DULUTH, Minn. – Entering the opening weekend in defense of their first national title in school history, Minnesota Duluth wasn’t exactly getting the credit they deserved. People were quick to point out that they had lost three key forwards and two mainstay defensemen – totaling nearly 50 percent of their goals from a season ago – and had numerous question marks and unproven players trying to fill holes.
The Bulldogs did their best to prove the critics wrong on Friday night.
After raising the title banner, UMD played a sound game all over the ice, giving the sellout crowd at Amsoil Arena a little more reason to celebrate in a 4-3 winning effort against top-ranked Notre Dame.
“It was a great way to start,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. “I liked our intensity level tonight. We really had a good compete level for early in the year.”
Playing off the crowd, which was ear-splitting from before the game started until after it finished, the Bulldogs were able to create all four of their goals off high-energy efforts.
Minnesota Duluth caused two Notre Dame turnovers that led directly to goals in the first period. A heads-up pass by goalie Kenny Reiter opened up a 2-on-1 for Jack Connolly and JT Brown, ending with a Brown laser over Mike Johnson’s glove for a power play marker in the second. The game-winner came on a speedy rush up-ice by Travis Oleksuk, who beat Johnson five-hole with four minutes to play.
“We got better as the game went on,” Sandelin said. “It was a team win, and everyone contributed in different ways.”
As if the offensive pressure wasn’t enough, UMD played well in their own end, too, getting quality plays out of inexperienced players when it mattered most. The Bulldogs swarmed Notre Dame’s offense, allowing only 17 shots, gave up their bodies to block 16 more and were great in getting the puck out of the zone.
“I think we outworked them for the majority of the game,” Oleksuk said. “I thought we played pretty well defensively. We haven’t had too long to work on our defensive-zone coverage, but we did a solid job.”
Notre Dame opened the scoring 7:32 into the game on a beautiful 3-on-2 goal by Billy Maday, but UMD scored back-to-back goals 2:05 apart to earn their first lead of the night on tallies by Mike Seidel and Keegan Flaherty. Anders Lee scored on a wrister from the circle that beat Reiter short-side to knot the score, 2-2, before the end of the opening period.
The Bulldogs and Irish traded goals in the middle frame, setting the stage for Oleksuk, who scored seven game-winning goals last season, to fill the hero role for UMD in the third.
Reiter, who was phenomenal in Minnesota Duluth’s title run last season, had an assist and stopped 14 shots to record his 30th career victory. Connolly had two assists; Brady Lamb, Cody Danberg and Wade Bergman all had single assists for UMD.
For Notre Dame, opening a season with a loss isn’t what they had planned, but they do know that there is plenty of time to progress.
“We’re in the beginning stages of a long year, but hopefully we can recover and respond tomorrow night,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “We did some good things out there, but obviously there are a lot of things we need to improve on.”
The Bulldogs and Irish conclude their two-game series Saturday night in Duluth.