SAINT PAUL, Minn. – In Minnesota-Duluth’s three Frozen Four appearances prior to its semifinal game against Notre Dame on Thursday, the Bulldogs’ outcome had been anything but special.
In the mid-1980s, when UMD hockey was a national powerhouse, the Bulldogs saw their 1984 title shot slip away in a marathon game against Bowling Green. In 2004, Minnesota-Duluth let a two-goal lead vanish in the third period of its semifinal game with Denver.
Luckily for the Bulldogs, just about everything concerning their game Thursday afternoon was special.
Minnesota-Duluth scored three power play goals, killed off all five Notre Dame man advantages and held on in the final period for a 4-3 win before 19,139 fans at Xcel Energy Center.
It is the second time in school history that UMD has advanced to the national title game, and the first time in 27 years the Bulldogs will be skating in the NCAA’s biggest game.
Despite falling behind by a goal twice in the opening period, the Bulldogs were able to rally, taking a 3-2 advantage into the second frame and never trailing from that point on. Kenny Reiter made 31 saves, 14 of which came in the third period. Justin Fontaine and Justin Faulk each had three assists, and Minnesota-Duluth found goals off of four different sticks.
“This group of kids has been very resilient all year,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. “I can’t say enough. They find a way, and I think it all goes back to they all believe in each other.”
Resilient might be the perfect word to describe this edition of the Bulldogs. Minnesota-Duluth hasn’t lost back-to-back games all season. The Bulldogs have had to deal with the midseason departure of one of their best defensemen, Dylan Olsen. Inconsistent play, rotating goalies – you name it. There isn’t much this UMD squad hasn’t faced.
“We’ve worked hard all year,” Minnesota-Duluth forward Jack Connolly said. “This was our ultimate goal, to get to this game on Saturday.”
Connolly, a Hobey Baker finalist, scored the eventual game-winner in the second period, slapping a pretty pass from J.T. Brown off the goal cam. As it turns out, that was just the insurance the Bulldogs needed.
Notre Dame came out flying in the third period, drew within one 2:05 in and never let off the gas pedal. The Irish out-shot UMD 15-2 in the final twenty minutes, didn’t allow Minnesota-Duluth to get a shot in the final fifteen and threw everything but the Golden Dome at Reiter.
“We made a few adjustments [between the second and third periods], but it was more a frame of mind,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said of his team’s effort in the final period. “I think it is more emotional than it was tactical adjustments, and we got our heads on straight going into the third. Obviously, Calle’s goal gave us some life, too.”
Reiter, who was honored as the East Regional MVP, started the night shaky. Much like his season, though, he bounced back. After splitting time in net all season, the UMD coaching staff gave him the job just before the playoffs, and it’s paid off so far.
“We went with him because we knew he was capable of playing this way,” Sandelin said. “Sometimes throughout the year you need your goalie to win games for you, and he certainly has been a big, big part of that the last three games.”
The Bulldogs, who are now 20-1-1 when leading after two periods, know that they didn’t play their best hockey against Notre Dame. Fortunately, they haven’t suffered the consequences in this national tournament, and they know they have one more shot at putting it all together when they meet either Michigan or North Dakota in the national championship game on Saturday.
“We’re looking to go out there and play our game and hopefully we’ll come out on top,” Connolly said. “This is something that’s never been done, and I couldn’t be more proud of the guys and our coaching staff.
“We’re definitely excited. It’s been a fun ride so far.”