensued. When the smoke cleared, UND’s Christian Wolanin and Tyson Jost were in the box for roughing, as was UMD’s Dan Molenaar and Iafallo joined Molenaar for slashing. Duluth’s Neal Pionk also received a five-minute major for charging, but the Bulldogs were able to kill it off by the end of the period.

“It was nice to get out of it only down one goal, for sure,” Sandelin said. “That’s not an easy situation to be in. Those are big moments in the game.”

Despite holding the lead, the Fighting Hawks did not emerge from the first period unscathed themselves, as first-line defenseman Tucker Poolman suffered an upper-body injury and slowly left the ice.

“One of the toughest guys in the NCHC. He’ll be back next weekend,” Berry said.

After being dominated in the opening 20 minutes, the Bulldogs needed to get going, and they did just that by scoring three goals by Dominic Toninato, Riley Tufte and Adam Johnson in the first 2:28 of the second period, all in a span of 58 seconds with the Toninato and Tufte goals being 17 seconds apart.

“We came out hungry in the second,” Toninato said. “We just kept playing from there on.”

North Dakota, however, was able to pull back within one before the end of the second period on a beautiful goal-mouth pass from Trevor Olson to Tyson Jost, who one-timed it into the top of the net.

“Our power play is just clicking right now. We just gotta keep that going into the tournament here,” Jost said.

In a third period that saw the two teams combine for 12 penalties (UND with 7, UMD with 5), including half of them for roughing after the whistle, the Fighting Hawks finally got their equalizer on their third 5-on-3 of the game when Trevor Olson connected from a sharp angle along the red line to tie it with less than three minutes to go.

But with UND still on the power play, they took minors from Austin Poganski (interference) and Joel Janatuinen (holding) to give UMD the man advantage, which eventually became a 5-on-3 with 58 seconds remaining.

“There were kind of those ups and downs all game,” Olson said.

Seven seconds after going on the two-man advantage, Anderson banked a shot in off UND defenseman Hayden Shaw’s skate to give the Bulldogs an improbable lead and eventual victory.

Minnesota-Duluth locked up the No. 2 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament and will wait to see who they will face when the brackets are revealed on Sunday morning.

North Dakota, meanwhile, will be a No. 3 seed and will await their opponent in Fargo next weekend. Even though they came up short, they still feel a sense of accomplishment.

“We had a goal. Our goal was to make the national tournament,” Berry said. “We needed to win one game; we did that. Guess what? We’re gonna reset and be even stronger next weekend.”

Scoring summary

First period:

UND PP goal at 10:57: Boeser 16. Assists: Tyson Jost 18 and Christian Wolanin 15.

Second period:

UMD goal at 1:30: Toninato 15. Assists: Anderson 20 and Alex Iafallo 26.

UMD PP goal at 1:47: Tufte 8. Assists: Karson Kuhlman 16 and Avery Peterson 7.

UMD PP goal at 2:28: Adam Johnson 17. Assists: Pionk 24 and Iafallo 27.

UND PP goal at 9:00: Tyson Jost 16. Assists: Olson 8 and Boeser 17.

Third period:

UND PP goal at 17:14: Olson 6. Assists: Wolanin 16 and Jost 19.

UMD PP goal at 19:09: Anderson 10. Assists: Johnson 19 and Pionk 25.

Power plays: UND 3-10, UMD 2-6.

Shots on goal: UND 35, UMD 23.

All-NCHC Frozen Faceoff team

Forwards: Tyson Jost, North Dakota; Alex Iafallo, Minnesota-Duluth; Dominic Toninato, Minnesota-Duluth

Defensemen: Tucker Poolman, North Dakota; Neal Pionk, Minnesota-Duluth

Goaltender: Hunter Miska, Minnesota-Duluth

Most Outstanding Player: Alex Iafallo, Minnesota-Duluth