Minnesota-Duluth Advances to Third Straight NCAA Championship Game

(image credit: @mystateofhockey on Twitter)

Everyone expected a defensive matchup heading into the Frozen Four Semifinal between No. 2 Minnesota Duluth and No. 11 Providence College on Thursday night. The Bulldogs proved it was exactly the type of game they like to play in, coming away with a victory and clinching their third straight trip to the Frozen Four Final.

The two schools tied for fourth in the nation in team defense and both showed the nation how they were able to lock teams down for much of the season.

While the game finished 4-1, it was a much closer game than the final score would indicate with UMD grabbing two empty netters in the final minute of the game. In fact, Hunter Shepard had to battle between the pipes to keep the Bulldogs in the game for long stretches, stopping 28 of 29 shots from the Friars.

His counterpart, senior Hayden Hawkey started a bit shaky for Providence, but got stronger as the game went on. After a few fortuitous bounces early, Hawkey only allowed two goals while facing 34 shots.

The first period started with a bang as UMD defenseman Nick Wolff put a big open body hit on the Friars puck carrier to set the tone and the physicality continued throughout.

The up-tempo start created a few good scoring chances for each team early. The first puck to hit the back of the net was called off due to an early whistle that cost the Bulldogs their first goal midway through the first stanza.

Then, at 16:40 mark of the first period, UMD thought it had taken the lead again as Hermantown native Cole Koepke cleaned up the garbage out in front of the Providence net, but after a lengthy review it was waved off for goaltender interference.

With these two teams giving up 1.95 goals against, it appeared goals might be hard to come by in this game. Still, it’s doubtful anyone expected it would take a puck hitting the back of the net for the third time to finally notch one on the scoreboard. But the third time’s the charm as Justin Richards, son of former Wild head coach Todd Richards, fired a puck from the boards and broke the tie and giving UMD the lead with 13:21 to go in the second period.

The first goal proved to be incredibly important as these teams had only lost three games combined all year when scoring the first goal.

After Providence took its timeout a few minutes later after a bad icing, the ice seemed to tilt and the Bulldogs were on their heels for a good eight-minute stretch. The intensity from the Friars forced Wolff to take the first UMD penalty at 11:06 in the second.

The Friars stayed hot on the man advantage after being 5 for 8 in the East Regional. Josh Wilkins buried from the right circle after some great puck movement by the Providence power play unit, tying it up just 11 seconds into the penalty.

The back-and-forth play continued much of the game with both teams dominating at times, but Scott Sandelin has the Bulldogs conditioned to play tight games. UMD had been 12 of its last 13 tournament games be decided by one goal.

Shepard had to be big for the Bulldogs while they killed off an extended 5-on-3 early in the third period as the Friars tested him with high-quality chances. But the Bulldogs weathered the strong push by Providence and started to take the game back over in the third.

UMD found the forecheck again halfway through the final period and after some extended offensive zone time, senior Billy Exell picked up a juicy rebound and deposited it behind Hawkey after a great shot from high in the zone by Kobe Roth generated by an aggressive pinch by Dylan Samberg, giving the Bulldogs a 2-1 lead with 9:53 left in the third.

While Providence fought to battle back, the Bulldogs showed off their suffocating defense in the final five minutes of the game, proving the Exell goal was all they needed. Dylan Samberg and Richards both tallied empty net goals as UMD advances to their third straight appearance in the National Championship Game with a 4-1 victory.

UMD will defend their title on Saturday night at 7 p.m. against No. 4 Massachusetts after it defeated No. 6 Denver 4-3 in overtime in the second semifinal matchup. Check out the story from earlier this week on how the Bulldogs got to this point and what might be in store for them against the Minutemen in the National Championship Game.

Statistics from ESPN and USCHO.com

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