Buffalo, NY — Minnesota-Duluth is the best collegiate hockey program over the last half-decade. They’ve been in the NCAA Tournament every year since 2015, claimed two Tournament Titles in the NCHC, and reached three consecutive Frozen Fours. On Thursday night, the Bulldogs added another notch in their increasingly impressive trophy case against the Providence College Friars.
The opening frame was evenly paced and gave both teams a chance to get comfortable on the City of Good Neighbors’ ice. Hayden Hawkey and Hunter Shepard performed well to open the night.
The second period remained even in the aggregate while setting the table for the finale. Duluth scored the first goal 6:39 into the frame when Justin Richards broke in and scored his eleventh of the season. Less than five minutes later, Nick Wolff took a cross-checking minor. Eleven seconds into the power play, Josh Wilkins potted a rebound for his 20th of the season. Duluth won the shots only slightly, 13-11, and the goalies sent the game into the second intermission tied.
Providence had their chance for a kill shot early in the third when Duluth went down two players. PC had a similar situation in the first game of the Eastern Regional against Minnesota State-Mankato. They proceeded to pull away from the Mavericks. Against the Bulldogs, however, the Friars rolled snake eyes as the game stayed tied through 2:32 of elapsed power play time. As play continued, Duluth still needed a bounce. The Bulldogs got one from an unexpected source.
Billy Exell only played in five games his freshman year and recorded only one assist and no goals in those five games. He had been picked up after playing for the Minnesota Wilderness of the NAHL. Exell adjusted to Duluth and helped the Bulldogs to a 2017 Frozen Four Appearance and a National Championship last season, setting a career high in goals and points (five and eleven respectively). The senior from Thunder Bay, Ontario, only had two goals entering his third consecutive Frozen Four. With 10:07 gone in the third, Exell punched in a rather ugly rebound for what became the game-winner and his third tally of the season.
PC tried mounting an offensive push, but like Notre Dame in last year’s National Championship, the Friars were stonewalled by the dynamic and intelligent Bulldog blue line. Dylan Samberg and Justin Richards added empty netters to end the scoring at 4-1 and advance to the National Championship Game.
Providence concludes their season with a 24-12-6 record. They finished third in the Hockey East Regular Season standings and reached the fifth Frozen Four in program history.
After the game, Friars Head Coach Nate Leaman told his team, “How much I love them. And that I’m proud of them and thankful I coached them. It’s a really good group. It stings that it’s over, but I want them to walk out with their chest high because what they accomplished is pretty darn good.”
Hayden Hawkey stopped 32 of 34 shots faced.
Seniors Jon Berry, Scott Conway, Ryan Tait, Hayden Hawkey, and Captain Vincent Desharnais conclude their careers reaching the NCAA Tournament every season, lifting the Friars to their first HEA Title Game since 2001, and bringing PC to the second Frozen Four of the decade. Hawkey concludes his career as the Friar’s record holder for most wins (72) and shutouts (16). Jacob Bryson will command some attention as a potential early departure from Friartown, as will Kasper Bjorqkvist.
Duluth improves to 28-11-2. They will play in the program’s fifth National Championship game and third consecutive. They are the fifth different program to reach three straight finals. They are the first since the 2006-2008 Boston College Eagles.
“Couldn’t be more proud of our team,” head coach Scott Sandelin said. “When asked if it ever gets old, Sandelin responded: “No. But I know it’s hard. Tonight’s game was a very very hard hockey game. I can’t say enough about our players. I’m so excited for them to have the opportunity again. You’re always excited for your seniors to play in the last game of the season and hopefully have a chance to win that game. More importantly, it’s tremendous for our program, our university, to be in this position.”
Hunter Shepard, who remains undefeated in the NCAA Tournament stopped 28 of 29 shots.
Duluth will face the Massachusetts Minutemen in the National Title game, going for their program’s third Championship, at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo. Puck drops at 8 pm ET.