By Matt Wellens
ST. PAUL, Minn. — For the second year in a row, X marks the spot for Minnesota Duluth.
UMD sophomore wing Nick Swaney — a Wild draft pick — backhanded the game-winning goal through 7:29 into the second OT after taking a pass from freshman wing Tanner Laderoute on a two-on-one breakaway.
It was the second big assist of the night for Laderoute, who earlier created a turnover on the penalty kill that led to the game-tying shorthanded goal by senior wing Billy Exell with less than five minutes left in regulation.
“It was all him,” Swaney said. “He made great plays on both of the two goals. He’s been doing it all year. It was great to see.
“This is a testament to all the hard work our team put in tonight. We’ve been battling all season. We’re lucky enough to win this championship. That was something that we wanted to do from the beginning of the year.”
NCHC Goaltender of the Year Hunter Shepard, a junior from Cohasset, finished with 37 saves, including 10 in overtime, while Huskies sophomore goalie David Hrenak stopped 27 shots, including 10 in OT.
The only time the Huskies were able to beat Shepard — the tournament MVP — was with a man advantage. Senior wing Robby Jackson scored on a delayed UMD penalty in the first and senior wing Patrick Newell put St. Cloud State ahead 2-1 on a power play in the opening minute of the third.
The extra numbers allowed the Huskies to create enough chaos and commotion in front of the net. Those kind of distractions are the only way you can beat Shepard right now, said St. Cloud State coach Brett Larson — the Duluth native, former UMD assistant and coach of Shepard a year ago.
“You have to get traffic in front of him, you have to create confusion and congest that area a little bit, try and get a puck through a bunch of layers so he can’t see it,” Larson said. “I thought we did a good job of that tonight. That was the No. 1 game plan for us offensively.”
The first period was a rough one for the Bulldogs, who fell behind 1-0 in the opening eight minutes, were outshot 15-6 and were trounced in the faceoff circle 13-7. Yet, they were tied going into the first intermission thanks to a pair of sophomore defensemen who responded to Jackson’s goal just over three minutes later to tie the game.
Scott Perunovich of Hibbing slipped a sneaky one-time backhanded pass to Mikey Anderson, who unleashed a slap shot from the hash marks of the faceoff circles.
Quoting a tweet by his older brother, New Jersey Devils forward Joey Anderson, it was “An absolute cannon!”
“They were really good,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “And I don’t want to sit here and say we were bad. They made us be bad. That’s how good they were. They jumped on us, they pinned their ears back and we were fortunate to only be down by one. We got a big goal from Mikey to give us a little bit of life.”
More adversity ensued for the Bulldogs in the second period when they lost junior center Jade Miller, leaving the team with only three centermen. The revived penalty kill — which struggled to close the regular season, but came into Saturday night 10-for-10 in the postseason — was also put to the test, having to kill off three Huskies power plays spanning 5:03, with 47 seconds of a late call carrying over into the third.
It was during that span when the Huskies went ahead 2-1 on the 21st goal of the season by Newell, a Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist. He fired a shot high and in over the head of Shepard, who got caught down on all fours during another scramble around the crease.
The Bulldogs’ penalty kill answered with a shorthanded goal with 4:51 remaining in regulation while also killing off a tripping call. Laderoute forced a turnover by Huskies sophomore center Kevin Fitzgerald in his own zone and dished the puck to Exell for the game-tying shorty.
“Nick scored a big goal, but Billy scored a bigger goal shorthanded to give us some life there and tie the game up,” Sandelin said. “I have a lot of respect for their team. I think they are a tremendous hockey team, but it was a big win for our guys. Really exciting to move on to the tournament after a win like this tonight.”
For the Bulldogs, who last won the conference tournament in 2017, this was their third appearance in the Frozen Faceoff championship game in four years. UMD beat Denver 3-0 in the NCHC semifinals Friday at Xcel to advance.
Last year, UMD lost twice in the Frozen Faceoff and left the building thinking it had played its way out of the NCAA tournament. They left Sunday morning with a much different feeling.
No scoreboard watching or .0001 memes needed this time around.
“Definitely where we want to be now, not like last year,” Exell said. “Last year was not what we wanted in this tournament. It’s definitely a lot different … getting a couple wins here and as a team be building momentum going into the tournament.”
Neither the Bulldogs nor Huskies needed the league’s automatic berth to reach the NCAA tournament. Both have been locks for sometime and will be No. 1 seeds in the regionals.
St. Cloud State will head to the West Regional in Fargo, N.D., as the tournament’s top overall seed to face Atlantic Hockey champion American International. The Bulldogs, who finished second overall in the Pairwise to St. Cloud State, are projected to go to the Midwest Regional in Allentown, Pa., to start their fifth straight NCAA tournament campaign against WCHA runner-up Bowling Green.
Shepard made his 77th consecutive start to top the previous record set by current volunteer goaltending coach Brant Nicklin between Oct. 12, 1996 and March 15, 1998. Shepard’s streak dates to Oct. 21, 2017. With the victory Saturday — his 50th at UMD — Shepard also tied Isaac Reichmuth for fifth all-time in wins by a UMD goalie.
The Huskies were without junior center Ryan Poehling on Saturday. He left Friday’s game with 10:58 to go in the first period after he lost an edge and went head first into the boards.
The Bulldogs were without freshman center Jackson Cates for the second game in a row due to an illness. Sandelin said Saturday he expects Cates back for the regional next week. Miller’s status is unknown.