ST. PAUL – There’s just something about Minnesota Duluth in the postseason.
Now that it’s March, you pretty much have to expect the Bulldogs to be on top of their game. They certainly were on Friday night in the first NCHC Frozen Faceoff semifinal, and they accomplished something no other team had done this season in the process.
A first period goal by Blake Biondi was all the offense UMD needed, and a 30-save shutout by Ryan Fanti complemented it in a 2-0 victory over the third-ranked and top-seeded Denver Pioneers, whose nation-leading offense (4.5 goals per game) was held off the scoreboard for the first time all year.
“Good win for our team,” said Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin. “We got the lead, which was our goal – try and play with the lead.
“Happy for our guys to advance and we get a chance to play tomorrow.”
Early on, it was a display of both team’s strengths as Denver’s potent offense was offset by Duluth’s stingy defense and usual display of great goaltending by Fanti, who was voted the NCHC’s Goaltender of the Year.
“I got my eyes on a couple early, which was really nice,” Fanti said. “I was really happy with the way we defended.
“I thought that was a team shutout more than anything.”
Denver will be playing in Loveland, Colorado, as a host team in a week when the NCAA tournament begins, but their chances at a #1 seed took a hit with the loss. They were sitting at #4 in the Pairwise rankings while the Western Michigan-North Dakota contest was in progress and both teams are right on their heels in the Pairwise.
“It was a tight checking game, like we expected,” Denver head coach David Carle said. “I think for us to come here and play in a one-and-done situation is a good learning experience.
“I didn’t think we played our best game, but it’s an opportunity to learn and to get better and get ready for Loveland next week.”
The Bulldogs broke through with just over five minutes left in the period as Jesse Jacques forced a defensive zone turnover, came up the ice 2-on-1 with Blake Biondi, and found Biondi on a backdoor feed as Biondi knocked it into a gaping net to put UMD up 1-0.
“Jesse made a great play in the D zone,” Biondi said. “We both just beat our guys to the net, and he made a great pass and I just had to tap it in.”
The Bulldogs continued their scrappy defensive zone play throughout the second period, and nearly went up 2-0 when Koby Bender knocked in a puck to the right of Chrona. But after review, it was determined Noah Cates was guilty of a hand pass in front of the net prior to Bender’s goal.
Denver finally generated some good scoring chances in the third period, but there was just no solving Fanti, who finished with 30 saves and had 16 shots blocked by his teammates.
“We knew Denver was gonna make a push,” Sandelin said. “They came out pretty good in the third, but our guys kinda weathered it.”
Not even the potent power play of the Pioneers could get anything going. They came in converting over 26% of their power plays on the season but were held without a goal on three chances Friday.
“[The guys] did a really good job on the penalty kill,” Sandelin said.
“We’ve had guys willing to block shots, and that’s helped too.”
Kobe Roth finally put a wrap on the game with a late empty-net goal. Duluth will face the Western Michigan-North Dakota in Saturday night’s conference championship as they seek their third Frozen Faceoff title.
Magnus Chrona made 29 saves for Denver.
UMD goal at 14:47: Blake Biondi (17). Assisted by Jesse Jacques (4).
UMD empty net goal at 19:40: Kobe Roth (14). Unassisted.
Power plays: UMD 0-2, DU 0-3.
Shots on goal: UMD 31, DU 30.